Jewish Progressives Wrestle with Renewal and the Legacy of Auschwitz

First published in National Catholic Reporter, March 1995

A time for self-congratulation, or self-interrogation?  Over  the next several months, U.S. citizens will be reminded of the end to the horrors of World War II fifty years ago.  One particularly gut-wrenching commemoration is the liberation by Russian forces of the notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau death and slave labor camp on January 26.  Auschwitz has come to be the symbol of ultimate evil. The rival to the oft-asked question, “where was God at Auschwitz?” has been “where was humanity?”

These questions continue to haunt the world’s conscience —  for example, the continuing atrocities in Bosnia have often been interpreted with reference to Auschwitz.  Though it’s very debatable whether most Western Christians have yet faced the political, social, ethical, and religious questions raised by the attempted extermination of the Jewish people, the Jewish community has certainly confronted the enormity of the slaughter and the need for healing.

There have been several recent books authored by progressive Jews who are  concerned with the future of renewal in the Jewish community and often with the legacy of the Holocaust.  These writers provide a spirited testimony to the on-going vitality and struggles of post-Holocaust Judaism and Jewish life.  Moreover, they offer crucial insights for Catholics concerned with U.S. church renewal and political responsibility, not only in light of the commemoration of the liberation of the Nazi death camps, but also the  remembrance of the U.S. nuclear bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Albert H. Friedlander, a British Reform rabbi, has done a great service in publishing his Riders Towards the Dawn:  From Holocaust to Hope (Continuum, 1994, 328 p., $25).  Personally well acquainted with many Jewish survivors of the camps, Friedlander champions the title’s “dawn-riders”:  those who emerged from the darkness and depravity of the camps to, however slowly and painfully,  move towards a dawn of affirming life today.

He offers reflections on psychologists such as Bettelheim, novelists such as Wiesel, poets like Nelly Sachs and Paul Celan, and Orthodox and radical theologians like Irving Greenberg and Richard Rubenstein.  Friedlander himself was born in Berlin and fled the country as a young boy; the book reflects his own journey to remain faithful to his religious inheritance while at the same time avoiding easy theodicies that too quickly evade the staggering terror of the Holocaust.

Friedlander also examines various social-political contexts for dawn-riders’ remembering and facing the Holocaust —  from Germany, France, and Italy to the United States and Israel. Throughout, he is both incisively critical and generous, especially when dealing with the few Christian responses to Nazism, such as Bonhoeffer, Kolbe, and Niemoeller.  This work is an unsettling, if ultimately inspiring account that  calls to mind similar struggles of other “dawn-riders” from other recent atrocities, such as Rigoberta Menchu in Guatemala or Thich Nhat Hanh from Vietnam.

U.S. Jewish theologian Marc Ellis makes a trip he took to Auschwitz in 1992 the unifying focus of his book, Ending Auschwitz:  The Future of Jewish and Christian Life (Westminister/John Knox, 1994, 162 p., $16.99).  While at Auschwitz with an international delegation of Jewish intellectuals to advise the Polish government on how to remember the Holocaust, Ellis deepens his critique of an over-emphasis on Jewish suffering 50 years ago which distances Jews from more recent and more troubling suffering — principally that of Palestinians under Israeli occupation since 1967.

While he has credited some of the dawn-riders Friedlander highlights for having the courage early on to forge a “Holocaust theology,” Ellis asserts that the refrain of “Never Again Auschwitz” has too often served as an ideological cover for the Israeli occupation of Palestine.  He is extremely critical of establishment Jews and Christians who choose to live comfortably within a U.S. empire rather than side with the victims of that empire.  This book, then, is a call to end the preoccupation with Auschwitz if it doesn’t evoke a consistent solidarity today.

Drawing on the recent scholarship of John Dominic Crossan, Ellis offers some striking thoughts on Auschwitz in relation to the historical Jesus’s “brokerless kingdom of God.”  Accompanying Ellis’s deep suspicion of  orthodox religion is his hope that a new personal and communal discipline can be forged requisite to meet the challenges of living after Auschwitz.

Ellis’s critical sensibility is matched by Israeli humanist and scholar Israel Shahak, who is primarily concerned with the impact that religious ideology of the past has upon the present.  In his Jewish History, Jewish Religion:  The Burden of Three Thousand Years (Pluto Press, 1994, 127 p., $16.95), Shahak explores the relation of the Jew to the non-Jew in the Talmud.  Shahak is scandalized by the indifference and hostility to Gentiles manifested in several parts of the orthodox Jewish religion, and, much like feminists in Christianity or Judaism who call attention to the tradition’s contemptible patriarchy, he  dissects and denounces this chauvinism.

Shahak contends that his attentiveness to this ideological strand in the Talmud has a direct, contemporary relevance in that Israeli religious parties and leaders have in no way renounced these teachings of disdain. He goes on to show how these teachings often contribute to the denigration of Palestinians today.  Shahak, a long-time Israeli dissident, is a translator of the Hebrew press into English; his translations for Western readers reveal the candor present in the Israeli press on the treatment of non-Jews in the Jewish state.

Shahak survived the Bergen-Belsen death camp and emigrated to Palestine:  he has  long been a champion of Palestinian civil and human rights and insists that not only must anti-Semitism be confronted but so must classical Judaism’s exclusivism and chauvinism.  With this book, Shahak is guaranteed to startle many Jews (and Christians), but such has been his prophetic vocation in Israel for decades.

