Each and every year, it becomes more difficult to know what to make of Yom Hashoa. The facts are clear enough. Thanks to memorials, museums, archives, books, and videos, we will have no trouble pointing to the awful record of the Holocaust and saying, “See what happened.” But what lessons shall we ask the Jews of the late 21st century and beyond to take from it?
We have never been quite clear on that. Until the 1960s, we were unable even to acknowledge the enormity of it all — it took the 1961 trial of Adolph Eichmann to correct our Jewish reticence on the subject, let alone to invite conversation by others. Then too, we have had to contend with Holocaust deniers, some of whom still surface from time to time. With all this energy going into the “what” of the Holocaust, we have not sufficiently broached the “so what” of the thing, and it is time we got that straight, because without it, we will know exactly what to point to but we will not know why we are doing the pointing.
Two long-term approaches are patent. On the one hand, there are particularists who see the Shoa as a lesson in Jewish survivalism. The Herzlian Zionists had it right when they said the world is inherently anti-Semitic and Jews can never rest secure. Hitlers can and will rise up — anywhere, any time. Only a Jewish state can save us, and a Jewish state must ever be vigilant because Jews can trust nobody. The purpose of remembrance is to know in our very bones just how vulnerable we are, by seeing how little the world cared about our virtual disappearance.
On the other hand, there are universalists who remind us of other attempted genocides, like the ethnic cleansing of Bosnians by Serbs and the ongoing massacre even now of Africans in Darfur. We Jews rightly bristle when people lump our own experience in with that of everyone else, as if one genocide is the same as any other, so that no attention need be paid to the specificity of each one: The Jewish instance has its own uniqueness, after all. But even that lesson can have universal application, in that other attempts to eliminate entire races and ethnicities should also not be homogenized into a single worthless truism of “Let’s remember all the groups who almost disappeared.” If we remember all of them as one, we remember none of them at all.
This particularistic-universalistic debate is nothing new. Planners of Holocaust memorials necessarily face up to it. But the rest of us do not. And it is time we did, for otherwise, we will be historically rich in knowing the facts but spiritually bankrupt in explaining why they matter.
Both lessons matter — profoundly; both are true.
Irrational hostility toward Israel by otherwise thoughtful people who simultaneously ignore the most vile dictators who are Israel’s enemies and who are genuine criminals against humanity is the surest demonstration of the need for Jewish vigilance. But the Jewish mission can hardly be defensiveness without some corollary sense of why Jews should stick around to start with, and therein lies the universal lesson of the Shoa, just one of many universalisms that Judaism once introduced to Western culture and still proudly defends as the prophetic message the world needs to hear.
I read this week’s sedra with all this in mind. Entitled “Kedoshim” (“holy”), it commands us to be holy as God is holy. To practice honesty in business, to demand justice, to care for the deaf and the blind, not to stand idly by the blood of others: These are the heart of this week’s Torah portion. What could be more universal than “sanctifying” the world, kiddush (in Hebrew)? But the same word attached to shem (“God’s name”) gives us the possibility of dying al kiddush Hashem, our term for martyrdom, precisely the other pole of the Shoa, what we want desperately to avoid.
We enter Yom Hashoa with parshat Kedoshim ringing in our ears, and the dual lesson of what the Shoa means beyond sacred memory of the people who died and of how they met their end. We need remain vigilant against ever again suffering the fate of dying al kiddush Hashem. But similarly, we need vigilance against injustice, poverty, and the condition of helplessness that makes anyone a victim of history. The world’s oppressed ought at least to count on Jews to come to their aid when no one else seems eager to do so.