On Catastrophe and Renewal

Rabbi Deborah Waxman asks: What does a post-Holocaust progressive Judaism looks like today? By embracing our shared humanity and valuing difference, we can create a version of the Jewish future that calls us to move forward while drawing from the lessons.

This text is based on a lecture that Rabbi Waxman delivered in 2014.

How do we move beyond catastrophe? A catastrophe shatters the foundation of everything that preceded it; a catastrophe breaks down systems of understanding and structures of functioning; a catastrophe introduces radical discontinuity between what was before and what, if anything, comes next. Most everything is destroyed or profoundly destabilized in a catastrophe, and the path towards rebuilding is unclear.

How do we conceptualize catastrophe, get any perspective on it, begin to articulate an understanding of it in its own right and place it in continuity with what came before? For those of us who live in proximity to catastrophe, how do we survive catastrophe and, even more to the point, how do we thrive after it, at once remembering the past and nonetheless living for the future? How do we move out of trauma, and into healing and wholeness?

Jews—and our ancestors the Israelites before us—have much experience doing this. Across the long length of Jewish history, we have experienced many catastrophes and have survived—as a people and as a civilization. After each catastrophe, the prevailing paradigm was inoperable:  We no longer knew how to understand ourselves in relation to God, in relation to other Jews, in relationship to other peoples. And, throughout our history, we have ultimately transcended catastrophe after catastrophe, we have repeatedly breathed new life into the Jewish people and the Jewish civilization, and we have found pathways towards repair.

This is the challenge that we North American Jews face in this second decade of the 21st century. Tonight begins Yom Hasho’ah, Holocaust Memorial Day, which prompted the selection of this topic for today. Next January will mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The last survivors and their liberators are at the end of their lives, and we who live and love and build today are making the shift from the lived experience of or the witness to massive destruction to memory. How do we at once remember the past and live for the future? Zakhor, we are commanded over and over. “Remember.” Choose life, we are urged in Deuteronomy. How do we at once remember the past and live for the future? This is our work. I suggest that it is shared work, holy work, and I hope that it will ultimately be deeply meaningful work.

What do we know? We know that in the middle years of the 20th century, the Nationalist Socialist Party toppled Germany’s Weimar Republic. We know the Nazis quickly emerged as a totalitarian regime. We know in their efforts to dominate Europe and Africa, and ultimately, the world, they pursued a racist program that ultimately turned genocidal. Six million Jews perished during these years, and 5 million others were murdered by the Nazis. The Nazis joined with the Axis Powers, and the list of dead arising from the war is truly staggering. In the worldwide conflict, including the Pacific theater, about 20 million civilians died due to military activity and crimes against humanity, 20 million more civilians died from disease and starvation, and 20 million military personnel died.

Since the 1970s, there has been language cohering around these events as they affected the Jews:  We call it “the Holocaust,” with a definite article and a capital “h.” “The Holocaust” has become shorthand, though this terminology was and is still somewhat contested. “The Holocaust” refers to a complex phenomenon; we may be talking about the destruction of the European Jewish community in the years between 1939 and 1945, or we may also be referring to the rise of the Nazis and their impact on German Jews, beginning in 1933, and on all the refugees who scattered around the globe in those years. For some, the Holocaust goes beyond the Jewish community. It may communicate the Nazi state apparatuses that were dedicated to destroying Jewish and Roma communities, and that also set out to imprison and kill Communists and other political enemies, as well as homosexuals and people with mental disabilities. The Holocaust sometimes refers to the effects of a totalitarian agenda that could tolerate neither cultural nor political nor biological difference—an agenda that perverted science and made use of modern efficiencies to accomplish its ends. Now, since the 1970s, we English speakers tend to call this whole complex “the Holocaust.” But for a long time, there was no clear language about how to refer to that constellation of devastating events.

Holocaust is from Greek word, holocauston. Ironically, the Greek is a translation of a word from the Hebrew Bible, the ritual word olah, which you may recognize from Leviticus. Olah was the sacrifice offered in the Temple twice a day that was entirely burned up; it’s from the same root as aliyah, to go up, and it refers, we presume, to how the smoke of a completely consumed burnt offering rises. The first translations of the Hebrew Bible were into Greek, and olah was translated as holocauston. Some English translations of the Greek version of the Bible still use the term “holocaust” for olah. In the 20th century, in a secular context, the term “holocaust” was used occasionally before the World War II, in reference to the both the first World War and the Armenian genocide. When it started to be applied to the events around World War II, some people at least initially felt that, given its Israelite origins, this term was spectacularly inappropriate to describe the Nazis’ systematic destruction of European Jewry. The Nazis themselves called this program, after Adolf Eichmann, the Final Solution.