Michael Lerner, editor of the influential bi-monthly U.S. Jewish magazine Tikkun, has provided a version of a Jewish “liberation theology” with his Jewish Renewal (Grosset/Putnam, 1994, 436 p., $25.95).  With his magazine and this book, Lerner has been doggedly trying to provide a critical, progressive alternative to the neo-conservative Jewish voices that emerged in the 1970s.  He also seeks to criticize the limitations of leftist politics for its inattention to a complex of issues that he has called “the politics of meaning,” i.e., the spiritual and ethical needs of community and connection that go way beyond economic entitlements typically championed by the liberal-left.

Lerner unabashedly shares his enthusiasm for a reading of the Torah that offers a liberatory vision, psychologically, politically, and communally. Herein, he attempts to reach out to those many Jews who feel alienated from mainstream Jewish organizations and institutions.  He hopes to show how a renewed Jewish religious life can be a compelling model for other communities struggling to reclaim the voice of God in their traditions, in opposition to the all-too-human voices of cruelty that invariably accompany the divine voice.

Lerner credits contemporary feminists with providing a paradigm of the possibility of deep, substantial transformation, both in the Jewish tradition and the broader culture.  He also holds out much hope for the fragile Peace Accords between Israel and the Palestinians, seeing in them the groundwork for a radical mutual recognition. At the same time, he criticizes the violence of what he calls “Settler Judaism,” also a principal concern of Israel Shahak’s. He also makes a provocative analysis of Fascism in relation to the politics of meaning while reclaiming “Never Again” as a challenge to Jews — and all of us —  to attend to the  sufferings of peoples today.

In The Future of Judaism (T & T Clark, Edinburgh, 1994, 227 p.,  $19.95),  British Reform rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok does not attend either to the Holocaust or Israel as central to the Jewish future.  Rather, he offers a historical survey to show that after the Enlightenment the monolithic Jewish tradition fragmented into so many competing camps:  Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Humanistic, and Polydox.

His primary agenda is akin to that of some theologians in Christianity who are engaged in global, interreligious dialogue:  Cohn-Sherbok author argues that no one religious tradition constitutes the “uniquely true and  superior” way. The Jewish understanding of God has to be seen as one way among many  that attempts to make sense of ultimate reality.  He advocates a non-dogmatic approach to  Jewish identity and practice in order to be better integrated in modern culture as well as to engage in joint projects and worship with other religious traditions.  In other words, there must be a shift from a Judeo-centric to theocentric approach to other faiths.

Cohn-Sherbok thus proposes an “Open Judaism,” in which Jewish identity and practice are purely matters of individual choice and autonomy.  As a religious ideology, Open Judaism respects the observances individuals choose as most meaningful to them; no one person or body should be in a position to decide the appropriate observances for the entire community.

Daniel Boyarin, a Talmudic scholar, adds a fascinating complement to the many recent Jewish interpretations of Jesus with his A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (University of California Press, 1994, 366 p., $35).  Herein, he claims a privileged place for Paul’s’ letters in Jewish studies as he considers Paul a cultural critic par excellence.  Boyarin concentrates especially on Galatians and how Paul found an answer to his cultural dilemma of overcoming Jewish ethnic particularity by faith in the universal, spiritual Christ.

The significance of Paul, Boyarin asserts, is that he helped to set the agenda over which Jews and Christians are still wrestling, particularly in this age of feminism and multiculturalism.  The dilemma we still face is the relationship of the universal and the particular. If the genius of Christianity has been a concern for all people, its dark side has been a triumphal, coercive universalism that has been most tragically played out in European history.  If the genius of Jewish people has been to leave other people alone, its shadow side has been a xenophobia that becomes much more dangerous in the State of Israel when Jews have  attained power over another people.

Thus, Boyarin advocates a Diaspora identity in which Jewish particularity is not wed to political power. Boyarin notes that Jewish identity is not solely national nor genealogical nor religious, but it is all of these, in creative tension with each other.  His work is a revealing, insightful consideration of current issues of ethnicity and gender, sparked by his  critical and sympathetic encounter with Paul.

The writers briefly surveyed here touch on the wounds of recent history that have yet to heal — for Jews, Christians, Europeans, Americans, Israelis, and Palestinians.  In various ways, their work frequently deals explicitly or implicitly with the shadow of the Holocaust at the end of the twentieth century.  As such,  their work is recommended reading for Christians committed to face not only the vast historical legacy of anti-Semitism but also the recent Western indifference to the Palestinians’ suffering.

It’s easy to see the parallels and common concerns of these Jewish progressives with their  Catholic contemporaries, from the importance of feminism to interreligious dialogue. These writers are lucid, searing, compassionate, and profound — they stress the importance of radical Jewish self-critique, political imagination, committed renewal, and brave solidarity. Although they are progressive, there’s not a conformist homogeneity here:  the writers are Israeli and Diaspora, religious and secular, Orthodox and Open.  They would no doubt find much to refine, debate, and challenge even in each other’s positions. So ought we with them — and with each other.

For fifty years after Auschwitz, there have been too few lessons learned, despite the anguishing testimony of the victims and survivors.  To remember Auschwitz is to remember a cataclysmic failure, one that ought to move us to the deepest civic and religious commitment, rather than facile self-congratulation.

As the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima looms, we do well to remember the words of activist-pacifist A.J. Muste, “The problem after a war is with the victor.  He thinks he has just proved that war and violence pay.  Who will now teach him a lesson?”

–Mark Chmiel is a doctoral student in the Religion and  Society department at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.

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