A Journey in Grappling with Morality

I enjoy learning. But one of the richest learning experiences I have had in a long time involved travelling to foreign countries with people I would not have met otherwise.

I had the tremendous privilege in June to participate in FASPE, Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics. Over the course of twelve days, we journeyed through New York, Berlin, Krakow, and Oswiecim (the Polish name for Auschwitz) to study ethics through the lens of the Shoah, the Holocaust. The program offers tracks for students in five different professional fields – business, law, journalism, medicine, and seminary. As one of two rabbinical students, I participated in the seminary track, along with Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim students. In this interfaith framework, we were able to collaborate, drawing from our various perspectives, to grapple with challenging topics.

Throughout the trip, we devoted ourselves to two things: one, to understand Holocaust history – specifically the role of the active and passive perpetrators – and two, to extract lessons that can inform ethical decisions in our own lives and professions. While the ethical issues that a clergy member faces today usually do not, if ever, compare to the Shoah, if the Shoah is on a spectrum representing the most extreme collapse of morality, then it is worth examining what we can learn. There were behaviors and attitudes on the part of many during the Shoah that we still ought to be wary of today, even if they do not lead to a catastrophe as horrible as the Shoah. Additionally, when we invoke the slogan “Never Again” in remembering the Shoah, we have to bear in mind, as the survivor Primo Levi once said, that “it happened, and therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.”

While I cannot encapsulate the entire experience in one, short essay, I want to share what I learned about the role of clergy members in the Holocaust from a historical perspective and then to share how that shaped my experience of a recent event.

When we contemplate the way in which many were complicit in allowing the Shoah to happen, we often wonder how people did not see or actively resist the evil with greater urgency. One thing we learned, though, is that it is unlikely that in 1933, Hitler had a vision for what would ultimately result from his scheme to persecute the Jews. It is also unlikely that Hitler would have succeeded if he had begun sending Jews to the gas chambers in 1933. Rather, it was a gradual process that unfolded. Many people, according to Professor Donald Nicholls, lacked the “discernment of spirits,” meaning they never thought it would get to be “that bad.” Many clergy members, however, did smell something very sour in 1933. The German Catholic bishops were disconcerted by the anti-Church and anti-religious values espoused by the Nazis. But there are two reasons why they remained impotent. One was that they did not trust their laity to stand up and fight the immorality pervasive around them. Imagine if they had been able to enlist all Christians to oppose the Nazis, what kind of a fight that would have been.

The second issue was that in general, groups looked out for themselves. Catholics were concerned about the Nazis so far as it impacted them negatively, but that did not extend to the Jews. There was only one priest who spoke out for the Jews regularly – Monsignor Bernhard Lichtenberg – and he was eventually killed while he was being deported to Dachau. Consider then Dietrich Bonhoeffer of the Confessing Church, although praised for his resistance against Nazism, was also at times timid in his response. He himself said in 1942 that his church had been mostly concerned with its own self-preservation, preventing it from bringing, in his words, “reconciliation and redemption to humankind and to the world.” The Nazis murdered him – he indeed was heroic for a large measure of opposition. Yet he had moments of silence and did not always follow through with the activism he preached.

Fast-forward to today, though, and the German response to the Holocaust provides some important points of reflection for us. It was striking to see the proliferation of memorials throughout Berlin per the initiative of the Germans. The Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe is in the center of the city where many people pass through; it is not in a discrete, deserted corner. It was built because Germans took it upon themselves to confront their past and own up to their ancestors’ crimes. Similarly, the Deportation Memorial at Grunewald Train Station was initiated when German citizens insisted that the train station could not continue to be a normal train station without recognizing the events that occurred there in the past.

Translating Our Learning into Contemporary Issues

While we were exploring these themes in Europe, tragedy struck at home, in the United States. Nine black people, studying Bible in a sacred space, were murdered by a hateful white supremacist. It hit us especially hard as people whose calling is to serve people in similar sacred spaces. Obviously and unfortunately, though, this was not an isolated incident. Our country’s history is full of racism and bigotry, and many events this year made it clear that we have not solved this issue. In light of this tragedy, and acknowledging its context, we devoted a session to discussing the moral responsibility of clergy members in speaking out against racism. One of my colleagues made an important point: this is not just giving a token “social justice” sermon for the sake of “checking off” that task. Rather, we need clergy members to be role models in fighting hatred and bigotry.

We have to recognize immorality for what it is and not fool ourselves into thinking that it will simply pass on its own or that it does not affect us. Racism is not a new concept, yet many people mistakenly think that because we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and that we do not have legal segregation that racism has passed. Lest we think that racism is not an issue for the Jewish community, a recent op-ed by a Black Jew tells us very clearly where we fall short. With this in mind, I want to share with you a few lessons I learned from this journey and our discussions that might apply to our situation:

  • Clergy members need to trust the laity and empower it to create a united front in confronting moral injustice. Speaking out on this kind of issue is imperative, even when it creates discomfort. Perhaps that is exactly the point. In the words of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm,

Leadership is not meant for diffident weaklings. A leader must often act against the masses. A leader need not necessarily be a ‘consensus president.’ He must be at the head of his people and sometimes demand of them, reproach them, rebuke them” (A Commentary for the Ages: Numbers, p. 128).

  • When we see our neighbors being treated callously, we need to stand up for them; it cannot just be about ourselves.
    I am reminded of the words of my rebbe at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Jeremy Wieder, who said the following after the murder of Eric Garner:

Our history as a people teaches us what it is like to be the oppressed. We suffered for numerous millennia, centuries, at the hands of authorities—official oppressors—from Pharaoh to Antiochus to Hadrian to the medieval Crusaders to Hitler, yemah shemo… We need to be sensitive to others in the same position. The African-American community, to the extent that one can speak of it as a monolithic entity, faces many difficulties and hardships… We know what it is like because we have been there, and we should act accordingly… If we complain—and we do—when the world remains silent in the face of mistreatment of Jews, how dare we remain silent about the suffering of others in our own backyard? Just put yourselves in the shoes of the other person—how would you feel if your yarmulka made you suspect in the eyes of law enforcement? (Emphasis mine)

  • Lastly, confronting one’s past is no easy order, but the American people will not be done fighting racism until we wipe out all of its traces. The removal of the confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol was a great step, but it’s just one. One of our group members spoke about language use and what a difference it makes in creating sensibilities. Changing the language and rhetoric we use, as a society, can take us even farther. After all, violence does not come out of nowhere – it comes from a climate of hate perpetrated by speech.

When we were having a candid discussion about taking a stand on ethical issues, I spoke about a role model I have of someone who was able to be outspoken yet still respected by those who disagreed with him. Someone responded to me, saying, “that works when you’re an established senior rabbi. What about when you’re a younger, less established rabbi?” I still do not have quite an answer to that question. We all inevitably face tough situations when talking the talk is easier than walking the walk, yet we can’t be satisfied with saying that it’s just “hard.”

Ultimately, Torah is our guide to life in developing a relationship with God and with other people. We should expect rabbinic leadership to guide us in fulfilling the Torah’s vision of “tzedakah u-mishpat,” righteousness and justice, to borrow from Genesis. My hope is that our leaders will merit the courage that will challenge us to rise above what is popular to do what is right.

About the Author
Judah Kerbel graduated from the University of Maryland with a BA in Jewish Studies and Psychology. He learned in Yeshivat Har Etzion and is currently a rabbinical student at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, affiliated with Yeshiva University.
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