In Hebrew, the term that emerged early on was Shoah, a modern Hebrew word that can be translated as catastrophe, or abyss, or holocaust (small “h”). Shoah severed the direct relation to olah, with its biblical overtones, and some liberal American Jews prefer the Hebrew to the Greek, especially after Claude Lanzmann’s epic 1985 documentary by that name. Yom Hasho’ah veHagevurah, Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day, was established by the Knesset in 1953. The timing of this commemoration is tied to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, which took place on the 14th of Nisan, right before Passover. The Knesset accommodated the religious holiday and situated the commemoration shortly afterward, on the 27th of Nisan. In spite of this early action by the Knesset, there has consistently been a serious conversation about conceptualization and commemoration, including implications of what these reflections on the past mean for our future. The tragic fact is that most Yiddish speakers were killed in Nazi death and labor camps, but the survivors, not surprisingly, did not adopt either the modern Hebrew word or a Greek one. They used the term khurbn. This is Hebrew, with a Yiddish inflection, but it’s ancient Hebrew, from the Bible. Until the 20th century, hurban was the Jewish paradigm for catastrophe. Catastrophes are about the shattering of paradigms, but Jewish history is so long and complicated that, yes, we have a paradigm for responding to catastrophe. The root of hurban is from herev, which means sword. Don’t understand this as a singular act—as in two people battling hand-to-hand in a swordfight. Think of it as God’s sword. Hurban means total devastation and laying of waste, complete annihilation. This concept of complete decimation was applied to events first in Israelite and then in Jewish history, beginning with the destruction of the First Temple, the one that Solomon built, and then again to the destruction in 70 C.E. of the Second Temple, and then to other catastrophes that followed—the Crusades, the Chelmnitzky massacres of the 17th century, others. Unimaginable shattering. The precincts of God violated, destroyed. There was loss of life, and there was loss of understanding, self and social. In the face of such devastation, how do we understand ourselves in relation to God, to other Jews, to other peoples? How do we find the language to express our horror, to speak about a loss we cannot imagine recovering from? Again and again in Jewish history, we have had to recover and re-vision, regenerate and re-seed vital Jewish life. From trauma, we have had to heal.

Israel was created by a vote of the new United Nations, which itself emerged as a constructive response to the devastation of World War II. The new Israeli government understood the destruction of European Jewish communities as a confirmation of Zionist ideology. In their naming and commemorating of this destruction, they situated it squarely within a Zionist narrative of destruction and birth/rebirth. The date is shortly after the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and shortly before Yom Ha’atzma’ut, which is celebrated on the fifth of Iyar.

Yet the matter is not entirely closed. We know that there are always choices around narratives and paradigms. Some people believe that we are not well-served severing the Holocaust entirely from the paradigm of hurban, which is at once about destruction and renewal, and which is observed on Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av. Tisha B’Av commemorates destruction and hints at ultimate renewal in cyclical time, the year cycle—not linear or historical time or according to a particular narrative. This practice allows us to mourn and also to draw strength from the cycle of regeneration. There has been, over and over, evidence of regeneration. After the destruction of the First Temple, there were, ultimately, a set of responses. There were prophetic texts around the destruction of the Temple, especially Jeremiah and Ezekiel. There was the creation of Eichah, the book of Lamentations, a piece of literature that is so evocative that it made it into the canon and that we read until this day on Tisha B’Av. Eichah means “how,” but you can hear it as a howl of despair. The book is a poetic cry of pain without theodicy, without meaning-making, which came later. The expression of pain itself, without neat explanations, is itself a constructive response. There was also institution building. Not long, just 70 years, after the destruction of the First Temple, there came the opportunity to rebuild it—within the lifetime of the children of survivors, if not the survivors themselves. Many exiles to Babylonia returned to rebuild the Temple, and even more stayed behind, and continued the lives they had built away from Judea. Out of the destruction of the First Temple we have biblical texts that we continue to read to this day, and we also have the origins of Diaspora Judaism, including the beginnings of a synagogue experience distinct from sacrifices to YHVH in the Temple in Jerusalem.

