Confronting the Jewish Future — Marc H. Ellis

by Marc H. Ellis
Fortress Press, 2011

A Review by Lawrence Swaim

These five Jewish thinkers are not as concerned about theology as they are with modern history, and it’s no wonder. No religion on this planet has suffered what Judaism endured in the twentieth century. After a millennium of unremitting efforts by Jews to be good Europeans came the Nazi Holocaust, and just four years after Auschwitz was liberated, the state of Israel was founded. These two colossal, mind-boggling events of the 1940s are what this book is really about, with the Holocaust taking precedence. The Holocaust changed the way the West views itself; the founding of Israel, which was in many ways a response to the Holocaust, radically altered the Middle East. It is this vivid and dangerous subtext that informs the thinking of these five thinkers, as each tries desperately, with varying degrees of success, to respond to what has happened.

“Our images of God, man, and the moral order have been permanently impaired,” wrote Richard Rubenstein, Professor Ellis’ first important teacher, in 1966. “No Jewish theology will possess even a remote degree of relevance to contemporary Jewish life if it ignores the question of God and the death camps.” Everything Jews thought they knew about themselves, human nature, and morality was completely turned upside down. To put it bluntly, where was God when six million Jews were asphyxiating in the gas chambers of Europe? If God had a covenant with Jews before, what could possibly be left of it, and why should anybody care?

Ellis first tells the story of Elie Wiesel, whose autobiographical memoir, Night, raised consciousness about the Holocaust. Wiesel sees God’s abandonment of European Jews in their hour of need as a kind of incomprehensible moral failure. Yet the absence of God in the gas chambers is balanced off by the founding of the state of Israel, which to Wiesel is a transcendent miracle that in some sense atones for God’s silence. But there is clearly a problem with this. To say that the Israeli state is a miracle from God is very close to saying that it is God, or at the very least an outcome of God’s will. But if God loves Jews so much that he wants them to have their own country, why did he previously abandon them to Hitler?

Wiesel isn’t inclined to think this through. His personal need to identity with Israeli power is all too obvious, but he clearly believes that Israel is in some sense a divine work, or at the very least beyond human criticism. And although such intuition is no excuse for a real position, it is probably typical of the feelings of a great many American Jews. Having lost their connection to God – where was God in the gas chambers? – many have unconsciously replaced God with the worship of the Israeli state, which implies uncritical acceptance of Israel’s crimes and misdemeanors, as well as Israeli’s escalating racism and defiance of international law. If the Israeli state is God, everything it does must be good, even though it may not appear so to the unbeliever. This identification with the state of Israel may be an expression of pure religious nationalism, but also the inevitable result of an unconscious sense that God may be dead, mad, or morally deranged.

But God did not commit the evils of the Holocaust. Those evils were committed by European Christians, who have a long history of committing just such outrages. Indeed, the only reason it had not been done before was probably because Christians lacked the organization and technology to carry it out. The Holocaust, whatever else it was in terms of systemic evil, was also the culmination of sixteen centuries of Christendom’s persecution of Jews. So why cannot Elie Wiesel articulate this simple truth? Because he is a favorite of the American Establishment (in both its political and cultural incarnations) which rewards him well for his role, even passing a resolution in Congress demanding that he receive a Nobel Prize. In a celebrity culture such as America’s, Wiesel seemed well-cast to play the role of an elder statesman of human rights: a gaunt but tragic face, a serious demeanor, and a perhaps overly-praised but still impressive literary reputation.

Furthermore, Wiesel could always be counted on to play a reliable ideological role on behalf of the American Establishment. He would never criticize America’s many human rights violations abroad, and he would reliably deflect criticism of America’s special relationship to Israel as probably motivated by anti-Semitism. Most importantly of all, he could be depended on to never very seriously criticize Christian beliefs and behavior, and would never embarrass his American sponsors by forcefully pointing out that the Holocaust was carried out entirely by Christians.

That is too bad, because Christianity needs such a candid analysis. The Protestants of Germany made a beginning with their “Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt” of October 19, 1945, beginning with these somber words: “Through us infinite wrong was brought over many peoples and cultures….” But this promising beginning was not followed up. It soon became clear that Christian anti-Semitism was deeply connected to the belief in substitutionary atonement, by which Christ’s crucifixion supposedly redeems the sinner.

If Christ’s bloody death redeems the world, then violence itself is redemptive, which is why historically anti-Semitic acts escalated during Easter Week. But if Christians took responsibility for the Holocaust, however retroactively, no one could claim that it was God’s malevolence or deliberate absence that caused the Holocaust, but the misuse of religion by European Christendom–a misuse, this writer would say, that has been going on in one form or another since the fourth century. To consider this would be good for Christianity, and also Judaism.

Hannah Arendt, who Ellis also writes about, took a different tack in dealing with the Holocaust, in her case by banishing its unfathomable evil to the much more manageable realm of the banal. In Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, she argued that it is possible for some people to participate in systemic evil without any very great consciousness of personal evil. At the same time, Arendt agreed that it is precisely the casual boredom of the criminal toward his crime that makes mass murder so difficult to understand. None of this is news of earthquake proportions. Evil is defined not by emotions or even intentions, but by outcome – that is, what it does, which in Eichmann’s case was to murder millions of innocent people because they were Jews.

Furthermore, Eichmann’s own statements contradict Arendt’s thesis. He was not only aware of the evil he was committing, he was proud of it. As for Arendt, one has a back-handed admiration for her willingness to take on the leaders of the organized Jewish community in America, as well as her insistence on seeing Jewish victims as people, rather than martyrs or proto-Zionist heroes. But her idea that evil itself can be banal doesn’t fly. People can act out radical evil as casually as they wish – indeed, that is exactly how sociopaths operate – but the effects are still catastrophic. That is why we punish the criminals responsible for them. Even Adolph Eichmann must have realized that something had gone terrible wrong as the day of his execution loomed closer.

Arendt and Wiesel were in Jerusalem at the same time covering the Eichmann trial, and each had an instant dislike and distrust of each other. Ellis explains that Arendt, as a trained political scientist, simply wanted to analyze the Holocaust and find out what happened. Wiesel, on the other hand, bristled at the idea that it could ever be analyzed or understood. To understand would be to make it an ordinary human phenomenon, whereas Wiesel wanted to see it as outside of history and incomprehensible. Anybody who tried to understand it was minimizing its enormity and also minimizing the special role of Wiesel himself, who over time set himself up as a kind of high priest or archbishop of Holocaustianity, with all the special privileges and responsibilities inherent in such an important role. Gradually it became a sin for anybody to even try to understand the Holocaust or place it in a recognizable human or historical context. To do that would suggest that all people are capable of such evil, even in places such as the state of Israel. Wiesel was one of the first and most egregious examples of the painful reality that all who use the Holocaust for personal or organizational gain are invariably corrupted. Over time, Wiesel became simply another American celebrity and a reliable advocate of uncritical approval of anything Israeli.

Of all the five intellectuals Ellis examines, Rabbi Abraham Josehua Heschel is the thinker who seems at first to embody the best response to the Holocaust: let us build a better world as an alternative to the horrors of the past. Heschel correctly warns against too much introspective examination–what is important is not being, he says, but behavior. And indeed, for a very long time Heschel seemed to be choosing a robust and even heroic opposition to various forms of systemic evil in American life. He was a close associate of Martin Luther King, bringing him to denominational conventions and introducing him to key members of his community. He spoke out against the Vietnam War, but most forcefully against segregation in the South and racism in general in the United States. There is little doubt that he saw Southern segregation and institutional racism generally as first cousins to the Nazi anti-Semitism that killed his mother and sister in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943.

Ellis quotes Heschel in prophetic mode, in which he could deliver stinging indictments of American Jews and others with epigrammatic fury. Here is a short selection written in capital letters from a telegram Heschel sent in 1963 to President Kennedy, insisting that he intervene on behalf of Martin Luther King:


To the Council of Jewish Federations, he said: “Our institutions maintain too many beauty parlors. Our people need a language and we offer them cosmetics.” Likewise, he denounced the American worship of the Almighty Dollar. “The most urgent task is to destroy the myth that accumulation of wealth and the achievement of comfort are the chief vocations of man.” He referred to religious and racial bigotry as “Satanism, a blasphemy.” When asked why he marched to stop the Vietnam War, he said, “What does [God] condemn above all? Murder, killing innocent people. How can I pray when I have on my conscience the awareness that I am co-responsible for the death of innocent people in Vietnam? In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”

