The Jewish calendar is the Jewish catechism: So said the -nineteenth-century German champion of Jewish Orthodoxy, Samson R. Hirsch, and with good reason. Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Passover: Despite differences in theology and observance, most Jews, even those who are not well-versed in the entire annual cycle of festivals and observances, think they know and understand and agree about the most important dates on the calendar. So do many interested non-Jews.
It isn’t that simple. Disagreements about the Jewish calendar are often as consequential as disagreements about theology. That’s because questions of when to celebrate, honor, and remember are freighted with religious significance.
In the summer of 1977, newly elected Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin made the rounds of American notables. Among others, he met with my mentor, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. It could have been a confrontational moment. Begin was not strictly observant, but he marshalled religious rhetoric to support his ardent Zionism. He held that territorial compromise in the land of Israel went against Jewish teachings. Soloveitchik had likewise expressed clear support for Zionism, but he had articulated a line of reasoning opposite Begin’s. He argued that mundane security considerations should prevail and that peaceful coexistence with the Arabs, if it were possible, should outweigh territorial claims.
The disagreement did not come up, because Begin sidestepped the issue and Soloveitchik did not answer any questions he wasn’t asked. What did they discuss, then? They reminisced about the paths of the Begins and the Soloveitchiks, which had crossed in pre–World War I Brest-Litovsk, where Menachem’s father was an enthusiastic early Zionist and Rabbi Hayyim Soloveitchik, the Rav’s charismatic grandfather, opposed Herzl’s secular ideology. And they did more than talk about old times. Soloveitchik later remarked that he was pleased to learn that he and Begin shared the same Jewish calendar.
This was a time of controversy over how and when to commemorate the Holocaust. Today, it is well-known that “establishment” Judaism observes Holocaust Remembrance in late April (27 Nisan), after Passover (15–22 Nisan), and before the commemoration of Israeli war casualties and Israel Independence Day in early May (5 Iyar). This last date was officially recognized by the Israeli government in 1959. It is marked by lectures and other public events throughout the Jewish world. I imagine many Jews have an idea that Holocaust Remembrance should be juxtaposed with celebration of the establishment of the state of Israel. The link is reinforced by the days’ proximity in the calendar of springtime festivals and observances. The governmentally ordained sequence—Holocaust Remembrance, followed a week later by Israel’s Independence Day—is at this point taken for granted, as if it had been handed down at Sinai.
But the link between Holocaust remembrance and Israel’s founding is not self-evident, historically. Other dates might serve as well. November 9 marks the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the outbreak of violence in 1938 against German Jews and their religious institutions—the point at which many previously detached Western opinion-makers could no longer avert their eyes from the viciousness of Nazi anti-Semitism. Jewish communities and families throughout Europe remember the specific dates of their transport to the death camps. The time of year when I meditate frequently on this history is late summer, largely because that is the season when most of my mother’s family was exterminated. It is also the time of year when other baleful dates in Jewish history are remembered, the most important of which is the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (9 Av).
My habit of reflection reveals something of my theological orientation, just as the now-accepted springtime model of Holocaust Remembrance reveals something about its advocates. In the decades after World War II, the choice of one model or another was thought to be consequential for Jewish identity. For this reason, the question of the date of Holocaust Remembrance was on the agenda when a sitting Israeli prime minister and an eminent rabbinical authority had their get-acquainted meeting. The stakes were high. In the aftermath of extraordinary communal suffering and destruction and a remarkable new chapter of Jewish self-determination, Soloveitchik was concerned that Jews, whether observant or not, should be governed either instinctively or deliberately by a sense of the continuity of Jewish religious and historical experience.
The nature of continuity is contested in the very terms we use. The English word “holocaust” is derived from the biblical term for a sacrifice that is entirely consumed on the altar, one in which neither the priestly officiant nor the persons offering may partake (see, for instance, Leviticus 1). It is the sacrifice that is all God’s, with no human share. The word thus bears a heavy load of theological meaning. It implies, for example, that the victims serve some sort of atoning function, the exact nature of which is not explicit. Speaking of “the” Holocaust leaves room for Christian interpretations that would assimilate the fate of many millions of murdered Jews to the Passion narrative. This is an unsettling prospect, even for Jews who are sympathetic to Christianity and would like to see its communities flourish.
