Holocaust as a Paradigm of Empathy
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Irwin Zeplowitz


The systematic attempt to murder the Jews, gypsies, and others challenges the enlightenment assertion that humanity is progressing and that God is good. In terms of their pre-war program, Irwin believes the Nazis succeeded since so many citizens and nations participated in, or acquiesced to, the eradication of European Jews. Genocide has continued in Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia. The Holocaust is not an historical aberration but an aspect of human behavior. Can we still claim to be good? Jewish tradition asserts that human beings are neither inherently good or innately evil, but a mixture of both. In us is the spark of good that comes from being made in God’s image. Our lives are a moral struggle with small signs of kindness and faith. And we must realize and remember that the oppressed can become the oppressor. Why be Good? Because both God and humanity need us to be.

In any discussion of morality in our age, we cannot avoid the Holocaust. The systematic attempt to murder the Jews (as well as Gypsies and others) represents a challenge to the Enlightenment's assertion of human progress and to traditional understandings of God's goodness. So immense and horribly efficient was the Holocaust (called, in Hebrew, the Shoah), so vast was the scale of destruction, that no excuse of unawareness holds moral sway. The Nazis succeeded because so many citizens, in so many nations, participated in or acquiesced to evil behaviour. Since 1945 we have seen genocide repeated, in Cambodia and Uganda, in Rwanda and Bosnia. Modernity, with its access to science and technology, has perfected the killing of others in a way that makes the carnage exacted by religious wars of the past pale by comparison. In fact, the very question "Why be good?" challenges the assumption of modern Western thought that goodness is innate. If we have to ask the question, then perhaps we are not good; what we are trying desperately to do is to find reasons to keep at bay the chaos unleashed by seeing what we human beings really are. The Shoah is not an historical aberration, but a paradigm of human behaviour.

In posing the question "Why be good?" we must confront the Holocaust and the burning moral issues it raises. These questions are the focus of my reflection: Which is most truly humangood or evil? Where was God and what does our answer to this question mean? And, finally, can we learn anything about how to be good from the Holocaust?


The Reality of Evil... and Good

Many years ago I visited Dachau, a Nazi death camp less than 20 kilometres from Munich on the outskirts of a small Bavarian town. As I walked under the gate, with its mocking words Arbeit macht Frei, what struck me was the beauty of the place. Little was left to suggest that this was once Hell. Teenagers were laughing, birds were chirping. There were no echoes of the screams of horror, no residue of the stench of burning bodies. Inside the remaining barbed wire fence and the lookout towers, the only hint that this was a death camp was one reconstructed, spotlessly clean, wooden bunker with only the merest suggestion of the poverty of the accommodations. Most chilling of all was the lushness of the burial pit next to the crematorium where bits of bone and ashes were all that remained of fathers and daughters, hasidim and labour Zionists, sages and labourers.

If nature could so effectively obscure the evil of genocide, it is not hard to imagine how human beings could try to deny the Holocaust. Walking through Dachau it became clear that covering up the horrors of the Shoah is not a contemporary revisionist phenomenon. It was part and parcel of the Nazi attempt to wipe out a people, yet surreptitiously defend such action as good, useful and necessary. In this war against the Jews (and others), propped up by an Orwellian "newspeak," the forced removal of people from their homes was spoken of as "relocation," murder was a "solution," genocide was merely ridding the world its unwanted human refuse.1 Throughout the winter and early spring of 1945 camp after camp, in which Jews had been exterminated, was dismantled. In a desperate effort to destroy the physical evidence of their crimes, SS guards tore down barracks, planted grass over mass graves and destroyed records. That so little remained in Dachau, therefore, had nothing to do with the ravages of time or the disregard of later governments. Dachau was given over to nature because the Nazis wanted it forgotten.

