The Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington (JIDS), an interfaith group over which I preside, is one of many organizations around the world that will be holding an event tomorrow to remember the Holocaust and other genocides. I don’t normally speak at JIDS events, but this time I couldn’t resist the temptation. The Holocaust is, quite simply, the seminal historical event of my life, cutting to the heart of both my religious and political views. If you have read my most recent book, “Liberating the Holy Name: A Free-Thinker Grapples with the Meaning of Divinity,” you would have seen just how early in life I was exposed to information about the Nazi atrocities and how profoundly it would affect my thinking about God and humankind.
When reflecting on the Holocaust, different people have different focal points. There are those who think primarily about Hitler, arguably the most evil figure in world history. We all can understand why he is such a focus – people love to personalize situations. That’s why so much attention is paid to individual athletes, entertainers or for that matter serial killers, and why the media can’t stop talking about all things Donald Trump despite the fact that he derives most of his power from his followers in Congress and throughout the country. Another common focus of the Holocaust is the heroes. Hollywood loves to make movies about the “righteous gentiles” who saved lives during that period of history, or the way many of the victims of the Nazi atrocities (like Anne Frank) were able to live dignified lives despite the most trying of circumstances. Clearly, those are compelling stories that need to be told.
For me, however, the primary focal points are neither heroes nor villains. One of them is God. Where was God in Auschwitz? I refuse to stop asking that question. To those who want to know why I am so enamored with the conception of God associated with the philosopher Spinoza, a big part of my answer is Auschwitz. Spinoza’s theology anticipated the horrors of Auschwitz without sounding escapist or Pollyannaish. Personally, I simply cannot attribute that house of horrors, and the infinite number of other examples of “natural” and man-made suffering, to an omnipotent, omnibenevolent creator of all existence. My passion for the truth calls out for a more philosophical God than that, and no God more epitomizes the so-called “God of the Philosophers” than Spinoza’s. In short, Auschwitz hasn’t caused me to deny God’s existence any more than it made Spinoza an atheist, but my conception and the traditional conception of God are hardly the same thing. You can attribute that fact above all else to the Holocaust.
My other primary focal point when it comes to the Holocaust is the millions of people who didn’t die, didn’t murder, but rather enabled. They lived in Germany, Poland, and much of Europe. Some of them lived in America too. For the most part, they kept their heads down, went about their lives and minded their own business. And while they tended to their own gardens, they surely assumed little if any responsibility for the slaughter that was taking place. But believe me, they knew what was going on was horrific.
These people weren’t “evil” under any conventional understanding of that word. I assume that only a minority of them had hatred in their hearts for Jews, homosexuals, Roma or other victims of this genocide. They simply weren’t heroes, that’s all. They didn’t want to make sacrifices on behalf of strangers. Nobody told them that such sacrifices were truly their “duty” – and it was left up to them as to whether to engage in supererogatory acts of heroism.
For me, one of the two greatest lessons of the Holocaust is that, when push comes to shove, we have no choice but to be heroes or enablers. You see, suffering and injustice didn’t end in 1945. And until the proverbial “Moshiach” comes (or returns, under the Christian interpretation), suffering and injustice are bound to continue indefinitely. We can either make personal sacrifices to confront them. Or we can tend to our own gardens, disavow responsibility, and enable their seeds to grow once again. There is no third option. As for that other great lesson of the Holocaust, it’s that when developments truly go off the rails, the number of heroes pale in comparison to the number we need to stop the bleeding.
As I write this, America’s Government Shutdown has just ended and those of us who have been furloughed are about to dig out from the damage done over the past several weeks. This is a great time to be thankful that nobody died in a recent plane crash, no epidemics of food poisoning were reported, and no other out-and-out calamities have occurred as a direct result of the Shutdown. But let’s not kid ourselves – we have put ourselves in the line of fire because our political system is not working the way the framers of our Constitution intended. For me, the Holocaust provides plenty of lessons of what can happen if we don’t seize this moment and stand up for our principles and against those who threaten them. You see, we can hardly count on the ability of any people to save the day once a society reaches a certain tipping point. Our Founding Fathers understood that, and they didn’t even have the benefit of Auschwitz to use as a laboratory.