The language of biblical sacrifice also implies that God, in some sense, integrates the evil into his plan for the Jewish people and for the world. For some Jews, this suggestion is outrageous. Even for Jews like me, who affirm God’s involvement in the events of history, the implication raises questions. Is the atonement of the Holocaust an atonement for specific sins, the sins of the victims themselves? Or is it a question of God’s “hiding his face” (in the phrasing of Deuteronomy 31), God’s withdrawing from the world and letting the natural order take its course?
These seem like dispassionate theological questions. But we live in the stream of history, a fact that affects even the most abstract cogitations. When those who are wholly or relatively untouched by the horrors of Auschwitz develop integrating theological schemes that “make sense” of Auschwitz, it can seem glib and morally scandalous. As theology, such conjectures border on blasphemy. For Jews who are not religious, the introduction of religious considerations into what they perceive as an entirely worldly nightmare is an utter falsehood and usurpation of their experience in the name of apologetics.
Given the complications associated with the ritually loaded term “holocaust,” the Hebrew word sho’a has become the official term. It is a biblical word translated as “disaster.” It does not carry religious associations. For that reason, of course, it cannot satisfy Jews who wish to place the Holocaust within the longer history of religious persecution and catastrophe. In some rigorously Orthodox circles, the “kosher” description of the Holocaust is hurban, which means destruction. Thus one speaks of the hurban of European Jewry, the same term we use for the destruction of the Temple and other episodes of destruction. Here, continuity of historical experiences is emphasized.
But the battle of words is more than an argument about atonement, evil, and divine providence. One sore point for many modern Jews is the fact that traditional teaching emphasizes self-examination, which directs the sufferer’s attention to his own faults and transgressions. As Maimonides put it, the experience of adversity engenders an obligation to repent and turn toward God.
It is not that modern Jews are complacent. Quite the contrary—they can be caustic in their self-evaluations and their eagerness to forge a new path. But in substance and style, their pattern of criticism differs markedly from traditional formulations. Consider a person who rejects the link between divine providence and human response. For him, the confession of unworthiness, exemplified in the prayer book’s acknowledgement that “because of our sins we were exiled from our land,” comes across as disingenuous and hypocritical. It is seen as blaming the victim. Whatever the faults of European Jewry—and remember that the Orthodox were disproportionately represented among the six million—could they possibly have deserved their fate? When a hated and downtrodden community concentrates on detecting and overcoming its sins—the imperative of traditional counsel in times of suffering—the effort seems to confirm all the hateful accusations—false, exaggerated, or half-true—hurled against the Jewish people.
The traditional model of repentance and cleaving unto God likewise struck many rebellious modern Jews as wrongheaded. As they saw it, the victims were expected to counter murderous pogroms and hostile government policies with prayer and recitation of psalms. Instead of seeing these practices as a spiritual transcendence of worldly woe, many defectors from traditional Judaism saw a religion of passivity and acquiescence in victimhood. This is why politically militant Jews are prone to lament that their pious forebears throughout exile history went “like lambs to the slaughter,” and why Orthodox thinkers expend a great deal of energy rebutting such characterizations. For the militant, the vices of passivity and self-blame, and not religious laxity or even ethical lapses, are the sins that modern Jews must overcome. The vigorous secularist urges the cultivation of practical rather than pious values: political activism and national self-reliance.
Thus, in the postwar contestation over when to commemorate, refusing to locate Holocaust Remembrance Day in the traditional religious calendar along with other memories of disaster reflected disaffection with traditional Jewish theology, especially its views of reward, punishment, and divine providence. This disaffection was not limited to secularist Jews. Finding an alternative to the traditional days of mourning and repentance would satisfy the secularists and also religious Jews who sympathize, to some degree, with their thinking. The late April date offers one such solution, with the advantage of leading up to the establishment of Israel, which represents an activist model of response to genocide. We shall later note other factors in the choice of the Passover season.
In some Orthodox circles, rabbis and other public voices preach that the Jewish catastrophes of the twentieth century express God’s anger at religious deviations of all sorts. Among religious Zionists, one hears the sometimes-strident message that the Holocaust refuted, once and for all, any modus vivendi between the Jews and Gentile society. Yet most Jews, including those with strong religious loyalties, feel ill-at-ease with such explanations. Soloveitchik’s influential teaching, often praised and sometimes understood, preserves the modern believer from the hubris of those who pretend to know so much about God’s ways and purposes. Upholding the normative commandment that adversity engenders the obligation to repent, Soloveitchik emphasized that repentance is about responding to evil, with the individual and community engaging in intimate self-examination before God. It is not an invitation to speculate “objectively,” in a historicist or pseudo-historicist vein, about God’s motivations. Soloveitchik regretted that he and other American rabbis had not done enough to agitate on behalf of endangered European Jews during those dark years, and his turn to activist religious Zionism was, in part, a product of that repentance.
Thus, the date of remembrance is heavy with significance. It is not simply a matter of secular Jews thinking one way, while religiously observant Jews think otherwise. It concerns judgments about the theological meaning of Jewish history, the importance of continuity, and the demands that great communal suffering places upon the consciences of those still living.
At one time, much was said about the “uniqueness” of the Holocaust. An insistence that the Holocaust was unique in the annals of evil served several ideological purposes. In the postwar period, it enabled Jews to argue that the horrors perpetrated against us had a special claim on the civilized world’s attention. It underlined the horrors of Nazi persecution and systematic liquidation, which went far beyond what had previously been imaginable. In a word, it suggested that animosity toward the Jew was different in kind from all the other forms of hatred that scarred the twentieth century, and this fact demanded sustained self-examination throughout the West.
Moreover, claims about the uniqueness of the Holocaust dovetailed with claims about the scale and ideology of modern anti-Semitism, which differs in kind from traditional forms of anti-Jewish bias associated with Christian teaching. This way of thinking about modern persecution bolstered the conviction that the plight of the Jew would not be resolved through secularization and the decline of religious dogma. The emphasis on uniqueness supported the view that anti-Semitism was ongoing, even liable to intensify, and could be countered only by political self-liberation.
Leaving aside the historical and philosophical merits of these claims, and despite the fact that classical and modern Jewish sources stress how much Jews have suffered for their singular destiny as God’s chosen people, there is nothing in normative Jewish theology that necessitates the view that Jewish suffering is measurably greater than that of other groups. Nor is it an article of normative faith that the great twentieth-century persecutions were quantitatively or qualitatively worse than the persecutions of previous eras. These are empirical and perhaps philosophical theses, which may be debated independent of theological commitments. But the claim of Holocaust uniqueness runs against normative patterns of Jewish remembrance. Traditional chroniclers and liturgical poets tended to blend their mourning for the sorrows of their own time with the age-old fast days and poems commemorating the destruction of the Temple. This pattern continues today. Among the accepted elegies recited on the day set aside to mourn the destruction of the Temple, one finds dirges referring to the Holocaust, authored by prominent rabbinic personalities. These religious leaders thus emphasize continuity, not uniqueness.
What I have said so far favors a sense of continuity. Yet there are salient sources, dealing with previous disasters, that concentrate on the shock and uniqueness of what appears to be unprecedented catastrophe. Witness the following Talmudic discussion about the destruction of the first Temple in 586 b.c.e.:
The opening benediction of the amida, a fundamental Jewish prayer, praises God as “great, valorous, and awesome.” We are told that Jeremiah and Daniel omitted these attributes in the wake of the destruction of the First Temple, asking, “Where is His greatness? Where is His awesomeness?” The Talmud states that the established prayer was rescued by the next generation, which taught that God’s greatness and valor are manifested in the trauma of destruction, because His self-restraint and persistence in covenant with the faithful are displayed in the face of wickedness.
This passage in the Talmud makes a significant contribution to the Jewish conception of God. It is not necessary for God to act forcefully in order to display his glory. For “radical” Jews who rebelled against traditional theology and theodicy, and whose voices were widely heard in the 1960s and 1970s, this presence-in-absence was a license to canonize doubt about principles of faith. They championed faith-in-doubt as a fitting corollary to God’s presence-in-absence.
