The Message of Maoz Tzur: Defying Universalization of the Holocaust
by Tzipora Weinberg
The story of Chanuka resists categorization. It is neither a saga of absolute redemption nor a tale of tragic loss; the onslaught at its center is considered a breach rather than an incursion, and it is preceded and followed by moments of great darkness. When the Chanuka story occurs, the Jewish people are graced by the stability of a Beis Hamikdash, yet they are beset by decrees that portray their vulnerability to the sovereign state. Their precarious position as a weak minority necessitated a miraculous victory against the Hellenists, and we commemorate and celebrate that win, along with other gifts that highlight illumination amidst haze and clarity amidst confusion, in the span of eight brilliant days and nights.
The central hymn that epitomizes Chanuka to many, namely Maoz Tzur, recounts a litany of sorrowful chapters in Jewish history, and reveals the hand of Providence as triumphant in each instance, before ending with a plea for the ultimate revelation of glory and the hastening of complete salvation. One of the subthemes of this poem is the particularity with which each instance of oppression is acknowledged. With distinct, often biblical references to each tyrannical regime and their methods of aggression, it implies that a critical part of commemorating perseverance is the lucid identification of the obstacles endured prior to deliverance. As we behold the Chanuka lights, we recall in detail the journey we have endured to get here. We offer blessing for miracles past and present, and express the promise of thanksgiving in the future, when Jewish persecution will finally be eradicated.
While Maoz Tzur reiterates the theme of victory over adversity in refrain after refrain, the contemporary Jewish zeitgeist seems to shy away from the embrace of this retrospective and particularist focus. Jewish history as a whole is not just a hodgepodge of brutal attacks and last-minute victories, and focusing on these can, in this view, bring down the collective morale and lead to a negative self-concept. A recent conversation between Professor Ruth Wisse and novelist Dara Horn, in a conference held by the Jewish Review of Books, addressed the question of whether Jewish literature should be depressing, alluding at one point to the idea that the Book of Yirmiyahu has a deleterious effect on the way Jews view themselves, specifically, as agents in the cycle of destruction. While this perspective may come off as extreme, it sheds light upon a stance that is pervasive in American culture when addressing the most recent and perhaps most horrible chapter in Jewish history, the Holocaust.
How do we talk about, how do we teach about the Holocaust? Do we present it as an isolate, predicated only upon its own particular set of circumstances? Or do we approach it as a part of the broad swath of genocidal acts that occurred in the modern age? Should we utilize the Holocaust as a vehicle for moralistic lessons, allowing it to serve as a cautionary tale, warning us away from totalitarian regimes in the modern age, teaching us to avoid similar debacles in the future? Or should the Holocaust be a stand-alone subject, to mine and explore as the Ur-Genocide, in which any comparison or repurposing of the narrative would be deemed as a cheapening, a minimization of its horrors?
Historian Alvin Rosenfeld treats this subject with great insight and depth in his book, The End of the Holocaust. Rosenfeld documents the plethora of Holocaust films and commemorations, and the proliferation of the study of the Holocaust and its terminology, as inversely proportional to a true appreciation of its particulars. It is precisely the successful dissemination and broadcast of the Holocaust as such, its absorption and permeation into the vernacular of Western society, argues Rosenfeld, that has turned the Holocaust into a household word and thus robbed it of its deserved impact.
As I see it, this distinction is justified from historical, political, and ethical standpoints. The collapse of distinctions in gradations of evil, and the differences between evil and mere discomfort- Holocaust versus terror, mortal blows in the face of curses, and genocide in the face of the bombing of a military outpost– threaten the lesser case with overemphasis and the more extreme case with trivialization.
Rosenfeld states that the creative softening of Holocaust horrors, resulting in a “less taxing version of a tragic history”, gnaws at the terrible facts of the Holocaust. If, as Ronald Reagan would have it, the Nazi soldiers were “just as surely victims as those of the concentration camps”, then the Holocaust was no more than an episode, a mere side effect, of that same war. Relativism, one might say, sweetens the poison of Holocaust horror. When we label as “Nazi” a Hamas activist or a member of ISIS, we magnify the severity of their deeds, yet at the same time- and herein lies the true danger– we dwarf the actions of the original Nazis. This metaphorical and relativistic usage denotes the end of the Holocaust, or, as Professor Edward Alexander refers to it, the stealing of the Holocaust, that Rosenfeld warns against so vehemently.
