Other articles from this issue | Version in English | Version in French
Christian reflection on the Holocaust
Lizkor velolishkoah, «Remember and do not forget. » This is the motto of Yad Vashem, the memorial on Mount Herzel, Jerusalem, to the martyrs of the death camps. In the memory of the Jewish people, the Holocaust does indeed remain a wound that will never heal. Though the remembrance of this event is acute and ever present in the consciousness of Israel, it is striking that, more than thirty years after the tragedy, our Jewish friends have not succeeded in absorbing it clearly into their history, nor even in agreeing about its meaning.
At the end of a meeting organized by the review Judaism in 1967, a few weeks before the Six-Day War, the participants unanimously recognized this incapacity. Introducing the debate, Steven S. Schwarzschild remarked that language, when faced with new facts, always reveals its inadequacy and its limitations. In this respect the catastrophe which swept over European Jewry under Nazi rule, over the entire Jewish people, not only was but remains a completely new phenomenon: the realization of an absolute evil. By the very shock which impels one to speak of it, the holocaust of six million Jews imposes silence. Elie Wiesel in his own heart-rending style gives expression to this cleavage in the Jewish soul, a soul driven to the irrepressible cry of pain called forth by a paroxysm of suffering, and at the same time to the speechlessness induced by an evil which, by the very excess of its preposterousness, defies all expression. George Steiner's book Language and Silence, which treats mainly of this problem, expresses the paradox by its very title.
The Holocaust has been and remains a stumbling-block for Jewish consciousness. What has literally scandalized our Jewish friends and what remains graven as a scandal in their memories is the absolutely unique character of the event, its sui generis singularity which defies all analysis and which no words seem capable of expressing. It is a scandal or a mystery, depending on whether or not it is considered in the light of faith.
To this question which arises from the very soul of the Jewish people it would ill befit the Christian to offer an answer. More often than not we are incapable of understanding in the light of the Cross our own trials, small and great; what right have we then to speak to our Jewish brothers of the abyss of suffering into which their people has been plunged? What is more, what right have we to justify an event of which so many Christians are unaware either because they knew nothing about it, when they should have known, or because like distant and helpless spectators they looked at it from outside only.
And yet, has our faith nothing to say to us about the martyrdom of millions of Jews? Has it nothing to discover in this martyrdom? There is a Christian way of looking at the history of Israel and at the entire destiny of the Jewish people; there should also be a Christian way of looking at the Holocaust. If we were unaware of the horrible reality of the event when it happened we can be attentive to the memory that the Jewish people keep of it. Because we failed to understand the tragedy and to have compassionon its victims when it was taking place, we must henceforth reflect in the light of faith on its absolutely unique character. We must try to discern the permanent imprint which it has made on Jewish consciousness. We shall perhaps be able to understand that the Holocaust, like all other events in the long history of Israel, is at one and the same time unique and exemplary, that the singular and tragically solitary experience of the Jewish people is once again rich in universal significance.
Singularity and Uniqueness of the Holocaust
A. The incomprehension of Christians
It is true to say that as the time which separates us from the tragedy increases many Christians seem to be, in a sense, uneasy and irritated by the fact that the Jews never tire of recalling the death camps. Is this caused by the stifling of a blunted sense of guilt? by the refusal to recall a time of tragedy? or by anxiety to preserve the precarious well-being of a world apparently secure? Whatever the cause, this concern with the past seems sometimes to irritate these people to such an extent that they are led to minimize the event thus recalled. It would take very little to make them blame the Jews for exaggerating and dramatizing. Even when the facts are recognized the scandal which they represent for the soul of the Jewish people is so little understood that Jews are in danger of being accused of either of two things: egotistical involvement in their own suffering, considered as a morbid form of the self-sufficiency attributed to them in other circumstances, or gloomy enjoyment of their suffering. Claudel, speaking of such enjoyment at another time and in another context, alluded to it as the Jewish propensity to « revive the ashes of a dead love ». Whatever the form of the irritation or whatever the object of thereproach, both prove how difficult it is for non-Jews, for those who know the Holocaust from the outside only, from a distance or after the event, to understand its tragic uniqueness and in consequence the spiritual traumatism which has left its mark on the Jewish people as a whole.
It is therefore important to understand rightly what our Jewish brothers mean when they speak of the absolutely unique character of the Holocaust. This character can be perceived at two levels, distinct yet intimately connected, levels which can be perceived only by those who really try to feel with the Jew and to understand from within what he feels. The Holocaust is, in the first place, a unique event in the very destiny of Israel because it stands out as a tragedy unexampled in the whole of her history and which, for this reason, is beyond all possibility of comparison and measurement. At another level the event is unique because of its background which is still more decisively unique: the election of Israel.
