Tag Archives: Holocaust

Entropic Reasonableness

From time to time, one cannot but wonder how war is possible. That question is usually put by liberals who misconstrue it as an exacerbated outcry against our side ever taking up arms, given the inevitable carnage that we leave behind. From such a point of view, pacifism is indeed the only sane response. The problem is the assumption of sanity on the other side. I grant the universality of reason, but not of sanity. Insane wielders of power are perfectly reasonable. They just twist reason toward insane ends.

The issue arises anew with Inferno, a spectacular history of World War II by Max Hastings, the eminent authority on war. He has read all the studies including a ton of first-person accounts of what it was like to be there. The book makes for gruesome reading. That is, in a way, its whole point.

I necessarily read such things through a Jewish lens. Hastings, however, focuses globally. His topic is not just the Jewish 6 million, but the 60 to 70 million who died overall. “Russia alone lost 27 million people, China at least 15 million.” It’s not just the numbers that stagger; it’s the blatant cruelty. Germany’s forced starvation of Russian prisoners, Japanese inhumanity against China in particular, and Stalin’s wholesale slaughter of almost everyone, his own people included.

It’s hard, but not surprising, to read how Stalin dispatched wave after wave of combatants into the direct line of enemy fire, until corpses piled up higher than people could climb over. It’s both hard and surprising to learn how Americans fire-bombed Japanese cities into submission even though the war was virtually won by then, and there was no need to mass-murder Japanese civilians. The first sortie alone (March 9, 1945), “killed 100,000 people and rendered a million homeless – 10,000 acres, ¼ of Tokyo was reduced to ashes.” Simultaneously, we initiated Operation Starvation (yes, that was its name), 12,000 sea mines to sink anything that tried to land food in Japanese harbors. It was part of our campaign to end war weariness here at home – bring an end to the carnage as soon as possible.

I understand all that. I really do. And I ask all over again how war is possible.

My question, however, is deeper than the liberal outcry for pacifism. I am a Jew who would not be here if Hitler had prevailed.

My point is the distinction between reason and sanity, a pair of virtues that get improperly confused as one and the same thing. Their negation, “unreasonable,” can mean either “contrary to logic”(on one hand) or “defying sanity” (on the other). The difference comes home in Hastings’ conclusion that “one third of all German losses in the east took place in the last months of the war, when their sacrifice could serve no purpose save that of fulfilling the Nazi leadership’s commitment to self –immolation.” That sounds both contrary to logic and insane. But was it?

By then, The Nazi leaders had already committed so many crimes against humanity that another million murders wouldn’t affect their own personal destiny one way or another. Then too, Nazi success earlier had emboldened fascists like Hungary’s Arrow Cross militia, which now had its own brief day in the sun, helping the Nazis eliminate every last Jew still walking.

“A Hungarian army officer rebuked an Arrow Cross teenager whom he saw beating an old woman in a column being herded toward their execution place. ‘Haven’t you got a mother, son? How can you do this?’

“The boy answered carelessly, ‘She’s only a Jew, uncle.’”

What do we make of this behavior? Is it unreasonable?

Not at all.  It is just insane. The sadistic teenager was quite reasonably acting out his own sadism. The Nazis who supported him were equally reasonably winning the only war they could: the war against the Jews. They would surely lose the war against the allies, but maybe they could still leave the world Judenrein.

We regularly conflate the notions of sanity and reason, as if they are the same. Philosophically, it is part of the doctrine left us from the Age of Reason, that gets called (among other things) “rational choice theory.” The basic idea is that left to their own devices, human beings naturally make rational choices. It’s Isaiah 1:18 updated. “Come let us reason together,” God tells Israel, as if reason will inevitably win out.

But reason’s victory can be devastating, if it begins with insanity. The eleventh-century Jewish commentator Rashi knows that for reason also to be sane, it must be predicated on moral assumptions. He notes the prior verse, “Learn to do good; devote yourself to justice,” and concludes, “After you repent and return to me, then come let us reason together.”

