Who distinguishes between Israel and other nations?
The enormous ethical mission that the Reform Movement has taken upon itself in the last generation is the spiritual and practical strengthening of the belief that all people are created in God's image. This translates as equality between men and women, including those who are LGBTQ, and it dispels a belief in the moral and religious superiority of the Jewish people.
I believe in the power of words. I worry about the danger crouching at the doorstep of prayers that elevate the Jewish people above other nations. We therefore avoid including in our prayers liturgical expressions of Jewish superiority.
In the Havdalah blessing, many of us do not say, "God who distinguishes between Israel and the nations," but rather, "God who distinguishes between good and evil." In the Kiddush we exclude the phrase "who chose us from all the nations" (Mishkan T’filah, pp. 604-605). When we publicly read from the Torah, we offer alternatives to the phrase, "who chose us from all the Nations and gave us the Torah" (Mishkan T’filah, 369). I choose this wording that I learned at Congregation Mevakshei Derech in Jerusalem: "Who brought us close to worshiping God and gave us the Torah." Some prefer a minor linguistic alteration and say, "Who chose us with all the nations." While they may be aware of the logistical problem with this phrasing, they prefer a linguistic inconsistency to a moral one.
The challenge in our weekly Torah portion
The Reform custom of the Shabbat Torah reading in synagogue is to choose part of the traditional (Babylonian) portion of the week, to be read in public. This custom enables us, from time to time, to disregard problematic issues. How might we handle these verses from the double portion, Matot/Mas’ei?
"The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites; then you shall be gathered to your kin.’ Moses spoke to the militia, saying, ‘Let troops be picked out from among you for a campaign, and let them fall upon Midian to wreak the Eternal’s vengeance on Midian.’ … They took the field ... as the Eternal had commanded Moses, and slew every male. Along with their other victims, they slew the kings of Midian…They also put Balaam son of Beor to the sword. The Israelites took the women and other noncombatants of the Midianites captive… Moses became angry with the commanders of the army… Moses said to them, ‘You have spared every female! yet they are the ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against the Eternal in the matter of Peor, so that the Eternal’s community was struck by the plague. Now, therefore, slay every male among the dependents, and slay also every woman who has known a man carnally; but spare every female dependent who has not had carnal relations with a man." (Num. 31:1-18)
The question about the historical background of this tradition is not important. What makes this tradition challenging is the fact that we choose to include it in our sacred book and to read it out loud in public.
I think we, in our congregations, ought to read these terrifying verses at synagogue (maybe in a special sad chant). By reading this tradition, we admit that we are not perfect or different from other nations.
And, by reading these verses, we declare our responsibility to learn, to change, and to become better.
Who am I and what am I?
The disturbing passages above lead me to consider, would I have been capable of being a Nazi? Could I have been an ordinary, indifferent European citizen? Could I have been one of the Righteous Among the Nations? These shocking questions need to be asked in order to balance our engagement with Holocaust remembrance. And the honest and ethical answer to every one of these questions must be: "maybe."
Not a different planet
In his testimony at the Eichmann trial, author and Holocaust survivor Ka-Tzetnik (Yehiel De-Nur) labeled Auschwitz "a different planet":
"This is a chronicle of the planet of Auschwitz. I was there for about two years. The passage of time there is unlike the passage of time here on Planet Earth. Every fraction of a second there goes on a different wheel of time. And the residents of this planet didn't have names. They didn't have parents, nor did they have children... They did not live according to the laws of the world here and they did not die." (The Trial of Adolf Eichmann, vol. 3, The Nizkor Project)
The brief, filmed testimony of De-Nur, until his collapse on camera, can be watched in Hebrew and Yiddish.
About 15 years after Ka-Tzetnik delivered these words, he turned to the clinic of Dr. Jan Bastiaans in Leiden, Holland for psychedelic psychotherapy for nightmares and depression, and over the course of this treatment Ka-Tzetnik's worldview underwent a dramatic change:
"In the past I liked to isolate myself far from human settlement. My desire was to be alone with Auschwitz. Now Auschwitz is crouching at the door of humanity. Regarding humanity there was Auschwitz, for it was not the Satan that created Auschwitz, rather me and you, just as the Satan did not create the atomic mushroom cloud, rather it was me and you. Humankind!" ("Tsofen: E.D.M.A.," p. 121; Ka-Tzetnik, Shivitti: A Vision, transl., 1989)
The search for pure evil
Ka-Tzetnik's initial need to divide between "Auschwitz" and "this world," between day and night, as well as between God and Satan, is understandable. Similarly understandable is the need of many others to believe that the Nazis were a different kind of people, "human animals."
The desire to distinguish between “us” and “them” is understandable, just like the astonishment at a world that kept silent is understandable. The distinction between "good guys" and "bad guys" offers order and calm, and offers victims an “ethical certificate of insurance.”
The racist trap
As long as we claim that "they" were capable of committing these atrocities while "we" aren't, and claim that there are some people who are capable of evil and others who are righteous in their very nature, we are playing into the hands of our worst enemies. Ethical living begins to be a challenge when we realize that all of us are capable of evil and all of us are commanded to do good.
The Holy One is not a rescue company
I have no way of knowing if there is a God, and I certainly don't have any possible way of understanding Her essence if She does exist, but I prefer to believe in Her existence. I prefer a world with God over a world without God, and therefore I believe.
My open eyes observe reality teaching me that God does not offer general or personal providence, and therefore my God is not a judge or a police officer. My God is possibility; my God is choice. Faith in God for me is faith in the fact that there is a moral demand outside of me. This is the faith that commands me to do good.
God did not create Auschwitz, nor did God save us from it. Auschwitz was created by people. The victims of Auschwitz were people and the Righteous Among the Nations were people. I am grateful for my portion and place in history and life, that I did not have to stand on any side in this horrific ethical dilemma. Unfortunately, humans continue causing difficult moral tests. The goal is to dedicate ourselves to passing them successfully.
(This article was translated with the help of Uzi Bar Pinchas.)