On Holocaust Hypersensitivity
Well, I suppose I’m going to have to address the whole Nazi thing after all. I had made a wide berth around the issue, content to observe from the sidelines as Rabbi Feldman ably acquitted himself on that topic. But now a parenthetical comment in a recent post of mine has upset one “Andrew” (his last name is immaterial), whose brief post I serendipitously found on another blog.
Andrew adjudges me guilty of “[comparing] Israel’s Border Police to Nazis.” What gave rise to that quite harsh verdict was my musing about whether “given his touchiness about anything Nazi-related, will Abe [Foxman] also be demanding an apology from the IDF for expulsion exercises—televised in prime-time—in which soldiers wearing talis and tefillin, to resemble Gaza residents, were violently assaulted by Border Police?” In order to respond –since Andrew apparently reads C-C on the sly, despite being too shy to comment here for us all to see — I’ll need to range a bit widely, so please bear with me.
Several years back, I came across an article by the very same Andrew, criticizing the writer David Klinghoffer for asserting in a NY Times book review that “the defining Jewish criterion must not be blood, or culture, or nationhood, or any of the innumerable substitutes for Judaism that have been proposed by factions among our people — compassion, tolerance, freedom, socialism, Zionism, Holocaust veneration, Jewish self-defense, Jewish unity — but Truth alone.” Permit me to quote at some length from an article I wrote some time later in which I described Andrew’s response to Klinghoffer:
What distressed [Andrew] about [Klinghoffer’s] contention was its perceived “dismissal of the various ways some 83 percent of North American Jews live their Jewish lives,” as well as, apparently, what struck him as Klinghoffer’s insufferable temerity in capitalizing the word “truth”—an unpardonable no-no for enlightened moderns who quite absolutely detest those who profess a belief in absolutes.
[Andrew] proceeds—by all indications, in total seriousness—to enumerate “a partial list of what a traditionalist might regard as ‘substitutes for Judaism,’ but what a more generous observer would see as the glory of Jewish creativity and re-invention, from Sinai until today.” The list includes Jewish gastronomy, genealogy and comedy, creative kippot, adult study classes on Bible, kabbala, history or Jewish cooking (which study constitutes “Torah lishma”), the federation system, the suburban synagogue (unfairly “maligned [as]… bourgeois and soulless”), bar mitzva candle-lighting ceremonies, the Marx Brothers and… “pick-and-choose Judaism” (e.g. eating matzoh on Passover in a non-kosher restaurant).
So there we have it – not merely the glorification of the utterly vapid trappings of American Jewish ersatz “Judaism,” but their equation with what our nation received at Sinai.
I cite all this not in order to permanently ruin whatever reputation Andrew may heretofore have had as a Jewish theologian, but to raise this question: Is it not reasonable to surmise that among the millions of Jews who perished in the Holocaust — a majority of whom were Orthodox, according to prominent Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum — were many who would be deeply hurt and outraged at the thought that some Jews place the Marx Brothers and kasha varnishkes on a par of Jewish importance with the adherence to a Divinely-ordained Torah for which these Jews were being put to death? The same query can be framed, of course, in terms of Holocaust survivors still alive today to read Andrew’s words. And if the answer to that question is in the affirmative, then does not the requisite sensitivity to the memory and feelings of these victims of one of Jewish history’s greatest horrors demand silence on Andrew’s part, and, post facto, an apology?
The answer, I believe, is actually “no.” Once we set in motion the wheels of political correctness and the needle on the Holocaust hypersensitivity meter, there’s no end to the charges and countercharges that will soon be flying continuously across the Jewish firmament, each attempting to use that incomparable tragedy and the memories of its victims to muzzle the opposing side.
Andrew ought not be constrained from putting forth his view of what’s Jewishly important, however ludicrous it may be, simply because, in some attenuated fashion, it may outrage fellow Jews. His obligation is to arrive at, and affirm to himself and others, the Truth (oops! — truth). His limitations in that endeavor are defined only by those Torah imperatives and proscriptions governing what one may or may not think or say to or about others, such as ahavas yisrael, ona’as d’varim and lashon hara.
But by the very same token, if residents of Gaza are being dragged from their homes, synagogues and businesses of thirty years by fellow Jews at what they perceive as the undemocratic whim of a corrupt ruler, they ought to be free to frame that in terms they find appropriate, even if that includes displaying a yellow star — because, that’s their truth to proclaim for all the world to hear. And, gasp or rage as loudly as you wish at the following words, but, yes, it is understandable for Jews at prayer being dragged from synagogues that are then to be blown up (or, as matters actually played out, to be pillaged by crazed mobs); or a young mother paralyzed by terrorists, or a man whose pregnant wife and four daughters were shot to death point-blank, who are now being dragged from their homes for Ahmed Yassin City to rise thereon, to view such events as evocative — not akin to, not parallel, not similar or comparable, (even faintly, slightly, remotely; choose the word that makes you ‘comfortable’) but evocative — of the Nazi period. As is the decision to have the officers simulating Gaza residents during expulsion rehearsals be violently removed while wearing talis and tefillin.
A useful analogy on this point would be to someone presenting a class on Judaism’s views on human suffering. The class may well be presenting authentic Torah teachings on the subject, helping the attendees make however much sense we mortals can hope to of why there is horrific illness and premature death in the world — and to that extent, such class is positive, valuable, a mitzvah. But if there should happen to be a Holocaust survivor or cancer patient in the audience, the presenter’s decision on what can be said, and how to say it, must take their presence into serious account because of the countervailing mitzvah of sensitivity to their feelings. Whether, and how, the speaker ought to proceed in that situation will depend on many factors such as the tone, content and context of what is said, and by whom and to whom it is said.
Before concluding, one additional note: Some people tend to view the Holocaust as some kind of sacred, untouchable subject, a sui generis phenomenon, references to which are governed by a code of morality that is equally sui generis. I’ll venture further (after pausing briefly to don my handy flak jacket) to say that oftentimes — although, hear me clearly, not always — such people don’t have all that much else in Judaism that they likewise hold so sacrosanct — not a Divine Torah, not Chazal‘s words, sometimes not even G-d.
I believe that Judaism begs to differ. It contains much that is held as sacred, including, for starters, the short list at the end of the preceding paragraph. There is, to be sure, more that is Jewishly sacred, including, prominently, others’ feelings and dignity, and so we must proceed with supreme caution, guided by the Torah’s parameters for permissible speech as applied to the particular circumstances in which one is speaking.
The annihilation of most of European Jewry was, in and of itself, an unspeakable profanity, the depth of which cannot be captured by human language. Yet, its victims are called k’doshim, holy ones. But what made them so — even the most avowed atheist among them — was their having died for being Jews, parties to a covenant whose other two parties, in the Zohar’s formulation, are the Holy One and His holy Torah. Our bonds with Him and it are our ultimate, and exclusive, sources of sanctity.