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A Jew loks at the Holocaust
Riccardo Di Segni
The Babylonian Talmud (Kiddushin 39b) tells the dramatic story of the martyrdom of Chutzpit, head of the rabbinical academy. He was executed by the Romans during the bloody repression which followed the Jewish revolt led by Bar Kokhba (133 C.E.). The body of Chutzpit was dragged in the dust and then thrown to pigs. The scene was witnessed by Elisha ben Abuyah, one of the most brilliant personalities of the time. This martyrdom greatly disturbed him and caused him to reflect on its meaning and on the contradiction it reveals: a man like Chutzpit, who had consecrated his whole being to the study and practice of Judaism, not only received no recompense but suffered a tragic end. From this Elisha concluded that to consecrate one's life to Judaism is a useless thing, an enterprise doomed to failure since it produces nothing but suffering. The only solution is to abandon Judaism and choose some other way of life.
The story of Chutzpit and the response of Elisha ben Abuyah are symbolic representations of one of the most dramatic problems posed by Jewish experience. The Talmud account gives the terms of the question: a life consecrated to Judaism can often be accompanied by suffering and ended by martyrdom; how can and should a Jew, faced by this choice, respond?
This question does, in fact, contain the whole meaning of Judaism. The terms of the problem have not changed; the Jew of today is confronted by the same questions as those which Elisha put to himself before he left his community. Today, as then, the choice facing Jews involves the acceptation of a particular historical identity, and whether the enemy and butcher is Roman or German, Hadrian or Hitler, the difference is not great.
The element of risk is inherent in the existence of the Jewish people because at any moment they are in danger of encountering an intolerant enemy who may decide to annihilate them. This is one of the rare stable factors of which they are certain. Paradoxically, throughout the centuries of their history, they have not been able to resolve the fundamental problems that are bound up with their experience: thus, they have not yet defined who is a Jew. In the midst of so much that is uncertain, the realities that impose themselves by their certitude are few. Among these realities, however, is the fact that the Jew, throughout his history, has never been without the continual threat of periodical destruction; the inevitability, the near-necessity of suffering recurs in a cycle which is, as it were, the corollary of Jewish existence. There are endless discussions on the why and wherefore of suffering and its religious causes, on predestination, on the psychological, economic and cultural reasons for hatred of Jews and, in general, of those who are different. However, beyond the interpretation of the fact lies the reality of the fact. More urgent for the Jew than the necessity of understanding and solving the problems posed by persecution and hatred is that of the direct personal choices with which he is violently confronted: on the one hand to accept Judaism with all its risks and on the other to refuse it with the prospect of « tranquillity » and ideological disintegration.
Thus, today, in face of the most recent drama which is also the most enormous in the entire history of Israel, the individual and collective problem is always the same, that of the choice which must be confronted and resolved even before involving the memory of the martyrs in an effort to interpret the Nazi persecution. For this reason Elie Wiesel is probably right when he affirms that, in his opinion, « the Holocaust teaches us nothing ». He is, for example, opposed to « Israeli politicians when they claim that 'Israel is the answer to the Holocaust.' It is not. It has no right to be. Sometimes I feel it is a disgrace to link these two events and thus diminish them both. They are two mysteries, both historic and Messianic » (Judaism Vol. 16, 1967, p. 287).
In recounting the story of Elisha ben Abuyah the Talmud presents an extreme example of reaction to persecution, and in a more general way of the dramatic condition that is part of Jewish existence. The Talmud is obviously in the wake of a very ancient tradition — the account of the immolation of Isaac is a symbolic representation of the idea of a people that sacrifices its sons to an ideal. Its only hope lies in the liberating intervention of God, but it is convinced of the necessity of sacrifice. The Talmud condemns and, as it were, pities the choice of Elisha, and it stresses the necessity of staying in the community and continuing the fight without losing personal identity and culture.
Centuries of history have proved Judaism to be right, as also those Jews who, because of their tenacious fidelity to their community and their culture, have often been alone in opposing intolerance. The vicissitudes of the Jewish people have become the sign and symbol of the struggle against barbarity, the struggle of all the oppressed against their oppressors. It is not merely by chance nor from polemical motives against Christianity that Jewish tradition has interpreted the disputed texts of Deutero-Isaiah on the Suffering Servant as referring to the sufferings of the Jewish communityas a whole, « the lamb led to the slaughter ». The Jewish people has seen in this description the reason for its own existence, the description of its own life,of its own lot, and, as it were, the consecration of it's own history.
On the question of refusal to identify with Judaism, with all the dangers that this may imply, tradition, in language that is strong and valid today, has constantly and firmly urged the Jews to accept their particular condition. Nevertheless, in the course of history the masters have been divided by great dissension on the meaning to be given to this choice. Thus, tradition has recounted the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva, the theological leader of the revolt of Bar Kokhba against the Romans. At the point of martyrdom he said that he was at last able to understand the biblical injunction « thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, with thy whole soul (con tutto to stesso), with thy whole strength »; « thy whole soul », he commented, means even at the cost of life. Here sacrifice is seen as expression of love for God.
But alongside this heroic choice, definitive and superhuman, tradition has also preserved the response of Rabbi Ishmael who suffered martyrdom with Rabbi Akiva. He had not fought against the Romans and was put to death simply for remaining faithful to Judaism. His response is the least heroic that can be imagined, but at the same time the most human. He considered that the Romans, and their culture which was crushing the Jews, should be opposed, at least ideologically: he recognized the absolute necessity of choosing and of identifying with the Jewish people. His answer to the problem of the reason for all this suffering is typically Jewish: he presents another problem and another question. He interprets the words « Who is like you, 0 Lord, among the gods? » (Ex. 15: 11): « Who is like you, 0 Lord, you who see the suffering of your people and are silent? »
This is perhaps the most honest answer that can be given today, in a religious perspective, to the problem which confronts us after the Nazi persecution.