The Meaning of the Holocaust?

By Michael Novak on June 10, 2008 in General Articles & News
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Recently as part of conference on the meaning of the Holocaust, the congregation Ohev Sholom asked me about my theological interpretation of the Holocaust.

The shortest answer is that I have always thought of hell in Dante’s image: many concentric circles, going down ever deeper into evil. For me, the Holocaust has always seemed to be the narrowest, deepest, most evil circle of Hell.

Of the hundred million violently killed in the twentieth century, Jews were almost the only people systematically slated for genocide. (To a lesser degree, gypsies and homosexuals.) I can think of nothing so evil as what happened to six million Jews under the Nazis: people put to death not for anything they did but for who they were. I have been at scholarly conferences in which sociologists who once denied the existence of pure evil said they were revising their thinking.

Why were the Jews singled out? No pragmatic, rational or even irrational explanation satisfies. Whatever you conclude, a residue of mystery remains. By “mystery” is meant not a problem to be unpacked, or a case to be solved. Solving a problem is just plain everyday ‘rational.’ A mysterium is of a different order. A mysterium is something above our level of understanding. On a different wavelength. Some powerful meaning lies therein, but beyond our powers to penetrate. All ordinary rational reasons are insufficient. We don’t expect even an Einstein one day to resolve it. It is not just a puzzle. It is more dreadful than that.

Judaism is a mysterium by virtue not only of its long, long persistence down the ages, against all odds, and against all enemies. But also because in some powerful way it stands for YHWH, the Sovereign of all things, the Judge, the Fountain and Origin of prophetic judgment on injustice and lack of compassion, and also a powerful sense of obligation. Judaism means the existence of Judgment, Truth, Compassion beyond all human measures, and obligation. Judaism, not alone, is one of those religions Rudolph Otto described as mysterium tremendum et fascinans — a mystery that makes one afraid, yet draws one in, ceaselessly. It gathers together a people who fear God, while being irresistibly drawn toward His justice and His truth, moved by His compassion, and painfully aware of an obligation to those among His human children who suffer most.

Judaism and Jews add a dimension to human life that it is given to no other to evoke. And a need to give homage and thanks to the Creator of all things.

Parenthetically, I also agree with Jacques Maritain, who found in his experience in evenings spent with Jewish friends in America more intensity, more seriousness, more laughter, more art, more contemporaneity, more historical ballast than in other parts of his life.

John Adams, the second president of the United States, writes that even if he were an atheist who thought everything random, meaningless, absurd, he would still consider the Hebrews the great bearer of the fundamental principle of civilization: that the Creator of all things infused everything with intelligence and light. Everything is in principle understandable even if we do not yet understand it, in virtue of the fact that its Creator is intelligence itself, infusing all things. In this way, the Hebrews made civilization possible. Because it made conversation possible, Judaism holds over my head and yours, and the head of everybody on earth, the regulative ideal that, even if you or I do not yet see the answer, we are each bound to follow the evidence such as we see it. And this mutual commitment to regulative truth allows us – demands of us – that we converse openly with one another, trying to discern that part of the evidence which we do not yet see, which our companions on earth might. Civilized peoples try to persuade, they converse. Barbarians club one another; they kill in order to silence inquiry.

In my view, any attempt to obliterate the role of reason and truth in civilization – any movement toward nihilism – must at some point eradicate Judaism. Judaism by its nature stands for truth and reason and justice, as laws of nature. It is the opposite of nihilism and relativism. Judaism is the enemy of nihilism and relativism. That is why it makes civilization possible.

To destroy Western civilization and reason, and to propose a new order based upon nihilism and totalitarianism, it was convenient first to destroy Judaism.

Judaism, therefore, is central to what we mean by civilization, advanced civilization, even every civilization held to standards beyond those it has yet attained. Judaism instills a fascination with the call toward progress, the beckoning toward a better world up ahead. Judaism is the religion of hope.

The Relation of Judaism to Christianity

Pope John Paul II and St. Thomas Aquinas held that God cannot be unfaithful to His Covenant with the Jews. If He were, then what confidence could Christians have in His (as we believe) New Covenant? – this New Covenant does not abrogate the First, but (as we believe) goes beyond it. YHWH is never unfaithful, from His side, to His Covenants, and can never abandon his first-loved, chosen people.

Second, it is crucial to Christianity that Judaism in its full biblical vigor should flourish as long as God wills until the end of time. Judaism must be a vital, flourishing community of prayer and study and fidelity, for without that Christianity could never come to discover, in a living contemporary way, its own first principles and origins.

The relation between Jews and Christians — a vital communion between them — is absolutely essential. But it is not symmetrical. By this I mean that in order for Christians to be fully and deeply Christian, they must also recapitulate in themselves the truths and principles infused in them by Judaism. One cannot be a good Christian without trying in the essentials to be a good Jew.

But the opposite does not hold. A Jew can and normally does remain a Jew without also becoming a Christian. In fact, a Jew continues to believe that Christianity goes too far, into blasphemy, into an abandonment of monotheism, into a violation of the truth about God — and also a violation of the truth about man. Insofar as the teaching of Jesus may, in some sense, be beautiful and inspiring, Jews tend to find it also perfectionist, utopian, and dangerous. For Christians, the necessary contribution of Judaism, deeply understood, is that it takes the claims of Christianity seriously as, alas, many modern Christians do not. It takes seriously His “New Law.”

In summary, Judaism is essential to Christianity, but Christianity does not seem to Jews essential to Judaism — must even seem to Jews in some ways contrary to Judaism, a grievous violation of the tenets of Judaism.

That is how things, in fact, appear to us, in our diversity. However we might wish it to be otherwise, it is the reality of our human limitations.

Practical Conclusions

First, the most important lesson of the Holocaust is that we must not let the Nazis drive a wedge between us — not between those who want to be deeply and truly Jewish, and those who want to be deeply and truly Christian. We must not give the Nazis a posthumous victory. We must harken to the Holocaust to draw us together, in the firm and unbreakable revulsion: Never again!

Second, we must struggle to understand anew the deepest possible meaning to the First and the Second Commandments given by YHWH: We should love God with all our hearts, minds and souls; and we should love our neighbor as ourselves. “This is the whole law and the prophets.” The bond between Jews and Christians — the bond of our mutual genesis, our ontological bond (so to speak) — must never be sundered. The bond of brothers and sisters, not least of all in our suffering, our incomprehensible suffering. Like others who are not Jewish, the suffering I witnessed in my childhood filled me with a kind of dread. Potentially, it was happening to me, and to all of us.

Third, we must think again, and as deeply as we can, about the hardness and toughness of our vision of the Creator and Judge. He is no Pollyanna, our God. We are instructed by the story of Noah that He once destroyed the whole world, except for Noah’s tiny family. His ways are mysterious to us, sometimes frightening, sometimes causing dread. Yet He tries again and again to break through to us to tell us of His love.

It is all incomprehensible. It is mysterious. It is fascinans, and also tremendum. If it is love, it is very tough love. But what is meant by God’s love? Those He loves He seems to chastise the most.

I do not know how to explain the madness of much of the twentieth century, and least of all the horrors of the Holocaust. The number of non-combat deliberate killings by the Nazis are commonly said to have been fourteen-to-sixteen million, the largest proportion by far, six billion, having been Jews. It is too awful to remember. Yet it is also indispensable that we never forget.

We need to go forward together, into a kind of night.

This is a dreadful and serious business, living a human life, as God would have us live it.

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