When we agreed to let Olya stop going to religious school in her teens, it was with the agreement that we would at least watch one Jewish movie a week, to use that as a springboard for discussion and learning. We watched a lot of Shoah movies. A lot. So many that even Sam and I thought it was time to take a break. And then he and I started again.
The basic inhumanity of the Shoah, and the difference from all other times of Jewish oppression, are almost too overwhelming to imagine, let alone discuss. But of course we must for those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.
On the other hand, I have a strong reaction against the idea that we should center our living Judaism around the Shoah, rather than around the beauty and wisdom of our culture, traditions and faith. If we do the former, then we are almost letting “them” win.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, one of the great teachers of our time, wrote that what distinguished the Shoah from all other events was that in other cases, we were allowed to convert or leave. We could CHOOSE kiddush hashem, dying to sanctify God’s name, or we could pack up, and move, as we did in Spain, and England, and France and so many other places in the Middle Ages. The Nazis did not give us that opportunity: even if a family had converted generations ago, if a drop of Jewish blood remained, then death, purging the impurity, was the only resolution.
A lot of Jewish theology underwent soul searching after the Shoah, because the old ideas that somehow suffering is a consequence of sin, or there is no punishment without a reason, just had to go in the face of so much innocent death. But Jewish theology, as we all know, was never monolithic. The idea of no suffering without sin flew out the window with Job. We resurrected it in Talmudic discussions of the cause of the distruction of the second temple: the rabbis explained it was caused by senseless hatred, and then told the story of the mishap of the Kamtza’s party.
But this week’s torah portion, Shemini, tells one of the stories that reflect on post-Shoah theology. It is the story of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s two eldest sons. They were princes among men, included in the group that went up to share a meal with God. They were anointed alongside their father to be our first priests, completely free of all blemishes.
And yet on their first trial in the newly anointed mishkan, they offered eish zarah, literally strange or foreign fire, and they were zapped on the spot. Dead. Gone. In an unexplained instant. Here’s how the torah describes it:
Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abivu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before YHWH strange fire, which God had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from YHWH and consumed them; thus they died lifnei Adonai – before God. (Lev. 10:1-2)
And Moses turned to his brother and told him,
“This is what Adonai meant when saying: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.”
And Aaron’s response?
And Aaron was silent. (Lev. 10:3)
And the word for this silence denotes a silence so thick it was akin to the darkness of the ninth plague.
Interpretations of this sentence from Moses, and on the event at all have filled books and now websites for generations. The Talmud, Rashi, Maimonides – everyone weighs in on what it is that Nadav and Avihu, apparently model citizens, could have done to deserve this fate, and how Aaron’s own bank of good deeds couldn’t have been tapped to save them.
The commentary includes how dangerous it is to be in the space of such holiness – that it can be both dangerous and awesome (remember God had told Moses that he could not see the Divine face and live back in Exodus). But what if we perceive EVERYTHING as having divinity flowing through it – each leaf, each rock? (That’s one way of seeing God in Judaism, that appears in psalms.)
Then, because, five verses later, Moses admonishes Aaron not to drink an intoxicant, Rashi says that the sons appear with their strange fire, drunk. Really?
Then, some suppose that it is because they did it without being asked. Certainly, we are not a culture that condemns people for their initiative, especially to run to do good. So some say it is because they lacked humility – they were arrogant. Again, I don’t see this in the text.
I think the commentaries are grasping to make meaning of something for which there might not have been meaning. There, on the first day of the mishkan’s offerings, two beloved people died. And Moses tried to make meaning, Rashi tried to make meaning.
Because that’s what we do: our brains are wired to do that. And sometimes we have to sit back and accept that we can’t understand everything.
Which I think brings us back to post-Shoah theology. How many Jews do we know who came to the decision that God was absent or dead during the Shoah, or if not, then not worthy of their attention and obeisance? Movies, like God on Trial (based on a play by Elie Weisel) explicitly show people’s anger at the God who didn’t show up.
Because the Shoah was not our first time trying to figure out how to deal with God and the concept of evil, we can turn to Maimonides and his take on evil, from Morei Nevuchim, The Guide for the Perplexed, his great (and challenging) treatise on why Judaism is important. He wrote that there are three types of evil:
1) The evil that comes from being in our bodies: we live in this world and bad things happen: earthquakes happen, tsunamis happen. The natural order can be beautiful and deadly. Anyone who lives in the mountains and knows avalanches knows this. This is not really evil, but often people perceive it as such.
2) The evil that comes from humans having free will. The idea that everything is pre-ordained except free will teaches that we can’t control what others do with their free will. Nazi Germany was free will run amuck in the worst possible way. When those people gain power, then evil flowers. What is free will if it is constrained by divine power? The lessons of what to do with it abound in every culture, every religion. But the Nazis made Hitler into a God and made Jews — well, we know that. That was free will. And when we use our free will to harm others, to dehumanize them, that is evil.
3) The evil that we do to ourselves through ignorance. I’m not sure ignorance fully explains it – the people who STILL smoke although they know how dangerous it is. The people who don’t eat the right foods or get enough exercise, or who build their houses on fault lines, or ski in unsafe conditions, or succumb to addiction, or who get on a motorcycle without a helmet … All those are signs of evil we do to ourselves… I think when we speak about addiction (as my dear friend Alissa Ralston pointed out to me), it is complicated. When have we lost the ability to make a choice? And the term “evil” is a challenging term in 2013 America. In the same way an avalanche might be considered evil or just what is depends on someone’s perspective. The harm that one does to oneself through addiction or even immature choices or lack of discipline can be harsh and life threatening. Whether it is appropriate to blame the person in the throes of addiction is a different question. Does it change if we recognize that our bodies, according to Jewish tradition, are not our own, but on loan to us?
And it’s not to excuse God, but to assign responsibility where it makes sense. This is more complex: can we say that harming ourselves is evil?
The evil of the Nazis is not the evil of God, at least in the face of God I see. (Remember that the talmud teaches that there are 70 faces of the Divine, reminding us that we each can see holiness in different ways that speak to us.) The God that people who reject the God who allowed the Shoah to happen – I join them in rejecting that God, soundly.
But the God who showed up, the one who made made a difference, did so through the actions of so many people, Jewish and non Jewish.
- Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish consul to Hungary, who saved tens of thousands of lives by writing protective passports and shielded our families in Swedish buildings
- Sugihara, the Japanese Vice Consul to Lithuania who, against the orders of his government, spent three days writing visas to about 3,000 Jews to be on their way.
- King Christian of Denmark who wore his own yellow star and helped to organize the evacuation of almost all Danish Jews,
- Oskar Schindler, who saved the people who worked for him in his factories.
- the ten Boom sisters in the Netherlands who operated an underground railroad until they were captured and sent to a camp themselves,
- the Bielski brothers in Poland who took people into the forest and survived,
- Hannah Senesh, whose family moved to Palestine in time, but who came back to save others
- and countless others who did what they could to get out 1 or 10 or 3000 Jews.
Those people made a difference. Others stood idly by our blood, but these people did what they could, risking their own lives for ours. I think Moses got it wrong when he told Aaron that his sons’ deaths was how God showed God’s holiness. These people, who risked their lives for others, are the ones God was referring when saying, “Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” Zichronam livracha. May their memories be a blessing.
 I have the movie list, if you are interested.