Meditations on Kristallnacht

kristallnacht 88 224 (photo credit: Worldvision Enterprise)
kristallnacht 88 224
(photo credit: Worldvision Enterprise)
The subject of the Shoah is never far from our thoughts. Although Yom Hashoah is the official day dedicated to the commemoration of the Holocaust and the memory of the six million, we have constant reminders of that terrible event. Kristallnacht, commemorated today, is one such extremely powerful reminder.

The events of that night in a sense signaled all that was to come and marked a turning point in Nazi determination to be rid of the Jews for once and for all. If there were ever a sign that Hitler's ranting was more than mere verbiage and that Jewry was in mortal danger, Kristallnacht was it. Had the world - Jews and Gentiles alike - truly heeded the message of that night perhaps the ultimate tragedy could have been prevented.

Memories of the Holocaust never fail to challenge us. We want to understand the Shoah, but soon discover that there is no possibility of understanding it. It challenges our faith in God, in religion and most of all our faith in humanity. All too often there are those who seek an easy way out and automatically try to interpret the Shoah as a repetition of the pattern of the ancient destructions of the Temple about which tradition said, "Because of our sins we were exiled from our land."

The result of that misguided attempt is that we blame the victims and seek the reason for their suffering in their so-called sins. Jews were not pious enough, not observant enough, too Zionist, etc. This ignores the fact that so many of those who perished were indeed pious. So many - one million children - could hardly be blamed for anything. It also paints a picture of God as unbelievably cruel. Therefore, any such thoughts are both a desecration of the dead and of God.

Rather we should remember that the Torah itself makes it very clear in the story of Cain and Abel that the innocent can be slain in defiance of the will of God because human beings were endowed with free will. When we permit the evil impulse within us to overcome our good inclinations, the innocent suffer. Be it one person or six million, the outcome is the same. The blame must be put squarely on the perpetrator and not on the victim.

As for the role of God, we have no satisfactory explanation. Centuries ago our sages had no answer to the question: Why was Cain permitted to kill Abel? In a daring midrash based on the verse "the voice of your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground" (Genesis 4:10), Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai told this parable: It may be likened to two gladiators striving with one another before the emperor. If the emperor wished, he could have separated them. But he did not wish to do so, so one overpowered the other. As he was being slain, the gladiator cried out, "I demand justice from the emperor!" Thus, "the voice of your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground" (Genesis Rabba 22).

The voices of six million cry out before God for justice. We have no answer but the sound of silence. And yet we must never say or teach that the Holocaust represented the will of God, that the Shoah was God's punishment or that it was justified because it was followed so soon by the creation of the State of Israel. We may not have answers to the mysteries of the Shoah, but there are some answers that must be rejected completely for the honor of our people and for the honor of God. Such thoughts stand in complete contrast to Judaism's teaching that God is the God of mercy and righteousness.

As Abraham Joshua Heschel once remarked, "History is the arena in which the will of God is defied." It is the place where God commands us to respect and even to love other human beings and yet Cain slays Abel. Such a slaying is in complete contradiction to God's express desires, but is consistent with the fact that we are all granted free will."

Regarding the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, the rabbis taught that when we were enslaved, God too - as it were - was enslaved and was freed only when Israel was redeemed (see Mekhilta Pisha 14). So, too, we can say that when Israel was sent to the camps and the gas chambers, the Holy One was with them. God identifies with those who suffer, with the persecuted, not with the persecutors. More than that we cannot say.

Rather than concentrating on theological questions that we cannot answer, we should try to understand the nature of human beings. What brings them to commit such atrocities? What brings others to perform acts of kindness and bravery? How we can promote the conditions that will bring goodness into the world and eliminate or at least reduce evil? Furthermore, the memory of the Shoah should cause us to dedicate ourselves to the continued existence of Judaism, the Jewish people and all we stand for and thus to deny the leaders of Nazism a posthumous victory.

The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement.