As a member of the Editorial Board of First Things
since its inception, I protest the publication of David Klinghoffer’s “Anti-Semitism Without Anti-Semites” (April) . . . . The article is nothing less than evil”evil, not just misguided, because its intent is clearly to hurt, and without any greater, justifiable end to permit its angry words . . . . The evil of this article comes across on three different levels: political, moral, and theological”especially theological.
On the political level, which means the context of one’s rhetoric, the fact is that the overwhelming majority of First Things
’ readers and contributors are Christians. Nevertheless, First Things
is deeply committed to Jewish-Christian dialogue in the most serious and far-reaching way. Because of that commitment, it has sought more Jewish readers and encourages Jewish thinkers to write for it. And, especially as concerns Jewish authors, the journal has provided a very significant medium for bringing Jewish voices into the public discussion of the major religious and political issues in our society. I would venture to say that many of the readers of First Things
have received their first taste of intelligent, religiously committed Jewish thought on issues that concern them from the pages of this journal. And, writing for this journal has enabled some contemporary Jewish thinkers to retrieve important aspects of Jewish social teaching in ways heretofore unavailable to us. The community of discourse that the Institute on Religion and Public Life and First Things
have established has also elevated Jewish-Christian dialogue to unprecedented levels. That achievement must be guarded and nurtured. It cannot be taken for granted”ever.
Some might object that Mr. Klinghoffer’s critique of widespread theological indifference among Jews today, even among many religiously observant Jews (my late revered teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel used to call them “religious behaviorists”), is rhetorically unwise in that it “washes dirty linen” of the Jews before the Gentiles. But that is not my objection. If Jews are part of the public square, they can hardly expect the luxury of that kind of sectarian anonymity. After all, First Things
is not at all reticent to publish Christian critiques of other Christians”and rightly so. Were Mr. Klinghoffer’s critique of too frequent invocation of the Holocaust by many Jews confined to the moral level, I would find much with which to agree. Talking about the Holocaust should take the form of addressing a great moral problem, not invoking it as a moral conclusion for unquestioned prejudices and political agendas ( petitio principii
). But Mr. Klinghoffer has done more than that. He has argued that the Holocaust is God’s direct punishment for “our disobedience.”
Now, despite official Church repudiations of the ancient charge against the Jews of “deicide,” the truth is that there are still many Christians, including some (I hope not very many) First Things
readers, who, even if they do not think the Jews guilty of deicide per se, still judge the Jews sinful
for having rejected Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, instead of leaving that judgment to God in the end time. And there is much in Christian tradition to bolster the view that Jewish suffering throughout history is therefore deserved. (Though it is true that the increasing amount of anti-Christian persecution today has disabused many Christians of that kind of easy, triumphalist thinking. Many Christians now know what it is like to be “Jews” in a hostile world.)
David Klinghoffer, sophisticated journalist that he is, is certainly aware of his audience. Why did he choose to write this piece for a readership, some of which at least, will agree with his theological conclusions because of their own anti-Judaism?
That is giving aid and comfort to those who would still delegitimatize Judaism and the Jewish people. That is evil for any Jew, especially a religiously observant Jew like Mr. Klinghoffer.
Of course, where else could Mr. Klinghoffer have published such a piece? No Jewish journal that I know of would have accepted it. The only segment of the Jewish people who thinks it knows why God let the Holocaust happen to his people is the Satmar Hasidic community. In a tightly argued and meticulously researched theological treatise, the late Satmar Rebbe (who had greater than papal authority in his community) Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum claimed that the Holocaust is God’s punishment for the sins of the Jewish people, specifically those of the very “Reformers and secularists” whom Klinghoffer indicts. The fact that many more Hasidim than “Reformers and secularists” were killed only indicated to Rabbi Teitelbaum the force of the collective punishment that Mr. Klinghoffer embraces. And, furthermore, the worst sin of all this reform and secularism for Rabbi Teitelbaum is Zionism.
On this point, though, Mr. Klinghoffer is curiously silent. (The only hint of perhaps some anti-Zionism . . . comes out in his assertion that in America “there is probably less hostility to Jews than in any country anywhere, including the State of Israel, at any time in history.”) Could it be that this type of anti-Zionism would not sit well with the political agenda of Mr. Klinghoffer’s employer, the National Review
? For Zionism, even when advocated by religious Jews, is clearly an acceptance of a great deal of secularity (not to be confused with ideological secularism), and that is something political conservatives today (however religious) also embrace. Only Christian “theocrats” (who think quite similarly to the Satmar Hasidim) would disagree. Mr. Klinghoffer could, of course, practice what he preaches and become a Satmar Hasid. But, alas, Satmar Hasidim do their writing in Hebrew or Yiddish, meant only for the eyes of others who share their world of discourse. And I can’t imagine the Satmar community allowing one of their own to work for a non-Jewish journal (or for even just about any Jewish journal) like the National Review
”or to write for First Things
Klinghoffer’s audience, then, seems to be predominantly Christian and mostly conservative politically. (Note how he considers Jewish concern with the utterances of “Pat Buchanan or Pat Robertson” to be “obsessive””another Jewish sin, I guess.) This is not the audience that a Jew like David Klinghoffer should be talking to about Jewish sins.
For on the religious level, many in this audience still believe that the Jewish sin is remaining Jews and not becoming Christians; and on the political level, many in this audience think it is a “sin” that so few Jews have moved to the right in their political views.
