Bob Schwartz

Category: Judaism

Chaim Rumkowski, Hannah Arendt and the Banality of Evil

Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, Jewish council chairman in Lodz ghetto, seen here speaking amongst Jewish ghetto policemen. Lodz, Poland, ca. 1942.

 

It [evil] possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface.
Hannah Arendt

Citizens and respected leaders alike, in disgust and frustration, are heard comparing Trump policies and enablers to fascism and Nazis. This is treated by many, even those sympathetic to this disgust and frustration, as understandable but unhelpful and far too extreme.

In some ways, though, this is not entirely unhelpful. Theorize and moralize all we want, at some point we must look to concrete lessons from history for context and insight. Just because those examples seem so far outside an American context doesn’t mean that something can’t be learned.

Chaim Rumkowski:

During World War II, the Germans established Jewish councils, usually called Judenraete. These Jewish municipal administrations were required to ensure that Nazi orders and regulations were implemented. Jewish council members also sought to provide basic community services for ghettoized Jewish populations.

Forced to implement Nazi policy, the Jewish councils remain a controversial and delicate subject. Jewish council chairmen had to decide whether to comply or refuse to comply with German demands to, for example, list names of Jews for deportation. In Lvov, Joseph Parnes refused to hand over Jews for deportation to the Janowska forced-labor camp and was killed by the Nazis for his refusal. In Warsaw, rather than aid in the roundup of Jews, Jewish council chairman Adam Czerniakow committed suicide on July 22, 1942, the day deportations began.

Other Jewish council officials advocated compliance, believing that cooperation would ensure the survival of at least a portion of the population. In Lodz, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, who tried in vain to persuade the Nazis to reduce the number of Jewish deportees, urged ghetto residents to report for deportation as ordered. Rumkowski also adopted a policy of “rescue through labor,” believing that if the Germans could exploit Jewish labor, deportation might be averted….

On German orders Rumkowski delivered a speech on September 4, 1942 pleading with the Jews in the ghetto to give up children 10 years of age and younger, as well as the elderly over 65, so that others might survive. “Horrible, terrifying wailing among the assembled crowd” could be heard, reads the transcriber’s note to his parlance often referred to as: “Give Me Your Children”. Some commentators see this speech as exemplifying aspects of the Holocaust:

“A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They [the Germans] are asking us to give up the best we possess – the children and the elderly. I was unworthy of having a child of my own, so I gave the best years of my life to children. I’ve lived and breathed with children. I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg: Brothers and sisters! Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children!”

— Chaim Rumkowski, September 4, 1942 [27]

Hannah Arendt:

Born in Germany in 1906, philosopher Hannah Arendt gained much attention for her writings on totalitarianism and Jewish affairs after World War II. Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) addressed the rise of the totalitarian state out of the collapse of traditional nation-states. Following the war crimes trial of Adolph Eichmann, she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963). She died in New York City in 1975….

Arendt completed her Ph.D. at the University of Heidelberg in 1928, after writing her doctoral thesis on Saint Augustine under the direction of Karl Jaspers. The following year, she married Gunther Stern. With the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, Arendt soon found herself in trouble for gathering evidence of the regime’s anti-Semitism.

In 1933, Arendt fled her native Germany for the relative safety of Paris, France. There, she worked for Youth Aliyah, an organization that helped rescue Jewish children from Eastern Europe. In 1940, Arendt married her second husband, Heinrich Blücher. Their wedded bliss was short-lived, however: The pair was soon interned at a concentration camp in Gurs, France. After managing to escape, the couple made their way to the United States in 1941….

In 1961, Arendt covered the trial of infamous Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, held in Jerusalem, for The New Yorker magazine. Her writings on the trial were later published as Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), and she was criticized for some of the views she expressed in the work. Among these views, Arendt posited that Eichmann was more of an ambitious bureaucrat than a figure of extreme evil.

The Banality of Evil

Arendt’s coining of the term “banality of evil” and what some perceived to be her blaming the Jews for their own victimhood remain hotly controversial. Some think that seemingly characterizing the sort of evil perpetrated by Eichmann and other bureaucrats as banal and ordinary is dangerous and mistaken; if anything, they say, it should be forever described as radical and extraordinary.

Arendt on Eichmann:

What he [Eichmann] said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.

Arendt on the banality of evil:

It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never “radical,” that it is only extreme, and that it possesses neither depth nor any demonic dimension. It can overgrow and lay waste the whole world precisely because it spreads like a fungus on the surface. It is “thought-defying,” as I said, because thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated because there is nothing. That is its “banality.” Only the good has depth that can be radical.