Five hundred years later, the Second Temple was destroyed. Another cataclysm. Another exile. This time, there was no rebuilding of the physical precincts: the failed Bar Kokhba Revolt approximately 70 years later made that abundantly clear. But there was a rebuilding in memory, in the discussions of the Mishnah and the Talmud, where the rituals and practices of the destroyed Temple were preserved. We have another profound poetic response in Eichah Rabbah, midrash on the original book of Lamentations.  Over the course of centuries, we have the creation of rabbinic Judaism. The response to the destruction of the Second Temple is not the disappearance of the people and the religion of Israel, but in fact is a radical act of re-creation out of the ashes. The response was something completely new; it retained continuity with what came before, linking itself linguistically and imaginatively. But in fact it took a far-reaching turn and created a system that was sustaining to the Jewish people for nearly two millennia.

The paradigm of hurban points, ultimately, towards renewal, even as it allows for the experience of trauma and deep grieving, like the book of Lamentations. Rebuilding takes time and effort, it takes courage and imagination. We must recognize that we have not been totally immolated. We have been damaged, and we recover, as Jews have always done. Rebuilding is a collective act. Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, we progressive North American Jews must self-consciously commit ourselves to a path of healing. We must remember and honor, and we must pledge ourselves to build the future. Part of this pledge is a commitment to worldwide Jewish peoplehood. Our path forward is in relationship and conversation with Israeli responses, but we cannot presume that it is identical. What is our path?

Yohanan ben Zakkai’s establishment of the first rabbinical academy at Yavneh could have simply been a desperate act that quickly failed, but it turned out to be a deed that reverberates to this day. There were many responses: the ascetic community at Qumran, others we know little about; there was no way of knowing at the outset which adaptations would survive. The rabbinic Judaism emerged out of the destruction of the Second Temple turned out to be well-suited towards sustaining diaspora life in the Middle Ages. However, we know that rabbinic Judaism was fraying deeply well before the constellation of events that came to be known as the Holocaust. It may have been apt for the Middle Ages, but it was profoundly challenged by the onset of modernity, with the rise of the Enlightenment, the emergence of scientific thought and the new model of the nation-state, coupled with the possibility of individual citizenship for Jews living in emancipated countries in the West. Well before World War II, rabbinic Judaism was no longer sustaining to huge numbers of non-Orthodox Jews. Some of our grandparents chose liberal expressions of Judaism; some of our grandparents chose political expressions of Jewish life such as Zionism or Bundism; some of our grandparents exited completely, perhaps turning to universalist ideologies such as socialism or communism or possibly just assimilating; and some of us had non-Jewish grandparents for whom the idea of being a part of or connected as life partners to the Jewish people was simply inconceivable. Who knows what the future of rabbinic Judaism might have been had Hitler never risen to power? Even the most skillful of novelists will tell you that counter histories are very hard to imagine.

The current of life was rushing along for Jews at mid-century. There were internal dynamics within the Jewish communities and external pressures on them—rising anti-Semitism in Europe, the closed borders of immigration to America following 1924, the British Mandate’s refusal to allow emigration to Palestine. And then came cataclysm. Hurban. The Jewish people suffered the physical destruction of millions of people, as well as the material culture with which they lived their lives. We lost cultural institutions and all their artifacts, religious institutions, whole schools of practice such as kabbalah and musar and meditation. We lost the living sources of a 1,000-year-old international language and dense centers of Jewish population that promoted thick Jewish culture. Wellsprings—of people, of ideas—were stopped.  

What next?

What next is a question that the American Jewish community started asking intensively in the early 1940s as the scope of destruction became clear. Even before the war was over, even before American Jews understood precisely how complete the Nazi program of genocide was, there were glimmerings that it was really bad, something different from the pogroms and the persecutions of the previous centuries. With this came a growing realization that the American Jewish community was suddenly, in a few short years, the largest and richest Jewish community in the world, in resources and in people, and therefore had to be out in front in terms of ideas and leadership.

Much of the energy in the years after the war had to do with establishing the State of Israel. For a few decades, the vision of Jews in North America and in Palestine were in close alignment, sharing a commitment to the concept of building a nation and a fear of anti-Semitism, united in the desire to create, on new terms, with a new language and new political and cultural models, a new basis of Jewish density that could serve as a haven and a beacon for all Jews. Israel was established, with significant fundraising and political organizing and volunteering on the part of American Jews. The new Israelis were astonished and even angry that, following the establishment of the state, American Jews didn’t make mass aliyah. The visions were in alignment, but they were not identical. American Jewish Zionism, for many, was as much existential as it was political.