Was this obfuscation of the truth a stratagem to fool Jews into passive cooperation with their own extermination, facilitating more efficient killing? No doubt, though this does not explain the continuation of the ruse after most of Europe's Jews were killed. Was the destruction of the camps done out of fear of retribution from the Allies which might follow the war? To some degree, perhaps, although at a stage when it was just as likely that the Nazis would triumph, Heinrich Himmler, SS Reichsführer, told an assembly of his high ranking officers: Athe killing of the Jews is the most glorious page in our history, one not written and which shall never be written."2

Herein, I believe, lies an inherent moral dilemma within National Socialism. Were the Jews not an inferior race, "rootless subhumans," vermin and "bacillus" to be exterminated?3 Why, if the Jewish nation was so evil, was their destruction not something of which to be proud? Why, with one breath, glorify the act of murder, and with the other try to hide the act of ridding the world of such evildoers? I would suggest that at least part of the reason is guilt and shame. Although the murder of the Jews was couched in innocuous, bureaucratic language, the stain of so much blood could not be washed off. And this, I think, made even the Nazis question themselves. The language and behaviour of deception, therefore, was meant to fool not only the victims, but the perpetrators also. Thus did evil blossom, as those who participated in the murder of millions justified their duplicity and those who turned aside were given the moral "out" to salve their consciences. By defining evil as good, Nazi ideology pushed aside the voice of good within their own souls.

Do I, then, wish to forgive those who committed such crimes? Let me answer by quoting a story told of someone who once came to the great Jewish scholar, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who himself escaped the Nazis. This person said, "Dr. Heschel, you are a man of deep faith. Do you not believe that it is time to forgive?" Heschel replied with a story that implied, "Forgiveness can only be granted by those who are wronged. Ask the dead for forgiveness."

My intent in raising this issue is simply this: that even among those most involved in genocide there was a recognition that there is a moral good which their heinous choices violated. This argument is not the same as saying people are basically good. Rather, the careful attempt of the Nazis, in word and behaviour, to hide the Holocaust even at the height of its execution, hints at the struggle that existed within them, as it does in all of us, between good and evil.4

Given the horrific evidence of the Holocaust we can no longer accept the idea of human progress or inherent human beneficence. Though Anne Frank's assertion in her diary that "in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart" is touching, with hindsight it rings hollow and naive. After all, less than three weeks after she penned these lines she was captured after an informer turned her and her family in to the authorities. She died a few months before the war's end in a death camp at the age of 15. Sad to say, then, I do not believe people are basically good. The Holocaust rooted out that notion.

Hobbes said that human beings are, by nature, ruled by the law of the jungle and need to be constrained by law, while Rousseau saw humanity as essentially good. In contrast, Jewish traditions deny that human beings are either inherently good or innately evil. Judaism asserts that we are of two hearts or inclinations, our lives an ongoing morality play.5 One is called yetzer ha-tov, the inclination to good. The other is called yetzer ha-ra, often translated as "the evil urge," but which I prefer to translate as "the animal instinct." The yetzer ha-ra is not evil per se. In fact, the Talmud understood it as essential for the continuity of life. "Rabbi Shmuel ben Nahman said: Were it not for the yetzer ha-ra no man would build a house, marry a wife or beget children."6 Thus, the yetzer ha-ra is our innate desire to survive, the animalistic tendency to dominate and control, to have the self triumph and (in the words of current scientific understandings) leave our genetic material to perpetuity. Left to its own devices, however, the yetzer ha-ra would lead us to chaos, to the anarchy of self-fulfilment and the rule of evil. And it is powerful, as the Talmudic rabbis teach: "When the yetzer ha-ra is triumphant, none remember the good." Nevertheless, also within us is a spark of goodness because we are creatures made "in God's image." Goodness is the tendency towards self-sacrifice, devotion, and a caring spirit-no less real a force within us.

The Holocaust gave proof that the struggle for goodness within us is a serious endeavour, with far-reaching ramifications. It also demonstrated that evil is real, that it is (in the words of Hannah Arendt) "banal."7 Evil is not the enemy from without, but from within. Yet the Holocaust also hinted at an innate goodness, about which I will say more later on.