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L’dor Vador (Ramadan)

L’dor Vador (Ramadan)

Jews begat
Christians begat
Muslims.
Thousands became
Millions became billions.
Blessed and blind warriors
Pages of holy books
Edged in gold
Sharp as swords.
Angry and bitter blood transmutes
To sweet water in the scorching desert
Of seeking souls.

©

Note: We are in the midst of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, commemorating the first revelation of the Qur’an to Muhammad. It is sad astonishment to students of all three Abrahamic faiths to see how zealously ignorant and contentious some of the faithful of each may be to each other. (Jews who will not dare to touch, let alone read, the New Testament; Jews and Christians who will not dare to touch, let alone read, the Qur’an.)

In fact, each faith has produced extraordinary core texts that should be the first stop for anyone claiming to know anything—not only about the other, but about their own traditions. The golden threads of Judaism are woven into Christianity, the golden threads of Judaism and Christianity are woven into Islam. The ugliness and terror are man-made; the best parts are from the compassionate and caring.

L’dor vador. From generation to generation. One family.

Democrats: Micah 2020

Dana Milbank writes in today’s Washington Post:

Hey Democrats! What’s the big idea? No, really. What’s the big idea?

A dozen possible Democratic presidential candidates assembled at a downtown Washington hotel Tuesday for one of the first cattle calls of the 2020 campaign. The good news: There were, on that stage, all of the personal qualities and policy ideas needed to defeat President Trump. The bad news: These qualities and ideas were not in any one person….

For November’s midterm elections, it may be enough for Democrats to say they are against Trump. Congressional Democratic leaders took a stab at a unified agenda for 2018 — “A Better Deal” — and were roundly mocked by progressives.

But to beat Trump, they’ll need more. Trump convinced tens of millions of Americans that they are losing ground because of immigrants, racial and religious minorities, and foreigners. What will Democrats advance to counter that grim message?

Given how lost the Democrats are (and how that might lead to further losing), I suggest that they consider the Bible. Not the weaponized, sectarian and exclusionary interpretation of the Bible that is so popular with selfish and heartless ideologues. But the Bible that demands humane conduct—something that we see slipping away election by election, day by day (and that means you too, Democrats).

The prophet Micah is a great touchstone. The revealed solution for an aggrieved people does not involve greater piety, more sacrifices, or brutal nationalism. All that is required is justice, goodness and humility:

With what shall I approach the Lord,
Do homage to God on high?
Shall I approach Him with burnt offerings,
With calves a year old?

Would the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
With myriads of streams of oil?
Shall I give my first-born for my transgression,
The fruit of my body for my sins?

“He has told you, O man, what is good,
And what the Lord requires of you:
Only to do justice
And to love goodness,
And to walk modestly with your God;
Then will your name achieve wisdom.”

Micah 6:6-9 (NJPS)

Micah is not available to run in an election. But justice, goodness and humility are always available as a platform.

Heschel on Politicians

“I consider the heart of the problem of human existence is to fight against mendacity, against lying. I would like to use a word which may be too often used, but it’s still the most important word—and that is “honesty,” or “sincerity,” or “trust.””

“I am against the word “politician.” I have great respect for the word “statesman.” It’s very interesting, the word “statesman” is not used. “Politician” is used. “Statesman” is a great word….The task of a statesman is to be a leader, to be an educator, and not to cater to what people desire almost against their own interests. To be a leader.”

From an interview with Abraham Joshua Heschel at the University of Notre Dame in 1967, published in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, essays by Heschel.

Q: Your esteem for religious colleagues is greater than your esteem for politicians. I think you once said that the most depressing word in the English language is “politician.” Politicians are necessary, aren’t they? Why disparage them?

A: No, I’m not against politicians in their vocation. I’m against politicians in their tactics. Against the very meaning, the semantic meaning of the word “politician.”

Now let me elaborate. It may take me two minutes to explain it to you. I consider the heart of the problem of human existence is to fight against mendacity, against lying. I would like to use a word which may be too often used, but it’s still the most important word—and that is “honesty,” or “sincerity,” or “trust.”

The tragedy of our time is, we don’t trust each other. The Golden Rule today is not “Love thy neighbor as thyself” but “Suspect thy neighbor as thyself.” We suspect all politicians because we know in advance they don’t mean what they say and they don’t say what they mean.

Q: Is that justified? That suspicion?

A: Ask the people in the country. You’re asking me? I’m only one citizen. I have only one vote.

If you go to the country and ask them, “What do you think of politicians?,” they’ll say a politician is a synonym for a person who is not necessarily truthful. Right? Do you mind my elegant way of speaking?

