Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Yom Kippur: The Persistence of Memory

"Remember to blot out the name of Amalek
from under the heavens. Do not forget."
--Deuteronomy 25:19, my translation

"Without Jews there is no Jewish G-d.
If we leave this world
the light will go out in Your tent.
Since Abraham knew you in a cloud,
You have burned in every Jewish face,
You have glowed in every Jewish eye,
And we made You in our image."
--Gates of Repentence: The Reform Machzor, Martyrology,
from the Yom Kippur Afternoon Service, p.436-7

"And now survivors stammer, their words are haunted.
Behind their words: silence . . .
What pains were taken to save cathedrals,
museums, monuments from destruction . . .
and in the camps and streets of Europe,
mother and father and child lay dying,
and many looked away."
--ibid., p. 438

For the sin of silence,
For the sin of indifference,
For the secret complicity of the neutral.
For the closing of borders,
For the washing of hands . . .
For all that was done.
For all that was not done.
Let there be no forgetfulness before the Throne of Glory.
Let there be remembrance within the human heart . . .
--Gates of Repentence, Martyrology Vidui, p. 439

NOTE: This blog entry was written in response to a confluence of recent experience: Yom Kippur and the Afternoon Service, the reading of a book, Why Are Jews Liberal? by Norman Podhoretz, and most especially from difficult conversations regarding the book and far more, with The Assistant Village Idiot (AVI), who performed the mitzvah of being an Ezer K'negged (an oppositional helper), although I expect he does not know what that is, and he may not particularly like the role. This is a personal view, shaped by experience and the holiness of memory, and as such it may be difficult for my Christian readers to understand or accept. Understand that I am not talking about individuals here, but about how the intertwining of experience and memory of Europe shape the ideas and attitudes of Jews in North America.

Our Yom Kippur was quiet and peaceful, a day of welcome rest as well as reflection. I always enjoy the quiet hour under the sycamore trees by the religious school lawn, spent holding hands with the Engineering Geek, as the leaves dance in the slant of autumn sunlight. Yom Kippur is a Shabbat Shabbaton, a Sabbath of Sabbaths of rest and peace, when we put aside all of the distractions of doing in order to pause, to pray and to be.

After that hour, we move back to the Sanctuary, with that particular Yom Kippur honeyed slowness, the preserving of energy, that sense of time-out-of-time that pervades the fasting body and the quiet mind. Time moves differently as we move into that service of memory and mourning that starts with the singing of these words, the melody of which is a cry:

Elie Zion v'areha k'mo b'zirei-ah . . .
For Zion and her cities I mourn like a mother in her anguish,
like a woman who mourns the husband of her youth.
I mourn the exile of G-d's servants, makers of the sweet melody;
their blood poured out like Zion's streams.

For Jews, the persistence of memory is very powerful, for we do not have a heaven or a hell; death is the end of life and living, and the holiness of memory is how those we loved in life live on. For a little while, at least, "we are their earth."

And so we recall it all. And this is done during the Afternoon Service, when we remember it all: Yom Kippur at the time of the second temple; the depredations of the Romans who killed the Ten Rabbis, thinking they could extinguish nascent Judaism; the destruction of Askenaz during the Crusades and Sepharad during the Inquistion. We remember the battered synagogues, the arguments of scholars, the quiet joy of Jewish domestic life; we remember the expulsions, and the rack, the burning of the Talmud, and the burnings at the stake, in Paris, in Lincoln, in Italy and Spain, and even in Mexico City. And we remember the Shoah, where the bodies of six million Jews, the good and the bad, were turned to smoke over the skies of Christian Europe. And we remember those who did and those who did not do; and we remember the not insignificant number of those who tried to help.

This year, we remembered also the words of Bibi Netanyahu, said with quiet dignity before the United Nations:

"Yesterday, the man who calls the Holocaust a lie spoke from this podium. To those who refused to come here and to those who left this room in protest, I commend you. You stood up for moral clarity and you brought honor to your countries. But to those who gave this Holocaust-denier a hearing, I say on behalf of my people, the Jewish people, and decent people everywhere: Have you no shame? Have you no decency?
A mere six decades after the Holocaust, you give legitimacy to a man who denies that the murder of six million Jews took place and pledges to wipe out the Jewish state. What a disgrace! What a mockery of the charter of the United Nations!"
--Text of Bibi Netanyahu Speech at the United Nations, New York, 24 September 2009. Retrieved from FLAME.

