Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Holocaust and Meaning

Rejewvenator, who appears far too infrequently, has recently reappeared with a couple of posts tying Tisha B'Av to the Holocaust.  This is, after all, the time of year that frum people remember the horrors of the Holocaust alongside the other tragedies of Jewish history.  It's also the time of year that we find ourselves set apart from the rest of our brethren who, for lack of a better word, celebrate Yom HaShoah after Pesach and seem to not recall any of the other misfortunes that have struck us through the centuries.
In his post he notes that there are two approaches as to the appropriateness of creating a Yom HaShoah in the first place and the controvery of placing it in Nissan.  While I agreeed with much of his post, I could add a few things.
The first is regarding the placement of Yom HaShoah in Nissan.  This is problematic for frum Jews for two reasons.  One is that Nissan is supposed to a joyous month, therefore there are restrictions on public acts of mourning.  On the other hand, there are certain restrictions due to the Omer period.  As a result, a ceremony celebrating the Holocaust that involves choirs and live singing manages to fall afoul of both those things.
Of all the people who voted for Yom haShoah to be in Nissan, how many were aware that the Omer exists? How many were aware that Nissan is supposed to be a month in which overt mourning other than Omer-related customs are avoided? And of those who did know, how many simply didn’t care because they thought it was a good idea to tie Yom haShoah to the Warsaw ghetto uprising?

As controversial as this may sound, they wanted it this way because, for them, the Holocaust was this one-off, one-time inexplicable event. They needed to see it this way because the alternative, that this is part of Jewish history, that there might have been a greater reason why we were targeted, that this is all tied into the helplessness of our nation in Golus, is not something they want to think about. They have constructed a history in which Jews were an ethnic group of Europeans that were inexplicable separated out for destruction in a completely irrational manner.  The idea that we were actually a foreign nation, that a Jew living in Poland was not a Jewish Pole but a Jew living amongst Poles is not a concept they wish to consider.  That’s why so many people, when faced with someone trying to explain the Holocaust scream “No you can’t! There are no reasons! It was just too horrible to explain!” 
Bull faeces. A million Jews were slaughtered when the Second Temple was destroyed, a third of the Jewish population of the world at the time which is the same percentage as the Holocaust yet we have had no trouble applying religious thinking to that horror along with multiple explanations. How many thousands of Jews died in the Crusades? How many tens of thousands or more under Chielmnicki? Or in Muhammad’s campaign of Jewish extermination? We have no trouble saying “Well maybe this was a factor” or other analyses but when it comes to the Holocaust suddenly we’re mute?
I can offer two explanations why. One is because we are still too close to events. The emotions are still too raw. I think this is quite fair. How we look at the Holocaust in the context of Jewish history 50-100 years from now will be far more dispassionate because the survivors will be all gone and with them the personal element. Two, because accepting the Holocaust as part of Jewish history means accepting the continuum of Jewish history all the way back to the Second Temple. It means a connection on religious grounds and an acceptance that it is the religious element that has sustained Judaism and caused it to survive until this day. Non-religious Jews who feel no connection to Torah often don’t want to hear this because it contradicts the illusion of a Judaism without religion that has become so popular in North America. If we look at the Holocaust from a religious perspective, then we have to draw moral conclusions and some of them aren’t so politically correct. The only way to avoid this is to shout down anyone who tries.
This is what makes Tisha B'Av so important as an annual event.  There are those who use each year's commemoration to sound off about how we don't really want a Third Temple and that wanting a Temple and Davidic monarchy is foolish because look how corrupt and bloody the last two attempts were.
But wanting the Temple is not the point.  Again, context and history are important.  The Temple wasn't destroyed because of Babylonian or Roman imperial desires.  It was destroyed because the monarchy was corrupt and society was bloodied.  The destruction was the effect but the cause was the crime that needs to be corrected.  Chazal tell us the Second Temple was destroyed because of sinas chinam and until we correct that sin we remain in exile.  The lack of a Third Temple shows that we have not corrected it and the reason we so desire to see it built is because its existence will be the final proof that we have eliminated this terrible evil from our nation.  Tisha B'Av therefore reminds us that everything that has happened in the last 2000 years has been tied into our unwillingness to change and an annual accusation against our stubborness and insistence on repeating the mistakes we've made over and over again. 
There are no moral lessons for our nation in Yom HaShoah, just an bewildered "How could this have happened?" and a dogmatic "Never again!" (unless you're from Cambodia, Darfur, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, etc)  Tisha B'Av's message is the exact opposite: "This happened because of sinas chinam" and a dogmatic "Unless we each of us change, it will happen again!"
Halevi we would listen to that message and let it affect us.


Jennifer in MamaLand said...

This is pretty much the conversation we were having a couple of days ago with my mother, who just came back from Hungary
& Poland which included Auschwitz and Teresin.
Your experience may have been different, but we grow up here thinking of Poland and the rest of Europe as terrible places. We picture grey cloud and terrible, filthy, scary conditions (my kids agreed). Who'd want to live there?
That is one reason I think something like March of the Living is important - not because of its emphasis on the Shoah, but because it shows kids that those are real places, sometimes beautiful and nice places, where Jews (if not thrived) lived and loved and learned for a long time.
The story of the Shoah must be read against the living background of our entire history - beauty and tragedy alike - or it's meaningless - a caricature, like those Holocaust graphic novels that seem to have proliferated in the wake of Maus.
Thanks for posting this.

