Based on Rabbi Ain’s Sermon from January 31, 2016
Reflections on the Anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz
As I sat comfortably in my NYC office, steps from where the UN was commemorating the Holocaust, I couldn’t help but think about the timing of the events this past week, with regard to our liturgical calendar. We were marking the liberation of Auschwitz in between the reading of Parashat Beshallach, the parasha where we went free from slavery in Egypt, and Parashat Yitro, the parasha where we receive Torah, as a community, standing at Sinai, together. These two parshiyot are two of the foundational texts that we read which give us the motivation and the language for living as a Jewish people. As we often speak about, our experience of being slaves in Egypt reminds us that in each generation we should feel as if we personally were redeemed from slavery AND that we should welcome the stranger because we were once strangers; These messages of last week’s parasha, b’shallach, bind us as a unique people and encourage us to think about the role we have in relationships with others. Simultaneously, the experience of receiving Torah gives us the joy of taking on mitzvoth, commandments, that elevate our lives, through shared rituals, practices, beliefs, and ethics, as we connect to God, one another, and the world.
When I think about these two parshiyot however, I am quickly reminded of the quandary set up in Rabbi David Hartman’s 1982 essay, “Auschwitz or Sinai” where he asks, which memory should be the primary narrative of the Jewish people in the 20th century and beyond? He posits that the narrative that Sinai, the receiving of Torah by the Jewish people, must be the orienting category shaping our understanding of the rebirth of the state of Israel instead of the experience of our people at Auschwitz, which is the modern day version of the slavery in Egypt, the horrific account of the attempt of genocide when Pharoah decreed that all Jewish male babies were to be killed.
While Hartman doesn’t negate the experience of our people in the Holocaust he still wrote “I believe it is destructive to make the Holocaust the dominant organizing category of modern Jewish history and of our national renewal and rebirth. It is both politically and morally dangerous for our nation to perceive itself essentially as the suffering remnant of the Holocaust. It is childish and often vulgar to attempt to demonstrate how the Jewish people’s suffering is unique in history…. It was not Hitler who brought us back to Zion, but rather belief in the eternal validity of the Sinai covenant. One need not visit Yad Vashem in order to understand our love for Jerusalem. It is dangerous to our growth as a healthy people if the memory of Auschwitz becomes a substitute for Sinai. The model of Sinai awakens the Jewish people to the awesome responsibility of becoming a holy people. At Sinai, we discover the absolute demand of God; we discover who we are by what we do. Sinai calls us to action, to moral awakening, to living constantly with challenges of building a moral and just society which mirrors the kingdom of God in history.”
I certainly hear what he is saying, and as a teen and young adult, my formative Jewish educational experiences sometimes felt “too” “holocaust” centered-if there is such a thing, in fact, I spent a meaningful week in Poland during high school, visiting the concentration camps and paying homage to those who were murdered there. And so of course, one could be concerned if “all” Judaism is related to us as victims. But, as we recall our exodus from slavery last week, and every year at Pesach, how can escaping from the horrors we have experienced not serve as a foundational model for our understanding of what it means to be a people. We have always had to, and sadly will often need, to have our guard up. We will need to listen to how the winds are blowing to know what it means to be a Jew.
However, to always live in the shadows of the Holocaust, might not allow people to experience freedom and rebirth-constantly looking over ones shoulder, being Jewish out of guilt, not out of joy. So for Hartmann to suggest that the Sinai narrative becomes the framing narrative, certainly seems compelling. Who wouldn’t want to live in an aspirational way where we look to what we can build with our hands rather than focus on what others did to us? We know from research and anecdotal evidence that people don’t want to see themselves as victims.
So-what do we do? Is there a compelling narrative or must I choose between the two? Over my 4 years here at Sutton Place Syangogue and my time spent with the Hartman institute, who bears the name of its founder, Rabbi David Hartman, I have given these two modalities a tremendous amount of thought. We have many 2nd and 3rd generation survivors at SPS and their parents’ experiences, and of course growing up as the children of survivor’s has shaped their experience of being Jewish and their commitment to the Jewish community is crucial.
What I would like to suggest though, is that it mustn’t be an “either/or” proposition. That the Auschwitz/Sinai conundrum, or the Beshallach/Yitro bookends to this week of remembrance, be something that we look at with balance.
We need to recall what was done. We need to be honest with ourselves that there are times that because of our Judaism and associations, troubles might ensue. But, at least here in NYC, trouble is not lurking around every corner. However, for our brothers and sisters in Europe, in Paris in particular, we know this is not the case. As President Barack Obama spoke Wednesday at a special Holocaust ceremony at the Israeli Embassy in Washington D.C., and said that “anti-Semitism is on the rise, we cannot deny it.”
“When we see Jews leaving Europe… and attacks on Jewish centers from Mumbai to Kansas; when we see swastikas appear on college campuses, we must not stay silent.
“When any Jew anywhere is targeted, we must all respond as if we are all Jewish… we must all do what we can… we have a responsibility, and as president I will make sure the U.S. is leading the fight against anti-Semitism,” the president says.
(read more: http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/news/1.699839)
But being aware about threats shouldn’t define how we live. What we need to do is live with joy, guided by the Sinai experience, not the B’shallach, or Auschwitz experience. What does that look like?
There are a number of ways to do this:
There are so many other parts of Judaism is that is meaningful. I want to hear from you. I want you to share with me what is it about Judaism that YOU find compelling-is it the connection to the people, land, and state of Israel? Is it our commitment to tikkun olam, making the world better? Is it the way our religion gives us the opportunity to commune with God 3 times a day in a spiritually centered way and the myriad of brachot, blessings to help elevate from the ordinary to the extraordinary? Is it the values that our texts places on education and learning?
What is it?
Each of us were given a gift when we were redeemed from Egypt. Like our biblical ancestors, and our communal relatives of the 20th century, we were given a gift, to live with the knowledge of our survival and the joys of our freedom. As we live in those two poles, I believe we can together, create a compelling community, made up of people who understand the past, live in the present, and prepare for the future, guided by values, traditions, and language that will link us L’dor v’dor, from generation to generation.