Reflecting on Holocaust Theology

Photo of train tracks leading away from the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and death camps; flowers bound in a white-and-blue striped ribbon have been placed on the tracks.

Leaving Auschwitz – Creative Commons License

I’ve chosen the picture for this post carefully, because it shows the train tracks leading away from the main station at Auschwitz-Birkenau II.

It’s been some time since I really wandered around in the philosophical mire on the blog. But, sure enough, that time has come again. It’s also been a while since I nudged at any of the high-voltage lines that mark the boundaries of acceptable Jewish discourse. I’m doing that today, too.

And so I lead with this warning: if you don’t want to have your notions challenged concerning how American Jews should integrate Israel and the Holocaust into their identities, or if you’re likely to be offended if I do challenge them, you won’t want to read this.

You’ve been warned. Because for many years, I have thought that liberal Jewish life in the United States has been rendered pathological in its centering on the Holocaust and Israel. (If that sentence gets you mad, maybe you want to take a breather before continuing to read.)

Now, then…

Prof. Shaul Magid (hail to old IU!) published a book review at the Tablet Magazine website titled, “American Jews Must Stop Obsessing Over the Holocaust.” Seth Mandel gives a not-too-coherent response at Commentary to what he characterizes as Magid’s not-too-coherent essay. Mandel relies upon Paul Johnson’s history of the Jews and the idea of historical reflection to argue that survival is its own rationale.

And, of course, all of this comes on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

Survival as a Rationale

Is survival alone a coherent rationale for the continuation of American Judaism? I can’t agree that it is. Certainly, the kind of survival rationale that says, “We need to continue to defeat Hitler” is not–particularly when that becomes the rationale for internecine disputes over intermarriage and interfaith relationships, since that rationale tells those in such relationships that they’re fundamentally flawed for having “let Hitler win.”

Survival is a coherent rationale if you believe in The Chosen People of the One True God, Which People Is a Light Unto the Nations, Exemplary in All of Human History and the Purpose for All Time.

If that’s your functional understanding of Judaism then, sure, survival is its own rationale. Because you’ve accepted the propositions of the traditional understanding of covenant. That would not place you among the majority of American Jews, whom you have essentially decided are incorrect in their self-understanding, because it’s pretty hard to say, “There’s this amazing 4000 year-old culture that deserves to survive because.”

And since I think the traditional covenant approach is wrong, I also think Mandel is wrong–it’s just that he’s more subtle because he avoids covenant talk.