Ethics after the Holocaust: Perspectives, Critiques, and Responses

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Ethics After the Holocaust: Perspectives, Critiques, and Responses

Initial Jewish religious responses to the Shoah either affirm or challenge the authority of Jewish religious tradition on issues of belief and morality. From Richard L. Rubenstein's "death of God theology," i.e., letting go of traditional Judaism's doctrine of God for a new symbol of God's reality conducive to lessons learned from the Shoah,(1) to Eliezer Berkovitz and hasidic masters who argue classical Orthodox belief rooted in religious experience.(2) Elie Wiesel maintains that the Shoah transcends history, and the living are neither capable nor worthy of recovering its mystery; nonetheless, he relates witness stories, which bear testimony to the depths of Jewish suffering and the dignity of the Jewish dead, while promoting Jewish survival as an unshakable dogma. Emil Fackenheim's 614(th) Commandment, no posthumous victory to Hitler, suggests that the Shoah claims another victim whenever a Jew doubts his/her Jewishness; conversely, when a Jew lives up to Judaism's creeds and deeds, s/he advances tikkun `olam ("repairing the world"). Also, Irving (Yitz) Greenberg's recognition that we live not in ever-present faith but in "moments of faith, moments when Redeemer and vision of redemption are present, interspersed with times when the flames and smoke of the burning children blot out faith -- though it flickers again,"(3) signals that Israel's covenant is no longer obligatory but voluntary.

Not surprisingly, Jewish belief one generation after Auschwitz says more about the concern for a meaningful Jewish present and future than about the Nazi agenda for Judeocide. What connects these theological views is the Jewish potential and self-accountability in bridging the chasm between God and the Jews and the Jews and the world. This in turn spawns a plethora of other issues, including questions of morality and ethics emanating from the Shoah. What theory of morals and ethical questions can we ask about the Event? What to do with the mainstream of European civilization (religion, philosophy, ethics) that participated or stood idly by in the unprecedented destruction of Europe's Jews, and other innocents? When we hear the appeal of the accused, "not guilty; I was following orders," or the contrite confession, "I am truly sorry; I shall not repeat this crime," shall we forgive? When ordinary people do extraordinary evil, what does this say to us, especially when we look at our own lives and play our actions out on a mental stage and are routinely confronted by George Santayana's admonition that history repeats itself. Pondering Ethics Lost after the Shoah, are we to agree with this learning from Koheleth: "Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed -- with no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power -- with no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive; but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun."(4) If yes, why? And if not, then doubly why?

The book under review, arising from an "ethics working group" in the Goldner Holocaust Symposium, held at the Fairleigh Dickinson University's Wroxton College campus in Oxfordshire, England (1996, 1998), consists of six chapters, whose titles describe the process of assessing ethics before the Shoah, its radical transformation during the Shoah, and imagining good and evil after the Shoah. Leonard Grob (Fairleigh Dickinson University) finds Western philosophic tradition wanting in intent and purpose in dealing with the lessons from the Shoah; and unless it radically rethinks its direction, it will not be a force to combat present and future genocidal activity. Peter Haas (then at Vanderbilt University) talks of the scientific and technological application of the "Nazi ethic" and its appeal to the masses and intelligentsia alike; a clear warning to a post-Shoah world of what can happen when the "intellectual enterprise of science is allowed to become the unchallenged and unchallengeable source of human values. …