On the moral level, Mr. Klinghoffer’s tirade is most evidently cruel. I shudder to think what my friend Sol, with the numbers tatooed on his arm in Auschwitz and who sits next to me every morning in the synagogue, would say to me about my connection to First Things
if he read what David Klinghoffer has said about the murdered Jews of the Holocaust in its pages. And Sol’s feelings as a direct survivor are only different in degree not in kind from all Jews alive today who are less direct survivors. Since Mr. Klinghoffer is so biblically oriented, he should remember what the Lord said to the “friends” of Job (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar) about their conclusion from the suffering of Job that he must have sinned to deserve it. “My anger is kindled against you . . . for you have not spoken the truth about Me as has My servant Job” (Job 42:7). Even if one knew the sins of one who is suffering, that sin is not to be exposed. Our moral task is to resist the evil that was the immediate cause of the suffering of the Holocaust (Nazism), and help bind up its wounds that are very much still with us.
That does not mean we are to be morally oblivious to the Holocaust. But our reflection on it can only be prospective, not retrospective. Thus we are obligated to ponder what we can learn from it, not in order to prevent anything similar from happening again”that is beyond much of our control”but to consider what it means for our actions here and now into the future. Here Mr. Klinghoffer could have made a very valid moral point, which is that Jews who are alive today, all of whom are survivors by definition, should ponder this: Just what we are to be surviving for?
Too much Jewish talk today simply accepts survival for survival’s sake, or as Emil Fackenheim would have us believe, we are to survive so as not to hand Hitler any posthumous victories. But if that is the case, then Jews actually need a mortally threatening enemy to give them a reason to survive. (Everyone needs a reason to survive, the will to live not being at all self-evident). And that is the moral bankruptcy of “victimology,” a disease not peculiar to Jews. Had Mr. Klinghoffer taken that line, he would have had good moral guidance to give his fellow Jews. For he certainly believes that Jews are to live for God’s sake, which means being faithful to all of God’s commandments in the Torah.
However, such moral guidance is only credible when it comes from someone who loves his people and knows much more of its tradition than Mr. Klinghoffer displays in his highly selective reading of Scripture. Perhaps David Klinghoffer in his heart does really love his (and God’s) people”I hope he does”but, alas, his article evidences no such love. It is an angry tirade against Reform Jews, Conservative Jews, secularist Jews”and even Orthodox Jews, whom he singles out for charges of moral hypocrisy at the beginning of his article. Perhaps Mr. Klinghoffer despairs of his people”the feeling is quite understandable. But if his love of God does not entail love of Israel”as we exist here and now”it does not seem to be true love for our God after all. Does David Klinghoffer love any Jews?
And, finally, there is the theological offense of this article, an article that comes from one who “believe[s] the Bible comes to us from God and his prophets.” (Oh, that more Jewish intellectuals were to say that!) But that reading of Scripture is dangerously flawed, for it assumes that because the prophets could connect our suffering with the direct intervention of God in history, any reader of Scripture can do the same. The fact is, though, that this type of judgment is only done selectively in Scripture itself (cf. Deuteronomy 25:17”19; Esther 3:8-9). Furthermore, it can be done only by a bona-fide prophet. “For the Lord God does not do anything of which He has not revealed his secret purpose to His servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). In other words, only a prophet knows, because God has revealed it to him or her,
God has done in history. And that revelation is not a matter of theoretical insight as much as it is a matter of practical urgency. The prophet is to teach the people in a uniquely prophetic way the specific workings of God in history and how we are to actively respond to them in a way pleasing to God. But those who are not prophets have no right to speak as if they were prophets; in fact, they are guilty if they do so (see Deuteronomy 18:21-22).
Furthermore, according to the Talmud there are no more prophets in Israel since the destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.). So the Talmud teaches that the moral authority of the prophets has now passed to the Rabbis, but the Rabbis do not have prophetic revelation. They can only reason about God’s law; they cannot tell us what are God’s specific acts. That is why the Talmud also teaches that the prophetic way of speaking is now “given to idiots and infants.” Accordingly, we should listen to the Rabbis and emulate their reasoned approach and not pretend to be the prophets we are not, and who all level-headed adults know they are not. And it was the Rabbis who taught us that the specific acts of God, which are His constant judgment of us, can be understood only in the world-to-come. In this world, we can only have faith in God’s justice, but not knowing it we cannot discern its true effects and how it is directly connected to human action in the world. Along these lines, I fully concur with Mr. Klinghoffer’s indictment of the “impotent” (I would have said “insipid”) God proposed by Rabbi Harold Kushner in his best selling books, precisely because a God who does not judge us is not much of a God at all; indeed, such a more likable “god” may well be a human creation. Nevertheless, to claim to know how
God judges from the belief that
God judges us is a theological non sequitur. Here prophecy is the excluded middle.
For traditional Jews, there are two Torahs, not just one. Scripture comprises the Written Torah and the whole rabbinic tradition comprises the Oral Torah. Scripture can be read in a variety of ways, but on any serious issue, especially one having practical results, Scripture must be read in a way that is consistent with the teachings of “our sages, may their memory be blessed.” But David Klinghoffer has not done that. That is a serious sin. In this sense, he very much resembles the Karaites, a heretical Jewish sect who have rejected the authority of the whole rabbinic tradition, opting instead for their literal reading of Scripture. May David Klinghoffer repent of this sin; and may God forgive his sin, heal the hurt it has caused, and direct his undoubtedly genuine faith in paths that reflect proper love for God, his people Israel, and our authoritative historical tradition.
Jewish Studies Program
University of Toronto
David Klinghoffer would have readers believe that anti-Semitism in the United States is dead. He goes so far as to equate the fear of anti-Semitism with the traditional fear that the sun will not rise tomorrow. Unfortunately, Mr. Klinghoffer’s analysis is incorrect, superficial, and misguided. One may express concerns about current manifestations of anti-Semitism and not be paranoid.
While it is clear that institutionalized anti-Semitism in education, housing, and the workplace is no longer prevalent, it would be rash to suggest that anti-Semitism is completely absent from American life. Today, different forms of anti-Semitism still confront American Jews. A 1992 nationwide survey conducted for the Anti-Defamation League found that about one-in-five Americans hold views that are disturbingly anti-Semitic. Moreover, in 1997 over 1,500 incidents of anti-Semitism were reported to ADL-many of which included acts of violence, intimidation, and harassment. Though the total number of incidents has declined in recent years, it is important to remember that every single act of anti-Semitism, however “insignificant,” leaves an indelible mark.
Theories of Jewish power and Jewish control over the media continue to be propagated by anti-Semitic and extremist groups. Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam for example, continues to espouse various anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the Jewish people. Violent extremist groups”such as the New Order and Aryan Republican Army”have shown how anti-Semitic and racist beliefs can lead to potential death and devastation if left unchecked. Finally, the growth of the Internet has given many bigots a much larger and more readily accessible audience for spreading anti-Semitic and racist vitriol, particularly among the young and uninformed.
Ignoring these facts and simply retreating from the front lines is not a tenable option. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, Mr. Klinghoffer’s argument leads to inaction and paralysis in the face of anti-Semitism. However, as long as the traditional Jewish concept of not relying on miracles continues to hold sway, organized Jewry and the ADL will continue the fight against anti-Semitism.
Assistant National Director
New York, NY
I guess the Nuremberg trials were a big mistake. This conclusion follows from the outrageous argument made by David Klinghoffer in his “Anti-Semitism Without Anti-Semites,” wherein he tells us that “while it would be a presumption to assert that God caused the Holocaust . . . in order to punish European Jews for their . . . secularism . . . it would also be a presumption, and a worse one, to assert that such a punishment was not what He had in mind.”
There are today, living among us, Holocaust survivors who saw their own children murdered before their eyes by Nazi soldiers and their collaborators. The Vatican has recently described the Holocaust as “an unspeakable tragedy” in which “women and men, old and young, children and infants . . . were degraded, ill-treated, tortured and utterly robbed of their human dignity, and then murdered.” But David Klinghoffer wants us to understand this as punishment inflicted by God because people were not religious enough. Not that those who were inadequately punctilious in their ritual observance were murdered; it is rather that because European Jews strayed, as a group, from the straight and narrow that they were punished collectively. So to that survivor who mourns that murdered child, Mr. Klinghoffer offers this: perhaps you missed a few Sabbath services too many, or perhaps your neighbor did.
I am too dim to grasp how this argument can be made by one human being to another, and especially by one Jew to another. I am a believing and practicing Jew, although not as observant as Mr. Klinghoffer. He has in recent years become a Reform Jew, then a Conservative Jew, and now Orthodox. This is wonderful. What is not wonderful, what is horrible, is his willingness to argue that the murder of six million of his fellow Jews was God’s punishment of the non-Orthodox. Mr. Klinghoffer writes that this reflects the “collective responsibility” of all Jews for each other. His theory of collective responsibility seems to run like this: I sin, God properly decides to have the Nazis kill your child. I would have thought that collective responsibility included mourning the six million who were brutally murdered, comforting their survivors, and punishing their murderers. Mr. Klinghoffer’s argument offers not collective responsibility but a ghastly sectarianism that blames secular Jews”and credits God”for Hitler’s work. This is not Orthodoxy, but blasphemy.
Ethics and Public Center
In “Anti-Semitism Without Anti-Semites,” David Klinghoffer takes his people to task for a number of sins and transgressions. Applying a narrow and literal interpretation of the Bible, he then proposes a theory about the Holocaust that has something offensive to say to everyone: Jews, non-Jews, and even God.
Mr. Klinghoffer does raise some genuine concerns. It is true that there are some Jews who pay greater homage to the Holocaust than they do to God. Some expend an enormous amount of time compiling evidence on incidents of anti-Semitism, while ignoring their own sins. And some Jews have succumbed to the “Cult of Victimhood,” believing themselves to be morally superior by mere virtue of their suffering. To explain this phenomenon, Mr. Klinghoffer offers the simple hypothesis that Jews are obsessed with anti-Semitism and the Holocaust because they have a “guilty conscience” for failing to live their faith in strict observance of the laws of Torah . . . .
Like the friends of Job, Mr. Klinghoffer seems unable to believe that bad things can happen to good people; ergo, the people must have been guilty of some monstrous sin to warrant a tragedy as horrible as the Holocaust. While hedging his cruel assertion with an admission that “we can never know God’s true intention,” he goes on to suggest that it is not outside the realm of possibility that “God caused the Holocaust, or allowed it to happen, in order to punish European Jewry for their increasingly widespread devotion to secularism.”
As for us Christians, is it Mr. Klinghoffer’s contention that we are just “chopped liver” in the eyes of our Lord? Are Christians some type of inferior people, created as mere pawns to be used by God to affect the lives of the Jews? This may come as a shock to Mr. Klinghoffer, but we Christians believe that we have also been created in God’s image, that we have entered into our own covenant with God, and through the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, that we too have been offered an opportunity to partake of the divine . . . .