God's Need of Human Goodness

Among those writing about the Holocaust there is debate as to its historical uniqueness. Though my purpose is not to debate the merits of either side, it is important to me to note the different attitudes towards the Divine that each view brings. More traditional Jews tend to see the Shoah as one in a series of Jewish calamities and tragedies, quantitatively greater, but not qualitatively different enough to pose a challenge to the answers provided by past traditions. Liberal Jewish thinkers identify an inherent uniqueness in the Shoah that represents a break with, if not a challenge to, past theological perspectives.8

Like the traditionalists I do not believe that the Shoah is unprecedented in Jewish history, other than in the magnitude and efficiency of its murderous methodology. At the same time, I cannot accept the classic Jewish view that continues to assert a God who may be mysterious, but remains caring, ever-present and good. For me, previous understandings of our relationship with God no longer make sense. What answered our ancestors' doubts and questions two thousand years ago, or four centuries ago, cannot satisfy our need to make sense of a world turned upside down. While it is easy to say human beings chose to act in ways which allowed the Holocaust to happen, we are still stuck with how a God who works in history could allow humanity such moral latitude. In short: Where was God?

To suggest, as some have, that the Shoah was a punishment for human sin or the price for the end of Jewish exile is, to me, both theologically and morally repugnant.9 What God worth having faith in would so mock human reason or our sense of justice? The writer and storyteller Elie Wiesel, in describing a recitation of the traditional confessional in the camps on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, touches the irony:

It was better to believe our punishments had meaning, that we had deserved them. To believe in a cruel but just God was better than not to believe at all. It was in order not to provoke an open war between God and His people that we had chosen to spare Him, and we cried out: "You are our God, blessed be your name. You smite us without pity, you shed our blood, we give thanks to you for it, O Eternal One, for You are determined to show us that You are just and your name is justice.10

Faced with such a logical incongruity, liberal Jewish theologians since the Holocaust have struggled to understand God's role in the Holocaust. The American rabbi, Richard Rubinstein, argues that God is dead (or, at least, the personal God of Jewish tradition).11 Martin Buber speaks of an "eclipse" or of the "hidden face" of God." The Yiddish poet, Jacob Glatstein, pushes the theological envelope even further. In a 1946 poem entitled, "Not The Dead Praise God" he hints that the Shoah ended God's role in our lives. Playing on the ancient Jewish tradition that the covenant with God was accepted when all the people of Israel stood together at Sinai, Glatstein hints that the vast, communal destruction of the Jews nullifies that bond:

We received the Torah at Mount Sinai
and in Lublin we gave it back.
Not the dead praise God-
the Torah was given for the living.
And as we all together
stood in a body
at the Granting of the Torah,
so truly did we all die in Lublin.12

Unlike these writers, I do not believe that the Shoah abrogated the covenantal relationship we have with God. When my ancestors established a link with God, it was an eternal bond. Like it or not, as a Jew I feel commanded by the covenant and by Torah, which constitute the terms of that partnership. What is the alternative? A sacralization of humanity? But what is most human-those who fought the Nazis, or the majority who acquiesced to them? If there is no God what moral ground allows me to say the Nazis were evil? Perhaps, given their world, we should say they were right?! (Not so unthinkable a notion. I have had students argue, "they were entitled to their opinion"!) That I cannot do. So, with all my uncertainty, I turn back to God.

The "but" in this, however, is that the Shoah has changed the nature of our relationship. As a modern, liberal Jew I perceive that the Divine-human connection is not static, but is influenced by historical circumstance. God may be unchanging (or maybe not?), but the bond between Israel and God is ever in flux as the Holy One and human beings move through history.13

Given this, I believe that the covenant remains. What changed in the Holocaust is that God failed. For whatever reason, there was no Heavenly Witness to the Divine presence in the Shoah. God, if it is possible to say so, was present, but came off the Heavenly Throne. Why? I do not know. Like Job, I face the Whirlwind unable to comprehend the often absurd, sometimes even cruel mysteries of the universe. In my troubled faith I sing with the Psalmist: "Why, O Eternal, do You stand aloof, heedless in times of trouble?"14 Yet even when God fails I am called (no, it is more than this ... it is commanded) by the conviction of my ancestors and my partnership in the covenant, to be witness to the Divine. After all, my people failed God in the past, but the bond remained. Now, in the mystery of God's failure it is we who are needed (more than ever) to sanctify the Divine Name.

