Dr. Alan L. Berger (Editor)

Our next moderator is Dr. Alan L. Berger, another one of the Sunflower Symposium authors. Dr. Berger is the Raddock Eminent Scholar Chair of Holocaust Studies, and directs the Holocaust and Judaic Studies B. A. program at Florida Atlantic University. He was formerly professor in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University where he founded the Jewish Studies Program. He has also served as Visiting Gumenick Professor Of Judaica at the College of William and Mary. Among his books are "Crisis and Covenant," "Judaism in the Modern World," and "Children of Job" [foreword by Elie Wiesel]. Berger edits a series, "Religion, Theology, and the Holocaust" for Syracuse University Press. We look forward to more stimulating and insightful discusions on the Board.

(Lila Sapon)

I think Karl was following the teachings of his youth and his faith. Do something bad and confess and receive absoution.

Reply to Lila Sapon (Alan Berger)

Of course, in a real sense, that is exactly what Karl was doing, i.e., following the traditional teachings concerning confession. Of course the enormously complicating factor here is that the Holocaust is a unique crime in the annals of human history. everything: religion, law, faith, belief, culture, etc., must be re-evaluated in light of Auschwitz. In essence, we are being asked to be the re-evaluators.

Susan Moses-Young

I believe that Simon did what was right for him. Each individual is unique. What feels right for one person might not necessarily feel right for another. It's always healthier to forgive someone, if one has in their heart to be able to, even and especially for a terrible crime. Forgiving helps you heal. Of course, it's easier said than done. I think it would take a superhuman person to forgive that man. But remember that when we do forgive it doesn't mean we forget or that we let the criminal go unpunished.

Reply to Susan Moses-Young (Alan Berger)

Your question raises very good, and seemingly intractible issues. For example, is it given to us, after Auschwitz, to contend that "What feels right for one person might not necessarily feel right for another." A fundamental issue upon which the Nurenmberg trials rested was that the Holocaust was a crime against humanity. That means that there is a standard of justice whic transcends whatever an ividivual may think about his/her actions. Is it always healthier to fogive? Perhaps on an individual level. But, only perhaps.

It depends on what is implied in forgiveness. The petitioner must have it in his her heart that the action for which they seek absolution was morally and humanly wrong. Further, the petitioner needs to alter his/her way of life, providing they are not on their deatn beds. But there is another dimension at stake here. this is the issue of what theologians term "cheap grace." At a certain point, the asking, and granting, of forgivness may deteriorate into ritualistic utterance. I do believe that you have hit the anil on the head when you say forgiveness doesn't mean forgettign or allowing the criminal to go unpunished. What, then does it mean?

A First Question for Dr. Berger (Aron Trauring)

First, I want to welcome Dr. Berger to the Board. To start the discussion, I want to raise a question that concerned me as I read the Symposium. The Jewish authors nearly unanimously concur that the Jewish attitude has no room for forgiveness. Some, most forcefully Dennis Praeger, say that there is a fundamental difference of approach between Jewish and Chritian attitudes towards forgiveness especially when it comes to murder. I wonder, though, how true this really is.

To cite one Rabbinic source, in the discussion on the death penalty, the Rabbis say that a Sanhedrin that decrees an execution more once in 70 years should be called a murderous court. If the Rabbis attitude was so unforgiving to murderers, why would they be so reluctant to carry out the death penalty? On the other hand, if we take the case of President Clinton, where he committed a crime far less heinous than murder, it is specifically Christian groups that seem far less willing to forgive. Finally, one may wonder if it the fact that the Holocaust was a crime committed against us, the Jewish people, that is the source of our attitudes, and not any specifically Jewish theological or philosophical beliefs or opinions.

Reply to Aron Trauring (Alan Berger)

I do believe that there is a difference between Jewish and Christian attitudes toward forgiveness, especially inthe case of murder. Recall the bizarre example of Reverend Hull, assigned as Eichmann's "confessor." Presumably, if the implementor of the Final Solution had thought it appropriate to confess his sins, he would have gone to heaven. About his Jewish victims we hear no information. I believe that the attitude toward murder for both traditions is established in our common text, the Bible. Cain's question, "Am I my brother's keeper,?" has an implicit answer. YES. Humans, at least since biblical times have known that murder is wrong.

Your query about the distinction between rabbinic strictures against murder while being charry about carrying out the death penalty raises interesting philosophical considerations. The rabbis always erred on the side of equity. Further, as with the example of the Red Heifer, whose sacrificial requirements were carefully established, although no such creature was ever likely to be found, the rabbis articulated principles which advocated quite precise guidelines for living one's life as a Jew.

