The Holocaust Is Not a Matter to 'Get Over'

The Holocaust is an indelible part of Jews' history--and their present--and one from which we must draw the proper lessons.

BY: Rabbi David Wolpe


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Q. Just a question, with no disrespect implied. Why is it that Judaism does not get past the Holocaust? After all, it was over 50 years ago, and the Nazis lost. Yes, it was a shattering tragedy, but after all, it is over. At bookstores and other places, the "Judaism" section is always about 75% books on the Holocaust. Is Judaism really so stuck on that one event that nothing else can be discussed or done? If so, then Judaism is faced with a real problem: the inability to get beyond the past, and thereby becoming irrelevant for people now. After all, 85% or so of everyone alive now was born after 1945. In 20 years, it will be almost 100%.

The Holocaust does not define my Jewish life. It does not define the Jewish life of most of my congregants. The percentage of books published on Jewish subjects includes a hefty number on the Holocaust to be sure, but far fewer than on all the other aspects of Jewish life: Bible, law, history, tradition, Talmud, theology, Israel. Judaism's task is not to "get past" the Holocaust but rather to help Jews make sense of our history.

The Holocaust does undeniably dominate a large swath of the modern Jewish consciousness. To some, this seems extravagant, unnecessary. Even granting the mind-bending enormity of the horror, what good can it do to make evil a touchstone of one's life?

In historical time, in the span of a people that stretches back more than three millennia, the Holocaust is not even yesterday. Not only are there many thousands of survivors still alive, but there are millions of children of survivors, their friends and relatives, whose lives were touched, whose hearts were seared by the stories told and concealed, by relatives they meet, and relatives whom they will never meet, because they fell victim to the Shoah. (Shoah is the traditional Hebrew term for the Holocaust.)

But even were the Shoah not so immediately part of the everyday life of millions of Jews, there is an issue of historical consciousness. Americans are unique in their disregarding of the power of history. We tend to believe that it is possible to live in the now without regard to the enormity of the forces that shaped us.

When Jung wrote that the greatest influence on a child was the unlived life of his parents, he was pointing out that generations are not only influenced, but subtly determined, by what went before. Modern therapy is based on the idea that the repressed memory, the event forgotten, is what molds our psyche. In order to live free, one must gain a certain mastery of the past. We cannot master the past by ignoring it.

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