Shemini 5766 and Holocaust Remembrance Day — Divine Justice

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Is it possible for a human being to understand Divine justice?

In this week’s Torah reading, Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, are killed by God for a seemingly minor infraction.

The Torah tells us that each of them took his incense pan, put fire and incense in it, and offered aish zarah, strange fire, before the Lord. They offered something that had not been commanded or requested. Not necessarily something that they had been specifically told NOT to bring. But they did something they shouldn’t have. And what was the penalty for this act of volunteerism?

“And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.”

This is one of those many troubling passages in the Torah. How does the punishment fit the crime?

Punishment that seems beyond any logical measure is an issue we grapple with on a holiday that begins Monday night: Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. This week’s Torah portion, Shmini, often falls right around Yom Hashoah, and this has led several commentators to observe a similarity between the parsha and Yom Hashoah: like Nadav and Avihu, many of the six million Jews who perished in the Shoah were consumed by fire.

But I would suggest the real similarity between parshat Shmini and the Shoah is NOT the fire – rather it is the theological challenge to our sense of justice. Nadav and Avihu did not do anything that seems to merit a death sentence. Neither did the Jews who perished in the Shoah. Both this week’s parsha and the remembrance of the Shoah challenge our understanding of God’s justice.

Many of the rabbinic commentators on this week’s parsha go looking for additional sins that Nadav and Avihu had committed which add to the severity of their crime. Some say that they were too eager to take over from Moses and Aaron, that they were plotting against the leadership. Others say, based on the fact that a warning to priests to stay away from wine or strong drink before serving in the Temple comes right after the account of their deaths, that they were drunk when they were offering this “strange fire,” and that was their crime.

No one has tried to say that the victims of the Shoah were sinners—at least, not in this life. However there are those who say they were sinners in previous lives. In September 2000, while I was living in Israel, former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef created a huge stir when he gave a sermon in which he said “The six million Jews, all those poor people who were lost at the hands of those evil ones, the Nazis, may their names be blotted out – was it all for nothing? No. This was all the reincarnation of earlier souls, who sinned and caused others to sin and did all sorts of forbidden acts. They returned in reincarnation in order to set things right, and received, those poor people, all those torments and troubles and deaths under which they were killed in the Holocaust. They were all reincarnated souls. This is not the first time in their lives that their souls have appeared. They came to do atonement for their sins.”

What Rav Yosef said is perfectly in keeping with teachings from the Jewish mystical tradition, Kabbalah, which does hold with reincarnation and the idea of a later life atoning or fixing something that went wrong in an earlier life. But the idea of saying that there was that level of sin among the victims is completely abhorrent. There was a huge public outcry in Israel against this very hurtful teaching of Rabbi Yosef.

The Holocaust forces us to reexamine our theology. Richard Rubenstein – a Conservative rabbi, scholar, and former university President wrote “The thread uniting God and man, heaven and earth, has been broken. We stand in a cold, silent, unfeeling cosmos, unaided by any purposeful power beyond our own resources. After Auschwitz, what else can a Jew say about God?” As you’ll see, I disagree with my distinguished colleague and I still believe in a God Who cares, despite Auschwitz. But Rabbi Rubinstein’s book “After Auschwitz,” published in 1966, was one of the earliest scholarly works to point out that the Shoah forces us to examine what we believe.

There is a long standing tradition in the Jewish tradition to blame ourselves for disasters that come our way. The Talmud says that when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple the first time, in the 6th century BCE, he was “the rod of God,” punishing the Jews for their lapsing into idol worship and abandoning the ways of God.

When the Romans destroyed the Temple a second time a bit over 600 years later, the rabbis didn’t see a level of sin that would have justified such a punishment. So they developed the idea we talk about on Tisha b’Av, that the Temple was destroyed because of sinat chinam, because of gratuitious hatred between Jews.

I don’t think I could have a personal relationship with a God who would use the Nazis as a tool for punishing Jews who had sinned in an earlier life. I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with such a God. How could I possibly pray to a God who would do such a thing? How could I possibly rely on such a God? How could I call God my fortress, or my rock, my savior?

Instead, I take comfort in the theology of Maimonides. Rambam said there are three kinds of evil or suffering in the world. The first are bad things that happen as a side effect of the way God created the world – this would include things like earthquakes and cancer. The second type of evil is the evil people do to each other—like wars and murder. The third type of evil are bad things people do to themselves – abusing drugs, eating too much, etc.

So for Rambam, the evil of the Holocaust is a by-product of free will. God does not create evil. This kind of evil happens because God gave us this wonderful incredible gift of free will, which gives us the opportunity to choose. Sadly, too many people choose to follow an evil, wicked path, and hurt or kill other people.

This does not mean that the good guys bear no responsibility at all – I think the rabbis of old were on to something important when they sought meaning in disasters. But I think we have to understand the connection more metaphorically than directly.

When we say the Temple was destroyed the second time because of baseless hatred between Jews, in a way that very well may be an accurate statement. Not in the sense that the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza would have it, that baseless hatred led to someone turning someone else in to the Roman authorities and so on. But rather on a historical basis: there was a huge amount of distrust – perhaps even hatred – between opposing camps among the Jews in the days of the revolt against Rome. The zealots insisted on trying to take on the Roman government; many other, wiser heads, thought that was a bad idea. There was no unity within the Jewish community. There were many different sects and groups, each with their own ideas on what to do. Perhaps if there had been greater unity among the Jewish people at the time, calmer heads would have prevailed and the revolt would never have happened and the Temple would never have been destroyed.

Hitler succeeded because no one stopped him. Not the millions of Germans who accepted his demands for blind obedience – Goerring said “I have no personal conscience; Adolf Hitler is my only conscience.” And not the British, whose Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain kept thinking the Nazis would be content with Austria—or Poland, or Czechoslovakia. Not even the Americans. We all remember America’s role in beating the Nazis. Less remembered is that two days after Britain, France, Australia and New Zealand declared war on Germany in September, 1939, the United States declared itself neutral. It took another two years before the United States decided to enter the fray – in September, 1941, American ships and planes started firing on German war vessels. Three months later the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor – and a few days after that, Germany declared war on the United States. How might history have turned out differently if America had joined the war in 1939 instead of in 1941? How many millions of lives might have been saved?

One of my teachers from rabbinical school, Dr. Zev Garber, says “The message of the Shoah for the generation after and for future generations is not survival alone. There is something more important than survival, and that is preventing moral bankruptcy.” As long as children anywhere in the world are being taught to be morally bankrupt, to blindly follow demagogues into the cesspool of hate, our children’s and grandchildren’s future is not secure.

In this analysis, the sinners aren’t the people who died – it’s the people who lived, and didn’t stop Hitler. People who would judge those who perished – like Rabbi Yosef – should perhaps instead be judging themselves and the ones who didn’t take action to stop what was going on in Germany in the 1930s.

Hitler, of course, was not the first one to kill Jews. But Hitler had a frightening new twist.

In the past, when Jews were persecuted, they were generally offered a way out at the same time: convert. When Ferdinand and Isabella took control in Spain, they offered the Jews three choices: convert, leave, or die. Most left, some converted, a few died.

In medieval Europe, the oppressors were continually trying to get the Jews to convert to Christianity. Some Jews took the easy way out and converted. But most Jews refused. The majority were proud to be Jews, and they insisted on staying Jewish, sometimes even dying rather than eat a piece of pork.

Hitler’s twist was to take the conversion option away. He didn’t care what you believed. If you had a Jew too close in your family tree you were destined for the gas chambers. Even people who had converted to Christianity – or whose parents had converted to Christianity – were killed for being “Jewish.”

For someone to die rather than convert is a death that we call a “Kiddush Hashem,” a sanctification of God’s name. The people that the Nazis murdered weren’t even given the opportunity to die a death of Kiddush Hashem. They weren’t given any choice. The ones who would have converted to Christianity died right next to the ones who would have chosen to die rather than to let a piece of pork touch their lips. The dignity of being able to give one’s life for Kiddush Hashem was taken away from the poor unwilling martyrs of the Shoah.

This is one reason to prefer using the Hebrew term Shoah over the Greek-derived term Holocaust. Holocaust is the Greek word for a burnt-offering, a sacrifice that was completely burned on the altar. Shoah, on the other hand, means “catastrophe,” or “calamity.” The victims of the Shoah did not willingly offer themselves as sacrifices, as the Midrash says Isaac offered himself when Abraham raised the knife to take his life. Willing or not they were killed. They weren’t given a choice.

There is no theologically satisfactory answer to the issues raised by the Shoah. After all, even if we say that evil comes from people, there have been times when God has chosen to intervene miraculously to save us. Just last week we told the story of the Exodus at Passover, when God redeems a bunch of powerless slaves from mighty Egypt; the Maccabees defeated the far more powerful Seleucids; many hold that Israel’s victory over the Arab armies in 1948 and 1967 was also nothing short of miraculous. How does God choose when a situation deserves a miracle and when it doesn’t?

There are those who say that the Shoah was the price we paid for the State of Israel. In the decision of the Knesset to establish the 27th of Nisan as The Day of the Shoah and Ghetto Revolt Remembrance Day, Mordecai Norouk, in the name of the House Committee of the Knesset said “perhaps by the merit of their blood spilled like water, we achieved a state and the beginning of redemption.”

But somehow tying together the Holocaust and the State of Israel—with the implication of suffering and reward—is also unsatisfying on many levels. Who asked the six million—who asked us?—if it was worth the price?

There are some theological questions that we can wrestle with and wrestle with but can never come up with a completely satisfying solution. When we wear ourselves out from trying to make sense of the senseless, the only response we are left with is the same response that Aaron had when he was told of the death of his sons.

Vayidom Aharon. And Aaron was silent.

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