From the transformation of the Holocaust to a universal paradigm reflective of, and comparable to, all subsequent and prior misdeeds, we continue to co-opt its terminology toward phrases such as ecological Holocaust, demographic Holocaust, economic Holocaust, and spiritual Holocaust. These usages, according to Rosenfeld’s basic argument, undermine the Holocaust through their inferred banality. “Nazi” police, a barn that is “Auschwitz for fruits”, all forge a path toward Holocaust minimization and denial. Even in Israel, homeland and haven for Holocaust survivors, the lexicon includes “Judeo-Nazis” (this term coined by Yeshayahu Leibowitz to describe Israeli soldiers!), “AshkeNazis”, Rabin and Netanyahu portrayed in SS uniforms, the borders of 1967 referenced as “Auschwitz borders”, a book about abortion entitled “The Silent Holocaust”, and the disengagement bureau called “Judenrat”. All of these examples minimize the horror and cruelty of the Holocaust, ameliorating it into a mundane disturbance the likes of which are often seen and experienced. In this way, the Holocaust itself becomes clouded in popular perception, and becomes a type of evil that is yet manageable. This cycle of Holocaust usage leading to internalization of that usage, the assimilation of even positive messages gleaned from the Holocaust suggest that in fact, it was not so terrible after all.
This leads us to an additional issue which arises when we universalize the Holocaust, namely the tendency to utilize it as a source for the dissemination of lessons outside of, and usually completely ancillary to, the history itself. The Holocaust thus becomes a fount of human malice, but the crux of the event, what Dan Michman termed the “primary aim of being a war against the Jewish nation because of his Jewishness”  is forgotten. The Holocaust did not begin in 1939, with the outbreak of World War II; rather it began with the Nazi rise to power in Germany in 1933, when the Nazi discriminatory laws and the campaign against Jews was implemented. This was the beginning of a protracted vendetta whose culmination the Nazis themselves might not have been able to predict, yet from the outset it was clear that the Jews as human beings would have no place within the area of Nazi German governance. The end of this process occurred with the decision at Wannsee and its implementation in the death camps, bent on the complete physical destruction of every Jew in the world. This reality turned every Jew into a symbolic Holocaust survivor.
Moreover, despite the extreme nature of racial science, it did not develop in a vacuum; the Jews were never completely assimilated into their culture with equal rights and liberties. Racial science was an extreme expression of modern antisemitism, where the problem was rooted not in Jewish religion but in the Jew. It was not Jewish dress, language, deeds or mannerisms that so irked the Nazis. It was the essential Jewish self, that which cannot be changed and lies, dormant or fully-fledged, within every Jewish soul; this was antisemitism at the height of its power, a culmination of tropes and superstitions honed over centuries.
And so, in the eyes of the Jews, the narrative of the Holocaust is quintessentially Jewish, a tragedy that is linked to the long chain of persecutions, pogroms and previous tragic events that befell them. It is a continuation of the story of the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the decrees of Tach and Tat, all attempts to expel Jews from Europe, until the German attempt succeeded. The Jews are dedicated practitioners of the cultivation of memory, and have transmitted the message to their children that ‘not only has one enemy alone risen up against us to destroy us; rather in each generation, they rise up to destroy us”; in sum, the Jewish narrative as a persecuted nation acknowledges a connective strand between all of the persecutions and victimizations of different times and places, a strand whose fibers represent different strains of antisemitism. A Jew tells his children that he hopes for redemption; he tells them this to prepare them emotionally for exile and subsequent liberty, and to fortify them for the lives that await them. It is not happenstance that juxtaposed Yom HaShoah and Passover; memory of past trials alongside redemption is a cornerstone of Jewish belief, “ they arise to destroy us” is grist for the mill of the Jewish spiritual experience.
How vital, then, to reinforce the concept that the Holocaust was first and foremost a Jewish story, not merely another thorn in the bristly thicket that was the second World War. Nor was it simply another instance of genocide that occurred amidst the mayhem of the 20th century. It was, rather, a continuation of the war against the Jews that was waged for hundreds of years, and in the Holocaust it had reached its acme, or its nadir; the actualization of an ageless racial and antisemitic ideology. If there is any lesson to be learned from the Holocaust, it is the necessity of a war on antisemitism. There is little to be gained from a simplification of this or other chapters in Jewish history; the message of Maoz Tzur inspires us to examine each aspect of our past with honesty, never to flatten the experiences with platitudes of happily ever after.