What is the purpose of this memory?

There are those who would like us to forget. Some out of desire for power over us, like the present illegal ruler of Iran. Some out of a desire to see themselves and their own as wholly good, even though they hang on to ideas that are capable of creating great evil. Or perhaps they do not yet know how to disentagle the good ideas from the bad. I understand this. For me too, memories of the bad deeds of others like me can bring up an illegitimate shame, making it hard to look at the deeds plainly and thus understand that they stem from the ideas that I must reconsider. And yet, if I do not do so, and admit that some of my ideas are wrong, then I will be party to the repetition of that evil. And the consequences are evil, regardless of my intentions.

There are those who love their own truth so passionately that they cannot bear to contemplate that some of the ideas it promulgated have have led directly to the destruction of European Jewry, and not once, but many times.

There are those who love their religion so much that they evade the reality that all human institutions can slide from a wrong belief to an evil action, from personal faith to public force. And in so doing, in refusing to root out the bad ideas,the mean characterizations, the movement from arrogance ("we have the truth and want only to save them") to destruction ("and therefore it is right and holy to 'persuade' them with force"), they set up the same drama of murder and suffering again and again.

Why do we remember?
Storing and retrieving memory takes a great deal of physical energy.
It takes even more psychic energy. But the payoff for all of that expensive energy is survival.
Animals remember and animals learn. They do this in order that they and their offspring might live.

Why do we remember?
Human beings have brought learning and memory to a very high level. We learn from experience in order to protect ourselves, and we pass on those memories in order to protect the lives and the happiness of our children. And for human beings, shared memory among a people and down the generations, leads to a diversity of identity. Experience shapes who we are, what we consider to be important; experience shapes our future choices.

What we choose to remember and what we choose to forget may also create misunderstandings between people with different histories.
This is particularly true when one person or group has decided to forget something that another is compelled to remember.
In the persistence of memory, certain sights, sounds, and even words bring to the surface different memories and ideas for one than for another, all due to the differential of experience between them.

An example: Here are some words from AVI:
"It is not only evangelicals who believe in persuasion in religion, of course, but we are particularly known for it. And particularly despised for it. The irritation, even deep insult, that people feel when we attempt to persuade, is not perceived as connected to the stunning newness of the American experience. Such reliance on persuasion rather than fiat is so natural to Americans now that they believe it is the natural state of affairs. They consider it some vast inconvenience and intrusion when others try to convince them. They no longer remember the alternatives were far worse." (From the blog entry Why Do You Side with Them Instead of Us?)

From AVI's point of view (as best as I can discern it--see below), the newness of the American experience, and the desire to persuade rather than force their viewpoints on others, gives Evangelicals the sanction to try to convert Jews. And just as I don't understand how he could not realize how this is an irritation and a deep insult to Jews (and others), so he does not understand why we should be irritated and deeply insulted. AVI himself points out that most Evangelicals skip over the middle of Christian history in Europe, and therefore they do not understand how perilously close European Jewry came to being exterminated, not once by many times. By Christians*. And I cannot imagine how it would be not to know this fact; and for this fact not to be a central motivation in my life. It is really, really hard to put oneself in the shoes of not knowing something that one knows. This, too, is the glory and the consequence of human memory.

So where AVI sees and loves the Evangelical Christian's desire to talk about their messiah to me, I see and hate the desire to cause the loss by conversion to an already decimated people. Where he sees a world of Christians, growing by leaps and bounds, I see a world without Jews, where "the light in [our] tent will go out." AVI says to me something like: I want to share what I consider to be a great gift with you. And I respond: Clean up your own house first before you tell me that I am doomed to hell because I'm a Jew. This idea is dangerous. (And it is from the perspective of Jewish history in Europe, which is not at all the same experience as Christian history in Europe). And so it goes. I remember things that AVI chooses to forget. He relies upon the American experience that Jews do not wholly trust*.

*I will not discuss AVI's argument here that these people were not Christians, nor the argument that the Nazis, many of whom were secular Christians--that is imbued with the cultural prejudices of European Christianity towards Jews even if not church goers--were not Christians. I consider this kind of hair-splitting to be an evasion of the power of those bad ideas to inform evil actions.