Garnel Ironheart said...

I got pretty much the same impression of Poland when I was growing up. The thought that it was a normal looking country with some pretty beautiful scenery never occured to. It also didn't help that all the pictures were in black and white I guess.
But it's for that reason I don't like March of the Living. I think it's far more effective to take the kids through Yad VaShem and then take them out into the fresh air and point them towards the skyline of Yerushalayim. It provides an instant context. They tried to wipe us out and look how we survived and thrived!

Anonymous said...

Jennifer's comment reminds me of a line from the famous Jewish comedy record from the 1960's called "The Jewish-American Princess". The "princess" and her fiancee come in an tell her mother that they have decided to go to Europe for their honeymoon. Her mother replies "I was born wasn't so great!".

rejewvenator said...

For many people, the notion that the Holocaust, or the destruction of the Temple, was a just punishment for sin is a repugnant, repulsive and offensive idea. I think it's extremely valuable to react to tragedies as though they were caused by sin, but it's morally difficult to believe that those tragedies were actually caused by sin.

Chaim B. said...

>>>because, for them, the Holocaust was this one-off, one-time inexplicable event.

Quote -- "Based on my knowledge of Chazal and Jewish history, the abnormal suffering, the abnormal and evil death which the evildoers have created and brought upon the Jewish people from 1942 onward, is unprecedented."

Aish Kodesh by the Piecezna, footnote to the ma'amar for Chanukah 1942. The Rebbe was killed in the Warsaw ghetto. HY"D.

Chaim B. said...

>>>That’s why so many people, when faced with someone trying to explain the Holocaust scream “No you can’t! There are no reasons! It was just too horrible to explain!” Bull faeces.

Sicha of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Parshas VaYechi 5751:

ישנם עמינים בלתי-רצויים שאינם באים בתור עונש על עונות כי אם מפני שכך גזר הקב״ה ללא טעם והסברה כלל בשכל וחכמת התורה. ובלשון חז״ל...״שתוק כך עלה במחשבה לפני״, ״גזירה היא לפני״

ובנד״ד: השמדת ששה מליון יהודים באכזריות הכי גדולה ונוראה - שואה איומה שלא היתה (ולא תהי׳ ר״ל) דוגמתה במשך כל הדורות - לא יכולה להיות בתור עונש על עונות, שכן אפילו השטן עצמו לא יוכל למצוא חשבון עונות בדור ההוא שיהי׳ בו כדי להצדיק ח״ו עונש חמור כזה
אין לנו שום הסבר וביאור (ע״פ חכמת התורה) כלל וכלל על השואה, כי אם ידיעת העובדה ש״כך עלה במחשבה לפני״... ובודאי ובודאי לא הסבר דעונש על עונות

Garnel Ironheart said...

I recall this sicha. It was timed around the time Rav Shach, z"l, made his famous speech about the Holocaust being like a doctor amputation a incurable limb to save the rest of the patient. Everyone was horrified and the Rebbe, z"l, put out this sicha.
Problem was that there was this other sicha he'd given in the late 1970's which my father got a copy of and which was in Yiddish, not Hebrew which cuts down on the audience that can read it, and in that sicha he said the exact same thing as Rav Shach did!
So there's this s'tirah, see?

Chaim B. said...

Mareh mekomos please for your sources. In any case, no stira. The Rebbe himself uses the amputation analogy. K'lapei shemaya we believe that 'kol mah d'avid rachama l'tav avid.' However, that does not mean we understand why it is tov, how it is tov, that we feel less anguish or pain, or that we cavalierly have a right to dismiss that pain as warranted by sin.

"Indeed, in these special circumstances of such unprecedented butchery and unequaled suffering and unimaginable danger to our survival, recourse to mi-pnei hata'enu is massively irrelevant, impudent, and insensistive."

Norman Lamm in his essay, "The Face of G-d: Thoughts on the Holocaust"

Chaim B. said...

Rav Yehudah Amital zt"l, R"Y of Gush, himself a Holocaust survivor:

"Certain groups and certain rabbinical authorities presume to provide an explanation for every tragedy and disaster; they know how to answer, for example, why a certain number of children were killed in an accident. Many times, they attribute this to the sins of others. Let us imagine: if we asked one of those rabbis, "You have before you two scenarios: here a million and a half children were killed, and here ten; now explain this" - what would he say? "I have an answer for the ten, but none for the 1,500,000?" Hardly. Thus, the compulsion to provide an answer for the deaths of ten children compels us to remove the Shoah, a tragedy on a scale that we cannot begin to comprehend, from our collective religious memory - for one who has not done so can never claim, for any tragedy, "I have an answer!" I do not even speak of the educational implications of such an approach - if there is an "explanation" or a pat "answer" for everything, what will you tell your child when he or she asks: "Why did the Shoah happen?"