So when we gather around the Menorah to kindle and contemplate, let us respect the uniqueness of each chapter, each redemption in Jewish history as we discern the difference between darkness and light. And may we merit to participate in the resounding song of ultimate redemption: Az egmor b-shir mizmor, Chanukas Ha-mizbe’ach.
Tzipora Weinberg is an educator, author and presenter, serving as teacher leader and educational coach in numerous settings nationwide and abroad. Her particular focus is on Holocaust studies, and she is a consultant to schools and lay leaders, enabling the meaningful encounter with this crucial chapter in Jewish history.
 Rosenfeld, Alvin H. (2011). The End Of The Holocaust. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, p 11
 Michman, D. (2011). “Lo Rak Masa Retzach” Ha’aretz, October 10
Our human power of rationalization is such that everything can be turned rhetorically into its opposite. Every true narrative of our victimization has an false, equal and opposite, counter-narrative. We Jews need to see the truth with total clarity. How many times and in how many places have we and our faith been almost snuffed out while some of our own people bought into the lie and cheered until HaShem delivered us? Hanukkah recalls one example. We can’t make sense of Hanukkah without looking squarely at the Jewish Hellenists and what they represented in those days. We struggle daily against their successors as well as our external enemies. Bringing those successors, now mostly brought up in abject historical ignorance, back into the fold voluntarily remains a major challenge.
Your insight on Mityavnim/Hellenist Jews is, I believe, an important one; we can perhaps draw a parallel to the Yevsketsia presence in the Soviet regime. The push to universalize and flatten historical record is especially prevalent in the United States, where there is a constant yen for neat resolutions, for happy endings in all things. Here is where the drawing of moralistic lessons from the Holocaust becomes a focus of, and often a distraction from, the serious study of its history.
R’ Hutner refused to use the term “the Holocaust” or “Shoah” in order to place it within the framework of Jewish history. Similarly, in 1977, R’ Soloveitchik proposed to Menachem Begin that Yom ha-Shoah be subsumed in Tisha Ba’av as indicated in the kinnos(see R’ Moshe Lichtenstein’s “Weep for What Amalek Has Done Unto You: Lamentation and Memory of the Holocaust in our Generation”).
There is a danger in not universalizing the Holocaust to some extent, as it can be used to withdraw from the suffering of the larger world. R’ Berel Berkovitz writes about such withdrawal in the 8/09 Jewish Action, ” To some extent, this is understandable. In part, it reflects an insularity due to historical experience. Having seen how the world abandoned us in the Holocaust, we turned our back on the world.(“Questions, Answers and Silence: Reflections on the Tsunami” ). However, I think just as the Torah uses the experience of Mitzrayim to focus on the “nefesh hager”, perhaps paticularism can become universalism. Similarly, R’ Adlersetin told Pat Robertson, ” Our experience as Jews is that love starts at the home, in your own neighborhood, and it expands in concentric circles”(compare with preface to the Shaarei Yosher which talks about the expanding self).
In her 1993 book,” Denying the Holocaust”, which became famous in the David Irving lawsuit, Deborah Lipstadt devoted a chapter to the concept of “Immoral Equivalencies”. Later in a 2003 interview with the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (“Denial of the Holocaust and Immoral Equivalence”), she says, “My own position on the uniqueness of the Holocaust has changed somewhat in recent years. I used to be a purist, considering it unique; but I now think that one errs by arguing that stand too strongly. There are other situations with some elements similar to those of the Holocaust…The true uniqueness of the Holocaust starts only after 1941, with the Nazi implementation of a systematic plan of murder. No other example exists of a modern government using all its forces (including post offices, banks, army, etc.) to annihilate an entire people: men, women, and children…While there is no example of a situation that comprises all elements of the Holocaust, we can still use the Armenian genocide as a comparative tool. Likewise there are places in Bosnia where one may conduct a similar analysis, as that too included some elements of genocide.”
Rav Hutner sought to preserve the status of the Holocaust within the parameters of Jewish experience. He did so in rejection of the stance of Yad VaShem specifically, to protect the understanding of this awful event as within the cycle of history, flouting the supposed uniqueness conferred by the word Shoah. Today, Yad VaShem’s chief historians are still at odds with the current trend to universalize, with the opposite aim: To stretch the impact/import of the Holocaust over a broad spectrum of genocides. Dan Michman and Dina Porat, in response to an attack on the distinct approach to Shoah studies at Yad Vashem, said the following: “If the Holocaust is stripped of its distinctive aspects in order to fit into a pattern of genocide, it indeed remains ‘only’ the murder of the Jews and, therefore, is not unique.”