One American Jewish response to the Shoah was to build Israel but not to move there. At home, another response was to build synagogues, and especially Hebrew schools, for their children. The Cold War context fueled this. In the 1940s and ’50s, Cold War rhetoric promoted democracy in the face of Soviet-backed communism, that “Godless ideology.” In the 1950s, to be American was to be non-Communist, which meant, in part, to be religious, even if many Jews had a stronger cultural than religious identity. In the years following World War II, as they moved to the suburbs, American Jews built synagogues, and they built education wings in those synagogues, where they sent their children to Hebrew school. Many American Jews were compelled by what survivor Emil Fackenheim, a rabbi and theologian and philosopher, called the 614th commandment: “Thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory.”

This negative mandate is, at best, incomplete, and even reactive; it allows anti-Semitism to define the Jewish people, unintentionally echoing the way the Nazis used anti-Semitism to define the Jews. In the words of Rabbi Harold Schulweis, a student of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, an honorary governor of RRC: “To live in spite, to say ‘no’ to Hitler is a far cry from living ‘yes’ to Judaism.”

Many Jewish texts have been written about the impact of the Holocaust. There is overwhelming history, and extensive writing on theodicy, Divine justice. Where was God in the Holocaust? How do we continue to believe in God after the Holocaust? Some theologians declared that God is dead. Others backed away from an optimistic, Enlightenment-driven view of religion that imagined humans as co-creators with the Divine. They returned to a transcendent, even authoritarian view of God. There have been volumes dedicated to theory, literature and art after the Holocaust. When Jewish institutions organize themselves around the Holocaust, it is often in a defensive posture: the “Never Again!” of the Jewish Defense League or the wary stance of the Anti-Defamation League. Of course, there are more open institutional stances. If you peruse the website of Chabad.org, they very much understand themselves to be a source for the renewal of Judaism following the Holocaust. While they use the most modern means of technology, their vision is ultimately highly traditional, oriented towards halakhic observance, infused by a disturbingly literal messianic orientation.

At our moment, for progressive Judaism, what does a generative and visionary post-Holocaust Judaism look like? What are the affirmative values, the institution and structures? How do we understand ourselves in relation to God, in relation to other Jews, in relationship to other peoples?

I am going to propose some grounding principles, and then open this up for conversation and discussion. As I said, this is shared and holy work.

Let’s begin with the assumption that the Jewish people and the Jewish civilization exist for positive reasons, and that this stance emerges out of a relationship to the universe that presumes a ground of being that is life-affirming. Though Jews have suffered, our worldview has not usually been tragic or nihilistic. I am not suggesting that the path to the future is naïve or rose-colored. I cannot stand here a year after the bombings at the Boston Marathon—or two weeks after a white supremacist targeted a Jewish community center and killed three people—and say that evil does not exist. Evil does exist, in individuals and in institutions. In the words of Rabbi Edward Feld:

“The world contains a primal chaos whose destructive power rises up again and again in history and in the life of each person.”

AND. And just as it is crucial that we acknowledge that the world is a shattered place where evil can triumph, it is urgent that we declare that there is sacredness in the universe that arises from and points back towards the Divine. This is not a God who intervenes in history, like in the Bible, but rather a God who is the source of holiness, who is an overflowing spring, who is the source of our kindness and courage, our ideals and virtues.

We know of this God from the many blessings and sources of abundance in our lives—from the ocean or the mountains that fill us with quiet joy every time we look upon them, from the relationships with family and friends that sustain us, from the work and play that we find both challenging and satisfying.

And we know of this God of holiness also through the difficult and terrible times. Because again and again in the darkest moments of human history, we encounter people who choose to sanctify life rather than succumb to that darkness. This was true in such extended periods of darkness as the Holocaust, when there were manifold examples of spiritual resistance, when individuals living in concentration camps—environments designed to dehumanize and then ultimately to kill them—got up every morning, washed and dressed themselves, and found some way to connect with one another, thereby thwarting the destructive intentions of their oppressors and remaining human. And we’ve seen this commitment to the sanctity of life in story after story emerging out of the heroes of the Boston Marathon, many of whom were celebrated last week.

Good and evil are not separate realms, but are intertwined. Let us presume that Judaism in the 21st century urges us to know that we all have the potential to be seekers of the sacred, and to be bearers of a larger vision, one of humanity and holiness and hopefulness. Let us make manifest—in our words and in our actions—a vision of the Divine that nurtures human lives attuned to justice and caring and joy.

