No sooner is Passover over than we begin commemorating a series of events that took place in the 20th century, starting with Holocaust Remembrance Day and concluding with Jerusalem Day. Frequently there have been calls to reduce the number of such days by combining the former with Tisha Be’av, on the grounds that Tisha Be’av has traditionally been the day for mourning terrible events in our history, and the Shoah could easily fit into that category.
The argument against that move has been that the Holocaust was so devastating that it deserves its own day. There is something to that, but there is an even greater reason for keeping Holocaust Remembrance Day distinct from Tisha Be’av, and it has a theological basis.
The concept that underlies Tisha Be’av is based on the words of the prophets, especially Jeremiah, who predicted that God would bring about the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem because of the sins of the people. The idea is repeated in the book of Lamentations. It is a theological proposition that the Sages emphasized as well and that has been incorporated into our prayers and the many poems (piyutim) that we recite on Tisha Be’av. It is summarized succinctly in the words of the Mussaf prayer for festivals: “Because of our sins we were exiled from our land.”
In Jewish tradition, the destruction of the First Temple at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BCE and of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE was God’s punishment of our people, a result of their sins. That is what Jeremiah had predicted. The Babylonians and the Romans were carrying our God’s wishes – even if they went further in their cruelty than God might have wanted. The rabbis themselves were puzzled by the destruction of the Second Temple, because they did not believe that generation had committed the terrible sins Jeremiah had ascribed to the earlier generations – idolatry, bloodshed and adultery. Therefore they suggested other sins – the most well-known being sinat hinam, or causeless hatred.
If we were to include the Shoah among these events and apply the same ideology and rhetoric to the Holocaust, we would automatically be saying that the Shoah, too, was God’s punishment of the Jewish People for sins they had committed. Indeed, in some extremist circles, that exact charge has already been made. I consider such an idea to be both a hillul Hashem – a desecration of God – and a desecration of the Jewish people. Do we really want to teach that God deliberately brought about the deaths of six million people? Do we really believe that they deserved their fate? I think not.
To consider the Holocaust in theological terms, we need a new and different approach. A sentence that Abraham Joshua Heschel uttered may provide the basis for that approach. He said, “History is the realm in which the will of God is defied.” The Nazis and their fellow collaborators did not carry out the will of God; they defied it. The will of God is that we love one another, that we refrain from hatred and cruelty, that we help and not hurt other human beings. Misusing God’s gift of free will, the Nazis instead slaughtered innocents in the cruelest ways possible. They were not God’s instruments, but God’s enemies. The Shoah challenges us to find ways to prevent such human cruelty and to make certain that God’s will is not defied again in such a terrible way. That is the message we want to convey on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
In the Masorti/Conservative Movement, we have tried to encourage such thinking through the creation of special prayers and readings for Holocaust Remembrance Day. Among them is our publication Megillat Hashoah, in which we present an approach that makes clear that the Shoah was not the result of God’s punishment, but of human failings, including the failure of others to stop the actions of the Nazis.
The victims of the Nazis deserve to be remembered and to be considered innocent victims of human cruelty. Their memory deserves to be hallowed in a proper way. Therefore we need a special day, one that will consider all that has happened appropriately and not cast aspersions on the victims.
We need a different day and a different message. We need Holocaust Remembrance Day. ■
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).