We Need Lots More Than the Holocaust

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published June 05, 2008, issue of June 13, 2008.
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Let’s talk about Jeremiah.

Well, not exactly about Jeremiah, but about Jeremiah’s mindset — specifically, about the prophet’s punishing predictions regarding the future history of our people.

What makes the matter pertinent just now is the controversy surrounding Pastor John Hagee. I wrote in this space recently, and quite critically, of Hagee’s “explanation” of the Holocaust. There are two overlapping parts to his explanation, one general, the other specific.

It was, says Hagee, our “own rebellion [that] birthed the seed of antisemitism that would arise and bring destruction to them [the Jews] for centuries to come…. it rises from the judgment of God upon his rebellious chosen people.” And then, referencing Jeremiah, the Holocaust itself: “How did it happen? Because God allowed it to happen. Why did it happen? Because God said, ‘My top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the Land of Israel.’” In context, what Hagee means here is that Hitler was sent, by God, to get us to go to Israel.

At first blush, this is utterly outrageous. But: Hagee’s view is hardly original. It is quite common in certain Jewish circles and, indeed, repeated by many of us, at least metaphorically, in the course of the traditional prayer service. And if that is so, what was Hagee’s offense? Is it really just the trivial mater that we are permitted to say certain kinds of things about ourselves that others dare not?

In the 1930s, the revered Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook wrote that “Hitler wakes us up to redemption.” The Satmar Hasidim, among others, have long maintained that Zionists caused the Holocaust by refusing to await the coming of the Messiah.

These days, again among others, there’s the odious assertion of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who has claimed that the victims of the Holocaust were “reincarnations of souls who committed sins.” A fringe perspective? But Yosef is the leading spiritual figure in the Shas party, a major player in Israeli politics.

And we, too. “Mipnei chatoteinu galinu me’artzeinu,” we say; “because of our sins we were exiled from the land,” most often intending “exiled from the land” as a stand-in for persecution.

To take such theological views seriously is immediately to get all tangled up in a theological tar pit. For if, indeed, we in any sense deserved God’s punishment, then, presumably, so did the Cambodians, and the Rwandans, the Armenians, so do the Darfurians, and on, and on. Unless we mean to claim, as we seem to in the Aleinu prayer, that we alone have been chosen, that God really doesn’t pay attention to the Cambodians and all the others — that how we behave is all that really matters in the divine accounting.

Tar pit? Now we have to explain, or explain away, the chosenness thing, God’s parochialism and favoritism, and all our miseries remain as unfathomable as they have always been.

And why only the deaths that result from evil, why not also the natural disasters, the hurricanes and the earthquakes and the tidal waves? For that matter, why not just one child, a 2 year old, drowned in a shallow pool or stricken by a fatal cancer? There is no more obstinate theological stumbling block and none that has evoked a more extensive literature than the ancient and always current question of how evil and tragedy can be explained in a way that does not undermine God’s goodness or God’s power.

Nor does the catch-all answer, “the ways of God are mysterious,” do anything at all to remove the stumbling block — for after all, if God’s ways are so mysterious, if God really has a benign purpose in claiming the lives of innocents, then how in the world can we be expected to relate to so incomprehensible a God?

Okay, then, say we choose not to take these views seriously. Bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people, randomness and even chaos are part of the human condition, whether planned by God or, lacking a first cause, a happenstance product of the biological soup that got us started. But if that’s the direction we choose, how can we continue to claim that the Holocaust was an utterly distinctive event, one that indelibly marks all Jews and warrants special status, perhaps the special protections accorded an endangered species?

And make no mistake, we make that claim all the time. Foreign dignitaries visiting Israel are routinely taken to visit Yad Vashem, the central Holocaust museum and memorial, as if to impress on them that this is where we’ve come from and this is why we’re here.

And we insist: The Holocaust is not just history, it is premonition. We do not understand, and never will, how it happened once, so there is no way for us to know, really know, that it will not happen again. We know only that for the time being, very many people are ashamed and embarrassed, and that is useful. So we play on the shame and the embarrassment, try to extend the time being for another day, and another. We remind people.

We remind people — and ourselves. Want some Jewish identity? Hey, come on the March of the Living. Hey, sign up for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, they’ll remind you every month in their fundraising letters.

Don’t know the language, the culture, the history? No problem: Here’s the Holocaust; that’s enough to make us special. It’s not the kind of special we’d have chosen, but there it is, ours by right. If we have the Holocaust, what more do we need?

Hagee, the Satmar, Yosef: Leave the Holocaust alone. You don’t know what you are talking about. The prophets? They were not crystal-ball oracles, just moral clarions. Us? We need lots more than the Holocaust, however explained.

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