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.
I am not about to recite the long, bitter history of hatred of the Jews. But when a seething hatred, punctuated by humiliation, denunciation, discrimination, and murder, culminates in a mass slaughter, to "get over" the slaughter is not only a disservice to the memory of those who died, it is a historical folly.
Lessons from historical events are notoriously hard to pin down. One of the perils of history is that in the rush to learn from it we often draw the wrong lesson. The Shoah has powerful lessons to teach, some of them indisputable, and on a scale that staggers the soul.
First, it is a lesson in the sheer savagery that exists in the human heart. This seemingly obvious lesson--we are all heirs to innumerable hatreds in history--is reinforced by the realization that the Shoah germinated in what was at the time the most civilized nation in the world: the nation of Goethe and Kant and Schiller. Cultured men, in the traditional sense of the word, dashed babies against brick walls. Do we do better, in our attempt to live wisely, to forget that?
Moreover, the Shoah reinforces the lesson that murderers, even the most vile, get away with it. Yes, Nazi Germany lost, but how many Nazis went to their graves having raised families, lived long lives, and died "with their pales full of milk," to borrow a metaphor from Job?
The Shoah teaches us a vivid lesson about denial. There was some denial by Jews, to be sure--although it was hard to believe one would be the victim of such unprecedented savagery. But there was a truly terrifying denial by those who stood by and let evil sweep over their towns, their (former) friends, their associates, their own souls. And there was denial by an indifferent world, which saw the atrocities and turned its back. These are not lessons we should disregard.
Finally, the Shoah pinpoints the effect of force rightly used. It is a standing rebuke to the pusillanimity of those who believe that nothing is worth fighting for, that a nation should preach love and lay down its arms, and the breast of the terrorist will be soothed thereby. The Shoah teaches, for those who did not know, that evil is real, that it is inside of us, and that every effort must be made, from changing the way we rear our children, to waging battle against those who would destroy the fragile moral balance of the world. We forget that at our peril.
Two thousand years ago, Cicero wrote that to forget the past is to remain forever a child. We live in a complex, dangerous world. We need grown-ups.