Reflecting on Holocaust Theology

Modern Anti-Semitism and New Answers

None of this is to deny the reality of anti-Semitism where it exists. Europe has become a frightening place for many Jews. There are few, if any Jews left in most Muslim countries, ending centuries of often peaceful life and cultural exchange.

But thought and arguments need to be directed to individuals where they are. American Jews are not in the position of the Jews of France, let alone the few Jews remaining in predominantly Muslim countries. And so, arguments that American Jews should have the same mindset and take the same actions for the same reasons will fail.

This is not a new observation. What was the Musar movement, if not addressing the needs of a time when the perceived overemphasis on Talmud study had helped to diminish menshlichkeit–being a good person? Change of argument is necessary over time.

Why, then, do so many persist in thinking that Holocaust-and-Israel-centered Jewish identity and thought will be the thing to sustain American Jews?

I think some of this comes down to those answers having been successful in response to the Holocaust. But interestingly, those answers were already in place before the Holocaust occurred. Zionism had been a force in Jewish thought since at least the 1880s; what did Zionism have as its focus, if not the creation of Israel in order to defeat the threat of anti-Semitism, of which the Holocaust is the perhaps most perfect manifestation?

This answer “worked” in response to the Holocaust. And because it worked once, we tend to think it will continue to do so. But what we miss is that the answer “worked” in American Jewish communities only after the Holocaust occurred, “proving” the Zionist thesis. The near-universal acceptance of some form of Zionism that we see in American Jewish communities today did not exist even in 1940.

As we see Israel more stable, and American Jews more stable, the Zionist thesis is beginning to lose much of its power. True, Israel is always under threat; but the acuteness of the threat is much diminished as full-fledged state actors may funnel money to Hamas and Hezbollah rather than the force of the states themselves.

This is not to say that the Israel-Holocaust rationale does not work in Israel, or in France, or in any number of other places with somewhat imperiled Jewish communities. But the American Jewish community is not significantly imperiled by the threat of massive violence from outsiders, and hanging the threat of Nazi Germany over American Jewish youths’ heads is not a credible strategy. (Indeed, it’s somewhat pathological, I think, and creates knee-jerk feelings of persecution where no persecution exists.)

Anti-Semitic sentiments and behavior will happen at times; we live in a largely open society, and these things will happen–however painful we may find them. When we conflate those bumps in the road with the Holocaust, we discredit our arguments, and we diminish the memories and importance of the Nazis’ victims, of those who lost their lives fighting to ensure the survival of a fledgling state, and of those whose lives were lost or ruined in the face of systematic, consistent, rampant, and institutionalized cruelty to Jews because they were Jews.

But that is not the situation in which American Jews find themselves; it has not been the reality of American Jews for a long time.

Magid and Neusner are correct. It’s time to find new approaches, and new arguments, and new tools. The old formula, “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!” is something more of a joke now than it once was.

To a new generation of American Jews, it’s simply morbid.

Gershom Scholem, the famous scholar of Jewish mysticism, also turned his eyes toward the academic study of Judaism and opined that there is no real essence to Judaism. Judaism is what we–the Jews–make of it. Israel and the Holocaust as central events defined the second half of the twentieth century for liberal Judaism in the United States.

But our circumstances have changed and so, too, must Judaism. It’s time to think again about how, as we change, Judaism can change with us.

Auschwitz shall always pain our hearts. But we cannot forever stand under its smokestacks.