A decent, compassionate, brave and loving human being is both a gracious goal and divine reward for humanity.
A lovely and strong essay on commemoration, what it means and what it ought to mean. Food for very important reflection in a world where evil seems to rear its head every day.
Adam’s post is magnificent; almost more a work of art than a blog post.
Adam references an argument that he made in his book “Jewcentricity.” He says, “By indulging in the conceit of the contemporary, the Holocaust has become a form of ancestor worship for too many… going back now many years, semi-assimilated Jewish Americans have replaced authentic Judaism and the God at its core with a “lite” politicized version in which the State of Israel is the deity and the Holocaust its ritual liturgy. Both God and normative Judaism have been rendered completely superfluous to it…A Holocaust cult that seems never to end is profoundly un-Jewish.”
There is quite a bit that is accurate in this analysis but it is far too harsh.
While I agree that substituting Israel for the deity and the Shoah for a genuine sense of piety is a sure recipe for communal disaster, the extermination of the 6 million is not an ancient event; it happened within the living memory of hundreds of tens of gentiles and Jews still walking the Earth.
Isn’t it a little unfair to claim that those secular Jews who view the existence of Israel as in insurance policy against a new Jewish genocide are behaving in a cult-like manner? Is less than a century really too long for a people whose population was reduced by two thirds to still have a vivid sense of loss? Are the periods of ritual mourning prescribed by the sages really adequate to memorialize a near-extinction event?
Many of those “semi-assimilated Jewish Americans” that Adam is implicitly criticizing (more in sorrow than anger, I suspect) lost grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts and cousins in Europe. Even if those Jewish Americans were never personally acquainted with their extended family members who perished, it’s hardly fair to criticize them for perseverating on the same question that Adam’s trip to Poland inspired in him; “if my grandfather hadn’t left, would I exist?”
Adam is right that ”great buildings—pyramids and palaces and castles and cathedrals and great walls” are not what has vouchsafed Jewish heritage but I hope that it is not indelicate to point out that this same argument is made by those who loathe the Jewish people and Israel. To this day, supposedly moderate Palestinian leaders like President Abbas deny the relationship of the Jewish people to Jerusalem. American Presidents (of both political parties) refuse to meet with Israeli Prime Ministers in the eastern part of the City and the mere possibility of an observant Jew praying silently on the Temple Mount is enough to inspire a riot. The concept of “sacred space” is powerful for people of many faith traditions; the idea that secular Jews should be criticized for being moved by it just as observant Jews are, seems a little bit much to me. In short, anti-Semites are delighted with the argument that the Jews are errant in substituting Zionism for Judaism; their goal is to treat the Jews in their midst as Dhimmis while they eradicate Israel.
It’s not just Adam, Jacob Neusner and Irving Howe who have made the argument that by conflating Israel and a focus on the Holocaust with genuine spirituality, Jews are risking communal suicide; in his recent widely discussed book, “The Crisis of Zionism” Peter Beinart makes precisely the same argument. From this, in an obtuse and twisted fashion, Beinart formulates a series of policy recommendations that would, if followed, certainly create an existential risk for Israel.
In this post and in his marvelous (and under-appreciated) book, “Jewcentricity,” Adam makes clear his thesis that the Jewish people have survived their many arduous travails because instead of building monuments, they build “palaces of memory in the hearts and minds of their children using words and melodies, not bricks and stone.”
True enough, but what safeguards half the worlds Jews who now live in Israel are not merely “ramparts of the spirit” but F-16s and Iron Dome installations. It’s mostly those “semi-assimilated” secular Jews and the organizations that represent them like AIPAC (as well as the admiration of Christian Americans) who insure that there will always be one place in the world at least where the “words and melodies of Judaism” can still be sung.
The long term suvival of the Jewish people may depend on the degree to which piety and ritual remain central in Jewish minds. It seems to me that Adam may be a tad too dismissive of the important role played by
“semi-assimilated” Jews in insuring the short-term survival of the Jewish people.
I am not dismissive of anyone and neither was Rav Kook.
As for Mr. Beinart, even a broken clock is right twice a day (once a day in military time), so what’s that got to do with anything?