About the case of President Clinton, I merely observe that morality can be a hichly complex issue. I believe that where one stands on this matter is determined by a variety of considerations and is far from being monocausal. It is, however, worth noting that our society is increasingly secular and many right wing religious groups tend to view the current tawdry affair in terms of an almost manicahean struggle between the forces of good and those of evil.

I also liked the fifth question. In response to which I can only ask in good traditional fashion another question. Is it not incumbent upon the Jewish people to turn to historical sources, philiosophical, religious, or theological in order to seek guidance when there is a radical assault against their existence? The fact is that the Holocaust appears to have broken the link of continuity between pre-and post Auschwitz Jewish thought. One wonders what is the appropriate attitude to assume when one-thirtd of one's body has been amputated. One seeks guidance from traditional sources. Some find a measure of consolation there, others do not. The issue then becomes one of the content of Jewish identity after Auschwitz. Just as after the destruction of the Temple a new form of Judaism emerged, rabbinism, so, too, after the Holocaust thoughful people are seeking to formulate an adequate response, if one there be, to the Holocaust and to the issue of the variety of Jewish identities in the post-Holocaust world.

Post-Holocaust Jewish Identity (Aron Trauring)

I would like to continue to discuss the issues raised in the last paragraph of your response. As a Jew, living in Israel, I too often see the Holocaust become a political tool, used in many different ways by different sides of the political debate. "Never again shall our enemies destroy us. Therefore we must do..." "Withdrawel from the West Bank means returning to Aushcwitz Borders" Some arabs say "You Jews treat us just like the Nazis" A member of Israel's Parliament calls an opponent "Yudon."

First, I ask you: Can we, only 50 years after the event, formulate an adequate response to the Holocaust, without trivializing it? Along the same lines, I recently attended a meeting in Jerusalem of leaders of nearly all the world's major Jewish organizations. One question that was a source of heated debate: How central should Holocaust education be? The question behind the question: How important can/should the Holocaust be in defining our modern Jewish identity? This is a variation on my previous question: Once again, how do we approach the issues of the Holocaust and Jewish identity, without trivializing or limiting the significance of either?

On Politics and Politicians (Lee Stahl)

It is unfortunate, to say the least, that one of the main secular influences that the holocaust had on the world was a drastic change change to the way the political structure works. Before WWII, politicians (for the most part) dealt with issues, had platforms, ideas, and relied upon these things to get elected. It is as if WWII showed the way for politicians in which a campaign could be won by stirring up the emotions of a country, relying not on issues and intellect, but on charisma, energy, and emotions such as "nationalism", "patriotism", or as today "family values". It is now these vague concepts, along with smear campaigns and a beautiful face, that gets the vote.

If nothing is said of Hitlers evil ends and horrific deads, it may be said that he was an incredible orator. I have seen films of his speaches on his rise to power and can understand, without understanding German, how he drew the crowds to rally behind him by bringing the croud to a frenzy of patriotic excitement, to a level that has probably not been seen before or since.

It is this style of politics that leads lesser politicians to employ such tactics as the name-calling to which you refer in Israel as well as the right wing attack on the President here in the US. If the Arabs or the right wing have no real issues or positions of strength from which to fight, they return to the emotional, as it is easily becried and difficult to defend. It has been said that the price of peace is vigilance. This holds for the political, as well as the military. We must see these emotional attacks for what they are, little more than a desperate emotional attack when a logical, defenseable one is not readily available.

Atonement for Others (S. Davis)

I want to raise again a point I made earlier, and maybe Dr. Berger can respond. In his symposium article, he takes the position that most of the other Jewish writers do...that in Judaism we can forgive in the name of others..especially sins between God and man. And yet, as I noted earlier, the folk belief that saying Kaddish may help redeem the dead from gehinnom (hell) is exactly this type of seeking atonement on behalf of others. I also mentioned the Rabbinic concept "All Israel has a place in the world to come." Finally there is the Hasidic concept of the Rebbe as intermediary. So at least in some parts of Jewish tradition there is a concept of atonement even for the worst of crimes, and a concept of asking for atonement on behalf of others. Can Dr. Berger elaborate on how this fits in with his argument in the Symposium article?

Atonement for Others (Alan Berger)

Thank you for your good questions. Concerning Kaddish, as you know, the intent of this prayer has nothing to do with the dead, themselves; indeed, they are not mentioned. Rather, this Aaramaic prayer extols and magnifies God's great name, hoping that the deity will bring peace to all of Israel. It is of course true that folk traditions supply their own meanings to rituals, prayers, and halakhic matters. But, of course, in the case of Simon Wiesenthal and Karl I believe that we are speaking about an event of such gravity and magnitude that traditional responses seem woefully inadequate in any case.

