Tisha Be'av in shadow of Auschwitz

We must find new theology that takes into account enormity of the disaster.

wall 63 (photo credit: )
wall 63
(photo credit: )
On Tisha Be'av, Jews the world over mourn in commemoration of the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, the great centers of sacrifice destroyed by the enemies of Israel in ancient times. The Ninth of Av was the day, according to the rabbis, on which both great edifices were destroyed, the first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, the second by the Romans in 70 CE. On the eve of the day of mourning and fasting, religious Jews read the Book of Lamentations (Eicha), ascribed to the prophet Jeremiah who witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Lamentations is a moving dirge that memorializes a city abandoned by man and God. Modern Hebrew Bible scholars have debated Jeremiah's sole authorship of Lamentations; however there is little doubt that the prophet inspired composite authorship of the work. It really matters little to me, as a religious Zionist, whether Jeremiah authored Lamentations or not. What does matter - I find it most disturbing - is the prophet's theology that serves as the foundation for Jewish mourning on the Ninth of Av. The traditional theology of Jewish exile and redemption, expressed by Jeremiah in the prophetic book in the Bible that bears his name, is that God manipulated the Babylonians to destroy the Temple to punish the people of Israel for their sins. In Chapter 27, the prophet urges the denizens of Judah and King Zedekiah to "put your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon," otherwise "you will die together with your people." In other words, the Babylonians are God's tool to chastise Israel. The prophet transforms geopolitics and the integrity of Judah's independence into a morality tale in which the Jews are to blame for their tragedy. Jeremiah's theology has served as the basis for traditional rabbinic views of Jewish suffering in history, whether it be the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem, Jewish martyrdom in the Rhineland during the First Crusade, the Spanish Expulsion in 1492 or the Chmielnicki massacres in Eastern Europe in the early modern period. After the Holocaust, I would argue, this theology is a dead letter. TODAY, MOST Jews - whether religious or secular - would never apply Jeremiah's theology to the Holocaust, the worst tragedy in Jewish history. A Jew who believes Hitler was a tool of God to destroy European Jewry for its sins is desecrating the memory of the dead and defaming them. Yet there are still Jews in the world who refuse to abandon the outmoded and ancient theology of Jeremiah. Rabbi Joel Moshe Teitelbaum, the most influential Satmar Rebbe, blamed the Zionist movement for the "calamity" of the Shoah. To me, this outrageous worldview indicates a serious denial of reality of the history of the Jewish people in the modern epoch. The Zionist pioneers who rejected the passivity of Europe's rabbis were "holy rebels" whose actions saved Jewish lives and provided an environment in which Jewish life and faith could flourish. The irony is that anti-traditional Zionist socialists, overturning the theology of waiting for divine intervention through the coming of the messiah, provided a haven for the Jewish people's "saving remnant" and were the harbingers of the renaissance of both the Hebrew language and the study and propagation of Torah and Jewish faith. In certain haredi circles, the Shoah is remembered on either the minor fast day of the 10th of Tevet or on the Ninth of Av, rather than on Holocaust Remembrance Day. This practice places the Holocaust within the same theology as the other tragedies of Jewish history, the theology that Jews were exiled and persecuted because of their sins. I would argue that the Holocaust is a series of events without precedent in Jewish history - the German attempt to wipe out every Jewish man, woman and child has no predecessor in the chronicle of the Jews - and, therefore, we cannot commemorate the mass murder through the lens of traditional theology. The Shoah demands that we, as Jews, either find a new theology of covenant that takes into account the enormity of the disaster - or we completely relegate the Nazi genocide to the realm of the secular. The Ninth of Av is not an appropriate day to remember the dead of Auschwitz, Babi Yar and the Warsaw Ghetto. Religious Jews must find a way to create a theology for Holocaust Remembrance Day that will transform a Knesset-mandated commemoration into a day of mourning with religious significance. The theology of Jeremiah and the rabbis - even a theology that confirms that a God who punishes His people will also redeem them - does not fit the contours of modern historical reality. The State of Israel is not the demonic kingdom of Rabbi Teitelbaum, but neither is it a harbinger of the messiah. The old theological categories and terms do not take into account the Holocaust and the creation of a Jewish state in recent history. We, as Jews, must either discover a new religious template to address the unprecedented events of our time - or move beyond theology and abandon the attempt to place the Holocaust and the State of Israel within a religious framework. The writer, based in Florida, is an adjunct lecturer on Jewish history at Broward Community College.