We have a type of politician today—I suppose we’ve always had, and I don’t want to identify anyone—who tells us that he is doing what the peoples want. And, in fact, that may be so. Of course, that doesn’t reach to the question of leadership. Should our leaders give us what we want, or is there some other role?

I think there is another role. By the way, I am against the word “politician.” I have great respect for the word “statesman.” It’s very interesting, the word “statesman” is not used. “Politician” is used. “Statesman” is a great word.

Now, about doing what the people want—I’ll tell you what the people want. One of the major inclinations in every human being is a desire to be deceived. Self-deception is a major disease.

Q: To be told what one wants to hear?

A: Yes. You want to be deceived.

The task of a statesman is to be a leader, to be an educator, and not to cater to what people desire almost against their own interests. To be a leader.

The great question of today is mendacity. We live in a world full of lies. And the tragedy that our young people—or maybe it’s good—the young people have discovered how many lies are uttered daily and every moment. They can’t stand it. If there’s anything they despise, it’s someone who is phony, false rhetoric. We call it “credibility gap”—what we mean really is lying.

Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Remembrance Day

Birkenau – Gerhard Richter

Today is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is a memorial day for those who died in the Holocaust, a Greek word meaning “sacrifice by fire.” Established by Israel in 1951, the day is now commemorated around the world. In the U.S., Congress has made it part of the week-long Days of Remembrance.

A new study released today “finds significant lack of Holocaust knowledge in the United States.” Without repeating the painful findings, it is enough to say that if trends continue, in a couple of generations a large majority of Americans will have very vague and erroneous views of what took place, if they know anything about the Holocaust at all. Painful but not surprising, given that Americans’ knowledge of their own history is pretty vague and often erroneous.

In 2018, and at any point in history, the phenomenon of the Holocaust matters for a lot reasons. Here at just a few.

The depths of human depravity exceed our imagination. The heights of human heroism, which the Holocaust also demonstrated, exceed our imagination too.

Whatever identity group you belong to, you can never be confident that you will not be the next despised “other” who must be totally eliminated. Which means that hatred of the other is to be avoided and acceptance of the other is to be applauded.

Science and technology can be very evil. It is true that Hitler couldn’t rely only on sophisticated chemical gas to kill Jews, supplementing that with old-fashioned mass shootings and body pits. But if he had had the opportunity to complete his work on rockets and atomic bombs, for example, who knows what the number of eliminated non-Aryans might have been?

As important as remembrance is, it is not as important as living, acting and speaking in ways to relieve current suffering. Dead and displaced at the hands of an evil leader is not history. It is now. “Never again” cannot be just for what happens to Jews. “Never again” is for everybody, or it is for nobody.

Books for Passover and Easter

Passover

If you are celebrating Passover or just interested in it, you are familiar with the Haggadah—the book used as a roadmap for the seder meal and rituals that take place on the first couple of evenings of Passover.

There are widely adopted traditions for the seder that include the retelling of the Exodus story and the eating of symbolic foods. But the exact content and form of the seder have long been flexible, and this variety is reflected in different Haggadot. There are hundreds of versions.

For the Passover observant and the P-curious, I recommend a deeper dive than the typical Haggadah—a set of books from Jewish Lights entitled My People’s Passover Haggadah: Traditional Texts, Modern Commentaries – Volume 1 and Volume 2.

From the editors:

In two volumes, this empowering resource for the spiritual revival of our times enables us to find deeper meaning in one of Judaism’s most beloved traditions, the Passover Seder. Rich Haggadah commentary adds layer upon layer of new insight to the age-old celebration of the journey from slavery to freedom—and makes its power accessible to all.

This diverse and exciting Passover resource features the traditional Haggadah Hebrew text with a new translation designed to let you know exactly what the Haggadah says. Introductory essays help you understand the historical roots of Passover, the development of the Haggadah, and how to make sense out of texts and customs that evolved from ancient times.

Framed with beautifully designed Talmud-style pages, My People’s Passover Haggadah features commentaries by scholars from all denominations of Judaism. You are treated to insights by experts in such fields as the Haggadah’s history; its biblical roots; its confrontation with modernity; and its relationship to rabbinic midrash and Jewish law, feminism, Chasidism, theology, and kabbalah.

No other resource provides such a wide-ranging exploration of the Haggadah, a reservoir of inspiration and information for creating meaningful Seders every year.

These are a bit bulky for the seder table itself. But they are the sort of books you would read if you wanted to understand why people are sitting at the seder table in the first place and why the traditions are so broad and sometimes so misunderstood. If Passover is just going through the motions, any seder and any Haggadah will do. If Passover is one piece of a much bigger picture to be investigated, these enlightening commentaries are what you need.

