“We are witnesses to God and humanity, and that call to witness is not predicated on assurances of reward in this world or the next.”
There is a photograph of three yeshiva students from Lodz in the 1930s that was preserved by a non-Jewish family during the war. Six decades later the photograph was submitted to an exhibition, and the letter that went along with it reads:
I send you a photograph which belonged to my mother, Salomea Tarczynska. During the occupation it was covered by another picture. As far as I can figure out, they were my mama’s very good friends before the war. Unfortunately, I don’t know anything more about this.
One of the young men is my grandfather, Izak Zonabend. To the best of my knowledge, his two friends pictured with him in the photograph perished a few years after it was taken. How do I, a second-generation Reform rabbi living in Jerusalem, relate to questions of religion and identity presented by this heritage? Am I capable of formulating a response to the Holocaust?
It is relatively easy to identify the responses that I cannot accept. The notion of Divine retribution meted out by a God of strict justice in reprisal for the sins of modernity—no. The concept of a cleansing act of atonement in which the Jews are immolated on the altar of progress—no. The idea that those who survived were spared by a discriminating God who found more worth in one person than in another and then cursed the surviving remnant to live with that impossible life sentence—no.
The list of impossible theo-political responses is a long one. The attempt to base a kind of tribal survivalism on Jewish ashes is perhaps understandable, but I am convinced that as a foundation for a Jewish politics, let alone a Jewish ethics, it needs to be resisted and overcome. In the early 1980s my father, Dow Marmur, wrote Beyond Survival, in which he argued against the construction of a new Jewish paradigm based on the survival imperative. In the years that have intervened, his argument only seems to have become more apposite.
I am no more persuaded by a kind of pallid universalism that argues that the root cause of the inhumanity exhibited in the twentieth century is group affiliation—ethnic, religious, and ideological. Remove these affiliations, the argument goes, and we can live out a post-national, post-religious, post-ethnic utopia. I disagree with this approach on both intrinsic and pragmatic grounds. In my view, if a new humanism is to emerge in our time, it will take strong identities and heartfelt commitments to bring it about.
The standard theological literature tends to speak in terms of a response to the Holocaust, but in the lived experience of children born in its wake, response is not quite the appropriate term. Those who lived through the events may have felt called to respond to them. If you are born to parents who lived through the Holocaust, you have both nothing and everything to respond to. Nothing—because it happened to someone else. Everything—because were it not for these someone elses, you would not be who you are.
I don’t have a theological “response” to the Holocaust that is distinct from my general theological outlook. That outlook resonates with these words of philosopher Emil Fackenheim:
Mir zeinen do—we are here, exist, survive, endure, witnesses to God and man even if abandoned by God and man. Jews after Auschwitz will never understand the longing, defiance, endur- ance of the Jews at Auschwitz. But so far as is humanly possible they must make them their own as they carry the whole Jewish past forward into a future yet unknown.
We are witnesses to God and humanity, and that call to witness is not predicated on assurances of reward in this world or the next. The God in whom I believe and to whom I pray does not hand out rewards for good behavior, nor punishes those who have been lax in ritual adherence or moral probity.
But if God could not or did not save the day when the need was greatest and the situation most dire, and if God has demonstrated such disinterest or impotence throughout history and in our own days, what use is there for such a God? I am always moved by the daring reading offered in the Babylonian Talmud of a biblical phrase that means “Who is like you ba-eilim, among the gods?” The school of Rabbi Ishmael, relating to the destruction of the Second Temple, offered a deliberate misreading of the verse, rendering it as “Who is like you ba-ilmim, among the silent?” Cries of pain and defiance are as authentic a part of tradition as are pious protestations of Divine perfection.
God’s presence is not subject to my sense of appropriateness or bounded my reason. This does not mean that reason is to be abandoned—some approaches to God and faith that worked for our ancestors cannot work for me. But history teaches that ours is not the first generation to seek a new articulation of God. Indeed, Jewish concepts of God have not been static through history. God is bigger than any of our formulas.
For myself, I cannot uproot the presence of God. Rather, as I testify to my faith in the commanding presence of God I am called to replant this sense of presence in the altered ground of a post-Holocaust world. In this respect, I draw some inspiration from the photograph of my grandfather and his friends with which I began these reflections. Within a few months, he had left the garb and posture of a Gerer Hasid ensconced in learning and adopted the wardrobe and perspective of a secular Polish Jew.