B. Singularity of the Holocaust in the destiny of the Jewish People
When Jews seem to insist in an exaggerated way on the unique character of the Holocaust, Christians justify their annoyance by confronting the tragedy of the death camps with other historical tragedies also marked by the horrible signs of genocide and racial war. Alas, it is not difficult to quote other manifestations of hatred and death, other visitations of absolute evil from which, again in our days, whole peoples have had to suffer for the sake of their identity and their faith: Armenians massacred by the Turks, Poles exterminated, Biafra crushed, the tragedy of Vietnam. As soon as the word « horror » is mentioned these facts spring spontaneously to mind. What right, therefore, have the Jews to speak of the unique character of their experience?
It is impossible not to sense all that is odious and unbecoming in such comparisons. However, the objection which they help to sustain has not escaped those Jews especially who have reflected on the Holocaust. Driven to answer it they make clear that statistical proportion is inadequate in determining the dimension of human suffering. They add simply that the technical process of destruction used by Hitler, its systematic organization, its propaganda, the absolute character of the « final solution » make the Holocaust radically different from all other similar historical events: cold logic at the service of hatred, the genius of order at the service of annihilation.
And yet, when Jews speak of the uniqueness of the Holocaust they in no way consider it primarily against the background of a comparison of their experience with other destinies and other catastrophes, though there are certainly instances where such comparison imposes itself with cruel obviousness. One of these was doubtless exemplified by the Czech student in August 1968 during the uprising in Prague; his silhouette was seen for an instant on the television screens waving a placard which bore only the words: « Prague, Biafra, Israel ». With something akin to genius this young man had understood that in the three instances there was the same aggressor, the same solitude, and, in the end, the same combat. One tragedy threw light on the others. The advantage of such juxtaposition could be the very fact that it shows in what and how the unique destiny of Israel makes it possible, by its mysterious exemplification, to elucidate other destinies. We shall come back to this. However, if such an understanding is to be made possible it is important to grasp exactly what Jews mean when they speak of the Holocaust as a unique event.
The Holocaust constitutes such a scandal for the Jew because of its very nature; in the whole line of Israel's personal destiny, it is absolutely novel, unforeseen and unforeseeable. It seems to the Jew irreducibly and scandalously unique because of its relationship to his own history. This should be all the more obvious because throughout its thousands of years of existence, Israel has known other trials, other perils and other catastrophes. From the exiles recounted in the Bible to the long expatriation that followed the destruction of the Temple, its existence has always been precarious and menaced — persecutions, segregation, pogroms. The destruction of the Second Temple and the subsequent dispersion have marked Jewish consciousness with the permanent imprint of a tragic destiny. For the Jews the periodical extermination of local communities, such as that of the Rhineland in the twelfth century which was a bloody substitute for a crusade, and above all, the expulsion from Spain in the fifteenth century, are incessant recurrences of the same fate, one of .incomprehension and hatred. The fast of Tisha be-Av is a reminder of this strange destiny. And yet, in spite of a long and permanent apprenticeship to martyrdom, the catastrophe of European Jewry came upon the Jewish people as a radically unwarranted, unheard-of tragedy unlike any of the others that had preceded it. Though Tisha be-Av is celebrated in memory of the suffering of a tragic destiny it is not only a sign of mourning but also an affirmation of hope: on this day the Jewish community draws forth from the memory of martyrdom and death a fierce determination to survive and to continue to bear witness. By comparison with these tragedies of the past, the Holocaust and the remembrance of it seem eternally irremediable. It differs from the commemoration of Tisha be-Av in that the mourning is absolute and the hope annihilated. Indeed, for the first time in its history the Jewish people felt totally abandoned, abandoned above all by mankind: in face of this monstrously brutal plan, bestial and cruel, the most terrible ever invented by men, the generality of Christians remained passive and indifferent. Moreover, Jewish solidarity itself seems to have been broken. Considered a posteriori, the unconcern and ignorance of American Jewry in face of the tragedy which was actually taking place make it true to say that never before have so many Jews been abandoned by so many Jews. Abandoned by men, but above all by God. Indeed, for the Jew the most terrible torment of the Holocaust was the temptation to think that for the first time in the history of Israel the very alliance of God with his people had been broken.
