Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Reflections on Holocaust Remembrance Day

Tomorrow, April 19/27 Nissan, is celebrated as Holocaust Remembrance Day, or in Hebrew, Yom HaShoah v’haGevurah.
What is the enduring lesson of the Holocaust?
A generation ago, the Holocaust was taught as a lesson of man’s inhumanity to man; of the power of an artificial ideology to blind us to very real human anguish, and to deafen us to the bloodcurdling cries of the women and children. It was a lesson in Hannah Arendt’s eloquent characterization of the banality of evil. The Holocaust reminded us that despite two millennia of progress, Western Civilization was no more ethically advanced than the barbarians of old. And lastly, the Holocaust reminded us that evil, in its purest and most unalloyed form, exists within us all, and we must be forever on guard against it.
Today, however, the message has morphed into something more…sanitized. A meaningful discussion of good and evil is problematic, because it bespeaks a moral absolutism which is no longer fashionable. Instead, the Holocaust is now an object lesson in ‘tolerance,’ as we are encouraged to exhibit tolerance of the ‘other.’ Antisemitism has been distilled down to something less vexing and far more palatable, viz., a specialized form of intolerance. A piece of cake to understand. It is taken as axiomatic that if only everyone were more tolerant (or less intolerant?) of others, the world would be a much better place.
The new and improved Holocaust (ver. 2.1.0) is no longer a uniquely Jewish tragedy. After all, the Nazis ym”sh also harassed and persecuted trade unionists and communists, gypsys and homosexuals, Lutherans and Catholics. The German people themselves were the real victims of Nazism; just ask them.
Like a simple algebra equation, “x” = oppressor, “y” = oppressed. We plug in whichever values suit the moment.
So we have come to a place where Holocaust education is about inculcating tolerance for alternative lifestyles; for LGBT activists; for those living on the fringes of society; and presumably, for satanists, murderers, pedophiles, Holocaust deniers, and any other “other” we can identify with our values-neutral goggles.
And perhaps in the cruelest twist of all, the Jew is the new Nazi, oppressing, persecuting and driving the aboriginal Arab from his land. Yes, dear reader, the lesson of the Holocaust is…Palestinian Rights in the Jewish Apartheid Regime.
The immense tragedy of the Holocaust is compounded because we have not learned the proper lessons from it, and are thus doomed to repeat it. The Iranians apparently read Santayana.
So in light of the foregoing, please tolerate and consider an-other, alternative perspective, a classical understanding if you will, of the meaning of the Holocaust.
On every major Jewish holiday, we say the following prayer: “Because of our sins, we were exiled from our country, and distanced from our land [of Israel.]” Any meaningful understanding of the Holocaust has to begin in the context of a reflection on the nature of, and the reasons for, the Dispersion.

In the Book of Exodus, the A-lmighty charges the Jewish people to be a Kingdom of Priests and Holy Nation. It is our Divine mission; it is to illuminate our every act, infuse our every utterance. In the dark world of three millennia ago, Judaism alone held up the banner of morality, of compassion, and of hope against polytheism, chaos, nihilism and frank evil. So impeccable was to be our example of righteousness that the nations of the world would declare, “what a wise, knowledgeable and great nation is Israel! For what other nation has the A-lmighty so nearby, that they may call out to Him at will? And what other nation has such a codex of righteous statutes as their Torah?” Through our passionate deeds and words, the knowledge of the One True Gcd would be known, acknowledged and sanctified in the world.

To our unending sorrow, we stumbled in that mission. Within a relatively short time, the first Jewish Commonwealth was split in two, and the seductive Canaanite pagan cults were never successfully uprooted from the fields and minds of the Jewish common folk. Jew fought Jew, Torah observance lapsed, and the storm clouds of Assyria, Babylonia and Rome darkened our skies. Our current exile followed, and we have lived with the sequelae of our failure almost without interruption since that tragic time; indeed, we feel its rumblings down to our very day.

The evil we endured under the Nazis ym”sh was born of a worldview which not only rejected the notion of a Jewish moral beacon, but actively and aggressively sought to eliminate the Jew and his message from the world, root and branch. The Nazis were attempting the mass murder of an idea as much as a people, because evil cannot flourish in the presence of goodness.
Furthermore, and to their enduring shame, the nations of the world stood idly by. While perhaps not being as savage as the Nazis, they were not very enamored of the Jewish message, either. There was little objection to the premise that the world would be a better place without the Jew.
“Because of our sins, we were exiled from our country, and distanced from our land.” The attempt to understand the enormity of the destruction of European Judaism begins with a journey inward. I don’t know if it’s possible to teach tolerance to neo-Nazi skinheads, New Black Panthers and Jihadis, but I do know it is possible to change me. This idea, “because of our sins” (in Hebrew, mipnei chata’einu) teaches us that the proper lesson to take from the Holocaust is one of self-reflection, repentance, and re-dedication to the ennobling goals of our Jewish calling; of being Isaiah’s ‘Light unto the Nations.’  
Passover has just ended, and the taste of matzah is still fresh in our mouths. In the Haggadah, we say the following:
…for not only that one [i.e. Pharaoh] arose to destroy us; but in every generation evil people arise to destroy us. And in every case, the Holy One, Blessed be He, rescues us from their hand.”
Maybe that’s why Holocaust Remembrance Day falls right after Passover. The message, the connection, is ineluctable.
If we can act, then we are not truly victims. The Hebrew name for Holocaust Remembrance Day is more accurately translated as “The Day of the Holocaust and Heroism/Resolve.” Evil exists, but we resolve to never be its victims again. We resolve to fight evil in all its forms, wherever it is encountered. The People of Israel live, and the State of Israel lives, while the Nazi regime is gone.