As for your question as to whether the rabbinic tradition is up to dealing with the Shoah, my answer is a resounding yes, for those fortunate enough to know what it actually is.
A few weeks back, Peter Berger wrote a very interesting post at his blog “Religion and Other Curiosities” entitled “Misuses of the Holocaust.” It is well worth a look,
Berger, in the provocative and erudite style that he brings to all of his writing, referenced an article that he had read in the February 8, 2013 issue of “The Christian Century” which pondered the question, “Did Gun Control Prevent Jews from Stopping the Holocaust?” Berger (correctly) quickly dismisses the notion. While referring to the Warsaw Uprising that inspires this post by Adam, Berger says,
“The notion that Jews in 1940s Europe could have had sufficient weapons to stop or even significantly hamper the powerful Nazi death machinery is an ignorant fantasy. A small number of Jews did acquire weapons and the heroic uprising in the Warsaw ghetto did kill a few Germans. But it was quickly suppressed, and almost all the people who had survived in the ghetto were massacred in place or deported to the death camps…[the] notion that Jewish resistance might have allowed “some of Poland” to remain free is in the realm of science fiction.”
Berger used this story as a starting point to catalog a number of ways that commentators deliberately or not so deliberately misuse the Holocaust as a metaphor for other tragic events. Unsurprisingly one of the issues that Berger brought up later in the essay (and debated in the comments section by several people including me) was whether the Shoah was different in kind from other genocides or putative genocides committed in the 20th century such as what the Turks did to the Armenians or the Serbs did to the Muslim Bosnians or Kosovars.
One of the things that make this subject so interesting is to note how the descendants of the alleged perpetrators react to the victims of their forebears. To this day, the Turks deny that their Ottoman forebears committed a genocide against the Albanians (they’re wrong). The Serbs deny that their behavior towards the Muslim Kosovars was genocide (they’re right).
The reaction of the Poles, especially young Poles to the complicity of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents with the Nazis is very interesting. I don’t know if Adam Garfinkle saw any evidence of this during his recent trip to Poland, but there is a massive wave of Philosemitism sweeping across Poland.
Perhaps ground zero for Polish anti-Semitism during the war was Cracow; Auschwitz, in the suburb of Oświęcim is less than an hour drive from Cracow’s central square. When I visited Cracow two years ago I was fascinated to see that the Jewish section of the city, devastated during the War (though Cracow itself was largely spared) and neglected during the Communist era, had been lovingly restored. Several old synagogues had been renovated and one had been converted into a museum commemorating the Jewish experience in Poland.
Upon visiting the museum I was somewhat surprised to see that no attempt was made to whitewash Polish complicity. Polish visitors (there were many when I was there) and tourists (mostly American Jews) were presented with an unvarnished depiction of Polish anti-Semitism and the willingness of many Poles to assist the Nazis in their quest to eradicate European Jewry.
Of course, other than the visitors, there were no actual congregants in the renovated synagogues; how could there be-virtually all Polish Jews had been exterminated or forced to flee. As a result, I was visiting a Jewish section of Cracow sans the Jews (except for a few tourists). This gave the place a decidedly “Disney Land-like” feel; but the young Poles circulating with grim faces amongst the exhibits outlining the horrors of the Holocaust could hardly be blamed for that. I have spoken with many Jews who escaped from Poland before it was too late; few of them have any nice memories of their former Polish neighbors. I left wondering what they would have thought of the children and grandchildren of their former neighbors if they were ever to have a chance to meet them. I have even heard that there are a not trivial number of Polish young people who are converting to Judaism much to the consternation of the Polish Government and the Roman Catholic Church. It would be interesting to know what the author of “Jewcentricity” thinks about this.
Adam’s description of his visit to Poland brings one last thing to mind. It’s a story I read a few years ago about the decision of the Polish city of Bialystok to commemorate the 150th birthday of Ludwik Zamenhof, an observant Polish Jew who, in 1887 accomplished his dream of combing elements of Roman, German and Slavic languages with a little Latin and Greek grammar to form Esperanto. Zamenhof died in 1917 and I have heard that within the next two decades or so his entire family was wiped out; no doubt with the acquiescence if not active assistance of their Polish neighbors. What a hopeful sign it is that the descendents of the people who murdered the Zamenhofs decided to honor the memory and accomplishments of Ludwik Zamenhof. Interestingly, “Esperanto” means hope.