God's need of humanity has a strong foundation in Jewish sources. In the seventeenth century the Jewish mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria argued that at the moment of creation a moral "Big Bang" occurred, scattering good and evil throughout the universe. Our mission, he argued, is to restore the broken fragments of the world together in what he called tikkun olam, a "repairing of the world." Why God will not (or cannot?) do this, we do not know. What Lurianic kabbalah does, however, is empower humanity to restore the universe to wholeness. After the Shoah the need for a tikkun, restoring God's universe (and thus God's Presence in the world) is even greater, for we now know that the brokenness is deeper and more profound than we previously understood. Thus do I find the power to make a difference, the courage to find meaning. Such questioning faith is not really as radical as it may seem:

A believer once came to the Hasidic rabbi, Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, saying he could no longer believe. The Kotzker did not throw him out, but questioned him. "What do you mean? Why can't you believe?"

"Because I doubt the world has rhyme or reason. The righteous suffer and the wicked prosper." "So why does that concern you?" "What do you mean 'why?'," the student answered, "If there is no justice in the world, I doubt there is a God governing the world."

"So what do you care if there is no God in the world?" "Rebbe, if there's no God in the world, my life makes no sense, there's no meaning at all."

"Do you care so much about the world and God's existence?" the teacher continued.

"With all my heart and soul, Rebbe."

"If you care so much, if you are pained so much, if you doubt so much ... you believe."l 5

God's failure in the Shoah indicates God's need for human faith. Indeed, the Biblical text itself speaks of God being made "holy" by the people: "And I will be sanctified within the People of Israel."16 And on the verse, "Let them make Me a sanctuary that I will dwell within them," one commentator notes that the text indicates that God's holiness is within them (i.e. in their acts, not the building).17 On the creation of this indwelling of God, the eminent Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchek reflects on the angels of Jacob's dream which "descend and ascend"-a rather unexpected ordering. He comments that it is our deeds which cause the Divine Presence to come to earth, and only then can the "holy ones" (God's Presence?) ascend. Our job, then, is to bring God back to earth.


The Holocaust as a Paradigm of Empathy

If, as I assert, the Holy One did fail us, then how can we know how to act? Is there any hint of righteousness that emerges out of the Holocaust, any possibility of gleaning what is ethical out of this event?

There are some who would deny any possibility of meaning in the Shoah. They look at the evil committed, the horrors of the crime, and angrily denounce any attempt to give "meaning" to such emptiness. Can we find purpose in the death of a child thrown out of third-story apartment, or still alive into the crematorium in order (and these are the words of a witness at the Nuremburg trials) to "economize on gas"? Is their any sense in the dehumanization of the ghettos? Any meaning in the way families were told to dig communal graves, then killed together, bodies of parents and children heaped one upon the other? No, say some, there is nothing we can glean from the Holocaust. It was a crime so great, so devoid of any humanity, that to try to give it meaning is to mock the dead. Let us find meaning elsewhere.

To some degree, I think this perspective is true. We can, indeed, learn much from the sorrows we encounter in our lives. In the Talmud there is an assertion that certain sufferings in life are yissurin shel ahavah "sufferings of love." What this means is that God sends tribulation not out of cruelty, but with design, to enable us to come to deeper understanding, compassion and empathy. But the rabbinic mind understood that there are limits.

Rava, in the name of Rav Sehora, in the name of Rav Huna, said ... "As there must be willingness in a trespass offering, so there must be willingness in the suffering" ... And "Rabbi Yohanan says, "Leprosy and children are not love sufferings."18

Though growth does come out of loss, therefore, the Talmudic sages could not conceive of a God so cruel as to send suffering which the one in anguish did not see as a test of faith. Should we, then, be brazen enough to find meaning in the Shoah-where a million and a half children were murdered, where few if any accepted their suffering with a willing spirit? The moral absurdity of the Holocaust denies this possibility.

In contrast, there are some who derive ultimate meaning in the Holocaust. The contemporary philosopher Emil Fackenheim argued that the new commandment for the Jew is not "to hand Hitler yet another, posthumous Jewish victory."19 It is a point-of-view which strikes a popular chord. Several years ago I read a letter from a young man who said that he was staying Jewish to spite Hitler. It made me incredibly sad. This is why this person was a Jew? What, I thought, of the values of our traditions? What of God's call in Torah to defend the orphan, the widow and the stranger-an imperative to protect those most vulnerable in society? What of the prophetic assertions of justice? What of the Talmud's openness to diverse paths to truth, a fine-tuned religious pluralism? What of Yom Kippur's assertion that repentance is possible, that we are not eternally damned by the wrongs we do? What of Torah's clarion message, "You shall be holy, for I the Eternal your God am holy"? "What is good?" has been the keystone of Jewish teaching and reaching towards the Divine since our origins. For this person, however, what was foundational was animus and revenge. That is not a way of life I can find meaningful-and if that is what the Holocaust gives us, then maybe it has no transcendent meaning, nothing which it can teach us fifty years later.

