What if? A long-form, humanistic think-piece for Elul

Facing Tremendum

Before I start exploring this concept, I need to add a note of caution. We’re stepping a bit into the realm of Holocaust theology. (No, I’m not doing theology per se–you’ve come to the wrong place for that–but in a Tillich-like ultimate-concern way, this is theology.) I strongly subscribe to Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s maxim, stated in his essay, “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity, and Modernity After the Holocaust,” that we say nothing we could not also say credibly in the presence of burning children.

I disagree with Greenberg’s assertion that moral necessity is a basis upon which to assert there must be a god, or a world to come; this brings to mind the adage that starts off, “If wishes were horses.” Greenberg’s essay accepts the idea of “a self-critical humanism springing out of the Holocaust [that] says no to the demons of Auschwitz,” though I think he views it as a sad second option, perhaps only slightly better than the “death of God” and “secular man” [secular city?] visions of the late 1950s and early 1960s which he asserts “collaborat[e] with these demons.” (Greenberg’s point, better stated, is that those who perpetrated the Holocaust in the name of humanity were not really humanists, because the perpetrators did not put humanity in its proper context in nature nor demonstrate understanding or regard for the value of each person and each person’s dignity, without regard to nation of origin.) Secular Humanistic Judaism takes neither of the approaches Greenberg condemns.

Thus, I acknowledge that I tread on difficult ground. There is the need to make credible statements. But there is also the broad array of reactions of those who survived: Frankl’s work has demonstrated much staying power, as has the work of Primo Levi, Jean Amery, and others. Yet Levi, Amery, and others also committed suicide, despite knowing that the world would go on (which is, after all, the factual proposition that Scheffler says gives value to our efforts). But it is precisely because we have the work of those who themselves faced the tremendum, as Rabbi Arthur Cohen called it, that we have some ability to understand what happens to how humans value their activities in the face of an apparently-certain end.

With all that in mind, I want to turn back to Viktor Frankl. More than half of his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, is autobiography/reflective memoir of Frankl’s time as a camp inmate. (I’m going to quote from the book, but I only have the Amazon Kindle version, and citation is a huge hassle. So…no page numbers. Sorry.)

Frankl makes two important observations. The first is that, for camp inmates, the “intensification of inner life helped the prisoner find a refuge from the emptiness, desolation and spiritual poverty of his existence, by letting him escape into the past,” so that those experiences “assumed a strange character” that seemed distant. But at the same time, the prisoner “also experienced the beauty of art and nature as never before” so that “he sometimes even forgot his own frightful circumstances.” Frankl observes he could “transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘Yes’ in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose.” That purpose? Seeing his wife again, even though he somewhere in himself acknowledged that she most likely was dead.

Thus, Frankl notes that value and purpose are flexible things, observing later that he was asked to volunteer to provide care as part of a working party in another camp with typhus patients. “I knew that in a working party I would die in a short time. But if I had to die there might at least be some sense in my death. I thought that it would doubtless be more to the purpose to try and help my comrades as doctor than to vegetate or finally lose my life as the unproductive laborer that I was then.”

Frankl goes on, later in the book, to observe that his reactions and those of others who survived for some time in the camps were not about the things we consider of ordinary value. And how could they be? Yet the crucial point is that these individuals were able to identify some value upon which they could rest not only the act of survival, but also their decisions to work in the face of near-certain erasure from history by those who valued only a small portion of humanity as truly human.