Easter

Close to each other. Very close. Passover begins tonight on Friday March 30. Easter is this Sunday April 1.

The calendar isn’t all that’s close. The Jewish story and the Christian story, in general and in the context of these particular holidays, are essentially and inextricably linked. The nature of those stories and those connections is the source of faith, enlightenment, misunderstanding, mistrust, even hatred and violence. Among Jews and Christians.

Any big moment on the Jewish and Christian calendars (and these holidays qualify) is an opportunity not just for ritual celebration but for study. How well do we—Jews, Christians, others—understand the texts and traditions outside the comfortable conventions of our belief and practice? Not just understanding that will confirm our faiths, allowing us to nod our heads and pat ourselves on our collective backs, but new and even startling understanding that might shake us and even make us uncomfortable. Everything we know about Judaism or Christianity, about the Bible, about history, may not be wrong, but maybe we could benefit from another open and learned perspective.

The second edition of the The Jewish Annotated New Testament was published last year; any and every Jew or Christian should read at least a little of it. So should everyone else who wants to know something about the foundations of this consequential moment in scripture, history and religion. Believers and nonbelievers may think they know what they’re dealing with. Many don’t.

The editors explain:

It is almost two millennia since the earliest texts incorporated into the New Testament were composed. For the most part, these centuries have seen a painful relationship between Jews and Christians. Although Jewish perceptions of Christians and Christian perceptions of Jews have improved markedly in recent decades, Jews and Christians still misunderstand many of each other’s texts and traditions. The landmark publication of this book is a witness to that improvement; ideally, it will serve to increase our knowledge of both our common histories and the reasons why we came to separate…

The Jewish Annotated New Testament represents the first time a gathering of Jewish scholars wrote a complete commentary on the New Testament. It reached a wide Jewish and Christian audience, and in doing so it has begun to increase both Jewish literacy of the New Testament and Christian awareness of the New Testament’s Jewish context. It has become widely used in colleges, universities and seminaries, as well as in Jewish, Christian, and joint Jewish-Christian study groups. Many Christian clergy and religious educators from different Christian denominations and church settings have told us that they have integrated the insights of this book into their preaching and devotion. Because of this volume, we have been told numerous times, sermons have been corrected, anti-Jewish teaching and preaching have been avoided, and Christians in churches and classrooms and Bible studies have learned more about Jesus and his followers. Jewish readers have told us how the volume has encouraged them to read the New Testament for the first time, to begin to consider the complex relationship between Judaism and Christianity, and how better to understand both their Christian neighbors and their own Jewish history….

For Christian readers The Jewish Annotated New Testament offers a window into the first-century world of Judaism from which the New Testament springs. There are explanations of Jewish concepts such as food laws and rabbinic argumentation. It also provides a much-needed corrective to many centuries of Christian misunderstandings of the Jewish religion.

For Jewish readers, this volume provides the chance to encounter the New Testament–a text of vast importance in Western European and American culture–with no religious agenda and with guidance from Jewish experts in theology, history, and Jewish and Christian thought. It also explains Christian practices, such as the Eucharist.

The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Second Edition is an essential volume that places the New Testament writings in a context that will enlighten readers of any faith or none.

 

Past Passover Posts

Passover has crept up on me. This year it begins on the evening of Friday, March 30.

I usually write and publish at least one post a year for the holiday, and if the Moses muse visits, I still may. Just in case, though, here are links to some past Passover posts.

Moses on Krypton, Superman in Egypt

Passover and Freud

Four Freedoms Passover

A Heschel Haggadah

Matzo: Dealing with Eating the Bread of Affliction

American Freedom Seder 2017: Where There’s a Pharaoh There’s a Wilderness

Heschel for Passover

Refugees and the Bread of Affliction

Year Time (Yahrzeit)

Kaddish After Finishing a Tranctate of Talmud – David Wolk

Year Time (Yahrzeit)

The folder tabbed Dad
Reduces that day
That week
Those years
To an inventory of moments.
A poem for the dying
“It is never too late,
And it is always.”
An obituary draft
“He was a great man
Who showed us how to be great people.”
A speech
“His heart never failed anyone.”
I light a candle today
That I’ve missed before
I recite Kaddish
That I’ve chanted a thousand times
As reader and sometimes mourner.
The yahrzeit calculator
Tells me the Hebrew date
For year times to come
A list to 2038.
I wonder which of them
I will have to miss
If there is a folder
A poem a speech
For me.