In the matter of the rabbinic statemnt, "all Israel has a share in the world to come" [except for those sinners who are irdeemably evil], I believe this evolved out of the historical situation of Jewish powerlessness, after the second destruction of the Temple, and the psychological need for consolation. Another issue here is that this statement was intended to help Jews live a Jewish life in the face of external difficulties. It was not intended to exonerate wron or evil doers.

You are absolutely correct that in Hasidism the Rebbe frequently was, and is, viewed as an intermediary. As the hasidic statement has it, the voice of the Shekinah speaks from the rebbe's throat.Also, this is the sense of Schechter's criticism of the movement: "Hasidism has become zaddikism." But let us be careful about what we are comparing. We do not see in Judaism any cases of genociders eitherasking for, or being granted, forgiveness.

One aspect of my argument in the Symposium is that Karl was, perhaps inadvertently, continuing the Nazi practice of stereotyping the Jews. It was important for Karl to confess to a Jew, as if that would make things right.

Pharoah (S. Davis)

Actually there is an example "Judaism offers... of a genocider who decided to exterminate all members of a group of people because of the "crime" of their having been born." Pharoah is close to this, and actually can serve as a prototype of Hitler. I seem to recall a midrash where the Rabbis say that Pharoah was spared the drowning at the Reed Sea so that he could go back to his people and serve as witness and praise God's name. I really do forget the details. But both the Biblical story and the Rabbinic interpretations do leave some opening, however small and narrow, for teshuva even for the genocidal Pharoah.

Unforgiving Jews (Debbi Cahan)

It kinda bothers me that almost all the Jewish writers seems so against forgiving of any sort, and almost all the non Jewish ones (Christian and other) have some sort of willingness to forgive, even those who themselves suffered horribly (read Desmond Tutu and Dith Pran especially). Is our religion so hard hearted?

Unforgiving Jews (Alan Berger)

Thank you for your question. In my view, the issue is not one of hard heartedness. After all, God hardened the heart of thebPharaoah. Rather, one of the key elements for Judaism is the foundational nature of the covenant. Normative Jewish belief centers on the issue of the relationship of God to hisorical events. Further, Jew have been accused of "passionately wallowing" in history. Certain other traditions, notably Christianity and Hinduism have a very different approach. In Christianity, for example, the emphasis is on the afterlife. In Hinduism, it is on karma, a notion that is closely tied up with the idea of re-birth.

Judaism, as you know, is not against forgiving. Quite the contrary is the case. recall the holiday liturgy which specifically states that the evil decree can be averted by zedakah, prayer, and good deeds. Forgiveness is never a concept that is isolated from a tradition's world view. In fact, teshuvah is the Jewish tradition is derived from the root word for turning, a turning away from sin and a turning toward the Torah.

Unforgiving Jews (Eugene Fisher)

As an outsider who has been in dialogue with Jews since the late 1960's, I can say categorically that the Jewish religion, Judaism, cannot in any sense adequately be termed "hard hearted." Biblical and rabbinic tradition hold up forgiveness and reconciliation as ideals and, more trenchantly, as mitzvoth. The theme of repentance, forgiveness (human & divine), and reconcilitation lies at the heart of the holiest of Jewish days, Yom Kippur. The early prayer form, Avinu Malkenu, gives priority of place to G-d as loving parent over G-d as just king. Those raised in the Jewish tradition, in theory and in practice, in my experience tend toward a cautiously optimistic view of human nature, holding up not punishment (though that is to be medeted out as a matter of justice when necessary) but teshuvah, repentance, as the path a sinner should take. One could go on, but I think my point is made. The charge of "hard-heartedness" was one of the bastions of the old, pre-Vatican II Christian theological polemics against Jews and Judaism. It is a false charge. The Shoah, however, as Alan and others have said, challenges and strains even this ancient Jewish tradition to the breaking (or turning?) point. Two out of every three Jews alive in Europe in 1939 were dead by 1945, systematically murdered. How can one forgive what one can not fully comprehend? Is it a category mistake even to think in such terms after the holocaust? A good argument could be made that that is the case. So I would never call on Jews to forgive the perpetrators., though the question of how Jews should relate to the children of the perpetrators is a very different one, in my opinion.

It is to the vast credit of Jewish tradition and the generation of survivors and their children that Jews are even grappling with this issue, and so many are willing to engage in dialogue with Christians. I find that an amazing and grace-filled response on the part of the Jewish community. Judaism is realistic but at the same time boyantly optimistic. In this and in so many other ways, I believe, the Jewish people remain today a "sign to the nations" of God's will for all humanity.

Kushner's Article (S. Davis)

What does Alan Berger think of Harold Kushner's idea of forgiveness as "letting go" of the crime? Can we Jews let go of the Holocaust at this stage, or is it too early? And what would it mean exactly?...

