Who am I and what am I?
Would I have been able to be a Nazi? Could I have been an ordinary, indifferent European citizen? Could I have been one of the Righteous among the Nations?
These shocking questions, according to my understanding, are the questions that need to balance our engagement with Holocaust remembrance. And the honest and ethical answer to every one of these questions must be: "Maybe."
Not a different planet
In his testimony at the Eichmann trial, author and Holocaust survivor Ka-Tzetnik (Yehiel De-Nur) labeled Auschwitz "a different planet":
"This chronicle is from Planet Auschwitz. I was there for approximately two years. The passage of time there is unlike the passage of time here on Planet Earth. Every fraction of a second there goes on a different wheel of time. And the residents of this planet didn't have names. They didn't have parents, nor did they have children... They did not live according to the laws of the world here and they did not die."
(The brief, filmed testimony of De-Nur, until his collapse, can be watched in the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uckDP2FwwKo&feature=relmfu)
Around 15 years after Ka-Tzetnik delivered these words, he turned to the clinic of Dr. Jan Bastiaans in Leiden, Holland for psychedelic psychotherapy for nightmares and depression, and over the course of this treatment Ka-Tzetnik's worldview underwent a dramatic change:
"In the past I liked to isolate myself far from human settlement. My desire was to be alone with Auschwitz. Now Auschwitz is crouching at the door of humanity. In regards to humanity there was Auschwitz, for it was not the Satan that created Auschwitz, rather me and you, just as the Satan did not create the atomic mushroom cloud, rather it was me and you. Mankind!" ("Tsofen: E.D.M.A.," p. 121)
The search for pure evil
Ka-Tzetnik's initial need to divide between "Auschwitz" and "this world," between day and night, as well as between God and Satan, is understandable. Similarly understandable is the need of many others to believe that the Nazis were a different kind of person," "human animals."
The desire to distinguish between us and between them is understandable, like the astonishment at a world that kept silent is understandable. In the consolation of disconnecting we will be comforted. The distinction between "good guys" and "bad guys" offers order and calm and offers victims an ethical certificate of insurance.
The racism trap
However, as long as we claim that "they" were capable of committing these atrocities while "we" aren't, we are tripping ourselves into the filthy gutters of racism. If we claim that there are some people who are capable of evil and others who are righteous in their very nature, we are playing into the hands of our worst enemies. Ethical living begins to be a challenge when we understand that all of us are capable of evil and all of us are commanded to do good.
In every generation they ready to annihilate us?
An ancient and popular liturgical poem that appears in the Passover Haggadah offers a complicated theological challenge:
"And it is this (covenant0 that has stood for our forefathers and us, for not just one enemy stood ready to annihilate us, rather in every generation there are they who are standing ready to annihilate us, and the Holy One, Blessed Be He, saved us from their hands."
At the basis of this liturgical poem rests a theology that also divides the world into "the good and the weak" (that's us) and the "evil and dangerous." The "evil" ones are always trying to exterminate the "good," and the Holy One, Blessed Be He, is always standing by the "good" and, even if it is at the last minute, saving them.
As stated, this liturgical poem is religiously and ethically challenging, and it seems that its exact wording (even if it is less exciting from a poetical perspective) should be:
"In every generation, people are standing ready to annihilate their brothers, fellow humans. And the Holy One, Blessed Be-He?"
The Holy One is not a rescue company
I have no way of knowing if there is a God, and I certainly don't have any possible way of understanding his essence if he does exist, but I prefer to believe in his existence. I prefer a world with God over a world without God, and therefore I believe.
My open eyes observing reality (I hope) teach me that God does not offer general or personal providence, and therefore my God is not a judge or a police officer. My God is possibility, is choice. Faith in God is for me faith in the fact that there is a moral demand outside of me. This is the faith that I am commanded to do good.
God did not create Auschwitz, nor did he save us from it. Auschwitz was created by people. The victims of Auschwitz were people and the Righteous among the Nations were people. I am grateful for my portion and place in history and life that I did not have to stand on any side in this terrible ethical dilemma. Unfortunately, humans continue causing difficult moral tests, and I am not at all sure that I am passing them successfully.
He who distinguishes between Israel and nations?The enormous ethical mission that the Reform Movement has taken upon itself in the last generation is the spiritual and practical strengthening of the belief that all people are created in God's image; equality between men and women, equality between women and men with different sexual preferences, and dispelling the belief in the moral and religious superiority of the Jewish people.
I, like many others inside and outside of the Reform Movement, believe in the power of words, and the danger crouching at the doorstep of prayers that elevate the Jewish people above other nations. We are therefore careful not to include in our prayers liturgical expressions of Jewish superiority.
In the Havdalah blessing we do not say: "He who distinguishes between Israel and the nations", but rather "He who distinguishes between good and evil." In the Kiddush we exclude the phrase "who chose us from all the nations." When we publicly read from the Torah, we offer alternatives to the phrase "who chose us from all the Nations and gave us His Torah."
I chose the wording that I learned at Congregation Mevakshei Derech in Jerusalem: "Who brought us close to worshiping him and gave us his Torah." There are those that prefer a minor linguistic alteration and say: "Who chose us with all the nations" (yes, they are aware of the logistic problem with this phrasing, but they prefer a linguistic inconsistency to a moral one).
It starts with our weekly Torah portion
And it proposes internal class distinctions. A hierarchical perspective does not start or stop with outsiders, with the "goyim." He who ranks people by their nationality, quickly went into small and minor details. And indeed, the "Emor" Torah potion elaborates on the class demands from the Kohanim, the priests from the tribe of Levi who are chosen to do God's work (Leviticus 21:17-23):
"And God shall speak to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron to say whosoever he be of your seed throughout their generations that has a blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God. For whatsoever man he be that has a blemish, he shall not approach: a blind man, or a lame, or he that has anything maimed, or anything too long, or a man that is broken-footed, or broken-handed, or crook-backed, or a dwarf, or that has his eye overspread, or is scabbed, or scurvy, or has his testicles crushed; no man of the seed of Aaron the priest, that hath a blemish, shall come near to offer the offerings of the Lord made by fire; he has a blemish; he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God... Only he shall not go in unto the veil, nor come near unto the altar, because he has a blemish; that he profane not My holy places; for I am the Lord who sanctify them."
It takes one to know oneThe phrase "his defect" is repeated five times in seven verses. These verses also include a detailed list of defects that disqualify the Kohanim: A broken hand, broken foot or leg, a crooked back, a cataract eye, damaged sexual organs, and more.
Whomever desires to judge other people based on their nationality and not based on their behavior, will find himself at the end of the day with a detailed list whose principal purpose is extreme, external uniformity that adds suffering to the suffering of those who are different.
The struggle of the rabbinic sages against the priestly status is also a struggle against the belief that we were born with special spiritual and ethical virtue. The struggle of the rabbinic sages with the priestly class is a struggle for personal responsibility.
And in the beit midrash of talkbacks
This time I am including a beautiful poem written by Uzi Bar-Pinchas (who is also my English translator for this column). The original Hebrew poem, like the entire column, addresses in the moment of loneliness when a single person is alone with responsibility and freedom and the experience this proposes.
The Holy Hummingbird
Dedicated to my sister, my love Sarit, the most beautiful of women, my beloved son Galel, and the wise Henry Miller.
that its beak can be longer than its body
in its flight
most unique -
of his wings.
Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas.
Click here to read this article in Hebrew.