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.

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7 Responses

  1. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Is it not reasonable to surmise that among the millions of Jews who perished in the Holocaust … the adherence to a Divinely-ordained Torah for which these Jews were being put to death?

    When the Inquisition murdered Jews, it was for their adherence to a Divinely-ordained Torah. Jews could survive by converting to Catholicism.

    When the Nazis murdered Jews, adherence or lack thereof was irrelevant. You could tell the Nazis that you were an Atheist who enjoyed his pork cheeseburgers on Yom Kippur. It wouldn’t matter. The Nazis did not murder Jews for being observant. They did not even murder Jews for being Jews – if your parents were intermarried, they didn’t care if the mother or the father was Jewish.

  2. David Kelsey says:

    I have arguing for a long time that to a large degree, Holocaustism is Zionism.

    Thank you for helping me prove my point.

  3. Micha says:

    Eytan: Kindly remember that not everyone reading C-C speak “Yeshivish”.

    For those who need a dictionary, I have two bits of help.

    ahavas Yisrael = love of [the people of the nation of] Israel
    ona’as devarim = hurt through words
    lashon hara = 1- telling derogatory truths; 2- improper talk about others in general

    Learn a little! Then, when you’re done, learn a little more!

    As for the point of R’ Eytan’s words, I find that Holocaustism is far too common. You will not convince Susie not to marry her non-Jewish boyfriend because she “owes it to those who died in the Holocaust to keep the Jewish people alive.” Jews are known for our feelings of guilt, but we can not reduce Judaism to being about guilt. Or about death and victimhood. Too many of us have taken the means of keeping Judaism alive, and made it the centerpiece of the ends, of Judaism itself.

  4. Larry says:

    Two points that you have made inspire me to respond:

    (1) You ask the following:

    “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?”

    It appears to me to be highly questionable to state that the Kedoshim (holy Jewish martyrs) were put to death for their “adherence to a Divinely-ordained Torah.” How would you explain the genocide committed against non-traditionally-observant Jews? While I have heard explanations that view the Holocaust as a punishment for the lack of traditional Jewish observance — an explanation seemingly at odds with the premise that you presented, and one that I find to be presumptous at best — I believe that any attempt at a single-factor explanation of the Holocaust must be resisted.

    (2) Your characterization of the actions of the Israeli government and army as “evocative … of the Nazi period” is interesting. Would you view the actions of the Neturei Karta — who made common cause with Arafat and his cronies, sent a delegation to his bedside, and seek in every way possible (however feebly) to undermine the legitimacy of Israel in the eyes of the world — as being similarly evocative of the enemies of the Jewish people during that hateful period? Indeed, are you even willing to condemn that group, and thus distinguish yourself from so much of today’s observant community … or does your ire extend only to those outside of the Orthodox camp?

  5. Netanel Livni says:


    To quote Hitler Yimach Shemo,

    “The Jews inflicted 2 sins against man. Circumcision on his body, and conscience on his soul.”

    The fact that this evil spread and hurt those that were only marginally associated with Jewish practice is does not preclude the assertion that the nature of the hate was hate of the Jewish Idea.


  6. Andrew Silow-Carroll says:

    I’m apologizing to Holocaust survivors for what exactly? For suggesting that the majority of Jews do not consider the Torah the truth and nothing but? That they find deep meaning in Jewish expressions outside of the synagogue and beit midrash? This will be news to survivors? You don’t think they huddled in barracks next to communists,and bundists, and secular Zionists, and atheists, and violinists, and soccer players, and Yiddish poets? And they will be shocked that I feel that we owe respect and appreciation and in some cases our very survival to many of those same folks, who survived the war and went on to create vibrant Jewish lives, establishing a Jewish state, building synagogues, donating millions to the rescue of and resettlement of Jews, giving birth to Jewish kids, endowing chairs in Judaic studies, building a vast network of Jewish social services agencies (and did I mention establishing a Jewish state)?

    Is all that on a “par” with Sinai? I didn’t say that – which would have been clear if you quoted my essay rather than someone else’s redaction of it (a pretty slimy rhetorical gambit by the way, but so is leaving off a writer’s last name, as if he is literally an unmentionable). But Sinai was the start of an open-ended journey with many paths. You and David Klinghoffer would probably agree that only one of those paths is true. We’ll have to disagree there. But to deny that those other paths exist, and were taken by Jews who went onto live rich and full Jewish lives, and created and continue to create the infrastructures that allow so many Jews to live and study Torah today, is the worse kind of revisionism. No – check that. The worst kind of revisionism is to reduce Nazism to a case of police brutality, about which you are unapologetic.

  7. mycroft says:

    As someone once said “there is no business like Shoah business”

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