But there were other voices. The Piacezno and Slonimer Rebbes, for example, held that the Holocaust was a unique event in Jewish history- not that it did not emanate from the Churban, rather that it was historically more destructive, more pervasive than any other event in Jewish history. The Torah instructs us to be precise in our examination of past events (Zechor yemos Olam, Binu shnos dor va’dor). It is incumbent upon us to fully appreciate our own history such that we can be truly sensitive to world events as they unfold. If we miss the nuances, the shades of gray if you will, we are bound to dull our sensitivity to the plight of others, rather than heighten it.
Rav Hutner sought to preserve the status of the Holocaust
within the parameters of Jewish experience. He did so in rejection of the
stance of Yad VaShem specifically, to protect the understanding of this awful
event as within the cycle of history, flouting the supposed uniqueness
conferred by the word Shoah. Today, Yad VaShem’s chief historians are still at
odds with the current trend to universalize, with the opposite aim: To stretch
the impact/import of the Holocaust over a broad spectrum of genocides. Dan
Michman and Dina Porat, in response to an attack on the distinct approach to
Shoah studies at Yad Vashem, said the following: “If the Holocaust is stripped of its distinctive aspects in
order to fit into a pattern of genocide, it indeed remains ‘only’ the murder of
the Jews and, therefore, is not unique.”
were other voices. The Piacezno and Slonimer Rebbes, for example, held that the
Holocaust was a unique event in Jewish history- not that it did not emanate
from the Churban, rather that it was historically more destructive, more
pervasive than any other event in Jewish history. The Torah instructs us to be
precise in our examination of past events (Zechor yemos Olam, Binu shnos dor
va’dor). It is incumbent upon us to fully appreciate our own history such that
we can be truly sensitive to world events as they unfold. If we miss the
nuances, the shades of gray if you will, we are bound to dull our sensitivity
to the plight of others, rather than heighten it.
The writer raises an important question which has been considered by every Holocaust scholar and museum: what is the optimum lens through which the Holocaust should be viewed? Should we consider the Holocaust as a warning, for how one ethnic group’s hatred for another can lead to mass murder? Should we be focused on the grisly tortures and suffering the Nazis created int he hell of concentration camps as a message to understand the depths of human cruelty? Or should we view the Holocaust as a chapter in the long story of Jewish suffering and persecution, which perhaps might affect how people react to modern day anti-semitism? There is no one answer, but certainly Jews should know their history, and Tzipora Weinberg contributes much to furthering our connection to it.
Eli Wiesel, z”l, stated it best about the Holocaust:
Not all victims were Jews, but all Jews were victims.
Ms. Weinberg is to be applauded for exploring issues which are either ignored or oversimplified by many. A story comes to mind. The Chafetz Chaim once convened a meeting of Roshei Yeshiva and asked at the outset that all present sign a comittment to refrain from Lashon HaRah and to view it as severely as eating pig. Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski objected much to the shock of all present. Rav C.O. explained “Rebbe they will not view Lashon Harah as severely as pig;they will view pig as lightly as they view Lashon HaRah”.By using the Holocaust as the model of evil we are defining it in terms of our experiences which are nothing near that indescribable [even for those who lived through it and certainly for us who were at best eating ice cream in new york when it happened] hell.
Another important point which Ms. Weinberg forces us to confront is whether we can rise above our liberal insecurities and see the Holocaust as against Jews and not just a universal metaphorfor hatred of varying degrees. A great man was asked by his student during the Biafra famine how we.as Jews .should view it. He replied “Since Hitler ,with rare exception ,all the world must be assumed to be sonei Yisrael. If you dont feel mercy toward Biafra you are cruel;but if you get too caught up in mercy you are a dangerously naive fool. And I am not sure which is worse– cruelty toward others or toward self”. One thing is for sure–any serious Jew after reading Ms. Weinbergs sensitive piece must move beyond the “there is no business like Shoah business” approach and begin to think seriously about what will be the Holocaust legacy we leave to the next generation as it moves toward the great Resolution of all Jewish suffering.