In an attempt to make this unique character of the Holocaust understood, Elie Wiesel has recourse to a Midrash. The rabbis ask what is the difference between Hanukkah and Purim. The answer is that though both these feasts celebrate victory for the Jewish people their nature is not the same. Hanukkah recalls the menace of the Greeks whose aim was the spiritual absorption of Judea. Some Jews had succumbed to this temptation and thus introduced the risk of assimilation, a risk which drove the Maccabees to take up arms against Hellenism and eventually to repel it. Purim is different. Haman had planned the extermination of the Jews, but under the leadership of Mordecai they proclaimed three days of fasting and prayer. The Midrash stresses the paradox: Why did the Jews offer spiritual resistance to a physical threat, and physical resistance to a spiritual threat? The answer is simple and convincing: the Jewish people has made an alliance with God. They have been given the charge of protecting his Torah, and he, in return, makes himself responsible for their continued presence in the world. Thus, when theirspiritual existence, the Torah, is in danger, they resort to force to defend it, but when their physical existence is in danger they remind God of his promises and of the duties that follow from his alliance with them. In this traditional perspective it is easier to understand the harrowing novelty of the Holocaust which consists in the fact that the agreement implicit in the alliance does not seem to have been honored. There was nobody to have recourse to in this distress because God himself was silent. If in face of this silence Jewish consciousness experienced such a sense of dereliction, and if the event was so incomprehensible, it was because it seemed to contradict the entire history of the Jewish people and to make their whole vocation a failure. Thus it was fundamentally the election that made Israel experience what can truly be called the scandalous uniqueness of the Holocaust.
C. The Holocaust and election
Paradoxically the election helps to make the Holocaust a sign of contradiction and of scandal for the Jewish consciousness, yet who could fail to see that once again it confers on the event itself another dimension, a uniqueness to which, even from the outside, the Christian conscience should be sensitive. This new uniqueness is as imposing and as mysterious as the election itself. It has its source in a certitude that the history of Israel as presented to our faith by the Bible suffices to establish and to confirm. Looked at in this light the Holocaust is a unique event because the destiny of Israel is, by the very fact of the election, a unique destiny. It can therefore be affirmed that the ability to understand the unique character of the Holocaust is proportionate to the degree of faith in the election. As the election is understood so is the Holocaust understood. So many Christians have failed to grasp the uniqueness of the event because they have refused to consider it in the light of Israel's election.
However, at this point our reflection rebounds because it leads us to the more fundamental question, a question which has exercised Jewish consciousness for centuries: what is the extent of the election? who is included in it? And how, in consequence, is the singularity of Israel's destiny to be understood? We know that the answers given by the great witnesses to Judaism have oscillated between two extremes: the mystics, concentrating on the identity of Israel, insist on the unique, solitary and incommunicable character of the Jewish experience; the rationalist philosophers are more open to a type of universal humanism.
The first find in the Kuzari the breviary of Jewish identity. For Judah Halevi, if Israel is the Chosen People it follows that she is the only people whose history has a messianic dimension. To say that the history of Israel is unique is to say that the question is really one of a destiny that differs in quality from other destinies. Franz Rosenzweig expresses the same conviction. At the end of his itinerary he blamed Christianity for having deprived Israel of its unique destiny by giving the election a universal signification.
On the other hand, from Spinoza to Berdiczevsky, many Jewish thinkers have seen in the destiny of Israel the expression of a universally applicable historical experience. George Steiner is an example of this thinking, in the discussion already alluded to. He sees the Holocaust as unique, not because it differs radically from the other tragedies of history but because it makes them comprehensible: the Holocaust and the shock it inflicted on Jewish consciousness make it possible to evaluate a little more accurately, by a sort of affinity in hopelessness, the horrors of Vietnam, of Indonesia or of Biafra.
The opposition between these two approaches has often been expressed by the terms particularism and universalism. I fear that this way of speaking has become nothing more than a too-facile common place, especially when used to explain the difference between Judaism and Christianity. In what concerns our particular problem I would mistrust these categories because they seem to me too simplistic for such deeply complex positions. Both the above mentioned approaches have the two dimensions, particular and universal, and the problem itself lies in the tension between these dimensions: on the one hand, consciousness of Jewish identity and of its special destiny, and on the other, concern to locate Israel in relation to other peoples and to man and humanity in general. The real and final difference between these two extreme positions, the particular and the universal, lies in the order of subordination. For this reason I, personally, would prefer the categories of closed and open or, better still, I would prefer to speak of messianic humanism and universal humanism, one being the model and pattern of the other, the key to its intelligibility.