**I remember suggesting to my rabbi that in arguing on behalf of gays that they have the same contractual rights as any other individuals have, we should stand firmly on the individual rights claimed in the Declaration of Independence and protected by the Constitution. He did not think this was a good idea. He did not wholly trust those principles, precisely because the Evangelicals used the first document to claim that this is a "Christian" nation. He did not even trust the non-establishment of religion clause of the First Amendment. The argument he crafted was completely divorced from our founding documents and therefore incomprehensible to Evangelicals. They, in turn, could not understand the rabbi's concern about the individual rights of gays, nor that the rabbi despises their position because the idea promotes the persecution and murders of members of a despised minority, in the same way that Jews were persecuted and murdered in Europe.

Now consider that last line of AVIs again:
"They no longer remember the alternatives were far worse."
When I first read it, I "heard" it this way: Those Jews don't remember that if they don't allow us to persuade them, we will become frustrated enough to force them.

I read it that way because I know the history of the Protestant Reformation in Germany, and what Martin Luther did. At first, he urged his new Lutherans to be kind and loving and persuasive to the Jews of Germany. He was certain that this would naturally cause them to see his truth, and that they would convert. His disappointment when this did not happen led to persecution and murder of the Jewries in Lutheran areas. In his polemical study of the roots of Nazism, Freethinker Jim Walker writes:

"No apologist can claim that Martin Luther bore his anti-Jewishness out of youthful naivete', uneducation, or out of unfounded Christianity. On the contrary, Luther in his youth expressed a great optimism about Jewish conversion to Christianity. But in his later years, Luther began to realize that the Jews would not convert to his wishes. His anti-Jewishness grew slowly over time. His logic came not from science or reason, but rather from Scripture and his Faith. His "On the Jews and Their Lies" shows remarkable study into the Bible and fanatical biblical reasoning. Luther, at age 60 wrote this dangerous "little" book at the prime of his maturity, and in full knowledge in support of his beliefs and Christianity.
Few people today realize that Luther wrote 'On the Jews and Their Lies.' (He also wrote such works like "Against the Sabbatarians.") Freethinkers should become aware of the anti-Semitic influence that Luther has brought on the world. His vehement attack on Jews and his powerful influence on the believers of the Germans has brought a new hypothesis to mind: that the Jewish holocaust, and indeed, the eliminationist form of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany may not have occurred without the influence from Luther's book "On the Jews and Their Lies."
--From Martin Luther's Dirty Little Book: On the Jews and their Lies, A Precusor to Nazism, by Jim Walker. Retrieved from

(It is important to realize that Luther did not invent Christian anti-Judaism, but that with this book, he proved it was not just a Roman Catholic problem in the West. There is also here and elsewhere a great deal of evidence for a direct line of thought between Luther and the Nazi eliminationist ideology. Roman Catholic thought had previously forbidden the destruction of European Jewry on the grounds that they should rather be kept in misery to demonstrate the consequences of not accepting the deity of Jesus, although Bishops often turned a blind eye to murder and mayhem against Jewish communities. But Luther, in his break from the Catholic Church, actively promulagated the outright elimination of Jews from Europe. This 'dirty little book" was quoted extensively in Nazi literature and propaganda).

Upon re-reading the whole of what AVI said, however, I believe that AVI did not intend that. Rather, the antecedent to the phrase "they don't remember . . ." implies that the "they" AVI is talking about is "Americans." Americans, not Jews. Perhaps what AVI meant was: "Americans don't remember that this idea of persuasion is unique to America and that the European version was force." Perhaps AVI doesn't even know about Martin Luther's rabid anti-Judaism and his contribution to Nazi ideology.

But I don't know that for sure, and cannot until it is confirmed by AVI one way or another. And I still hear the implied threat in those words. A threat whose implications come from the persistence of my memory. From the experience that has been handed down to me by my teachers. The experience that says "beware of Christians who befriend you in order to convert you. When you decline, they will force you or kill you."

And there are those who do not want us to remember.
Whether out of the desire to destroy us or out of love and the desire to make us over in the image of their own traditions, it does not really matter to us. The consequences are the same. A world without Jews.

