Originally published 4/17/07, 2:29 PM, Eastern Daylight Time
Rabbi Ben Hecht
Recently Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, made a statement that placed the blame for the Holocaust on the advent of Reform Judaism. Since Reform Judaism emerged in Germany and Nazism emerged in Germany, Rav Eliyahu projected a link between the two that basically presented the Holocaust as a punishment for the Reform attempt to circumvent the obligations of mitzvot. The Jerusalem Post on-line edition (www.jpost.com) quoted Rav Shmuel Eliyahu, the Chief Rabbi's son, as stating, in defense of his father: "It is not a coincidence that the Holocaust began in Germany. Whenever Jews try to act like goyim, they are punished. It happened during the Spanish Inquisition, and it happened during the Holocaust."
Of course, ARZA, the Reform Movement's Zionist arm, responded in a most critical manner to Rav Eliyahu's views. Rav Eliyahu is, in fact, not the first to voice this view. Rav Shach also voiced a similar view years ago. The catalyst for Rav Eliyahu's statement would seem to be Yom Hasho'ah and the question of how we should respond to this day of rememberance and, in fact, to the Holocaust itself. Such statements as the one presented by Rav Eliyahu in fact emerge from the directive in such sources as the gemora in T.B. Brachot that when bad things occur to a person, the person should investigate his/her deeds, i.e. initiate the process of teshuva. Is this similar, though, for the nation? And how does one do this?
Indeed the many sources, in such places as the gemora in T.B. Gittin, that tie the destruction of the Temples to the sins of the Jewish People would seem to conclude that that nation as a whole should go through a similar process as the individual. As the Talmud presented causes for the Churban Hamikdash, it is not unreasonable to expect our Rabbinic leaders to also find reasons for the Holocaust in a theological sense that leads us to investigate our behaviour as Jews. Yet, I still find difficulty with Rav Eliyahu's words. It is not the attempt to find the cause within the people that bothers me -- although I also find this quite difficult a process and greatly fear the possibility of blaming the victim -- per se that bothers me. It is the answer -- almost any answer -- that concerns me more.
This process to determine the theological reason for the Holocaust is a most complex one. Almost any answer simplifies it. The call to investigate one's actions when one is confronted by tragedy is a true Talmudic call -- but it is a personal call upon the individual. It is not a call upon another to tell the person, who is suffering the tragedy, what he/she did wrong. It is a call upon me to look at myself. It is for sure not a call upon me to justify myself in the face of another's misfortune. How often I have seen people respond to tragedy, not by looking at themselves and figuring out how they can improve themselves -- although any connection between the new insight and the misfortune must be taken with some hesitation -- but by using this as an opportunity to advance their own cause. If one with whom I agree is suffering, this person is a korban, as sacrifice for the misdeeds of others. And if one with whom I disagree is suffering, the person is, in deed, being punished for his/her misdeeds. Maybe the one you think is the korban, is actually the one with the misdeeds and the one you think in acting inappropriately is the korban? We are called upon to invesigate suffering theologically -- but it cannot just be an opportunity to voice a stand that one already has.
The gemara in Brachot calls upon the individual who is suffering to consider his/her actions. I do not believe that this call is actually intended to have the individual attempt to understand God. God is beyond our understanding -- and this for sure applies to the Holocaust. Any attempt to explain is, in my opinion, an oversimplification -- of the event and of God. (I state this with due respect to Rav Eliyahu). The call to look at oneself still is the call of the gemora, not because one will find the answer but the processes of Torah demand of us to always investigate our behaviour and to recognize that there is theological cause-and-effect in this world even as we don't understand it. Yet it is a call upon us to look at ourselves, to change ourselves. In the end blaming Reform Judaism for the Holocaust, for me, is problematic for two reasons. There is the inherent problem that would accompany any theological explanation for the Holocaust. There is the additional problem that the very purpose of undertaking this impossible task is missed -- what does it say to me? What is my problem that I have to undertake to correct? What does blaming Reform Judaism accomplish? Perhaps Rav Eliyahu felt that this response will bring people back to Torah? Then I still have the general problem I would have with any explanation for the Holocaust. There must be trepidation in the very approach to this issue. But would such an explanation have any effect? The call is for one to learn and see how one can become better -- not to challenge the other.
If Yom Hasho'ah is to have meaning it must remind us never to forget the great evil of the Nazis and to maintain vigilance against rashayim, the evildoers that sadly fill the world. The gemora's call to investigate oneself does not, in any way, lesson our responsibility to attack the perpetrator and respond to evil and the evildoer. But for Yom Hasho'ah to have a fuller meaning, as does Tisha B'Av and the other fast days do, it must call upon us to do teshuva and consider how we may improve ourselves. But it must always be remembered that this process is a most complex one, that whatever we find we cannot look at as God's reason -- and, perhaps most importantly, that the process is intended to teach us how we, each one of us, can improve, not not simply be used to reinforce ourselves and our views.