But what strikes me even more, is the irony that Esperanto should have been invented by a Jew. That a Polish Jew who, like his brethren, was almost surely considered an outsider by the community in which he resided, should seek to create a language that could unite the world is a stark reminder of the quandary faced by Jews down through the ages-do I assimilate and if so, how much? What is the purpose of Esperanto if not to facilitate the ability of all people to assimilate?
Can I assimilate and still be a Jew? Can I assimilate and still be a good Jew? Can I assimilate and still hold precious the survival of the Jewish people? Adam’s post seems to suggest that he doubts it. My guess is that Ludwik Zamenhof struggled with the same questions.
“Other civilizations throughout history have built great buildings—pyramids and palaces and castles and cathedrals and great walls, and some have even carved huge idols in mountainsides. Yet all of those civilizations have either perished, been layered over to oblivion, or are likely one day to be layered over. Jews instead built palaces of memory in the hearts and minds of their children using words and melodies, not bricks and stone. Jews have translated their historical experiences into ramparts of the spirit.”
Something the whole world should learn how to do.
In some ways the Holocaust was an emblematic event. For whle unique in its intensity, there was not a single outrage committed against the Jews of Europe in the years 1933-1945 that had not been visited countless times on equally innocent men, women, and children throughout the world since history and civilization began. A terrible human price has been paid to build the modern world. We should never forget it, Jews and gentiles alik
Thanks for the thought provoking essay.
One little proofreading comment:
” The key was the testimony and insistence of the few survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising … Their cache was powerful enough to turn the tide of debate …”
Instead of cache you should have written: Cachet.
1. a hiding place, especially one in the ground, for ammunition, food, treasures, etc.
Can be confused: cache, cachet, cash.
1. an official seal, as on a letter or document.
2. a distinguishing mark or feature.
3. a sign or expression of approval, especially from a person who has a great deal of prestige.
4. superior status; prestige: The job has a certain cachet.
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This article has given me much food for thought. I should like to address one particular point:
“But note carefully, for this is the point: These (and other) innovations in the liturgy do not mention the Crusades or the crusaders”
First, we must remember that it was not always thus. The Hebrew Bible has quite a few texts commemorating notable events which contain historical detail, and they do not suffer for it. Examples are the Book of Lamentations, David’s Lament for Saul and Jonathan, Deborah’s song, and the Song of the Sea. On the contrary, the historical details are what give the laments their power.
This thought first occurred to me while searching for the text of a particular speech by Winston Churchill, which I had found quite inspirational. To my surprise I found that the Churchill Centre had attempted to universalize the speech by removing all specific contemporary references. This resulted in a diluted bowl of cliches, and all the power of the original speech was gone. I invite any reader to compare the two texts and judge for himself:
Your examples come from different eras of biblical Judaism, not rabbinic Judaism. The specificity of those texts had their purposes, to be sure. But the rabbinic method of “remembering not to forget” has its purposes, too.
“As critics from Jacob Neusner to Irving Howe have complained going back now many years, semi-assimilated Jewish Americans have replaced authentic Judaism and the God at its core with a “lite” politicized version in which the State of Israel is the deity and the Holocaust its ritual liturgy.”
I keep hearing that, but I never see it. Not in 64 years. Not in Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist congregations.
Can someone offer me an example or two of “semi-assimilated Jewish Americans who have replaced authentic Judaism and the God at its core with a “lite” politicized version in which the State of Israel is the deity and the Holocaust its ritual liturgy.”?
Perhaps you have been fortunate, but I daresay that if it were possible to do a content analysis of sermons over the years from the denominations of Judaism you mention, especially since 1967, Israel and the Shoah would pop up many, many times more frequently than God or halakhah. You didn’t think I meant the statement literally, did you?