My grandfather Izak abandoned the strictures, doctrines, and milieu of Halakhic Judaism of his own volition. It wasn’t the legacy of Hitler that caused him to eschew the satin and fur of his childhood. A certain God idea had become impossible for him, and a certain set of strictures unnecessary, before the Final Solution was enacted. For him and for countless others, tradition had been undermined by a process seen by some as heresy and others as enlightenment. For me, as for grandfather Izak, any conception of God that includes a wrathful divinity squashing the baddies and leading the goodies to redemption is impossible. It was not Hitler but modernity that made such a God impossible (for me at least).
Both my mother and father were raised in secular Jewish surroundings. It was left to them to seek for meaning and structure from the debris that was their birthright. From them I learnt that to strive to live a life of integrity and commitment is an act of witness. To engage in acts of ritual and community is also an act of witness—to the continuity of Judaism, to God, to humanity. And I suppose that my decision to make my life in Israel has been influenced by this impulse to testimony.
Humor and Love
Izak’s name comes from the Hebrew word for “laughter.” If the command to testify is one major part of my theological “response,” the need for humor is no less urgent. I have in mind humor born of encounter, not escape. This humor is not about entertainment. Rather, it is a theological category, described by sociologist Peter Berger as “redeeming laughter.” I was brought up in a household in which a mixture of voracious intellectual curiosity, a developed sense of irony, a love of life, and a certain skepticism of human motivations prevailed. This skepticism certainly extends to my own motivations. Anything too self-important should be deflated. By all accounts Izak had sad eyes that twinkled nonetheless with humor and joie de vivre. Such an approach has political implications, because it is inimical to pomposities and totalities. I believe that just as we are called to take life and culture and values seriously, any person demanding special privileges and claiming mysterious powers should be debunked. That includes ourselves.
After testimony and laughter, love. I have always felt an overflowing love of Judaism and the Jewish people, a love that I hope serves to deepen my sense of solidarity and sympathy with all people and many cultures. Love is also a more private and intimate category. I think it would be fair to say that my parents were saved from a broken past by their love for each other. Living life in relationship is for me an act of faith as well as a joy.
I cannot claim a simple happy ending to this story. To suggest a neat conclusion in which all is resolved would be to dishonor the other two young men in the old photograph and the millions of others they represent. It would imply that there was some rhyme or reason in what happened to them and, for that matter, in what happens to millions around the world as I write these words. My sense of blessing and fulfillment cannot excuse or explain so many inequities and so much cruelty.
Izak survived the ghetto and the camp and later was reunited with his wife and daughter. I was two years old when he died in the 1960s. He is buried in Stockholm and lives in his daughter’s sad eyes and in occasional moments of sweet reminiscence. He also lives in his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, one of whom—Nadav Yitzchak—bears his name. Nadav Yitzchak and the children of his generation inhabit a very different world from that of their great-grandparents, and yet I believe that much is similar. Their world is “disenchanted” in the sense that old orthodoxies are impossible for them, and yet in their deeds and thoughts they live lives of testimony, humor and love.
Furthermore, there is much to be concerned about. The Israel I live in is endangered by missiles and upheavals from outside and by major threats from within. A thin line separates love for the Jewish people from tawdry chauvinism and bigotry, which should have been removed from our vocabulary but which have returned to threaten all of us. The Jewish world outside Israel is struggling to deal with the same processes of modernity and change that Izak and his generation strove to navigate. And the world as a whole is bleeding and reeling from a set of challenges that often seem overwhelming.
And yet, decades after the faded photograph of my grandfather and his friends was taken, there is so much to be thankful for. Izak’s grandson lives a comfortable life, striving to witness to a God who has to be rearticulated in every generation and a Judaism in the process of change; I study the books my grandfather was raised on and set aside, and I feel empowered to take my place at the table of Jewish discourse; I dream in Hebrew; I take core principles and ideas— but not myself—seriously; I am surrounded by love and friendship. How can I not give thanks for all this? It is not only luck, or karma, or my gene pool, which I thank. It is God, even the God most excellent in silence.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:
As parts of Israel we ... remember where we came from. We are summoned and cannot forget it, as we wind the clock of eternal history. We remember the beginning and believe in an end. We live between two historic poles: Sinai and the Kingdom of God.
My focus is more modest. I live between two realities, two poles, symbolized by one Pole and one Israeli—between Izak and Nadav Yitzchak. Perhaps one day I will seek out the granddaughter of Salomea Tarczynska, the woman who saved the photograph, and see how she is doing, living—as all human beings are fated and blessed to do—between the past and a future yet unknown.
Rabbi Michael Marmur is the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Provost at HUC-JIR. Born in London, he has lived in Israel since the mid-1980s, was ordained by HUC-JIR in 1992, and received his PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 2006. An authority on the works of Abraham Joshua Heschel, he specializes in modern Jewish thought.