In the words of Abraham Heschel, “Out of the darkness comes a voice disclosing that the ultimate mystery is not an enigma but the God of mercy; that the Creator of all is the “Father in Heaven.” . . . The human species is too powerful, too dangerous to be a mere toy or a freak of the Creator. In his reason he may be limited, in his will he may be wicked, yet he stands in a relation to God which he may betray but not sever and which constitutes the essential meaning of his life. He is the knot in which heaven and earth are interlaced.”
West Lafayette, IN
The opinion by David Klinghoffer did not come off as he probably intended it. First, it embodies a stunning contradiction. On the one hand, he says that fears of anti-Semitism are exaggerated; on the other, he warns of terrible punishments to come.
At the root of this contradiction lie two horribly wrong theses. The first is a thesis of collective guilt, including the proposition that, as a rule, a whole group suffers for the sins of a few individuals. Yet, in fact, innocent groups often suffer unaccountably for no sin of their own. There is no “law” of collective guilt.
The second horrible thesis is that when Gentiles do evil to the Jews, they are acting as instruments of God. This is a terrible accusation against Gentiles. In addition, it seems to suggest that those who do evil are not fully culpable for the evil they do, merely an instrument of an irresistible power. In fact, when Christians do evil to Jews, it is a doubly vicious act; it is like a young man doing evil to his older brother.
Finally, the picture of God that Mr. Klinghoffer presents is far too primitive. The questions he chooses to wrestle with are enormous and tormenting, but he has taken some trails that show how not to address them. There is evidence in the essay that his intentions are better than his execution.
Considering that the April edition of First Things
arrived in my mailbox within a day or two of the buffoonish Jewish holiday of Purim, I might be forgiven for thinking at first that David Klinghoffer’s piece, “Anti-Semitism Without Anti-Semites,” was a Purim Torah
”that seasonal genre of Jewish literature that combines one part religious erudition for every nine parts farce. What else indeed could be made of an article that repeats the important but by now tiresome critique of silly fear-mongering in the fundraising appeals of some national Jewish organizations, but then devotes the bulk of its space to propounding as “the authentic Jewish view” a hateful proposition (God ordained the Holocaust in response to Jewish sinfulness) which the contemporary Jewish community universally condemns as an obscenity?
Many Jewish thinkers of the past half-century have noted the irony that it was the European Jewish communities steeped in traditional piety that were all carefully annihilated, one by one, in the flames of the German Holocaust. In contrast, the millions of liberal and secular Jews in America, who had quickly and joyfully cast off the yoke of Jewish law and tradition, escaped entirely unharmed and were left unhindered in their creation, as Mr. Klinghoffer notes, of the most secure and prosperous Jewish community in the three thousand years of our existence as a people. Together with the unprecedented enormity of the Jewish suffering of this period, this fact was sufficient to eradicate along with the Six Million a particular strain of Jewish thought that Mr. Klinghoffer, entirely alone among Jews, wishes to resurrect in its crudest form.
It is true, as Mr. Klinghoffer asserts, that a prominent theodicy of the Hebrew Bible explains collective Jewish suffering as God’s punishment for the people’s sins. This is the view expressed in, for example, Deuteronomy 11:13-25 and 28:1-68, and it is indeed a rather harsh and simple one: If Israel obeys God, Israel will be blessed; if Israel disobeys, God will punish the people with one or more instances of plague, famine, military invasion, and exile. Yet the Bible speaks in many voices, and offers a strikingly different theodicy in Job, for example, and in some of Psalms, both equally canonical to Deuteronomy in traditional Judaism. In Job 42:7 God Himself is shown explicitly to reject the Deuteronomic view of Jewish suffering that Mr. Klinghoffer asserts. And it’s a good thing, for otherwise Mr. Klinghoffer might logically have had to conclude that the religiously observant European Jews were the sinners while we rich and carefree American Jews merit divine favor. God indeed may not “practice precision bombing” in dispensing catastrophic punishment, as Mr. Klinghoffer claims, but surely the Almighty’s aim is not so poor as to hit the exact opposite of his proper target”six million times over.
This is of course to say nothing of the further 2,500 years of development in Jewish thought and practice since the biblical canon was closed. It is curious to say the least that an Orthodox Jew like Mr. Klinghoffer would join forces with those who stereotype Judaism as an ossified anachronism, unchanged since the cruel and unmerciful days of the Old Testament. This centuries-old Christian slander has found an unlikely ally in Mr. Klinghoffer, who ignores the fundamental rabbinic principle of halakha k’vatraei
”Judaism stands according to the views of its contemporary authorities and interpreters.
One such authority who surely has greater standing to reflect on the significance of the Holocaust for Jewish theodicy than Mr. Klinghoffer is Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmas Shapira, the spiritual leader of the Warsaw Ghetto who perished as a martyr in 1943. Certainly no mushy modernist or theological liberal of the sort Klinghoffer scathingly accuses of abandoning the authentic Jewish view by portraying an “impotent” God, “weeping quietly in some corner of Heaven,” Shapira was a Hasidic rebbe and heir to the rabbinic dynasty of the Polish shtetl Piaseczno. Yet in his sermon of February 14, 1942, which survived the destruction of the Ghetto hidden in a buried milk can, Shapira explains the Holocaust in terms that the liberal Rabbi Harold Kushner would recognize. The rebbe by then had already rejected the view that the current torments were a punishment for Jewish sins, because the Nazi cruelties had made prayer, study and the performance of other mitzvot much more difficult, thus contradicting the nuanced traditional understanding that divine chastisements are intended to punish but also to lead Jews back to God. Instead, Shapira drew on the material of an ancient countertradition found in the Talmud, in traditional Jewish mystical texts, and in the Bible as well (the reference in Isaiah to God’s “hiding his face”)”all to teach that when a Jew suffers he does not do so alone, for God himself weeps for him and “is afflicted (even) much more than the person is.”
