Faith & the Holocaust
Why Should Jews Survive?
by Michael Goldberg
Oxford. 191 pp. $23.00
When Nathan Glazer wrote his classic study, American Judaism, in 1957, he did not invoke the term “Holocaust” even once. As Glazer would later explain, the emergence of the Holocaust in American Jewish consciousness occurred years afterward. Indeed, it was one of the great surprises of the postwar era. By 1991, however, 85 percent of American Jews were reporting that the Holocaust was “very important” to their sense of being Jewish—a higher figure than those attributing a similar degree of importance to the Torah, God, or the state of Israel.
This phenomenon is the subject of Michael Goldberg’s Why Should Jews Survive? Goldberg is a Conservative rabbi who has taught in the religion departments of the College of William and Mary and St. John’s University (Minnesota), founded and briefly led a congregation in Indianapolis, and is now the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Los Angeles. Here he tackles a very large subject in a very short book—far too short and far too intemperate to win the battles it undertakes.
The very first page of the book states its central argument: “word of the Holocaust absent word of God may subvert Jewish survival instead of sustain it.” As Goldberg sees it, all religions have “master stories” that are “models for understanding the world and guides for acting in it.” In Judaism, this master story is the Exodus: the children of Israel cried out to God from their bondage and He, remembering His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, rescued them. God is Israel’s deliverer in all generations, and Israel is His chosen people.
To Goldberg, this is the lesson of the Holocaust no less than of other troubles that have befallen Jews through the ages. The Jewish people have survived every attack, from Pharaoh to Hitler, because “there is a God who sees to the survival of His people.” Why does He do so? Because Jews “are the linchpin in His redemption of the world.” The Jews’ “true purpose” is “to serve as God’s people upon whom the redemption of God’s world and God’s own name uniquely depends.” As long as they fulfill their part of the bargain, He will always fulfill His.
But, Goldberg writes angrily, Jews are now replacing faith in God with a “Holocaust cult.” The twin components of this cult are an obsession with the dead and an obsession with survival, and from the Jewish point of view each is problematical. Thus, community after community is investing in Holocaust museums and monuments, flagrantly disregarding the Jewish tradition of avoiding shrines to the dead. But much worse than this is that the Holocaust cult has defined mere physical survival as the core purpose of Jewish existence.
To Goldberg, this is first of all illogical: “That Jews will survive they need never doubt—unless they doubt that there is a God who makes and keeps His promises.” In fact, he maintains, such doubts amount to a form of atheism. The emphasis on the Holocaust and on physical survival “alters Judaism’s most fundamental precept” and rewrites its central prayer, the Sh’ma, which commands Jews to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and all your might.” If Jews love only survival instead, then they have rejected their covenant with God, and their survival itself has been rendered pointless.
These arguments deserve sober discussion—but, though Goldberg does not acknowledge the fact, he is hardly the first to advance them. As early as 1971, the Orthodox scholar Michael Wyschogrod contended that Judaism “has always centered about the saving acts of God: the election, the Exodus, the Temple, and the Messiah,” and warned, like Goldberg, that “there is no salvation to be extracted from the Holocaust, no faltering Judaism can be revived by it, no new reason for the continuation of the Jewish people can be found in it.” Similar sentiments have been expressed by Jacob Neusner, among others.
The main difference is that Goldberg has overlaid his arguments with self-indulgent personal and political provocations that seem aimed more at insulting a whole list of Jewish thinkers and leaders than at eliciting careful reflection. Thus, Elie Wiesel is branded the “High Priest” of the Holocaust cult, while Harold Kushner, who has written of the forces of goodness and random evil, is dismissed as a polytheist. There is a long assault on the theologian Emil Fackenheim, the author of the idea (which he formulated as a “614th Commandment”) that “Jews are forbidden to hand Hitler a posthumous victory” by disappearing from history. Rabbi Irving Greenberg is condemned as a “false prophet,” apparently for the sin of defending the state of Israel against its critics. And so forth.
Goldberg’s own view of Israel is a choleric one, and appears to be motivated as much by naked political animus as by any conception of Judaism and its teachings. Holding the Holocaust cult responsible for the idea that the survival of the Jewish people “rests in its own hands and in its own armed hands alone,” he jumps to an attack on Zionism for relying on statehood and the Israeli army for Jewish protection, when what is required is the realization that the Jewish fate “is the gift of God alone.”
For Goldberg, it appears, the only good Zionist is no Zionist. Political Zionists, followers of Theodor Herzl, err by wanting Jews to lead “normal” lives and be a people like any other, which to Goldberg means to stop being Jews. But Revisionist Zionists, followers of Zev Jabotinsky, are no better: their belief that no non-Jew can be trusted to defend Jews is “racist.” As for religious Zionists, they are people who “defend the use of terrorism and other acts of retribution against innocent Arabs” in order to expel them from the land of Israel.
But is not Zionism itself an inextricable part of Judaism, and does not the land of Israel occupy a central place in Jewish ritual and thought? To this, Goldberg replies that “the land’s promise was not some special quality of the land itself . . . but the kind of communal life practiced in it.” The test is whether Jews living in the land observe the laws of Leviticus concerning the proper treatment of the stranger. As the state of Israel, in Goldberg’s view, has violated these precepts in its relations with the Palestinians, it would seem to have forfeited its right to the land.
Such anti-Israel arguments, familiar enough when voiced on the political Left and in the vocabulary of colonialism and exploitation, are remarkable (to say the least) coming from the mouth of a rabbi speaking in the name of Judaism. But in his hit-and-run manner, Goldberg does not bother to take the time and space to develop or defend them. That is typical of his procedure throughout this book, which ends up giving astonishingly short shrift even to Goldberg’s core proposal for a new, “covenantal Judaism” to replace the sterilities of the Holocaust cult. Transcending the typology of Orthodox-Conservative-Reform, this idea, which he claims to have invented, appears to mean that Jews should make active rather than merely nominal commitments to their faith and their community. As formulated by Goldberg, it hardly differs from the burden of a thousand High Holy Day sermons.
Whether the recent focus on the Holocaust is healthy for America’s Jewish community, and whether it contradicts or undermines fundamental Jewish beliefs, are questions of some importance that provide material for a wise and thoughtful book. This is not it.