Let us commit ourselves once again to building a Jewish civilization that offers multiple pathways into engaging issues of meaning and of deep concern. These may be age-old questions—why are we here? These may be current preoccupations—how do we ensure the sustainability of our planet? The commitment to multiple pathways is critical. Reconstructionist Judaism was founded on the principle that we must accommodate individual interests and aspirations across Jewish life. We must build structures that embrace and encourage diversity—in practice, in belief—and that are nonetheless substantive and even demanding. The demand is that we are particularistic; we identify as Jews and act in ways that are Jewish not for the sake of being Jewish, but for the sake of being truly human. We may no longer believe in a supernatural God who revealed the Torah at Sinai, but we do believe that being Jewish obligates us to behave in ways that are moral and ethical, as individuals and on a collective level. We must articulate those obligations in ongoing conversations across a diverse community, and we must be willing to follow them.

Let us act on the principle that community is essential. Let us make explicit our understanding, that we are more than atomized individuals, that we live in a web of humanity, and that we are enriched by these interconnections. Joining our lives with others can support us in our convictions, give us company on our journeys through life. Joining with others also can transform us, when we are changed by our encounters with people who are different from us.

Let us assert that being Jewish in the 21st century is about preserving Jewish distinctiveness and also about opening ourselves to transformation. We engage with traditional Jewish sources and we also actively generate new ones. Even as we want to preserve the capacity to make distinctions and we need boundaries in order to survive, we have to discern ways to do this in a generative fashion. Judaism should not be about affirming what we already know, but opening ourselves up to new ways of being—to being the best possible Jews and the best possible human beings.  

In the service of openness, I think the classic Reconstructionist position rejecting chosenness is an important path forward. In the postmodern world, where boundaries are fluid, and Jewish identities are multiple and multiply defined, where we seek at once to preserve Jewish [distinctiveness] and to participate fully in the broader society, I believe setting aside the concept of the Jews as the chosen people is not a concession or a loss, but a positive course of action. Rejecting chosenness is an explicit embrace of … modern [principles that point] toward universal truths. … Rejecting chosenness is about getting down to the hard work of being one of the many peoples of the world, jostling with one another on the path towards the Divine, rather than holding ourselves separate and nurturing a belief in God-given superiority.

I cannot hear stories about what happened in Kansas City and blithely assert that anti-Semitism is irrelevant, or read about the events in eastern Ukraine and believe that state power never promotes anti-Semitic policies. But the greatest choice we have is how we respond, and how we orient ourselves and how we ally ourselves, and mobilize our alliance. Retreating inward or asserting superiority are, I believe, defensive postures that point us backward, in ways that I think are either not sustainable or are not tolerable. In our Jewishness, we must look outward. We must preserve our differences and also celebrate our shared humanity.

Let us nurture ways of celebrate—through the creation of Jewish culture, in writing new songs, in blending musical and artistic cultures, in creating new genres.

We are here because we believe in a Reconstructionist approach to Judaism. Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan taught that Torah was much more than five books, Torah was any teaching or practice that helps us to be the best possible Jews, the best possible Americans, the best possible citizens of the world. We are here because we are convinced and energized by this approach to living out our rich heritage. And we understand that our work is to help others to value this inheritance, to take hold of it and change it, and in that way keep it living. Out of our Reconstructionist commitments—with our awareness that every generation has the obligation to reconstruct Judaism—we have an opportunity to model a path towards healing from the catastrophic trauma of our generation’s hurban. The Jewish people lives. The Jewish civilization lives and evolves. How are we going to shape our future?

When we return the Torah to the ark, we conclude that ritual with the line hashivenu adonay elekha venashuvah—“Help us turn to You, and we shall return.” Hadesh yamenu kekedem—“Renew our lives as in days of old.” Hashivenu venashuvah—“Help us to turn and we shall return.” All of us here, we seek renewal, we seek engagement, we seek connection. Hadesh yameinu—“Renew our lives.” We know renewal and reconstruction can happen in many ways, we are excited and deeply interested in all those ways. This verse is from the end of Eichah, the book of Lamentations, composed out of that first hurban. Its inclusion in the Torah service was part of one path toward renewal, drawing on old sources and applying them in different ways. We say the line often, but its original context is incidental, masked to most. Today, I expose its roots once again and urge us not only to console ourselves with them, but also to be inspired by them, to take them as a call toward activism. Let us be renewed, let us renew ourselves, the Jewish people, the Jewish civilization. I end with song, and, if you know the melody, invite you to sing it with me. (If you want to follow along, it’s on page xxx in KH.)

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