Friday, April 29, 2011

Yom Hashoah: Some Ideas and Thoughts

The Shoah and our Psychological Legacy (2010)

The best article I read relating to Yom Hashoah came from Yair Lapid who argued that "The Holocaust dismantled everything human beings knew about themselves, and then taught us two unforgettable lessons"

"The first one is that we must survive at any price, that we can't rely on the world to protect us…that we must always prepare for the worst case scenario, because otherwise it will materialize."

The second one is that we must be moral.

What none of our leaders seem able to discuss is the question Lapid termed the biggest challenge of all - what to do when these two lessons contradict each other, when ensuring our existence at all costs means carrying out morally questionable acts

Yom Hashoah raises more questions than answers.

Is the archetypal 'goy' he who stood by as we were slaughtered, or he who put his family's life on the line to save us? Should we enhance our strength, or curb it? Emphasize security or empathy? Become particularists or universalists? Distrust the world, or open our hearts (and doors) to the stranger? And how can we – with our questionable psychological legacy – authentically and honestly engage with these questions and work out the correct balance between them?

Shiur: Theological Significance of the Shoah 2010

In the Shiur, we looked at traditional and modern sources in order to better understand the theological significance of the Holocaust. Covering Fackenheim, Berkovits, Arthur Cohen, Primo Levi, Kalnymous Kalman Shapira and others, we touched on whether the Shoah can be viewed within the classic framework of why bad things happen to good people, whether each generation has its own 'Auschwitz problem', and to what extent the idea of rejecting God is within the Jewish tradition.

We also began to investigate how post Holocaust theologians attempt to recreate new language (Fackenheim's '614th Commandment', Levi's 'Shema', Wiesel's 'new Bereshit' and Cohen's 'Red Sea of evil parting time and space') in order to try and come to terms with an event they see as unique in Jewish history.

In the Presence of Burning Children (2009)

Part of me feels that in the face of unfathomable evil, the only appropriate response is silence; that written words are unable to capture the enormity of what happened…that as Irving Greenberg says, “no statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that is not credible in the presence of burning children."

Yet despite this, I wanted to share an article I wrote in the spring of 2002 regarding different theological responses to the Shoah. It is based on the format of a book called Yosl Rakover Talks to God in which author Zvi Kolitz imagines a moving letter written by Yosl Rakover hours before the Warsaw Ghetto is liquidated by the Nazis. Yet rather than ultimately affirming his faith in his Creator as Yosl does, the article suggests that our understanding of God can not remain the same after such an event.

The article can be accessed here

Remembering Death, Celebrating Life (2008)

The first time I watched 'The Pianist' was in a cinema in Warsaw during the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 2002. The second time I watched the film was last Wednesday night, in my Tel Aviv flat, as the first Hebrew city in nearly two thousand years marked Holocaust Memorial Day.

There’s a lot that needs fixing in this country. The political culture, the education system, the fact that many find it difficult to articulate a vision of what sort of state we want to build here.

Yet every once in a while, as the siren we hear indicates the past rather than a sometimes frightening present, its worthwhile using the silence to remember a time when we didn’t have the strongest army in the region, or a first world economy, or a place to call our own. And be appreciative and proud of a place those 6 million could only dream of.

Holocaust Memorial: Of Trauma and Trust (2008)

Last Saturday night I saw a documentary called Hiding and Seeking which describes the attempt by Menachem Daum to leave his children an ethical legacy in a Shlomo Carlebach ‘love every human because they were all created in God's image' type of style. Overshadowing everyone's relationship in the film is the spectre of the Shoah, which destroyed much of the Menachem and his wife Rivka's parents' families (although Rivka's father spent 28 months hidden in a pit under a haystack in the farmyard of a non-Jewish Polish family, the Muchas). And while the past (unsurprisingly) causes their parents to be suspicious of 'the goyim', what worries Menachem is how the Holocaust has also reinforced his children's' ambivalence towards the secular non-Jewish world and anything outside the four cubits of Jewish law.

In a moving journey to discover more about their past, Menachem takes his sons on a pilgrimage to Poland, ultimately finding the family who hid their ancestors and discovering that wars not only bring out the worst in people but also the best.

We mark the unimaginable evils of the Holocaust on the 27th January, 10 days after the anniversary of the disappearance of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who saved thousands of Jews during the war.

Both days reflect the potential of the humanity. Yet we seem to concentrate more on one than the other.

It’s inevitable that the wounds of the past scar us, and the existential fear of many Israelis (including mine) over our future here is legitimate. But 60 years on, maybe we should harness the memory of Wallenberg and the countless other righteous gentiles like the Muchas to inspire us to become open and confident enough to begin the process of learning to trust again, of believing we can take risks.

