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Yom HaShoah 2022

04/27/2022 03:34:34 PM


Rabbi Brent Spodek

Tomorrow, the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nissan, is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. 

 At the risk of stating the obvious, the Holocaust is first and foremost, the murder of six million Jewish human beings, the particular ancestors of many in our community, and collectively, men, women and children who are among the ancestors of the Jewish people and of humanity as a whole. 

But while the Holocaust was clearly an attack on Jews, it was also an attack on Judaism. Rabbi Yitz Greenberg has pointed out that generally speaking, it was the adventurous of spirit who emigrated to America in the first part of the 20th Century and more traditional minded Jews who stayed in Europe. So, he estimates that while the Nazis murdered 30% of our people, they murdered 80% of the scholars, rabbis and teachers who could pass on ancient traditions. 

Just as individuals rebuilt lives and families, we, as a people, are rebuilding Judaism. We draw on the past to build the future, and so it is worth asking, what is the future we hope to build when we remember the Holocaust?

For much of my lifetime, the Jewish institutional establishment has marshaled memories of the Holocaust to teach the American Jewish community two things: 

  1. to rebuild our numbers after the Holocaust, we need to marry a Jewish spouse and have Jewish babies, as many as possible, and 
  2. because the Holocaust showed us that we could never rely on the gentile world for our deliverance, we need to support the State of Israel in general and its military in particular.


On one level, our memory of the Holocaust has been incredibly powerful - fully 73% of American Jews say that remembering the Holocaust is an essential part of being Jewish, as opposed to 42% who think that having a good sense of humor is essential and a paltry 6% who think that observing Shabbat is essential. 

At another level, using the Holocaust as the bedrock of our collective memory has been a failure. The future it was supposed to build has not come into being, a fact that is increasingly obvious with every passing year.  

Regarding Israel, approximately half of Jews aged 50 or older say caring about Israel is essential for their Judaism, but among Jews under the age of 30, less than a third say that caring about Israel is central to being Jewish.

The pattern is even more stark with regards to interfaith marriage. Among Jews who got married prior to 1970 - my parents’ generation - 83% married a Jewish partner. However, among Jews who got married between 2000-2013 - my generation - less than half - only 42% - married a Jewish partner. 

To be clear, I do not reckon either of those realities as a crisis at all. However, memories of the Holocaust did not strengthen fundamentally secular, ethnic Judaism in ways that previous generations of leaders hoped it would. So now what?

I’d like to suggest that the focus of Jewish memory should be not the horrors perpetrated against our ancestors, but the lives our ancestors led before they were murdered. 

Knowing that there are hateful forces in the world who try to deny that the Holocaust ever happened, the important role of the history of the Holocaust cannot be overstated. However, as the historian Yosef Hayyim Yerushalmi has pointed out, there is a big difference between history and memory. 

Six million Jews were murdered, and before that, they lived. They celebrated Shabbat and desecrated Shabbat; they made art and science and culture. They built and critiqued the modern world. 

As we build and rebuild Judaism, memory of the Holocaust has a role to play, as does memory of the Crusades, the pogroms, the destruction of the first and second Temples and all the other atrocities which have been perpetrated against us. We cannot forget the murder of our ancestors. 

Nor can we rebuild Judaism as a cult of the dead. 

Judaism thrives not in the shallow waters of identity, but the deep, living waters of Torah. 

Hitler, yemach shemo, should not define Judaism. 

While Jewish history absolutely must tend to the murder of our ancestors, Jewish memory should tend to how our ancestors lived, how they built their Judaism and how their memories may help us build our own. 

May the memories of our ancestors - and the lives they lived - be a blessing for us all.

Mon, September 25 2023 10 Tishrei 5784