Thus it is with enormous disappointment that one discovers that in his writings about Palestinians and Arabs, Heschel takes a sharp right turn into a highly self-serving version of Orientalist fantasy. In Israel: An Echo of Eternity, Heschel strikes out at Arabs for not welcoming Zionists into the Middle East, since the Jewish settlers wished only to help Arabs reach a higher level of civilization. There was no ethnic cleansing of Palestinians – according to Heschel’s Disney version, Zionist settlers manfully tried to “arrest this exodus” of Palestinians leaving their neighborhoods and villages, the better for Jew and Arab to dwell together in peace. Heschel writes of Palestinians much like British Americans in the 1640s wrote of tribal societies: since they were too primitive to know their own best interests, it was impossible to negotiate with them; they were therefore fated to remain shadowy and sometimes demonic stick figures, alternately childlike and threatening, forever getting in the way of the white European’s God-given task of redeeming Arabs by building the good society.

Heschel thought the Palestinians should “embrace” the Zionists, because of the obvious advantages of living in the same neighborhood with all those educated Europeans. But if Zionists are shooting your family members and stealing your house, what’s to embrace? The Israelis closed the borders and aren’t letting you go home, so you can’t get close enough to any Zionists to embrace them, even if you wanted to. Of course, Heschel died in 1972, long before the military archives in Israel were opened (in the 1980s), but even scouring primary sources might not have persuaded him to accept historical fact. Heschel instinctively understood the dilemma of African-Americans, but the demonstrable fact that he could so quickly and effortlessly deny the systemic evil involved in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is testimony to the lethal danger of religious nationalism.

In fact, it reminds us that religious nationalism is without question today the most destructive force in the world, whether of Likudnik settlers in the West Bank, Christian evangelicals such as George Bush (who thought God wanted him to invade Iraq) or the religiously-motivated suicide bomber in Iraq or Pakistan.

It was Martin Buber, the psychologically-acute mystic and student of Chassidism, who arrived at a completely workable way of looking at – actually looking through – systemic evil such as the Holocaust, recounting its horrors while arriving at a way to live with its aftermath. This vision bloomed in den Goldenen Zwansiger Yahren, during the creative explosion of scholarship, science, and the arts in Germany of the 1920s. Ich und Du (I and Thou) was published in 1923, and quickly established itself as Buber’s highly detailed tutorial on the sudden luminescence of the sacred that appears in one-on-one human relationships. Almost without trying, Buber resolves a problem that had haunted both Christianity and Judaism, of the essential opposition of a vertical faith (between person and God) that must be acted out in a horizontal world (between person and person).

Yet we know that religion must do both, or it is hardly more than entertainment. Behavior is both proof and test of religion; our relations with others must be the arena where religion is acted out. Furthermore, as Buber demonstrated in a German language both practical and mystical, filled with invented words, it is in our relationships with others that we can encounter the divine, sometimes far more often, and far more deeply, than in prayer, liturgy, or worship. These unexpected sacred moments are the flashes of lightning in which we see the world illuminated in a stunning phenomenological unity, but experienced in strikingly personal terms. Or to put it another way, behavior is not just the test of religion, but its most intimate experience. This was a new idea in both religion and philosophy.

Interestingly, Buber’s intense engagement with human relationships provides the best way to know the Holocaust. There is in Buber’s method an implicit idea that people are what is important, so when we confront systemic evil, we must make an attempt to find out which people are more evil, and which less so. Then we make contact with those that resisted the evil, or who were guiltless of systemic evil. Those contacts are the way to carry on a historical continuity; and if we do not use this simple rule to understand the Holocaust, or something very much like it, we will not be able to provide an alternative to the Holocaust. People tend to get stuck in the trauma of the Holocaust; what can then happen is that they internalize its aggression and act it out in new ways. That is arguably what has happened to Israel’s political class: the Holocaust is used not only to justify violent acts after the fact, but to rationalize future ones.

Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas is clearly Ellis’ favorite Jewish thinker. He traveled in an entirely different direction than the other Arendt and Buber, toward a mystical humanism that deals with the Holocaust by coolly distancing the reader from it with endless philosophical speculations about it. At times Levinas seems at pains to show his readers how well he knows the modern philosophical tradition, demonstrating with admirable precision exactly how many phenomenological angels can dance on the heads of any number of post-modern pins.