Surely we cannot (and ought not) establish a call to moral goodness in the attempt to nullify Jewish existence. There is, for me, a sense of giving in to the enemy by allowing the Shoah to define who I am. The Nazis wanted a world that was Judenrein. To allow their negation to define me only gives legitimacy to that intent.

Furthermore, if I accept that God enters history (thus, by nature, giving purpose to existence) as a God who needs human goodness to prevail, then I am forced to confront the Shoah as teaching more than just something negative. If there is meaning in the Shoah it is not because of it, but in spite of it. Only thus can it become a paradigm for human compassion, empathy and love, a model that demonstrates the transcendency of good and the dangers of evil.

In the hell of the Holocaust itself also lies the seed of redemption. And it is demonstrated in the goodness of those who saved Jews, in the response of Jewish victims to the Holocaust itself and in the maintenance of hope after the war was over. It is not through philosophical musings, then, but conscious acts of courage, fortitude, endurance and hope that breath is given to the Biblical vision that we are made in God's image. Goodness was and is demonstrated not so much in thought or "meaning," as it is in our behaviour. If there is a tikkun to be made, in the world and in human-divine relations, it must begin in the encounter we make with other human beings. "In a place where no one acts like a human," taught the sage Hillel some two thousand years ago, "strive to be human (or perhaps it is better translated 'humane')."20

In contrast to the evil of the Nazis and their collaborators stood a remnant of righteous men and women who saved Jews. Oskar Schindler represents thousands of people who risked their lives to help Jews during those years. Some were diplomats, like Raoul Wallenberg and Senpo Sugihara. Others, like the circle of friends who hid Anne Frank and her family, were "normal" people who acted in extraordinary ways. We ought not to consider them saints, for to do so would distance them from humanity. Rather, it is because they were human (with all their foibles) that the evil in others is so worthy of our contempt. Their courage (though many of them deny that they were doing anything other than what they felt anyone else would do), no less than their exceptionalness (they represented less than one percent of the European population) demonstrates the tension inherent in human existence. Our lives are a moral struggle and when we emulate those who acted righteously we give testimony to the power of good. As Rabbi Edward Feld concludes in his study of this era, "The extraordinary power of the breath of diaphanous holiness is as real as the boot of the armies of Gog and Magog. To negate the reality of either is to belie the truth of existence."21

Goodness was also seen in the Holocaust's victims. Maintaining human dignity was nearly an impossible task for those who lived during the Shoah, but many survived only because they struggled to do so. A number of survivors speak of the small acts of courage which allowed them to live.22 A kind word, a small piece of extra bread, a prayer book written on a roll of toilet paper-these were signs of faith, goodness, courage and humanity. Eliezer Berkovits responds to these acts of courage with the observation, "If man's [sic] ability to perpetrate incomprehensible crime against his fellow bespeaks the absence of God, the non-existence of divine providence, what shall we say of his equally incomprehensible ability for kindness, for self-sacrificial heroism, for unquestioning faith and faithful ness?"23 In the absence of God's witnessing to His/Her own Presence, therefore, human beings did not fail to serve as witnesses. I am not prepared to say that the six million died al kiddush Hashem, "in sanctification of God's Name." Yet their lives-and the acts of love between them which so many survivors speak about, in the most inhumane of situations-testifies to God even when God did not bear witness.

One of the most dramatic examples of this comes from a story told by Hugo Gryn, a rabbi now in England. When he was in a Nazi concentration camp with his father, he recalls how meagre were the daily rations. With luck the inmates were given a pat of margarine each week. It was barely enough fat to keep each person alive and was, as a result, among the most precious of items. One December, as the holiday of Hanukkah approached, the eight-day celebration which recalled the ancient Maccabean struggle for Jewish freedom and marked by a daily lighting of a flame, he saw his father and the other prisoners putting aside their margarine. When the first night of Hanukkah came he could not believe his eyes when his father took a small piece of string, placed it in the melted margarine, said the prayers and lit the wick.