David H. Osachy
Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
In his article, David Klinghoffer offers himself to the reader as part social critic, part therapist, and part biblical interpreter. He is somewhat more successful in the first of these three roles than he is in the other two.
It is true that there is something strange about the preoccupation of contemporary American Jews with anti-Semitism and what Klinghoffer calls the near obsession with the Holocaust. He is also correct in saying that its strangeness derives from the near absence of vigorous anti-Semitism in most important American quarters (though not perhaps among African-Americans). Why then, he asks, do Jews not recognize this? Or if, as he observes, they probably do, why do they act as if this were not sufficient unto the day? Why do they act as if virulent anti-Semitism was about to reemerge and why, in particular, are they obsessed about the Holocaust? Is this not, he asks, a simply irrational fear and obsession?
Mr. Klinghoffer offers a number of answers. Some have a certain force. But this is in part vitiated by the fact that he does not credit the first and most important answer: the fact that the decline of American anti-Semitism has a great deal to do with the Holocaust and that American Jews have some powerful if inarticulate sense of that. When American troops liberated Buchenwald, General Eisenhower, responding to questions frequently raised before and during the war about the propriety of American involvement, declared to the troops that they now knew what they had been fighting against. This not only settled the status of the war but helped to determine the future status of racism within American society. The racism of the 1930’s, including its anti-Semitism, was no longer legitimate because it was now associated with the horror of the Holocaust. Its decline, then, was in effect partially paid for by the blood of our dead European sisters and brothers, and we contemporary Jews somehow know this.
It is no doubt ugly that we American Jews go on trading on their blood. But the temptations to do so have been enormous beginning with the sense that our benign status in contemporary America has its origin in American horror at the Holocaust and fear that such horror will fade over time. Moreover, if anti-Semitism has steadily declined in America, such is not the case worldwide, where beginning with the Six-Day War, it has enjoyed renewed legitimacy. Hence it goes too far to say that American Jewish concern with anti-Semitism is simply irrational.
There are other and less respectable temptations as well. Among the other temptations, Mr. Klinghoffer is surely correct in emphasizing what he calls the cult of victimhood and its perverse effect on our national life. No doubt we should not yield to this temptation.
Mr. Klinghoffer is also correct that there are other objections to be made to our obsession with the Holocaust. It is, as he implies, the flip side of our appalling ignorance of most things Jewish, including and perhaps especially the Bible. All this is regrettable, but is it really pathological? Above all is it remediable in the ways he suggests?
I will leave an assessment of his psychoanalysis to the appropriate experts. But his foray into biblical interpretation offers no remedy and is itself appalling.
He observes that the Bible has nothing to say about anti-Semitism. That is true for the simple reason that it did not exist. It took the nineteenth century to invent it and some pedant of the time to name it. It may be true that the Bible has a more profound understanding of human evil than ours. That at least is my view. But Mr. Klinghoffer’s account makes it hard to see what the difference is and learn from it. His doctrine of collective responsibility, allegedly of biblical origin, resembles by its collectivism modern racism’s notions of collective inferiority and impurity. In the end, he says, it was not the Nazis who were “responsible” for the Holocaust but the European Jews. But does not responsibility require the capacity to make choices, and is it not obvious that the Nazis had more freedom to choose than the European Jews whom they murdered? Mr. Klinghoffer’s account seems to have the effect of importing modern racist doctrine into the Bible itself. If his account is true it is hard to see what we have gained by our recourse to the ancient wisdom of the Bible. If it is not true it has only served to confuse matters further.
As Mr. Klinghoffer reads it, the Bible presents no examples of Jewish, or more accurately Israelite, suffering that are undeserved. Everything they suffered was deserved. But this is simply untrue. Nor are examples of undeserved suffering obscure, beginning with the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt, whose suffering and liberation we Jews will lament and celebrate at Passover. To this may be added the assault of the Amalekites on the Israelites in the desert and the viciousness of their heir, Haman, of whom we hear at Purim. Were it not for these events and others like them we could not read in the Psalms that “For Thy sake they have been killing us all the day long; we are considered as sheep for slaughter” (Psalm 44:23). The whole psalm deserves Mr. Klinghoffer’s attention.
Mr. Klinghoffer admits that there may be a presumption in the kind of speculation in which he engages. Indeed there is a presumption, a presumption described in an important biblical passage. “The secret things belong to the Lord. The things which are revealed to us and our children forever are to do all the things of this Torah” (Deuteronomy 29:29). The ultimate understanding of the Holocaust must surely be, in the Bible’s view, one of the hidden things, and it is just as surely presumptuous of Mr. Klinghoffer to offer us the divine understanding of the matter. It is also heartless.
If it is not simply forbidden to us to try to understand the Holocaust, if we cannot help but try to understand it, it is because the “secret things” are not entirely secret; they are not simply in heaven’ or “beyond the sea” (Deuteronomy 30:12-13). They are human, perhaps all-too-human, but Mr. Klinghoffer would do better to stick to that. As I said, it may be ugly for us American Jews to trade on the murder of our European brothers and sisters. But Mr. Klinghoffer’s response is no solution. Rather it unjustly and impiously defiles their memory.