A Jewish writer of the last century, Samson Raphael Hirsch, coined an expression which, by its very composition, expressed the tension between these two tendencies. He spoke of Y isroelmensch, the « man-Israel ». The ultimate meaning of the uniqueness of Israel's destiny lies in the living link between the two poles of this neologism: the Jewish vocation in the line of Israel's election consists in being Israel so as to be faithful to man, and in being fully man so as to be faithful to Israel. Thus the two dimensions seem no longer contradictory, for their mutual relationship manifests the amplitude of Israel's vocation in the very name of its election. Particularism, certainly, but in view of a universal extension. Uniqueness, in view of exemplarity. This is true of Jewish destiny in general, but applied to the Holocaust it has a very special meaning. The Holocaust is a unique event but when it is considered in the light of a history characterized by the election it takes on an enriching and exemplary signification. When a Christian considers the Holocaust he must be attentive to this.
Uniqueness and Exemplarity of the Holocaust
A. Memory and history in Jewish consciousness
As an introduction to this reflection I would like to begin by recalling the motto of Yad Vashem: « Remember and do not forget. » It is an invitation to future generations to keep the Holocaust alive in their memories. Yet, to consider the event of the Holocaust in the light of the election requires an act of memory essentially different from and more profound than the simple remembering of something that happened in the past. It would be a major misinterpretation to see in this will to remember a bitter and selfish turning in on personal suffering, a morbid reversion to the past with a gloomy desire to keep the wound open or to fan the flames of resentment, even of vengeance. In this call to remember, Jewish consciousness appeals to that dimension of its being which could certainly be said to characterize its spiritual attitude: namely, memory. This people which has been rightly called « the builder of time » could just as well be called « the people of memory ».
Here, however, we are concerned with something very different from the preservation and transmission of past events. At a deeper level than that of the psychological or historical faculty of recalling there is what could be called the ontological memory as perceived in the Augustinian « memory » or the Bergsonian « duration ». Israel's consciousness of itself lies at this level which is the permanent source of its identity and of its development.
At every stage of its journey through time, on every page of the Bible, this call to remember is found: « Hear, 0 Israel », Remember, Israel ». All the mighty works of God were thus confided to the memory of his people. In the language of the Bible zakhar, « to remember », does not mean to preserve or reproduce an image, but to call forth, to re-present, to makepresent a hidden reality that is always operative, always present. Psalm 111 shows how God himself is concerned to leave the traces of his work in the memory of Israel: « He has caused his wonderful works to be remembered. » This is verified in a very special way in the commemoration of Passover and of the alliance. It gives to the seder of Pesah its absolutely original and essential value; it makes the Jewish people the « people of memory ». « In every single generation it is a sacred duty for each man to consider himself as personally brought out of Egypt. » This sentence recited by Jews every year during the Haggadah gives to Passover night a present and permanent meaning. For the consciousness of the attentive Jew, and which Jew is not attentive on this night, the reminder gives to the seder liturgy a value at the same time symbolic and realistic. Pesah is not just the memorial or figure of a grandiose but far off historical event; it is the re-presentation, that is to say the present and existential manifestation of a mighty work whose actuality remains contemporary. God appeals to the memory of his people. Through the rite of the paschal meal and the reading of the Haggadah each son of Israel is in a situation where he is effectively united with the decisive event of Israel's history, an event which is not past but present. Every Jew is invited to make his own the adventure of his fathers whom God brought out of Egypt. Every Jew is invited to live this history personally and in the present.
It would be interesting to show how this invitation, which is at the heart of the liturgy of Pesah, reveals to us Christians the structure of all encounter with God both as the act of entering into his presence and as a model of what could be called the sacramental attitude. However, the most important point for our present purpose is to show that it is the foundation of Jewish consciousness, because it is the inexhaustible source of Jewish identity and of its permanence throughout time. At the moment of the « passage » of Exodus, God made an alliance with Israel. He freed her from slavery to give her his Law and to endow her with a special destiny. In order to re-experience the inexhaustible impetus of her original vocation Israel has ever since recalled the event through which this vocation was made manifest to her. The historical commemoration is the occasion and the sign of a deeper remembrance. When Israel recalls this past event she encounters it as God sees it in the present and in eternity. She becomes aware of her identity as it appeared in the revelation of God's choice. Thus each son of Israel who celebrates the seder is at one and the same time contemporary with his fathers on the night when God delivered them, and present to the love of God for his people in the lasting outpouring of this love. It is evident that for the Jewish people such remembrance is at the same time a source of renewal and a means of discovering and realizing its identity. This is because it presents in its ever permanent and eternal value what was mysteriously present in the original event.