It is perfectly reasonable for deranged murderers to go on murdering, reasonable for Stalin to sacrifice his people, reasonable for the teenager to beat the old woman, and reasonable for Hitler to pursue the war against the Jews rather than to devote his army’s flagging energy to the “other war” which he was going to lose anyway. Yes, all of this was reasonable; just not sane.

The insanity of the human psyche will not easily go away. It is the part of us that colludes with the universal force of entropy. We exhaust our best efforts at building, creating, loving, and supporting – but lose it all in demonic outbursts of entropic reasonableness.


Ya Gotta Believe — Something (Part 2)

The most familiar statement of Jewish belief is the section of prayer we call the Sh’ma and its Blessings. The Sh’ma affirms the absolute oneness of God. But most major religions affirm monotheism, so accompanying the Sh’ma are three surrounding blessings that delineate the nature of this one God whom Jews affirm. We believe in a God who a) creates all things, b) reveals Torah to Israel, and c) promises redemption.

So far so good. But here’s the problem. The minute we make those statements, we are in danger of evoking an image of some old man who creates the universe the way Geppetto created Pinocchio; who dictated Torah to Moses the way Donald Trump instructs his executive assistant to “take a letter”; and a military genius who foiled the Egyptians at the Red Sea the way the Duke of Wellington beat Napoleon at Waterloo.

These are exactly the “humanized” versions of God that most moderns reject as childish. Is God some super combination of Geppetto, Trump and Wellington? Is creation like Pinocchio? The Torah like an executive memo? And the Red Sea like Waterloo?

Of course not. What we have is a liturgical set of metaphors for God, the rabbinic attempt to envision God in a way that would stretch people’s imagination. Ever since then, Jews have struggled with these metaphors, making them over into new ones of their own, if need be, so as to express the inexpressible essence of the Divine.

The best-known modern effort to do so avoids saying anything about God at all. Instead it names the processes in which God seems here to be engaged. God, we have been taught to say, is a God of creation, revelation, and redemption.

Again, so far so good. But literalists then try to translate process back into person. God, they conclude, is a creator, revealer and redeemer — which puts us back at square one, likening God to Geppetto, Trump and Wellington again. Besides, creation, revelation and redemption do not resonate for us the way they did for the nineteenth-century philosophers who came up with them. No one these days is likely to encounter a discussion on any one of them.

If we are to believe in anything sustainable, we require more up-to-date metaphors that capture best this three-fold insistence on creation, revelation and redemption; which are, therefore, equally true to the original intent of the prayers; but which speak to our time. I suggest a metaphor that combines time, space and history.

What astounds about the universe is the aesthetic and scientific miracle by which the finely-tuned network of natural law accords so beautifully with mathematics. For modern Jews, therefore, the doctrine of creation is best translated as the affirmation that the universe has pattern. It runs by an amazingly small set of universal laws that never ever fail.

Revelation describes our faith that this cosmic order is not without human purpose. We humans can matter in a grand scheme of which we know almost nothing but into which we have been thrust.

Redemption is the realization that over the long run, purpose within pattern gives us the right to hope.

Pattern, purpose and hope are the contemporary equivalents of creation, revelation and redemption. They sustain us on the tiny bridge of time called history.

If the age of the universe were a line in space equal to the distance from New York to Los Angeles, Jewish history since Abraham and Sarah would cover only ten feet, and human existence, prehistory and all, would encompass only part of a single span of the Golden Gate or George Washington Bridge. The Holocaust, therefore, in all its unspeakable horror, is insufficient to shatter optimism. The State of Israel is a similar, albeit positive, tiny step in time, an outpost of hope we must defend, but hardly a sign of imminent messianic victory, as some extremists imagine. Life is lived in the narrowness of bridge spans. Faith is the insistence that the bridge goes somewhere, connecting past and future in a present that has meaning.

