Shabbat Devarim – 10 August 2019

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 15 August 2019

Jorge Augustin Nicolas Ruiz de Santayana y Borras – not exactly a name that trips off the tongue if you’re not Spanish. If we know of him, it’s probably simply as George de Santayana; and if we know of him as George de Santayana it’s for one quote of his: “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

One of the problems is knowing just what are the lessons from the past that we should be remembering. The past couple of years seem particularly bad in terms of how the past is presented and seen. I’m reading “The Ministry of Truth,” a biography of George Orwell’s “1984.” While the phrase ‘alternative facts’ might be new, that biography reminds us that manipulating the past is by nothing new.

This evening is Tisha b’Av, the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av, commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, the day the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 and several other catastrophes that befell the Jewish people on that date. Now it’s clear that events scattered over two millennia didn’t all conveniently happen on the same day – the coincidence would be too much of a strain on our credulity.

But marking them all on the same day in the Jewish calendar suggests that rabbis over the ages saw a common thread linking those events and so felt it appropriate to commemorate them all on the same day.

In the 1950s in Israel there was a long debate about the appropriate day on which to commemorate the Shoah. Should it be on Tisha b’Av or on some separate Yom HaShoah, and if so, when should it be? Many argued for Tisha b’Av but finally a date after Pesach but before Yom Ha’Atsmaut was declared official by the Knesset. At Alyth, we have separate commemorations for Yom HaShoah and Tisha b’Av. I don’t know the thinking behind that but keeping them separate is, presumably, saying something about how we see those events.

One of the problems with Tisha b’Av is the traditional theology behind it. Jewish tradition asks “Why were the Temples destroyed?” The classic line of response was to say “mipnei cha’taeinu galinu mei’artseinu,” “because of our sins we were exiled from our land.” It’s a phrase still found in the traditional High Holyday machzor and puts the destruction and subsequent exile into a specific theological context. Babylonia and Rome – the nations which conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the Temples – were tools in the hand of God. The people had sinned. Destruction and exile were divine punishment for their wrongdoing. They brought it on themselves.

Is that a theology we find acceptable?

In November 1971, I had been ordained just a few months and was assistant rabbi in the Reform Synagogue in Paris. My senior colleague had been invited to a public debate with an orthodox rabbi in Alsace. I went with him. In the question and answer session, a yeshivah bochur made a long diatribe against Reform Judaism. He argued that the Shoah was divine punishment for the fact that Reform Jews had abandoned Torah. In effect, simply a contemporary version of the traditional argument “mipnei cha’taeinu galinu mei’artseinu.” I was shocked and appalled that one Jew could say such an obscene thing of another Jew. Nearly 50 years on, I am, sadly, no longer shocked but remain just as appalled.

I don’t know if the guy had actually thought through the implications of what he was saying. Maybe his conception of God was of a punishing, avenging deity? ? But how he could, apparently quite blithely, maintain a traditional theological stance in the face of the Shoah, struck me, still strikes me, as callous in the extreme. Moreover, if that is how God works, then it is a God with whom I would want to have nothing to do.

Commemorating the Shoah on Tisha b’Av would suggest, then, that it is essentially nothing more than the 20th century instalment of a long-running serial of persecution and destruction – more-extreme, to be sure, but just another episode in the same drama.

Keeping the two separate also makes a very definite statement suggesting that there’s a very different lesson to be learned from our recent past – not one making any connection with divine punishment, nor any connection between the Shoah and wrongdoing on our part.

In his last book, Primo Levi concludes quite simply: “the Shoah happened – therefore it can happen again.” And of course it did: Bosnia and Chechnya, East Timor, Cambodia, Ruanda, the Rohinga in Burma. The list goes on and populist nationalism gives us no cause for rest or ease.

While the Shoah was a specific Jewish tragedy, the lessons from it are for all human beings. Never before did an event of Jewish suffering provoke such self-questioning on the part of the perpetrators.

Yet there are risks with a separate Yom HaShoah. It fosters a ‘never again’ attitude, which, after what happened in the Shoah, must be right. But ‘never again’ is problematic when it becomes little more than a justification for saying “nobody cared about us then – why should we care for others now?”

Is that the lesson from the past that Santayana was warning us about?

‘Never again’ must mean, surely, that we cannot, in our turn, abandon any minority group that is endangered in society. Misapplied ‘never again’ turns us into perpetual victims, as if Jewish experience is just a series of Tisha b’Av events.

In 1966, Emil Fackenheim, one of the leading post-war Jewish thinkers, suggested adding a 614th commandment to the traditional list of 613. He proposed: “do not give Hitler a posthumous victory. by ceasing to exist as Jews.” It really took hold in the Jewish world – remember that 1966 was just over 20 years since the Shoah. Together with many of my colleagues, I was very taken with the statement – it shared something of the punchiness of Santayana’s aphorism. Both were saying something about what we did with the past, how we remembered it.

But it became clear that there was a shadow side to that 614th commandment. For not giving Hitler posthumous victory can be seen as a plea to try and make up some of the numbers lost in the Shoah. After such appalling losses, building up Jewish numbers has to be part of it. But I have no doubt – and heard Fackenheim confirming it – that it can’t mean simply physical survival. Fackenheim explained that he was thinking of the quality of Jewish life not just the quantity.

As the writer Michael Lerner put it, “if Jewish survival becomes a matter of preserving Jewish bodies espousing the values of militarism, national chauvinism, suspicion of others, cleverness in advancing our self-interest über alles, nostalgia for a romanticised past, religious without moral sensitivity, toughness to show that we can’t be pushed around, smartness separated from ethical passion, insistence on our wounds as a way of closing our ears to the pain of others – then Hitler has won.” (Jewish Renewal p203)

Today’s sidra, always the one we read before Tisha b’Av, tells us that it was only 11 days from Mount Sinai to Kadesh-Barnea on the threshold of the Promised Land. In other words, an 11-day journey had taken the people 40 years of wandering, trial and tribulation in the desert.

Nearly 80 years after the Shoah we still wander through deserts of human suffering. We have still not learned perhaps the primary lesson of the Shoah – that there are delicate threads of care and responsibility towards other human beings which can be cut or ignored only at our peril.

This Shabbat, the one before Tisha b’Av, is called Shabbat Hazon, ‘the sabbath of vision,’ because the haphtarah, from the 1st chapter of Isaiah, begins with the word ‘hazon’ and describes his vision of a better world: “cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, help the  oppressed.” (Isaiah 1:16)

We can’t not remember our past sufferings. But how do we do so staying faithful to Santayana’s dictum? – remembering that suffering but not letting it turn us inwards on ourselves and against the world? So that we do what we can to relieve present pain and suffering.