The invitation of Yad Vashem must be understood at the level where Jewish memory and Jewish identity meet and merge. Liskor velolishkoah: each new event, each new period of Israel's history, each experience of her destiny is inscribed on the scroll of this original consciousness. As long as time lasts there is endless possibility of understanding events in its light and of integrating them in a living way into the profound and indefinable reality of Jewish experience. In his book God's Presence in History Emil Fackenheim makes a distinction which would seem to refer to this intuition and to confirm it. He calls upon his readers to discern in Israel's history root-experiences and epoch-making events; the latter are, as it were, in continual confrontation with the former. The root-experiences are those in which God revealed himself to Israel and made her a people, his people: the crossing of the Red Sea, the gift of the Torah. The epoch making events differ from these clear manifestations of the divine Presence which intervenes to save or to command, in that they do not create a new faith. They appear as challenges to faith through new situations.
But what happens if the event appears to be a radical annulment of the original experience? It is here that the Holocaust suddenly erupts as a scandal which confronts the conscience of Jews and indeed of all believers with a question whose implications are particularly grave. The darkness is so great that no light seems able to penetrate it. Fackenheim writes: « If all present access to the God of history is wholly lost, the God of history is Himself lost. » Is it really possible to hear an echo of the voice of Sinai in the clamor that rises from the gas chambers of Auschwitz? The Holocaust has driven the Jewish conscience into the vortex of this terrible question: did not the silence of God defeat forever the remembrance of his Word?
B. From silence to the sanctification of the Name
The Jewish people thus confronted, in the very name of its faith and of its memory, with what Martin Buber rightly called « the eclipse of God », experienced a terrible dilemma, a dilemma resumed by Richard Rubenstein in a form so pessimistic that it bears the accent of despair: « either a cruel God or none ». Yet here, once again, this trial which involves God gives to the Jewish experience a value that is exemplary for all human experience.
The Holocaust was for the Jewish conscience a paradigm of the ever-recurring problem of evil and of injustice whose perpetual presence in the world seems to deny the existence of a God who is good. Against this stumbling block many Jews fell. Some became' disorientated. Hence Richard Rubenstein's cold reply to the dilemma mentioned above: « Jewish paganism is the most viable religious option available to contemporary Jews. » For him the immeasurable monstrosity of the Nazi crimes definitely destroys all possibility of belief in the presence and action of God in history. It follows paradoxically that if the tragic experience in which six million Jews were massacred has an exemplary meaning, the meaning is that the universe and human existence are radically absurd. If there is a certitude to which Israel can witness it is the certitude that there is no God. Jewish destiny confirms the philosophy of Sartre and of Camus because the Holocaust is the definitive manifestation of the absurd.
And yet there was a very different response from those Jews who, in the very abyss of anguish and of night, seemingly abandoned, turned their desperate hope to God. Far from evading the bewilderment of the contradiction, they found in their faith the strength to cry forth to God « out of the depths » their scandal and their dismay. The Jewish people had throughout the ages lucidly confronted and denounced the apparent absurdity of existence, the insolent victory of injustice and of evil. From the story of Abraham in Genesis to the interpellations of the prophets and the psalms, the Bible is full of this daring contestation. Israel calls God to account in the name of his past promises, of his mercy or of his justice. The book of Job will forever be the compendium of this protestation of mankind against the incomprehensible injustice and the wickedness of men, and the most striking thing about it is that God, far from being offended, praises his servant Job for his ruthless honesty (42:7). There the very anguish becomes, in the name of faith, a warrant to challenge the Almighty.
Hasidim such as Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev showed the same realism and the same audacity, finding in the destitution and the suffering of their people authorization to enter into contestation with God. The more the Jew trusts, the more vehemently does his soul cry out to God.
It can thus be understood how the Holocaust, a terrible sign of contradiction, was for faithful Jews the occasion of an heroic act of faith. Thosewho from the depths of their dereliction, destitute and in tears, never ceased to pray to God, those who, like the hero of The Last of the Just, went into the gas chambers reciting the Shema Israel, those who made of their death a final act of abandonment to God, these are the heirs of Jewish wisdom. The noise and fury that surrounded them, the insults and vociferations of their executioners did not dull for them the voice of the Most High. Shema Israel: they kept listening to the end. Far from being a passive capitulation their silence was the extreme form of Kiddush hashem, « the sanctification of the Name ». By their death they fulfilled the vocation of the Jewish people which is to be for all time a witness to God. Israel is right to call them martyrs.