Because ultimately, perhaps its this that marks the completion of our ongoing Zionist journey from an exilic past into a genuine independent free and sovereign future

Yom Hashoah (2007)

One abiding memory I have of Yom Hashoah is that of walking to the coastal road between Netanya and Tel Aviv and watching the scenes as dozens of cars stopped for the siren.

The day is always sandwiched between two festivals – Pesach, the time of our Freedom from Slavery and Yom Ha’atzmaut, the time of our Freedom from Exile. On Pesach we celebrate what Jewish philosopher Isaiah Berlin termed negative liberty - the absence of obstacles, barriers or constraints. Yom Ha’atzmaut meanwhile reflects our capacity for positive liberty – a platform that gives us the ability to take control of our lives, the idea that after two millennia Jews finally re-entered history to take responsibility for their future

So as Israeli motorists temporarily leave behind their desire to break the ‘how many cars can I overtake in a minute’ record, let’s hope that we can utilize both the negative and positive freedoms that history has presented us with, so that the phrase ‘never again’ will no longer ring hollow in the ears of so many people who deserve better.

Yom Hashoah (2006)

There's so much to say about the Shoah and none of it is really enough... but I’m kind of glad that all visiting foreign dignitaries get taken there.

Because beyond the legitimate questions of whether we are too taken up by our past, and whether by harking on about the Shoah all we do is create negative Jewish identities in our children, the truth is that one can't really understand the way Israel acts without understanding that we lost 6 million of our people so recently - cant appreciate the subconscious fears of Jews that complete genocide by our neighbours is a possibility without visiting a place documenting one of the greatest crimes against humanity carried out by a people that was considered to be one of
the most cultured.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Pesach: Ideas and Questions for the Seder

I wanted to share some ideas, discussion points and questions that people may find useful during Pesach. Each idea includes a short summary in the text.

Rabbi Steven Greenberg explains that "The key to Jewish exegesis is to assume that nothing is obvious...We train children at the Passover Seder to ask why, because tyrants are undone and liberty won with a good question…when we ask good questions, the Torah is given anew on Sinai at that very moment."

In this context, I hope everyone has a Chag Sameach full of much joy and many questions. An extended discussion on each topic can be found by clicking on the relevant links.

The 10 Plagues (Our Liberation, An-Other's Pain)

The Midrash explains that as the Egyptians are drowning in the sea, the angels want to sing praises to God. The Almighty's response – "the works of My hands are drowning, and you seek to sing praises!?" – suggests an aspect of universality (or that we don’t rejoice in our enemy's downfall) which is interesting to explore.

What makes it even more interesting is another similar but different Midrash which uses a similar phrase ("My children are in danger and you seek to sing praises!?") to describe the Israelites, rather than the Egyptians. It touches on the tension between God as universalist and God as particularist.

And it raises the question as to the balance be between our freedom and an-other's suffering

The Shiur (summary, audio and source sheet) on this is here. A blog post on the topic is here.

Bechol Dor VaDor (Liberating Ourselves from Slavery)

The British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that in order for an individual to truly liberate him or herself from slavery, they must let go of hate (which explains why the Israelites ask their Egyptian neighbors for gold and silver – it was an act that would make it harder to hate the Egyptians).

Yet even though we are physically free, to what extent are we still emotionally traumatized (or enslaved) by the past? In what ways have we succeeded in ridding ourselves of hate and in what ways have we not?

Furthermore, might one Bechol Dor VaDor (seeing ourselves in every generation as leaving Egypt i.e. becoming liberated) be undermined by another Bechol Dor VaDor (remembering that in each generation our enemies rise up against us)?

The Shiur (summary, audio and source sheet) on this is here. A blog post on the topic is here .

The Four Sons and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The Hagaddah speaks of four sons - wise, wicked, simple and one unable to ask. Over the generations, this theme was expanded - four different Jews, four generations, four characteristics present in each one of us. In this context, here is a reading based on different Zionist approaches to the Israeli – Palestinian conflict.

The Redemptionist child, who says that talk about ‘peace’ with the Arabs is dangerous utopianism; The Realist child who believes that peace with the Palestinians may be possible, but not in this generation; The Pragmatist child who argues that unless we achieve a two state solution soon, the window of opportunity for a secure Jewish and democratic state may close; and the Justice child who contends that the Israeli – Palestinian conflict is a tragic struggle of right against right and that Zionism loses its moral legitimacy when it denies national liberation to another people.

The only question remaining is which child is wise and which is simple (naïve)? And which is so blinded by their opinions that they are not even able to question them?

A blog post on the topic is here.

Dayenu (Maintaining Meaning in an Imperfect World)

If the ultimate aim of Shemot is leaving Egypt in order to receive the Torah and enter Israel, how can we genuinely say Dayenu, that 'it would have been enough for us' if only some of these steps would have happened?