©

Abraham Joshua Heschel: “I am an optimist against my better judgment.”

If you have the time—and you should make the time—please watch this half-hour interview of Abraham Joshua Heschel from 1972, shortly before he died.

It doesn’t matter whether you believe in God, the Bible or religion. That such a person might grace the world and our lives is testament to the human possibility. Few of us will reach that height, but just knowing that there is such light among us should inspire us dimmer bulbs.

“I am an optimist against my better judgment,” he says. On our better days, so should we all try to be.

Shabbat and International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today is Shabbat. Today is also International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The Sabbath is a celebration, compared to a wedding day. The Holocaust is not. A paradox, perhaps.

From The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel:

The Sabbath is a bride, and its celebration is like a wedding.

“We learn in the Midrash that the Sabbath is like unto a bride. Just as a bride when she comes to her groom is lovely, bedecked and perfumed, so the Sabbath comes to Israel lovely and perfumed, as it is written: And on the Seventh Day He ceased from work and He rested (Exodus 31:17), and immediately afterwards we read: And He gave unto Moses kekalloto [the word kekalloto means when he finished, but it may also mean] as his bride, to teach us that just as a bride is lovely and bedecked, so is the Sabbath lovely and bedecked; just as a groom is dressed in his finest garments, so is a man on the Sabbath day dressed in his finest garments; just as a man rejoices all the days of the wedding feast, so does man rejoice on the Sabbath; just as the groom does no work on his wedding day, so does a man abstain from work on the Sabbath day; and therefore the Sages and ancient Saints called the Sabbath a bride.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day:

The United Nations General Assembly designated January 27—the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau—as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On this annual day of commemoration, the UN urges every member state to honor the six million Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism and to develop educational programs to help prevent future genocides.

Nowhere in all of our obligations are we asked to make sense of things. Celebrate? Yes. Remember? Yes. Make sense of things? That would be a miracle.

And speaking of miracles, from Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust by Yaffa Eliach:

A Kvitl on the Frankfurter’s Grave

RABBI ISRAEL PERLOW (1869–1922), KNOWN AS THE BABE OF KARLIN-Stolin, was one of the most famous Hasidic rabbis of Lithuanian Hasidism. He became a Hasidic leader at the age of four when his father, Rabbi Ascher of Karlin, passed away. Rabbi Israel was a scholar, a fine composer, and had a commanding knowledge of the sciences. He died in Frankfurt an Main during one of his many travels and was buried there. After his death he was sometimes referred to as the Frankfurter. Despite the desecration of many Jewish cemeteries in Nazi Germany, the rabbi’s grave was never vandalized.

After liberation, Germany became the center for displaced persons. Most of them were people who had been liberated from the concentration camps; the others were those who came to seek possible survivors of their families and ways to emigrate to Palestine and America. Among the many refugees were a handful of Hasidim from Karlin-Stolin. For them, the Frankfurter’s grave was a source of strength and solace.

One day a Hasid of Karlin-Stolin who, along with his son, had been fortunate enough to survive the horrors of the war, came to pray at the rabbi’s grave. He placed a pebble on the gravestone as is customary, and said a few chapters of Psalms. Then he poured out his heart before the holy grave, begging the Frankfurter that his holiness would intercede with the Almighty so that his son would find a proper mate, befitting a pious young man. As is also customary, he wrote his son’s name and his request on a piece of paper, folded the kvitl neatly, and placed it in one of the crevices of the tombstone. The Hasid left the Frankfurter’s grave in high spirits, sure that his prayers and request would be answered.

A few days later another Hasidic Jew, also a Karlin-Stolin Hasid, made his way to Frankfurt to the Babe of Stolin’s grave. Like the thousands before him, he told his bitter tale and asked the rabbi’s blessing. He too was fortunate, more than many others. Though he had lost almost his entire family, one daughter of marriageable age survived. He prayed now on his daughter’s behalf, that she should meet a Jewish boy who would find favor in the eyes of God and men, and if possible, also be a Hasid of Karlin-Stolin. As he was about to write his request, he realized that he did not have anything to write on. Just then a gentle wind blew and a piece of paper fluttered to his feet. He picked up the paper and wrote his request in the customary manner. As he was about to fold the kvitl, he noticed that the other side also had writing on it. It was the kvitl of none other than the first Hasid of Karlin-Stolin who had appeared earlier.

A few days later, a wedding took place in a D.P. camp in Germany. The two young people whose fathers had prayed on the zaddik’s grave were united in matrimony. And so you see that the miracles of the Frankfurter Rebbe do not cease unto this very day.