"But father," protested the young Hugo, "I don't understand. You've taught me that pikuah nefesh, saving a life, nullifies all the other commandments. How can you give up your margarine, which you need to sustain yourself just to light a Hanukkah light?" "My son," Hugo's father replied, "You and I have seen that it is possible to live up to three weeks without food. We once lived almost three days without water; but without hope we would not be able to survive for even three minutes."24

If, after the Shoah, the Jewish people had given in to despair one could understand. That neither individual survivors nor the Jewish people did so is the most enduring negation of the evil unleashed by the Shoah itself. It is a willingness to laugh, a desire to have children, a willingness to fight for our own future and the future of others, which defeats the emptiness of the Shoah.

This is not a return to Rousseau's vision, that human nature is essentially good. The Holocaust taught the Jews that no one will help us unless we help ourselves (a lesson others should also bear in mind). I say this with neither bitterness nor anger, but as a learned communal reality. As a people we now know that the rhetoric of hate ought to be taken seriously and that those who say they want to harm us will, if given half the chance, do exactly that. If we do not stand up against antisemites and hate-mongers, if we do not pursue them in the courts and try to stymie them through legislation, why should others? Men and women of good will may well join us in our fight for Jewish rights and Jewish survival (all the better if they do), but why should they unless we remain vigilant ourselves?

This does not mean to say that Jews should only take care of their own. Far from it. The Holocaust should make us vigilant that such crimes never occur against any other people. It is a paradigm of empathy, for we know what it is like to suffer tyranny, what it means to be without power. Our experience must not embitter us, or distance us from others. In fact, the response must be the very opposite. "For you know the feelings of the stranger" God taught us soon after we were freed from slavery.25 The Shoah, then, only reinforces Torah's command to "love the stranger."

What, then, is the greatest weapon against the Holocaust? I think it is hope: a hope that despite the ongoing reality and power of evil, tomorrow can be better than today. It is not easy, this articulation of goodness. There is no surety that those who once were oppressed will not turn into oppressors. Nor is it certain that good will triumph, as can be attested to on the nightly news. Asserting the rights of those with little power is, even in the most tolerant of nations, a risky business. Thus, to grasp the yetzer ha-tov, to affirm life, justice, human dignity and equality, remains no less difficult today than it was inside the gates of Dachau. But to do otherwise is to fail the God who needs us, the world that needs us, our human sisters and brothers who need us.

A true story. Elie Wiesel recalls that a number of years ago, around 1980, he went to the border of Cambodia with a friend, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, bringing food and medication to refugees. By coincidence it happened to be the day when he commemorated the anniversary of his father's death. Called yahrzeit, it is a time to go to synagogue, pray and say kaddish, a prayer which, in remembering the dead, praises God. Wiesel recalls:

In the morning it was easy: there was an Israeli embassy. I organized a minyan [a quorum of ten Jews that constitutes a prayer "community"] and we prayed. But...for the afternoon prayer we were already at the border...and I turned to Rabbi Tanenbaum and said, "Get me ten Jews. I need ten Jews."

How can you get ten Jews among people you never met, Cambodians, Thais? ...We managed. A correspondent from the New York Times was there, a young philosopher from France, a young Sephardic Jew from England, and Rabbi Tanenbaum managed to get me a minyan.

After the prayer I said kaddish. And all of a sudden I realized there was a young man who was a physician from France, and he repeated the same prayer. When we finished I turned to him. I said, "Do you also have yahrzeit?" He said, "No." I said, "then why do you say kaddish?" And then naively, innocently, but fervently he stretched out his hand across the border to Cambodia and he said, "for them."

For me, that is the task before us. It is asserting God's name wherever suffering exists. It is not allowing God to fail again. Our people, which has walked the "valley of shadows," cannot be indifferent, apathetic, uncaring to wrongdoing, be it grand or small. We cannot be silent. We are commanded to act. Why be good? Because God needs us to be...and (God knows) humanity does, too.

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