David Klinghoffer is to be commended for his opposition to the preoccupation with the Holocaust that has taken hold of American Jewry in recent years and, in most instances, usurped the central place that ought to go (and traditionally went) to the study and practice of Torah. He is also correct both to say that “it would . . . be a presumption to assert that God caused the Holocaust, or allowed it to happen, in order to punish European Jewry for their increasingly widespread devotion to secularism” and to note the important point that “[I]n any given historical event, we can never know God’s true intention.” He is too sweeping, however, in his judgment that “the Jews of the Bible . . . understood Gentile hostility to be an expression of God’s displeasure with us as a community.” This is certainly not the case with the anti-Semitism the Jews faced in the Book of Esther, for example, and even in the prophets the possibility that Israel is suffering unjustly is sometimes taken seriously and brought to God’s attention. In short, in the Bible, not all suffering is punitive.
Rabbinic literature is usually more solicitous of the good name of the people Israel than is the Bible. Mr. Klinghoffer may want to take note of the midrash to the effect that Moses was denied entry into the Promised Land because he called the people “rebels” or “fools” (Numbers 20:10). If, “in any given historical event, we can never know God’s true intention,” we had best follow the rabbinic injunction to judge others charitably”if at all.
Jon D. Levenson
I have been a reader of First Things
since the first year or so of its publication. During that time I have found in it many things to disagree with”but the April issue contains the first article that has actually made me angry.
David Klinghoffer writes of the ancient Israelites that “believed in collective responsibility.” “That means that when individual Jews do wrong and bring punishment down from Heaven, innocent Jews may get caught up in the maelstrom . . . the guilty may escape punishment in this world altogether, while the innocent die and must wait for their reward in the world to come.”
This is certainly not what ancient Jews believed, for there is no mention of any “Heaven,” or of any “Hell,” anywhere in the Old Testament. But what infuriated me personally Mr. Klinghoffer’s his comment on the Holocaust, based upon this idea of “collective responsibility.”
Does this mean that the egregious case of human evil represented by Hitler and the Nazi movement had nothing to do with the murders and the suffering of the Holocaust? Was it really all the fault of “reformers” and “secularists” among European Jews, those classifications into which Mr. Klinghoffer would place any Jew who does not meet his standards of “piety,” “religious observance,” or purity of belief (such as those ancient Israelites whom, he seems to think, believed in a Christian heaven!)? . . .
Mr. Klinghoffer writes: “The difference between us and the Jews of the Bible, and indeed the Jews of every generation until a century or two ago, is this: They understood Gentile hostility to be an expression of God’s displeasure with us as a community. We understand it to be essentially meaningless.”
The fact is that until a century or two ago just about everyone on earth thought that such things as earthquakes and plagues were expressions of the displeasure of some God, or gods . . . .
But I cannot see how any thoughtful Jew”or any thoughtful person of any religious affiliation”could see Gentile hostility toward Jews, such as that manifested in the Holocaust as meaningless
. It clearly illustrates what I find to be the Old Testament’s chief, and most useful, theme”that of the limitless depths of human depravity and evil.
The Holocaust was neither an expression of divine displeasure, nor was it “meaningless.” It only showed on a gigantic scale that as Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil runs not between Heaven and Hell, but right through the middle of every human heart. It is this which the Jews (and Christians) of the Bible understood . . . .
David Klinghoffer may be right in ascribing to modern Jews a paranoiac “anti-Semitism without anti-Semites,” or in saying that “in America today there is probably less hostility to Jews . . . than at any time in history,” or in describing the Holocaust as God’s punishment to Jews collectively for forsaking His ways. I happen to belong to that minority he castigates for believing that the Holocaust was demonically inspired”but of course Satan can only work when people have forsaken God and His ways.
However, I think Mr. Klinghoffer is wide of the mark when he attributes to Judaism the Cult of Victimhood. In fact, one could excise the word “Jews” from his remarks about victimhood and come up with a valid judgment of modern Christian (and other) America today:
We . . . have lost the consciousness of collective responsibility . . . . We have quit teaching our children that God lives, that He loves us, that He wants relationship with us”but that He wants something from us in return . . . . We know, in our souls, that we have gone astray; but . . . we are in denial . . . . Any hostility we can detect . . . is entirely unmerited. We have done nothing to deserve it. God isn’t angry with us . . . . We don’t live like . . . we should, but that’s alright. God doesn’t mind. He isn’t going to punish us for our disobedience . . . .
The Jewish people have been likened to the canary in the coal mine: it can predict what may happen to us if we don’t pay attention. Mr. Klinghoffer finishes (rightly): “Anything can happen. And it just might.” And it applies to us Christians, in addition to”or perhaps more than”Jews. God help us all.
Mary R. Carse David Klinghoffer replies:
Good heavens. Well, any reader in search of high drama in the genre of letters-to-the-editor has come to the right place. In the above responses, along with the article I wrote I am tagged with such words as “horrible,” “ghastly,” “blasphemy,” “appalling,” “racist,” “heartless,” “impious,” “hateful,” “primitive,” “cruel,” and “evil.” Not since college, when I criticized the Third World Center in the campus newspaper, have I been the target of such a hail of colorful nouns and adjectives. Regretably, First Things
was unable to reproduce my favorite response to the piece, with the name of its author, since it came to my private e-mail address. This one darkly warned that I had better “recant what you said about the Holocaust . . . . Based on long experience, I would say that if you don’t do that immediately
, you will never live this article down and even your friends ( a fortiori
your enemies) in the Jewish community will desert you.” The writer does not indicate who these “friends” might be, individuals who will abandon a comrade for ideological errors without even first having identified themselves to him. For sheer trumped-up melodrama, this e-mail wins the grand prize.