Levinas’ philosophy led neither to mysticism nor to an exclusively Talmudic interpretation, but to a very French and very intellectual form of humanism in which he sought to reconcile phenomenology, ethics, and post-modernism through a rebirth of the prophetic Jewish voice. For Jews this reconciliation through the prophetic voice raises an old question in a new way. Levinas recounts how in the past Jews have raised a prophetic voice for “intransigent justice” both against the world’s injustice, and against injustice in their own Jewish communities. This has been accompanied by a dialectical process of rebellion against Judaism, followed by a return to it, which taken together has created the modern Jewish temperament. But Ellis remarks: “It may be that Hebrew, ostensibly the Jewish language par excellence, is so tainted with injustice and atrocity that it needs to be abandoned in order for Jews to be faithful today.” Ellis also sounds a relevant warning:

What may be different today is that the long-hoped-for return to Israel has occurred, while the disappointment in that return has engendered another exile. On the face of it, this might mean an exile without return to Israel or to the Jewish community anywhere else. This could be the final exile in Jewish history, the expiration date par excellence.

If “intransigent justice” is denied within Israel, many Jews will have to find renewal somewhere else. But what will that renewal lead them to become? Ellis sees the crisis in Judaism as similar to what has happened to Christianity:

When do we simply conclude that so much of Christian history has been involved with colonial and imperial domination that its essence now includes these aspects of its history? The time is coming when we may need to ask the same question [of] Jewish history. The question Jews face is whether or not this assimilation to power and injustice has already permanently marked the Jewish world.

Indeed, this writer would say that in Israel the political class seems to be creating a volatile new ethos including many of the most violent aspects of Christianity, including an addiction to redemptive violence.

Levinas sometimes employs irritatingly self-conscious forms of irony, some of which finally comes off as the exquisite product of a gifted and self-consciously French humanist who is unfortunately capable of stupid ideas. Best evidence of this trait is his highly questionable practice, in one essay, of referring to the Holocaust as the Passion of the Jews. (This came in a lecture to Christians in a Muslim-majority country.) Is he suggesting that the Christian obsession with the crucifixion might have something to do with Christian anti-Semitism, and hence the Holocaust? Absolutely true, I believe, but how much better, then, if he simply came out and said so! As it is, he makes it far too easy for Christians to change the subject.

Levinas’ default highlights the central problem of these thinkers. They do not deal persuasively with the dilemmas of human evil, particularly systemic evil, although Arendt tries to do so. That is partly because evil had before been an exclusively religious concept, which Christendom could supposedly identify and redeem, and was accepted as part of the naturally-occurring world because its presence was not too disruptive. Indeed, because of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century breakthroughs in medicine, education, and law, a sense was created that, thanks to such marvelous progress, the Promised Land was just around the corner. But then, as the twentieth century progressed, evils of an unimaginable ferocity were unleashed upon the world, starting with the horrors of trench warfare, then Nazism and the Holocaust, and in the South Pacific an entire generation of brutal Japanese warriors that worshiped a bumbling Emperor-God, ending up with the radiated hell-fire of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

With the mass manufacture of nuclear weapons, it became quite clear not just that humanity might destroy itself, but that it was quite likely to do so. Religion seemed singularly unable either to redeem evil or to stop it; indeed, it simply redirected and rationalized aggression, making it worse. But no secular moral philosophy arose to explain why and how this could happen, and what to do about it. The lack of a coherent philosophical approach to the problem of evil mars all of the thinkers that Professor Ellis studies.

And now that at last Jews have some political power, both in Israel and in the West, what is to keep them from replicating the hideous mistakes of the Christendom with its fondness for torture, war, racism and imperialism? Nothing, of course, but the idea that Jews are—like the Christians—capable of systemic evil themselves is likely to invoke screams of outrage in the U.S. Israel Lobby, not to mention charges of anti-Semitism. But if Jews are human beings first, as I believe, and not cut-outs in a Judeo-Christian drama, what is to stop them from making the same mistakes as Christianity? Given what has happened to Jews in the past, power for Jews is a good thing, not a bad thing. But what kind of power will it be? The real role of the prophetic voice in our time is the same as it has always been: not to gain power, but to change the nature of power.

None of these five thinkers give very many clues as to how this kind of relationship to power is to be managed. In the meantime, many in the Israel Lobby seem to believe that this problem can best be solved by thinking of oneself as operating out of a kind of permanent, built-in victim status. Victim status is useful, to be sure, since it can be used to justify anything, past, present, and future. Above all, the victim is always right, and he never has to make any changes or do anything. But how long can grown-up people continue to use that as an excuse for Israel’s continued drift to the right, and its gratuitous brutality toward Palestinians? And at what point does uncritical support begin to set the stage for Israel’s self-destruction?

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