During the period of radical theologizing, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (Soloveitchik’s son-in-law and student) spoke about this passage of the Talmud. He noted that Jeremiah and Daniel suffered a more difficult religious crisis than we do. Millennia ago, there was no precedent for the idea that God’s covenant with Israel would persist after the kind of catastrophe and estrangement brought by destruction and exile. Contemporary Jews have experienced a great deal of history since then. We are provided with examples to sustain our faith and resolve. It is not merely that Lichtenstein refuses to treat contemporary evil as unique, and therefore as a new and decisive threat to faith. He thought of the Holocaust as one among many terrible persecutions throughout history, albeit one especially palpable to us because the pain was so fresh and so extreme. Those events, terrible as they were, are not absolutely discontinuous with “normal” Jewish life. It was understandable that Jeremiah and Daniel would shudder and teeter on the edge of unbelief. Not so for those who come after them.
One’s view of humanity’s propensity to evil strongly affects one’s judgments about the uniqueness of the Holocaust. Orthodoxy and other forms of strong Jewish identification tend to encourage the belief that hatred of the Jew is a chronic attitude of Gentiles throughout history. A straight line runs from Haman through Torquemada to the Tsars to Hitler: “In every generation” (as we read in the Passover Haggadah) “they encompass our destruction and God saves us from them.”
The prevalence of Jew-hatred does not entail its omnipresence. Yet there is a certain grim satisfaction in attributing hostility to something incurable in the Gentile DNA. This factor, sociological and not strictly theological, encourages the conviction that the Holocaust does not deviate essentially from the disasters that preceded it in history. Jews with an optimistic outlook on their relationship with the non-Jewish world are not armed with this pessimism. Either the Holocaust is incomprehensible to them, or they try to relativize it as a conspicuous detour on the journey to the modern brotherhood of humanity. For those who believe in progress, the Holocaust is often interpreted as a brutal return to premodern irrationality, a spasm of reactionary violence.
However, there is a deeper religious factor that makes it difficult for modern, secularized Jews to place the Holocaust within the continuum of Jewish history. The problem is not what the millions murdered say about God’s providence—the secular mind dispensed with providence long ago—but what they say about man. If theodicy in the broadest sense is the attempt to justify the ways of the world, there can be a secular theodicy, wherein some power other than God supervenes over history. For enlightened people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, that power was the goodness and progress of humanity.
The belief in progress has become hard to sustain. In Evil in Modern Thought, SusanNeiman posits three stages of disillusionment in the West. First, the enlightened reject belief in a providential God who governs the natural order. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 is the emblem of this stage. The Holocaust marks the second stage, the loss of faith in the inevitable triumph of reason and morality. (Writing in 2002, Neiman hypothesizes a third stage inspired by 9/11, but the passage of time has made her analysis less compelling.) The Holocaust is crucial because it decisively undermines faith in progress.
Because the Holocaust made it so difficult to sustain modern secular theodicies, its impact on secular conceptions of Jewish life and history is different in kind from its effect on traditional Jewish thinking, which never relied on optimism about modern culture. As a result, the Holocaust can be oddly very important to the spiritual lives of secular and progressive Jews—not in a positive way, but as the nadir of Jewish history, perhaps of human history, the episode of radical evil that casts a long, dark shadow that is far realer than whatever vestiges of the modern narrative of progress continue to guide the secular spirit.
All the considerations we have discussed here were matters of passionate concern sixty or seventy years ago, when no consensus existed concerning the when and how of remembrance. The Orthodox wanted to link Holocaust commemoration with Jewish law and history; the more secular wanted to treat the Holocaust (and contemporary Jewish experience overall) as a novum. In any event, the party of continuity did not prevail in that public debate. Holocaust remembrance was indeed decoupled from the traditional days of fasting and mourning in late summer, and by the late 1950s a date was fixed upon: shortly after Passover. This raised an interesting question: Why should Holocaust remembrance be scheduled for late April rather than any other season?