Rabbi Meir Solevitchik relates that Dr. David Luchins was asked by Rav Gifter in the 1960s to describe what Rav Aharon Solveitchik discussed in his chumash shiur, to which Dr. Luchins responded, “Rav Aharon Solveitchik is very concerned about Biafra”. Rav Gifter praised Rav Solveitchik’s being uniquely concerned about the suffering of people, whom most never even heard of.(“Modern Orthodox Education in 21st Century Israel & America”, 56:00).
In the JA article by Rabbi Berel Berkovits I quoted previously, he writes “But despite these considerations[of being abandoned in the Holocaust], it does not exonerate us of the need to act towards others with compassion.”
Rabbi Ron Yitzchok Eisenman wrote about Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, “I never heard him speak negative about another human being and his care and compassion for all of Hashem’s creatures was legendary. What other Rosh Yeshiva in the world got up in the middle of the Beis Medrash and announced that the Yeshiva will be collecting money to support the “Vietnamese Boat People” who were escaping Vietnam in 1979 on unsafe boats and were in desperate need of help and support? His love of Hashem motivated him; “Were these not Hashem’s children?” he asked.”(“The Short Vort’ – “Rebbe Zt”l”)
the point was not to ignore the plight of biafrans or not to feel compassion but rather not to foolishly think that anyone in te world would care about the plight of jews if we were the suffering and opressed. .eisav sonei lyaakov is a bitter reality we would be foolish to ignore. we cannot rely on anyone but the RBSO. The reason the world was silent during the Holocaust was because all were happy that Hitler ymsh had the courage to call a spade a spade and try to do what they all would have liked to but couldnt bring themselves to do.
of course we need to emulate vrachamav al kol maasav but chabdeihem vchashdahem is the only prudent and intelligent way. turning the Holocaust into an “example” of inhuman behavior is a mistake–they meant Jews ;All Jews.
R’ Avroham Pam’s view and own example might shed light on the distinction to be made upon being rejected by parts of the non-Jewish world, versus relating to its entirety. In an article by R’ Yaakov Feitman in this week’s Yated(” Rav Pam’s Laser Light on the United Nations”), R’ Feitman quotes from R’ Pam in Atarah Lamelech in 1984:
“The purpose of the U.N. in Hashem’s plan, is to serve as a permanent, unimpeachable record of the hatred of the nations for Am Yisrael”.
At the same time, R’ Feitman also notes that:
“The righteous gentiles of the world will be amply rewarded for their rapport and solidarity with us, but most of all, they themselves will feel validated for having done that which is right, often against the numbers and odds.”
In the article, Rav Feitman references his discussion of Rav Hunter about the Holocaust in a previous Yated article that,“the purpose of these disappointments was to free Am Yisroel from falling into the ‘lure of the nations,’ …the new sakanah of our becoming enamored by the power, culture, seeming graciousness and promises of the gentile world.”
Notably, after the Jewish Observer published R’ Feitman’s “Teaching Churban Europa to Our Children” (JO, May ‘03) based on Rav Hutner, Rav Feitman was one of those who encouraged the JO to write about Tzelem Elokim and kavod habriyos, such as R’ Shimon Finkelman’s “With Kindness and Respect”(Jewish Observer, March, 2004). Here is an excerpt about Rav Pam:
The day on which Rabbi Avraham Pam was to enter the hospital for major surgery, he left the Mesivta Torah Vodaath building to be driven home by Rabbi Avrohom Biderman. They started to walk to the car when Rav Pam abruptly turned around and said that he had to return to the yeshiva. They entered the building’s lobby, where a Hispanic maintenance worker was mopping the floor. “Good morning,” said Rav Pam with a smile. The worker returned the greeting and Rav Pam left the building.”I always say ‘Good morning’ to him,” Rav Pam told Mr. Biderman. “But I was so preoccupied with my thoughts that I did not greet him when we left the first time.”
Similarly, Rabbi Akiva Males relates in “Rav and Rebbetzin Pam and Halloween” on Matzav.com:
It was October 31st. In contrast to the many Jewish homes around the Pams who had turned off their lights to discourage trick-or-treaters, the Pams left their front light on. While they all chatted with Rav Pam in the dining room, his Rebbitzen was in the kitchen working the hot-air popcorn popper and preparing plastic baggies of popcorn to give out with a smile to all the local non-Jewish kids who knocked at their door.
I would add regarding the first story, that one doesn’t need a “Gadol story” to teach basic manners(see R. Simcha Feurman’s “Are Gedolim Stories Good for Chinuch”), rather, the point is that R’ Pam went back even when preoccupied about surgery.