Rather, through the persistence of memory, I see a world of diverse belief and tradition. A world in which all of us recognize that the initiation of force against others by individuals for any reason is immoral and will lead to great evil. Even the minimal force applied by Evangelicals in their sometimes overzealous attempts to publically persuade, in the schools and the military academies, and (as once happened to me), in a Starbucks--an inconsiderate interruption of a study session among Jewish women.

And at the very least, if Evangelicals want Jews to side with them on certain issues of mutual interest, it would help if they would educate themselves on who we are as Jews, and what our memory and experience call us to do and to refuse to do, and to be and refuse to be. They could stop the evasion, learn their own history, and develop compassion for those who have very bad memories about Christianity.

On Yom Kippur we remembered. Yesterday, in reading AVIs blog, I remember why we remember. Last night, I had my nightmare again. The one with the round-faced European Jewish children behind a veil of smoke and ashes; the sound of gunfire and rough commands in German. "Juden, raus!"

Such is the persistence of memory.

"Who will dream You?
Who will remember You?
Who deny You?
Who yearn for You?
Who, on a lonely bridge,
Will leave You--in order to return?"
--The Gates of Repentence, Yom Kippur Afternoon Service, p. 437.


Dr X said...


A very thoughtful post. I appreciate your great patience and generous attitude. I was unfamiliar with the term Ezer K’negged. Hands down, it’s better than devil’s advocate.

Here is a link to a brief history of Christian-Jewish relations by Fr. Gerard Sloyan. Sloyan’s review is generally consistent with the views held by mainstream Catholic historians. I don't know about the Evangelical perspective. Perhaps you're familiar with much of what Sloyan has to say, but on the chance that you aren't, you might find the article interesting. The link

Because this history is a complex one, including many characters with a variety of motives, theological views and approaches to relations with Jews, I suppose it is relatively easy to deny the historical Christian role in anti-Semitism by employing the 'no true Scotsman' defense. But when one examines the history closely, including the views expressed by the likes of Augustine, the fallacy is laid bare.

Near his conclusion, Sloyan offers this summation on page 11:

"The Ever Present Subtext"

"Was there a direct line from the anti-Jewish passages in the New Testament to the gas chambers at Auschwitz as some have alleged? Probably not. The line was indirect, beginning around 150 with gentile misreadings of the bitter intra-Jewish polemic contained in those writings. The theological anti-Judaism of the Church fathers, repeated endlessly in medieval and Renaissance-Reformation preaching, was the far greater culprit. It was the continuing rationale for the indefensible Christian conduct of the middle ages onward that was xenophobic and angry at Jewish resistance to absorption into the cultural mainstream. There was resentment, that ugliest of human vices, at the perceived successes of Jews and their grudgingly acknowledged intelligence and skills, reinterpreted as wiliness and conspiracy. But because the Church’s preaching and its catechizing had long shaped the popular mind a new phenomenon was able to come to birth, modern antisemitism."

It is the sentence in boldface, in particular, that stands out for me in light of AVI’s hurt and bewilderment over Jewish hesitation to join in common cause with Evangelicals.

Enough for now.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, Dr. X: Thanks. For a period of about 10 years, I participated in Jewish-Catholic Dialogue, and I am always interested in what some of the more thoughtful Catholic scholars have to say.
I agree with Father Sloyan's quote that you provided. The historical evidence is that early Christianity was another Jewish sect at a time when sects and messiah's abounded. It was only after Christianity matured into a different religion that we see true anti-Judaism. Unfortunately, for historical reasons and due to a rigid theology, that persisted until very recently, and only within some Christian sects. I believe that Christian sects within the US are, on the whole, more likely to have developed some way to live with the reality that Jews are unlikely to convert. But not all such are there (yet?).

AVI is hurt and disappointed, yes, but he also appears to be unwilling? unable? to put himself in the shoes of American Jews, or to look at the nuances that I wrote about in this post--see his comment. It appears that he is angry that Jews do not see things his way. What is interesting is that I have Christian friends--don't know if they are Evangelicals (the number of terms used is dizzying and hard for non-Christians to sort out)who do not share AVI's point-of-view. We work together on issues of mutual interest quite well, and we respect each other's practice without evangelization.

I shan't be back to AVI for a while--a door is a wall if one won't go through it.