One reason, still salient today, is the powerful juxtaposition of the days of commemoration: the destruction of Jewish life in Exile and the resurrection of the Jewish people in Israel. Those who initiated Holocaust commemoration in the nascent state of Israel wanted it also to coincide with the anniversary of the Jewish revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto. For them, this episode represented Jewish resistance, and it was thus the shining counterexample to what they characterized as non-Zionist Jewish passivity, which they associated with traditional piety. The revolt broke out during the Passover holiday. For that reason, some advocated holding Holocaust commemoration on Passover itself. This proposal elicited outrage from the religious representatives, because Jewish tradition frowns on establishing communal mourning during the month of Nisan, in which Passover takes place. Choosing a date shortly after Passover was a compromise.
Rabbi Soloveitchik was committed to Orthodoxy. Moreover, his brand of Zionism was suspicious of the glorification of military might as the hallmark of the new Jewish state. Needless to say, he opposed any fusion of Holocaust remembrance with the observance of Passover, and he preferred that Holocaust remembrance be integrated with the traditional occasions of collective mourning. And what about Menachem Begin? He had been the leader of a militant Jewish paramilitary faction during the struggle against British rule. One would think that Begin, of all people, would want to highlight the role of violent resistance and Jewish self-assertion. Why, then, did he and Soloveitchik share the same calendar on the contested matter of Holocaust commemoration?
Begin, let me repeat, was not strictly observant. But unlike some of the original proponents of the Warsaw Ghetto date, he did not feel the need to overturn traditional Jewish values and remold old-fashioned Jews into Zionist heroes. Here is a telling detail: The Zionist ideology dominant at the time prided itself on Hebraizing European family names and inventing new Hebrew given names to demonstrate a commitment to new life. Begin kept his name. As a political leader, he did not expect his supporters to abandon traditional Jewish practice or forsake the professions characteristic of old-fashioned Jews in favor of agricultural labor (another imperative then insisted upon by many Zionists). In his book The Revolt, Begin famously wrote, “We fight, therefore we are.” But twenty-five years later, as prime minister, he remarked that this slogan had served its purpose and no longer should define Israeli culture. Begin’s position cannot be confused with Orthodox belief and commitment, but it was compatible with esteem for tradition and the desire to embrace a culture that values it. And this compatibility was the key to Begin’s great influence over the direction modern Israel has taken.
Begin had other partisan reasons to agree with Soloveitchik. The proposal to link the Holocaust with the Warsaw uprising came from the then-sizable Marxist wing of the Zionist movement. The commonly accepted story of the revolt described it as led by radical cadres. Therefore, linking Holocaust remembrance to the supposedly militant “new Jew” who courageously rose up in the Warsaw Ghetto to resist Nazi destruction enhanced the claim of left-wing Zionism to be the authentic expression of Jewish hopes and aspirations. In the early years after Independence, those in the moderate labor movement and other anti-socialists who formed the base that would put Begin in power decades later were unenthusiastic about the fusion of Holocaust remembrance with the interests of the Israeli left.
The very name “Auschwitz” echoes with powerful meanings, which affect far more people than Jews. When and how the Holocaust is remembered is of concern to many people. Germany offers the most obvious case: There, it is a matter of great cultural and political importance. But Germany is not the only case. There have been countless pronouncements about what is possible, what must be said, and how we should live “after Auschwitz.” How easy it is, therefore, to take for granted the meaning of the Holocaust for Jews, and for religious Jews in particular. And how easy it is to get it wrong in a dizzying variety of ways.
There is perhaps a broader lesson here. As I noted at the outset, the word “holocaust” is associated with the burden of guilt and our need to atone. It is a feature of the modern era and the decline of confidence in divine providence that all of us feel implicated in the systematic evils human beings perpetrate on other human beings. This is the shadow side of modern culture’s belief in progress. In these circumstances, it is tempting for us to project our spiritual anxieties onto the suffering of others. I think of the grave evil of slavery and its enduring legacy, which continues to plague our society. Most of us who take our citizenship seriously are troubled by this aspect of our American and Western heritage. We wish we could understand the harm slavery has done to the oppressed, to their descendants, and to the culture that allowed this massive injustice. These are worthy desires. But let us beware overconfidence in our attempts to understand the agonies and duties attending the memory of suffering, as it is felt and carried by our fellow human beings.
Shalom Carmy teaches Jewish studies and philosophy at Yeshiva University and is editor emeritus of Tradition.