For the bridge is not without direction. Creation pulses forward toward ever-increasing freedom. If God is the power behind universal pattern, the guarantor of purpose and the ground for hope, we can say, in short, that God (as it were) wants human freedom; has designed a universe that invites it; and summons Jews to champion it. The Jewish People’s moral purpose is to tell our story of servitude and freedom; to act it out in ritual that revives our vision and steels our nerve; and then, in all we do, to demonstrate our faith in freedom as the redemptive end of history.

Yom Hasho’ah is virtually upon us….

Yom Hasho’ah is virtually upon us, but each and every year, it becomes more difficult to know what to make of it. The facts are clear enough. Thanks to Holocaust memorials, museums, archives, books and videos, we will have no trouble pointing to the awful record of the time and saying, “See what happened.” But having pointed to it, what lessons shall we ask the Jews of the late 21st century and beyond to take from it?

We have never been quite clear on that. Until the 1960s, we were unable even to acknowledge the enormity of it all – it took the 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann to correct our Jewish reticence on the subject, let alone to invite conversation by others. Then too, we have had to contend with Holocaust deniers, some of whom still surface from time to time. With all this energy going into the “what” of the Holocaust, we have not sufficiently broached the “so what” of the thing, and it is time we got that straight, because without it, we will know exactly what to point to but we will not know why we are doing the pointing.

Two long-term approaches are patent. On the one hand, there are particularists who see the Shoah as a lesson in Jewish survivalism. The Herzlian Zionists had it right when they said the world is inherently anti-Semitic and Jews can never rest secure. Hitlers can and will rise up — anywhere, any time. Only a Jewish State can save us, and a Jewish State must ever be vigilant because Jews can trust nobody. The purpose of remembrance is to know in our very bones just how vulnerable we are, by seeing how little the world cared about our virtual disappearance.

On the other hand, there are universalists who remind us of other attempted genocides, like the ethnic cleansing of Bosnians by Serbs and the ongoing massacre even now of Africans in Darfur. We Jews rightly bristle when people lump our own experience in with that of everyone else, as if one genocide is the same as any other, so that no attention need be paid to the specificity of each one: the Jewish instance has its own uniqueness, after all. But even that lesson can have universal application, in that other attempts to eliminate entire races and ethnicities should also not be homogenized into a single worthless truism of “let’s remember all the groups who almost disappeared.” If we remember all of them as one, we remember none of them at all.

This particularistic-universalistic debate is nothing new. Planners of Holocaust memorials necessarily face up to it. But the rest of us do not. And it is time we did, for otherwise, we will be historically rich in knowing the facts but spiritually bankrupt in explaining why they matter.

Both lessons matter — profoundly. They are both true.

Irrational hostility toward Israel by otherwise thoughtful people who simultaneously ignore the most vile dictators who are Israel’s enemies and who are genuine criminals against humanity is the surest demonstration of the need for Jewish vigilance. But the Jewish mission can hardly be defensiveness without some corollary sense of why Jews should stick around to start with, and therein lies the universal lesson of the Shoah, just one of many universalisms that Judaism once introduced to western culture and still proudly defends as the prophetic message the world needs to hear.

I read this week’s sedra with all this in mind. Entitled K’doshim (“holy”), it commands us to be holy as God is holy. To practice honesty in business; to demand justice; to care for the deaf and the blind; not to stand idly by the blood of others: these are the heart of this week’s Torah. What could be more universal than “sanctifying” the world, kiddush, in Hebrew. But the same word attached to shem (“God’s name”) gives us the possibility of dying al kiddush hashem, our term for martyrdom, precisely the other pole of the Sho’ah, what we want desperately to avoid.

We enter Yom Hashoah with Parashat K’doshim ringing in our ears, and the dual lesson of what the Shoah means beyond sacred memory of the people who died and of how they met their end. We need remain vigilant against ever again suffering the fate of dying al Kiddush hashem. But similarly, we need vigilance against injustice, poverty, and the condition of helplessness that makes anyone a victim of history. The world’s oppressed ought at least to count on Jews to come to their aid when no one else seems anxious to do so.