However David Novak’s letter deserves special recognition, too, perhaps an engraved tub of schmaltz, which he flings at me by the handful in the form of his friend Sol of the tattooed arm. Whenever you want to impugn the moral instincts of somebody who disagrees with you, there is no more tempting weapon to wave about than a disfigured Auschwitz survivor. But it comes as a surprise that a scholar of depth and sobriety like Rabbi Novak should resort to such tactics. In fact his aria-length contribution is far less serious and more exaggeratedly rhetorical than I would have expected from him, often in amusing ways. I particularly like the quivering paragraph, worthy of the operatic stage, which he concludes by asking “Does David Klinghoffer love any Jews?” He proceeds to invoke no less than the sin of false prophecy, a capital crime in Jewish law. (To my relief, Rabbi Novak has assured me he doesn’t actually think I deserve the death penalty.)
Speaking of my sins, it would appear they also include the high crime of being, in Rabbi Novak’s opinion, an insufficiently ardent Zionist, a fault he extrapolates from my observation that America is safer for Jews than Israel is. Does he mean that, as an ardent Zionist himself, he thinks it’s safer to be a Jew in Israel, where Jews get blown up, shot at, and knifed every month precisely for being Jews? Doesn’t he read the newspapers? In America there is almost no place that I would want to visit where out of fear I would feel obliged to take off my yarmulke; whereas on recent trips to Israel, in order to avoid hostile Arab attention, I’ve found myself taking it off frequently. (The experience of most American Jews effectively enough rebuts the alleged statistical proofs of significant levels of anti-Semitism in American life adduced by Kenneth Jacobson of the ADL.)
Finally, there is Rabbi Novak’s culminating passage which falls into the category of the tochachah
, a rabbinic term meaning a formal rebuke and call to repentance. According to Jewish law, such an admonition is not to be delivered in public unless the admonisher has already attempted unsuccessfully in private, which Rabbi Novak did not. For reasons that are unclear to me, he doesn’t seem to feel that limitation applies in this case.
Some other noteworthy responses include Elliott Abrams’, on the one hand, and Michael Novak and David H. Osachy’s, on the other, which I find puzzling for different reasons. In his recent, important book Faith and Fear
, Mr. Abrams bravely and intelligently assails the trend toward venerating the Holocaust, so he was the last person from whom I’d expect a letter like the one he’s written. Like David Novak, he misrepresents my argument. I specifically did not assert that the Holocaust was “a punishment inflicted by God”; I did specifically say that we can never know such a thing, at least not in this world. Anyone who takes the Bible seriously, however, will have to admit that history is not meaningless and the Lord does sometimes operate in the world in ways that, to us ignorant humans, seem pointless or cruel. God has created the world in such a way that our sins can bring about circumstances from which horrible sufferings arise-for us, or for other people. This is one of the persistent themes of the Bible. That a wise writer and a serious Jew like Elliott Abrams regards my articulation of that theme as “blasphemous” can only mean that in some way I failed to make myself clear.
He declares that, if I am right in the arrogant assertion he attributes to me, then “the Nuremburg trials were a big mistake.” But even if I had said what he says I did, that wouldn’t logically follow. Consider, as Hillel Fradkin suggests, the Book of Exodus. Contrary to what he writes, the Jews did not fall into Egyptian slavery by chance. God sent us there for his own pedagogical reasons, including one that the Passover Haggadah alludes to. We are told that Israel went down to Egypt because we were “ anoos al pi ha’dibur
,” literally, compelled by the mouth of utterance. A tradition explains that this means it was the sin of Joseph”who bad-mouthed his brothers, who in turn got wind of it and kidnapped and enslaved him”that resulted in the enslavement of the entire Jewish people, innocent and otherwise. And the Bible tells us explicitly that God hardened the heart of the Egyptian king, thus prolonging our servitude. In some sense the Egyptians were acting at God’s behest. Yet when the Egyptian army was destroyed at the Sea of Reeds, their own Nuremberg, it was an occasion for singing songs of praise to God. When God employs a bad man to teach someone else a truth by making him suffer, the Bible sees no contradiction in His then punishing the former individual for being the type of sinner whom God would employ for such a purpose in the first place. (Polly Goldberg, please take note. This doesn’t make the Egyptians “chopped liver” either. Jews and Gentiles alike are created in the Lord’s image, all of us actors in the divine drama of human history; but that doesn’t mean God just kicks back and enjoys the show without intervening and directing us as He sees fit.)