If the remembrance of the Holocaust is always present to the Jewish soul as an obsessive challenge, this victory of faith over the absurdity of evil henceforth provides him with the means of confronting it. It is true to say that it is for ever integrated into the memory of Israel as a phase of her consciousness, a part of her continuing existence, a confirmation of her destiny. It has thus become for the Jew a source of faith and of hope. This is what Richard H. Popkin meant when he said: « Many of us have been brought back to a living Judaism and to living in Jewish history through remembering the Holocaust. I think one of our problems at this stage is trying to find our future in terms of what we are remembering, in terms of what our past can have been. » Thus, the witness given by the martyrs has reversed the value-sign of the Holocaust. Annihilation and death have become sources of life. The temptation to despair has been transfigured into an invitation to hope. Jewish history goes on faithful to the same memory, and to express this certainty the Jew has found a symbol that is both simple and grand: to honor the memory of the martyrs and, above all, to keep it alive forests bearing their names have been planted in Israel. By thus affirming the victory of life over death the Jews of our day have taken from the fathers the torch of witness to the faith.
Emil Fackenheim goes so far as to say that in the form of a tragic challenge, the Holocaust has revealed a new commandment to the Jewish conscience: the commandment to survive. The manner in which Jews understand the threefold exigency of this commandment seems to me to resume the new condition of their existence after the Holocaust: survive as a Jew, or the Jewish people will perish; remember the martyrs, or their memory will die; do not deny God, do not lose hope in him, whatever struggle or revolt this may involve, or Judaism will cease to exist. However, as Elie Wiesel has so often said in his own overpowering way: for the Jew to transcend the trial of the Holocaust he has to make sense of an event which defies understanding, he has to find an outlet to God from the stagnation of anguish that has no name and no recourse. This victory over the absurdity of a senseless evil is very different from the kind of desperate heroism described by Camus which obliges man at whatever the cost to create happiness by revolting against a joyless and purposeless world. Here the victory is not by revolt but by hope; the a/ al pi chen which Elie Wiesel sings is not so much a wager on the future as an act of faith in the God of Israel. In this respect no success of the Jewish people, be it that of American Jewry or even of the State of Israel, has any common measure with the immense sacrifice of the Holocaust. The answer to the scandal of the death camps lies beyond all this, and the victory of the Jewish people over the Holocaust is finally accomplished by fidelity to its vocation: the sanctification of the Name.
After the terrible storm let loose on the Jews by the fury of Hitler some people, Jews among them, have looked upon Israel as an uprooted tree. Hope's reply to this is that Israel cannot be uprooted because its roots are plunged in the future. From the soul of Judaism the Maharal of Prague was already giving the most authentic answer, an answer drawn from the abyss of time and ever present in Jewish memory: Israel is a tree that is upside down because its roots are in heaven.
C. The Holocaust and the Cross
The hasidic sages found the basis of this triumphant affirmation of life in the first chapter of Genesis: « God saw all that he had made, and it was very good » (Gen. 1: 31). The talmudic rabbis, commenting on this text, do not hesitate to make an astonishing play on words: toy meod (very good) can be pronounced toy mot (death is good). They thus affirm their certitude that death itself is good because everything in the world has its true dimension only in the God of life.
In such an affirmation, a Christian cannot help hearing the overtones of these words of Jesus: « The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not the God of the dead but of the living » (Matt. 22:32). What is more they could not fail to evoke the declaration of St. Paul put into the mouth of Jesus in the Good Friday liturgy: Ero mors tua, 0 mors, «Death, I shall be thy death. »
One would like to say these things in a way that would wound nobody, that would not betray the silence from which they come. How can one compare the Holocaust with the Cross! The Cross brandished in the pogroms by murderers, and, for so many Jews, the symbol of intolerance, oppression and hatred! How can one find in the Jewish hope of the victory of life a certitude that evokes that of the victory of Christ over death! Such things cannot be expressed in human language. How can they be formulated without sullying or blurring their ineffable secret, the mystery contained by the comparison. May my Jewish friends pardon me if here I seem to annex to the Passion of Christ an ocean of suffering whose abyss they alone know. Yet, as a Christian addressing my brother Christians, I must tell them of my conviction and ask them to consider it, and try with them to understand a little better what our human hearts are capable of understanding. The transcendent intelligibility of the Holocaust can be granted only by light from above, and for us Christians that light passes through the mystery of Golgotha.
