Academic journal article Shofar

Before Whom Do We Stand?

Academic journal article Shofar

Before Whom Do We Stand?

Article excerpt

This essay places before the reader four historic texts that raise significant questions for Jews and Christians who choose to enter into post-Holocaust examination of their respective identities and their relationships to their grounding traditions. The Kristallnacht exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum introduces museum visitors to the defaced Talmudic instruction of R. Eliezer-Know before whom you stand-which frames this essay. As with the story the museum recounts, more than texts are at stake in this essay, but the way forward is distinctly framed by their critical presence. In this case, the distinctive texts are faced in reconfiguring ways, asking those who face them to rethink the place of the other in their identities and life-orienting commitments. Early on, Samuel Bak's surrealistic rendering of a crucified, Jewish child provides a refracting image for exploring the questions these texts pose for post-Shoah people of faith who take their place before them, asking in recursive fashion: before whom do you stand?

Know before whom you are standing when you pray.

(Berachot 28b)

And the Sovereign will answer them: "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me. (Mt. 25:40)

But Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the rule and realm of heaven belongs. (Mt. 19: 14)

"You're wrong," Pedro said.'The way is no less important than the goal. He who thinks about God, forgetting man, runs the risk of mistaking his goal: God may be your next door neighbor."

(Elie Wiesel, Town Beyond the Wall, p. 115)

Before whom do we stand? After the Holocaust that question, echoing the of Rabbi Eliezer to his disciples, that they know the One before they stand when they pray, calls Jews and Christians to re-examine understandings of each othet and of their own grounding traditions. In reflections that follow, I will explore this question, particularly as it is refracted through artist Samuel Bak's iconic image of the Warsaw Ghetto Boy1 and Elie Wiesels character, Michael, from Town Beyond the Wall.2 Bak has captured with his brush the image of a murdered friend's face and, in multiple renderings, portrayed it in the iconic form of the Warsaw ghetto boy. His paintings of Samek as a crucified child puts a face on Rabbi Eliezer's text that challenges both his tradition and mine. In similar fashion, Elie Wiesels story of Michael in Town Beyond the Wall, approaches other implications of Rabbi Eliezer's admonition.

As I wrestle with Bak's image and Wiesels stylized story, I am also cognizant of two other texts that represent the confessional ground on which I stand as I undertake this task. Those texts, both from the Gospel of Matthew, are familiar to Christians and non-Christians alike. One articulates how Jesus identifies with the other in his life and expresses the significance of his relationship even with the least of others in his and his followers' lives. The second text represents how Jesus perceives the significance of children in God's and our ways with the world.

I invite my readers to join me in my wrestling as I seek to make sense of these various texts, my place before them, and my place before the Jewish figure who stands at the center of my wounded world.

A Wounded Ark and A Defaced Summons

One of the artifacts on display at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, is a disfigured lintel that once framed the ark of a synagogue in Nenterhausen, Germany. Carved across the top in Hebrew text are the words, Da lifnei mi attah omeyd: Know before whom you stand. The lintel and these words overlook a glass display case that houses Torah scrolls that were defiled during the November pogrom of Kristallnacht. The words are Rabbi Eliezer's instructions to his students recorded in the Talmud (Berachoth 28b), linking study with prayer and guiding the lives of Jews of every nationality. …

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