Michael Novak and David Osachy, if I read them correctly, regard the biblical idea of collective responsibility as excessively “primitive” (Novak) or reminiscent of the “cruel and unmerciful days of the Old Testament” (Osachy). Mr. Novak is a Christian thinker. Mr. Osachy styles himself a rabbi, though his Reconstruction Movement has long taken a skeptical view (to put it mildly) of the Jewish belief in a personal God, a skepticism which negates the traditional idea of a rabbi as carrier of the oral tradition revealed by God at Sinai. He would have us understand that more advanced forms of Western religious faith have developed in the past 2,500 years (actually it is some 3,300 years since the Revelation at Sinai) so as to leave behind the “cruel and unmerciful” legacy of the Hebrew Bible, and Mr. Novak seems to agree. But that would make Judaism and Christianity a sort of two-headed fraud, since each religion has always taken the truth of the Bible as its foundation. It is an intellectually coherent option to reject the biblical understanding of God, but if that is what Novak and Osachy mean to do in their respective letters, I don’t see why they have felt moved to enter this discussion. The question we are considering here takes as a given that God lives and that He is the same God whose revelation is recorded in the Hebrew Bible.
Hillel Fradkin and Jon D. Levenson dispute my contention that the Bible consistently presents God as punishing the Jews, or allowing us to be punished, through the medium of Gentiles. They mention several episodes in Scripture where Gentile hostility seems unrelated to any Jewish moral failing. Here my correspondents usefully remind me of something I had neglected to mention: namely, that the Bible is a cryptic text and was never meant to be read like a newspaper. Rabbi Novak accuses me of rejecting the Oral Torah”without which, as he and I agree, the Written Torah and the rest of the Bible are largely incomprehensible. (Edmund Weinmann should keep that in mind the next time he wants to blithely and categorically state that the Jews of the Bible “certainly” did not believe in this or that “because there is no mention [of the matter] anywhere in the Old Testament.”) But the truth is that, as I should have stated explicitly, the authentic Jewish understanding of the role of hostile non-Jews appears even more clearly in oral tradition than it does in Scripture itself.
Take for instance the cases of Amalek and Haman. Amalek, no mere extinct desert tribe but the embodiment of a world view that sees the universe as a place ruled by randomness rather than the will of God, first struck the wandering Israelites at “Rephidim” (Exodus 17:8). But that word refers to no identifiable location in the vicinity of the Sinai wilderness. Rather, it signifies a spiritual condition; a midrash explains it as a contraction of the Hebrew “ rafu yedehem min ha’torah
,” “they loosened their grip on the Torah.” As the biblical commentator Rashi notes, in the preceding verse we find certain Israelites asking among themselves “Is the Lord among us, or not?””within weeks of their miraculous departure from Egypt and the splitting of the Sea of Reeds! The oral tradition is very clear that the Jews became vulnerable to Amalek’s physical assault because they had already begun to assimilate the Amalekite philosophy, which, it is worth noticing, bears an eerie resemblance to modern secularism.
The same applies to Haman and the Purim story, as related in the Book of Esther. Of course in that event not a single Jewish life was lost, but an opinion in the Talmud, repository of the oral tradition, takes for granted that “the Jews of that generation deserved extermination.” Why? Their spiritual condition is symbolized by a feast described in the first chapter of Esther, hosted by the wicked king Ahasuerus. Regarding the Jews who were present at the feast, the Talmud emphasizes that they enjoyed themselves. They might have felt compelled to eat, but not to rejoice in their hearts with their evil lord. God hardened Pharoach heart, but one point of the tale of the feast is that these Jews appear to have hardened their own. For that, disaster nearly overtook not only the Jews on hand that day but all the Jews in the kingdom.
A final objection raised against me has to do with what some of the writers above (Elliott Abrams, David Novak, Polly Goldberg) regard as a hardness in my own heart. Comments Mr. Abrams, “So to that survivor who mourns that murdered child, Mr. Klinghoffer offers this: perhaps you missed a few Sabbath services too many, or perhaps your neighbor did.” It would of course be monstrous as well as moronic of me to say anything like that to anyone at all, but Mr. Abrams does raise a valid question: Should these matters be discussed at all, for fear of creating hurt feelings on the part of Holocaust survivors? As a rabbi I know put it to me after he had read my article, “If you broke your leg and ended up in the hospital you might well ask yourself what if anything God was trying to tell you. But if you broke your leg and I came to visit you at the hospital and urged you to think about what God was trying to tell you, that would be inappropriate.” It would indeed, which is why, if I may be permitted to join David Novak in hoisting up a Holocaust survivor of my own, I would not venture to share my thoughts on this subject with, for instance, my landlady: a stout seventysomething who as a girl was pushed by her older sister off a train on its way to a Nazi death camp. Nor would I discuss it with Sol.
Instead, I wrote an article in an ecumenical monthly read mainly by scholarly Gentiles, but also, as the above letters demonstrate, by Jews, and in fact precisely the kind of Jews”intellectually mature, influential in the wider Jewish community”that I most wanted to reach. While the large number of reactions I’ve received to the article from Jewish intellectual types has caused me to reevaluate my assumptions about the readership of First Things
, I assure you that my landlady does not read FT, and I take it that Sol doesn’t either. One could argue that it would have been better to publish the article in a Jewish magazine, but then it likely would have been read by some Holocaust survivors who are not worldly intellectuals, and that would have made me uneasy. It might well upset someone with direct experience of the camps or the war, but without experience of the sometimes rough-and-tumble discourse of opinion-journal articles. Practically speaking, the alternative to saying what I did where I did would have been not to say it all.
The point of the article, incidentally, had to do with the Holocaust only in a marginal way. Alas, almost none of my correspondents (excepting Hillel Fradkin and Mary R. Carse) bothers even to mention, much less address, its main theme”a psychological explanation of the Jewish obsession with phantom anti-Semitism. Instead, all of the above focused on a single paragraph. I urge anyone who is interested to go back and read the original article and see what all the fuss wasn’t about.