This is an inexpressible truth which language can only suggest to our hearts because language is incapable of revealing all its mystery! It is infinitely difficult to speak of anguish and death. This is true of everything that happens, even of our personal suffering, because all efforts to be objective seem but to open ways of escape for the living reality that the words are trying to capture. How can one speak of death to those who are threatened with it or who are already experiencing its sting? Even if one believes that it is possible to provide a metaphysical explanation of the problem of evil, what value can justifications and reasons have for all those whose lives are shipwrecked and who are lost in an unbounded ocean of suffering? How can one touch the wounds of all those who have, so to speak, been flayed alive, without making the pain of their wounds still more searing? Even if we share their dismay, even if our heart bleeds with theirs, is it possible to express compassion to those whom the senselessness of the sufferings has imprisoned in an impenetrable and incommunicable solitude?
And yet if we believe in Christ's victory over death, if the mystery of the Cross means for our faith that by his death the Lord has vanquished all death, there is no human suffering, no presence of death that is not at this very moment part of the metamorphosis of Transfiguration. Because Christ has experienced them for us, agony, torment and death are but the mysterious crucible of a resurrection already operative. Every home visited by death, death of body, of heart, of family, of people, of everything that is our flesh and blood, is called to become the hidden victory tent of him who is life. This certainty should help the Christian to transfigure the universe, and first of all his own life, by giving to every suffering, to every form of death, its ultimate and authentic meaning.
Everywhere in the world there is an infinite mass of suffering, of wretchedness, an immense capital of distress and agony which risks becoming emptiness, nothingness, despair unless Christ's victory comes to save it and by saving it to give it meaning. The Cross of Christ thus appears as an immense sacrament reaching through time and permeating all the secret places of human existence. Its application certainly depends on the penetration of our faith and the intercession of our prayer, but we are assured by this certainty that many people will be saved by the cross which they bore without knowing it and which in their death-ravaged lives was the pledge and the sacrament of resurrection.
What then can be said of the death camps and of the long agony of the Jewish people?
It is a striking fact that Judaism itself in the spontaneity of its deepest resilience has answered this question. The answer contains such an unexpected presentiment of the mystery of the Cross that Christians cannot fail to notice it and to be struck by it. We have recognized the fact that for the Jewish people the suffering of Israel, like its destiny, has an exemplary value for all human suffering. We have also recognized the fact that for the Jewish people this certitude is a consequence of the mystery of its election. We have sensed the tension between the particular and the universal which enlarges the unique destiny of Israel to fit every human situation. This fact invites the Jew to give to every suffering and every misfortune in the world a meaning drawn from his own experience. Provided the transcendent dimension is safeguarded, George Steiner could be understood in this way when he remarks that the Holocaust decisively renewed his outlook on the tragedies of our time.
Jewish tradition, however, goes farther. It recognizes in the suffering destiny of Israel, in its uniqueness and in its mystery, a value for the salvation of the world. It is true to say that this conviction belongs to the tradition of Jewish wisdom. For this reason it would not astonish those who understand the very strong sense of responsibility, both human and cosmic, implicit in the fidelity of Israel to its vocation. From the prophets to the Hasidim, the sages of Israel have always been animated by the conviction that the peace, the balance and the harmony of the world depended on their obedience to the Torah. The Creator gave the Law to ensure the harmony of man with himself, with others and with the universe. Provided Israel is faithful, and provided she fills the role given her by God in creation, the world is in order, the elements are in their right places and men are at peace. But if any disorder arises, if the harmony is broken and, above all, if the world collapses, Israel must ask herself what share she has had in this rupture of divine accord. Perhaps the evil results from her offences, so it is urgent that she return to God and repent of her sins. This is the meaning of the examination of conscience made by certain religious Jews in face of the Holocaust: have we ourselves sinned or must we suffer for the sin of the world? For the misfortunes of Israel can also be the consequence of man's malice. Even though faithful she must be the first to suffer from the disorder, to bear its wounds in her flesh and to contribute by her suffering to the re-establishment of the harmony and unity of the universe. Hasidic narratives present many examples of those sages who accepted suffering and humiliation with joy because they had the certitude that in their own pain they were bearing the weight of all the misfortunes of all time. They did not make of this suffering their norm of life or their ideal; nothing could be more repugnant to the Jew, for to him death in all its forms is a scandal. They saw in it rather the share that Israel should take in the redeeming of the world: « This may be a wicked age, but your lives should redeem it » (Ephes. 5:15-16). Indeed, the exhortation of the Apostle could be applied to them because they realized it to the letter. But they lived the suffering of the Jewish people above all as an expression of the desire and of the expectation that in the name of the whole of creation Israel is destined to bear. It appeared to them as Israel's role in the slow and laborious preparation for that happiness and peace which the messiah was coming to bring. Suffering and patience were but the counterpart of their hope in the salvation of Israel and of the world. A single example would suffice to resume all these testimonies: it is a Jewish mother's answer to the question of her little son, a child made very sensitive to the suffering of his people through a precocious experience of solitude and contempt. He wanted to know the reason for so much sorrow and his mother said to him: « Son, until the messiah comes our people are destined to suffer for the salvation of the world. »
But here once more it is in the Word of God that Israel finds her final relevance and the supreme explanation of her destiny. Every time that it has been afflicted by suffering the Jewish people has sought light to penetrate the darkness of the trial in Isaiah's description of the passion of the Suffering Servant:
. . . a thing despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering, a man to make people screen their faces;
And yet ours were the sufferings he bore, ours the sorrows he carried.
