A Letter From My Uncle

At the Blumen family Passover Seder, I told my Uncle Sy that I had been reading a lot about the Holocaust. I did not tell him why. A few days later, I received this letter from him. At the time, his wife, my aunt, was terminally ill with stomach cancer; she died a few days after I received this letter.

Seymour Schechtman, Sy, is a recently retired dentist, a devoted reader, and the former president of his temple.

Dear Jon,

After our conversation(s) at the Seder I decided to aid and abet your growing Holocaust interest. Perhaps this is an apologia to some extent for my antedeluvian political views--old codger views which the younger generation finds a source of some embarrassment. More practically perhaps a birthday is on the horizon, or if not we can make this a fourth of July present (With the letter, Sy enclosed copies of Wiesel's trilogy and Kozinski's Painted Bird).

Probably, though, I was impelled by the utter appropriateness of talking about the Holocaust on Passover, when the Haggadah celebrates the actual birth of the Jewish nation with the aid of the mighty hand of God, God involved in every miraculous step of the way, and the Holocaust, where the complete absence of God "presides" over the worst disaster our four thousand year disaster laden history relates.

Elie Wiesel's book Night was published in 1960, fifteen years after the knowledge of the Holocaust entered the annals of the demonic side of the history of humanity. It broke what was then a "conspiracy of silence" to use a well-known quote of George Steiner on what was then a carefully circmscribed subject. Since then, as you know, the floodgates have been opened and the trickle of writing on the subject has become a torrent that now easily allows one to make a handsome living writing, reviewing, debating, and lecturing on the major and minor aspects of the topic ad infinitum.

But Wiesel's book Night is still the towering literary achievement of the canon, partly because he deals with the central problem of God's absence. (The other two works in this volume are very wonderful indeed but not on the same level.) In Night he renounces God for the manifest evil of the Nazi terror and murder but in the end he has a different feeling. Today he is an observant, halachic following Jew. But sardonically he has also written of the half mad chassid who breaks into the basement schul in central europe in Holocaust times and finds Jews secretly praying. "Jews!!, don't pray so loud or God will know there are still Jews around." Or about the chassidic rebbe, telling his students in the concentration camp that God was a liar. "How could the Master of the Universe be a liar?" his shocked disciples protested. "Because if he opened his window in heaven and looked down on us he would say 'I did not cause this', and he would be a liar."

Elsewhere he has also written of the need to create a new Talmud to explicate the relation of the genocide of the Jews and the morality of God. Wiesel's final answer, as of now, is that the Holocaust is a failure of both man and God. (He has written many other books, but has not tried for the theological or spiritual summit of a new talmud, but that should not diminish his status as a living Saint!) But on Passover especially it seems most appropriate, and most especially as we approach, in our life time, a millenial time, to ponder our fate as Jews and how important our lifeline to God still is.

As you no doubt know after the war there was a viable "anti God" movement among many prominent Protestant, and some Jewish theologians. Officially, and proudly, known as the Death of God movement they lost momentum quickly and petered out as the shock effect and novelty dissipated. Even Reconstructionist Judaism, which started existence in pre-hitler times without God but with all the proud trappings of our heritage as a secular civilization, now admits the God concept as meaningful in its worship. And Wiesel is an observant Jew. And our society, in this country is overwhelmingly God fearing.

But the modern Jew is statistically the least so. His record of synagogue and temple affiliation is very poor, perhaps still afraid of praying too loud as his cowering but grimly persistent European ancestors were. Most probably, though, his lack of religious devotion is a sign of his enlightenment sophistication and embarrassment over the superstition of his religious, backward brethren. Yet the fact of the matter is that without the God concept, indeed, the "living", involved Deity who can intervene in history when necessary, Judaism just runs down, out of gas, out of any uplifting ideas or hope.

The creation of the state of Israel is certainly one manifestation of miracle, but of course we need more, for no calculus of good and evil can balance the murder of the Jews with israel reborn, a state whose future is still beset with many grave problems, so that even the thought of another genocidal slaughter is still a not completely paranoid fantasy. So, on Passover, the God who led the Exodus, parted the Sea of Reeds, gave manna in the desert, and spoke from Mt. Sinai, calling us into service as a nation of priests and teachers, and who were to aspire to God's holiness by deed and practice (not just belief), that Deity--the ribbono shel olam, the master of the universe--must be implored to manifest and explain the ultimate meaning of the killing of His innocent Jews. The ball is certainly in His court, His Heavenly Court. maimonides said that "Though He tarry I await with perfect faith the coming of the Messiah." I am not in a hurry for the actual materialization of the Messiah, only for the vindication of the essential Jewish credo that this is a moral universe, whose spiritual calculus goes way beyond our fumbling physical equations, but whose braod outlines, however only dimly perceived, cannot have those vast black holes of evil we have seen without the insights that may still lead us to repair the frayed fabric of our faith in the golden rule in the living of this life, and ultimate sdalvation and redemption because of that holy living, as our Torah and Talmud insist.

To me that is what the Holocaust challenges us to do. To make our Jewish faith whole again in the face of this horrendous event, man's worst example of inhumanity to his fellow man. It is not about mere tallying now of the depredations, the "victimology" of the Jews (and of course gypsies, homosexuals and political prisoners incidentally involved). Fifty years after the event we are still treading gingerly around this huge scar in civilizations' landscape, but perhaps we will soon have the ability to reinterprewt this disaster in a more holistically Jewish way. Einstein said that God does not 'play dice with the universe"; he, of course, was talking of the hoped-for unity of all basic physical forces. Judaism insists that God does not play dice with ultimate morality. That humanity has a holy purpose, to transcend the evil and bestiality of his animal nature, to traet his fellow man with justice and responsibility (the golden rule), and be his brother's protector and keeper.

Remember, these are millenial times! Ben Gurion, a socialist atheist said that in the last resort every rationalist knows that trends change and that miracles have to be believed. And, of course, the Rebbe [Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavicher Rebbe who died last year] is now in heaven. Perhaps he can persuade God to manifest some rays of light to make sense of the awful mystery of our century and of all human history.