While entering Israel may have been part of our people's meta-narrative, there is still importance in understanding and appreciating steps along the long walk to freedom. In fact, as Jonathan Sacks explains, failure to understand historical processes (as reflected in the French and Russian revolutions), or forcing perfection and redemption before its allotted time (what Amos Oz calls 'now-ism') can lead to disaster.

Dayenu thus challenges us to see value in interim steps even if we haven’t achieved full redemption.

The Shiur (summary, audio and source sheet) on this is here.

Chofesh and Cherut (Freedom in a Jewish State)

In A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz describes two accounts – one by his father and one by his aunt – of their childhoods in pre-war Europe.

"Then he [my father] told me in a whisper… what some hooligans did to him and his brother David in Odessa and what some gentile boys did to him at his Polish school in Vilna, and the girls joined in too, and the next day, when his father, Grandpa Alexander, came to the school to register a complaint, the bullies refused to return the torn trousers but attacked his father, Grandpa, in front of his eyes, forced him down on the paving stones and removed his trousers too in the middle of the playground… "

"A thousand times it was hammered in to the head of every Jewish child that we must not irritate them, or hold our heads up, and we must only speak to them quietly, with a smile, so they shouldn’t say we were noisy, and we must always speak to them in good correct Polish, so they couldn’t say we were defiling the language, but we must speak in Polish that was too high, so they couldn’t say we had ambitions above our station…You who were born here in Israel can never understand how this constant drip drip distorts all your feelings, how it corrodes your human dignity like rust"

These accounts touch on the differences between Herzl's Political Zionism and Ahad Haam's Cultural Zionism; between Isaiah Berlin's 'negative and 'positive liberty' (freedom from and freedom to), and between the ideas of Chofesh and Cherut.

A blog post on this topic, which also touches on African refugees, is here.

The Price of Liberation (Moshe and the Tragedy of Leadership)

Although Moshe does not appear in the Hagaddah, he plays a major role in the Jewish people's exodus from slavery. Yet despite showing great leadership and thirst for justice, Moshe is barred from entering the Land of Israel. In fact, it may be those very actions that are considered praiseworthy in one context that lead to his failure to enter the land in another.

One Midrash describes an argument between God and Moshe where the latter's killing of the Egyptian taskmaster counts against him in his request to live forever and enter the Promised Land.

Can any liberation moment succeed without bloodshed? And what sort of price might this take from its leaders?

The Shiur (summary, audio and source sheet) on this is here. A blog on this idea, which also relates to the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, is here

Escape from Freedom

One small idea to end with… Although I haven’t read Eric Fromm's Escape to Freedom, I sometimes find it difficult to understand why freedom might be something people would prefer not to experience. In this context, I found this article in the New York Times "Born and raised in a North Korean gulag" fascinating.

The story touches on Shin, a North Korean who escaped from one of his country's concentration camps. 'Now in Seoul, [Shin] said he sometimes finds life "more burdensome than the hardest labor in the prison camp, where I only had to do what I was told"…Shin said he sometimes wished he could return to the time before he learned about the greater world, "without knowing that we were in a prison camp, without knowing that there was a place called South Korea."

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Conversations on Pesach: Dayenu: Maintaining Meaning in an Imperfect World

There is a dissonance between the Exodus story in the Hagaddah, which primarily focuses on the Jews leaving Egypt, and the Exodus story in the Torah, which emphasizes the importance of leaving Egypt in order to enter the Promised Land.

The Haggadah's change in tone and downplaying of Israel is most likely in order to maintain the meaning of Pesach as a 'time of our freedom.' After all, if Pesach is about coming to Israel, then how can a 16th Century Polish Jew reading the story in the shadow of a potential pogrom truly celebrate our journey from slavery to liberation without being miserable?

Marking the victory of slaves against totalitarianism meanwhile is inspiring regardless of which generation one finds themselves in.

However, if the ultimate aim of the Exodus was coming to Israel, then how can we say Dayenu, it would have been enough if only we would have left Egypt without getting the Torah or entering the land?

In the Shiur, we discussed how while entering Israel may have been part of our people's meta-narrative, there is still value in understanding and appreciating steps along the long walk to freedom. In fact, as Jonathan Sacks explains, failure to understand historical processes (as reflected in the French and Russian revolutions), or to force perfection and redemption before its allotted time (what Amos Oz calls 'now-ism') can lead to disaster.

Ultimately, the lesson of being satisfied with less than we may believe we deserve, as reflected in the Talmudic Rabbis' command to say grace (bensch) after eating an olive, (and potentially with the Yishuv's acceptance of the Partition Plan in 1947) allows us to find meaning even without all our aspirations being fulfilled.

Click here for the source sheet and for the audio recording.