By force and by law he was taken;
would anyone plead his cause?
Yes, he was torn away from the land of the living . . .
Israel sees herself in the features of this mysterious personage, and the Holocaust was the paroxysm of the tragic fulfillment of the destiny there foretold.
How could a Christian fail to feel himself challenged at the deepest level of his faith in the crucified Christ? Indeed, in the liturgy of Good Friday, the Church reads the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah and applies it to Jesus.
The Lord has been pleased to crush him with [suffering. If he offers his life in atonement,
he shall see his heirs, he shall have a long life
and through him what the Lord wishes will be done.
Thus do the destinies of Jesus and of Israel meet in the same figure. How is it possible not to be struck by the resemblance of these two countenances? What the Christian can truly say is that to the eye of faith Jesus fulfils Israel in her destiny of Suffering Servant and that Israel, in her experience of solitude and anguish, announces and represents even without knowing it the mystery of the Passion and of the Cross.
Here we are forced to recognize that this mystery cannot be expressed in precise terms because it touches the most acute and the most delicate aspects of the mystery of Israel and of the Church: continuity and rupture, fulfilment and transposition. The exactness with which we can speak of these matters depends on the precision of our theology of the relationship between the two stages of salvation history. Here, however, poets and artists have more resources than we have to express what our concepts fail to grasp. I am thinking in particular of certain pages of Leon Bloy, Claudel, Mauriac, and of Raissa Maritain. Above all, I have before my eyes the pictures of Chagall whose canvases when he depicts the suffering, the destitution and the nostalgia of Israel are so often marked by the evocation of the Cross. And a still more expressive sign: the Crucified wears a tallith as if he were the incarnation of the Jewish people. This mysterious synchronism, by uniting the passion of Christ with that of his people, sheds light on both. If, in our everyday language, the word compassion had not lost its theological signification, we could say that in this instance it is the condition of knowledge — com-pâtir pour co-naitre, « suffer-with » in order to « be-born-with », to exist with him whose mysterious destiny has, through the affinity of love, been understood. It is thus that in the person of the Suffering Servant there appears to take place an ineffable exchange. Our vision of Jewish destiny and our understanding of the Holocaust in particular depend on our compassion; the calvary of the Jewish people, whose summit is the Holocaust, can help us to understand a little better the mystery of the Cross.
It can help us also to understand the suffering of the world and to compassionate it. By the very fact of their meeting, the Holocaust and the Cross throw a particularly exacting light on our view of the present situation of men and nations. One of my colleagues at the Hebrew University, a young researcher who has specialized in the history of the shoah, the Holocaust, tells all who are willing to listen how often he has been struck by the blindness in which the Jews of Europe lived during the thirties, completely unconscious of the catastrophe that was being prepared. For him this discovery is the source of an obsessive anxiety. Is not the heedlessness shown by that microcosm that was the Jewish world with regard to the Holocaust about to decimate it, the model and the warning of the people of our time with regard to the catastrophe now menacing the whole world? Thus, once again, is Jewish destiny in its uniqueness endowed with an exemplary value! The Jewish experience of the Holocaust should awaken the attention of all men of good will. Before the threat of annihilation that is hovering over humanity both Jews and Christians should strive to discern with a faith that is lucid and acute. They have learnt to be united in compassion; they must now learn to be united in hope, the hope of al pi chen of the people that believes in the victory of life and in the fidelity of God, Christian hope that affirms the certitude of the victory of the Cross.