I personally resolve to take upon myself this Holocaust Remembrance Day is a private fast day (b”n); one dedicated to introspection, self-improvement, study of Torah, and connection to Gcd. In so doing, I, along with many others, will sanctify Gcd’s Name in the world, and will bear witness that our six million did not die in vain.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

X-Ray Vision

The tragic shooting of Trayvon Martin has catapulted race relations back onto the front pages and into the consciousness of every thoughtful American. While much has already been written on this incident, one perspective has been missing. Specifically, what can Torah teach us about race relations in America?
I had a rebbe, Rabbi Richter, who told our seventh grade class about an amazing audience he once had as a young man with the Hasidic scion of New Square, NY, Rabbi Yaakov Yoseleh Twerski, known as the “Skverer Rebbe,” back in the early ‘60s. People from all walks of life used to line up and wait hours for a private audience with the Rebbe – Skverer Hasidim, hobos, hippies, spiritual seekers of all types. You see, the Rebbe was renowned for his freakish ability to spend but a moment with you and offer you very relevant, very specific advice for what was on your heart. The young Rabbi Richter left the audience quite shaken; and although he never divulged to the class the advice he received from the Skverer Rebbe, he always spoke of the meeting reverently, and said that it changed his life.
How could the Skverer Rebbe get a handle on a person’s true essence in a matter of seconds? Rabbi Richter said that he had a penetrating gaze, almost like he was looking directly into your soul. In other words, he had X-Ray vision.
Do you remember Superman’s X-Ray vision? That guy could see through solid stone walls. (And while we’re on the subject, I wonder where two Jewish boys, Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel, got the idea of a righteous incorruptible hero, dedicated to truth and justice, wearing a suspiciously “tallit”-looking cape, who brings universal peace and redeems the world from evil? Hmmm. Also, did you know they couldn’t write the comic strip on Fridays? Early on, they story-boarded on a big piece of wood they found lying around the house, but on Fridays Bubbie needed her challah board back! True story. But I digress.)
I wish everybody had Superman’s X-Ray vision. Not to see through solid rock, or to sneak a peek under Lois Lane’s clothing. But rather to have that ability, the Skverer Rebbe’s ability, to see past the externalities, right into a person’s soul.
The Torah is a book of distinctions. The very first sentence says that the first thing the A-lmighty created was difference, distinction, discernment. Heaven and earth. The Torah goes on to speak of many types of distinction – between light and darkness, between good and evil, between the Sabbath day and the six weekdays, and between the unique mission of Israel in the world and the mission of the Nations. But nowhere – nowhere – in the A-lmighty’s book does He distinguish between people based upon skin color.
It can be argued that race relations has been the defining theme of American history. The Founding Fathers grappled with it from the very start of the Republic. At one time, many whites believed that blacks were sub-human, and subjugated, tortured and enslaved them. We have, thank Gcd, emerged from that horror and that blot on our national consciousness. Countless laws and tireless education have ensured equal opportunity for blacks in America; indeed, we have merited to see a black President of the United States, elected by a majority of all Americans.
Most Americans strive to treat their black neighbors with the same respect and consideration they expect for themselves. Many people of good will, and not a few prominent Jews, advocated equal rights for blacks. But that is not enough. The Torah holds us to an even higher standard – the Gcdly standard – the ability to see past the externalities of our neighbor and see his soul. We dare not see a black man or a white man before us – we must see a man, we must see our brother. Because that is the way Gcd sees us.
If we relate to our fellow man, either for good or for ill, primarily on the basis of skin color, we have already lost. Black supremacists are as misguided as white supremacists. Common references to the “Black Community” or the “White Community” or “Black voters” and “White voters” are demeaning and counterproductive.
This is the Torah’s secret: there is no such thing as a black person or a white person. Black people don’t exist, white people don’t exist. It is but a chimera. The only “race” is the human race. I am a person, we are people, you and me, created in the image of Gcd, a soul put on earth by the A-lmighty to fulfill a specific mission, in a specific place, at a specific time.
We must cultivate that intangible faculty, that sixth sense, to see the true essence of our neighbor, to transcend the veils that conceal the soul. What is their character? Are they honest? Are they kind? Are they learned? Are they wise? No physical characteristic can predict these soul traits.
A generation ago, the bad guys wore black uniforms with swastikas and totenkopf insignia on their helmets. It was relatively easy to tell who the enemy was. Today, we live in an age where the enemy wears no uniform; where the bad guy could be holed up in an Afghan cave - or could be the neighbor next door. In our troubled times, we don’t know for sure if every cop is a good guy, or every soldier is on our side, or if we can trust our sons with the parish priest, or if our rabbis, despite their pious garb and public expressions of devotion, are truly exemplars of the blessings of a Torah-directed life. (And let’s not even discuss politicians.) As the footsteps of the Messiah approach and as the human family matures spiritually, it is more important than ever to have X-Ray vision.
It is my hope and prayer that America rises to the Torah standard, to X-Ray vision, to the Skverer Rebbe’s penetrating soul gaze; so that we may finally emerge from the long shadows that slavery has cast on this land, and grow together as brothers, as neighbors, and as friends.