" Letting Go & "Working Through" (Alan Berger)

Rabbi Kushner raises an interesting idea when he speaks about "letting go" of the crime. The only problem is that it conjures up the wrong imagery. Letting go means many things in popular parlance; for example: forget about it, do not be obsessed with the matter, and, get on with your life.

I believe that a more accurate and viable notion is suggested by the term "working through" the Shoah. This also has a variety of meaning, but they are in my view more valid. For instance, Saul Friedlander employs the term "working through" to mean getting in touch with the human dimension of the lives lost during the Holocaust. Domick Lacapra utilizes working through in the psychological sense of confronting a repressed past, because such a past always comes back to haunt one. Helen Epsten, author of the singularly important CHILDREN OF THE HOLOCAUST and the more recent WHERE SHE CAME FROM utilizes working through to mean coming to grips with the diversity and richness of Jewish life before the Shoah.

In my view, "working through" is a more comprehensive and accurate term. I hope these observations are of some help.

More on Jewish Identity (Sharon Michaels)

Dr. Berger I like your use of the term "working through" the Holocaust. Going back to the previous discussion on Jewish identity, my question is how can we "work through" this momentous event and find the proper place for the Holocaust as part of our Jewish identity? How much emphasis should we give to it and what should we emphasize?

More on Jewish Identity (Alan Berger)

You raise an excellent question. Now, "working Through" does not mean forgetting. It does mean being able to view the Jewish historical experience from the perspective of pre-Shoah and post-Shoah. Judaism has a rich history and an open-ended future. The Holocaust, I suspect, will assume its position along with the first and second destructions of the Jerusalem Temple. This means that like other generations following a catastrophe, we need to re-define what Jewish identity means. For example, Elie Wiesel's works imply an "additional covenant;" whereas Rabbi Irving Greenberg speaks of a "voluntary covenant" after Auschwitz. Others, orthodox thinkers, contend that there is no change in the status of either God or the covenant after the Holocaust.

How much emphasis should we give the Shoah, you ask. I believe the proper emphasis to acknowledge the wounding that the amputation of one-third of one's body would entail. What should we emphasize? We should emphasize the stories of the victims, the deeds of the righteous, and the actions of the murderers. To listen to a witness, attests Elie Wiesel, is to become a witness. I believe that we need to move on two tracks. One track is the track of witnessing.The second track is that of seeking to achieve a tikkun olam, a mending in so far as this is possible of the world. Tikkun is a task that cannot be completed in a single generation.

I hope these responses are of some help. Or that at least they serve to stimulate more questions.

Leaders vs. Followers (David Kapolski)

Glad the forum is back. On first reading Dith pran's response, I was impressed by his distinction between leaders and followers. On the other hand, isn't that precisely the argument the Nazi murders made: we were only following orders!.lad the forum is back. On first reading Dith pran's response, I was impressed by his distinction between leadeers and followers. On the other hand, isn't that precisely the argument the Nazi murders made: we were only following orders! Is this legitimate? I'd like to know how the moderator or other readers feel about this distinction.

Leaders vs. Followers (Alan Berger)

Both you and Dith Pran raise interesting points. I believe that he is making the same type of distinction made at the Nuremberg trials between the architects of the Holocaust and the lower level functionaries; those whom Justice Jackson termed "the running dogs of murder." One of the principles established at Nuremberg is that "following orders" is legally, not to say morally, inadmissable. I believe that essential to being human is the ability to choose as in the making of moral decisions. One recalls the Deuteronomist here: "I have set before thee life and death, choose, therefore life." Even in the situation of the Holocaust, where as Lawrence Langer has rightly observed there was "choiceless choice," e.g., the choice of deciding to kill oneself by throwing oneself against the electrified fence, there was a consciousness of the terrible moral situation. So, where are we? Choice is essential to humanity remaining human. Even during the Shoah there were a few righteous peoplewho chose to help, and to be human means to struggle with moral decisions. In conclusion, the Nazi murderers could not be believed either during or after the war.

Jewish vs. the rest (Rubin Smith)

I know this has been discussed before, but I'm still not satisfied with the answer. It seems that all the Jewish writers say no way to forgiveness and all the rest say yes in one way or another. I just finished reading Jose Hobday a nun with a Native American ancestry. "no one, no memory should have the power to hold us down, to deny us peace." Is the memory of the Holocaust denying the Jewish people peace?

Jewish vs. the rest (Alan Berger)

Profound question. I cannot imagine that the memory of the Holocaust could grant anyone peace. Nor can I imagine forgetting the Shoah. I want to share a midrash with you that an Australian friend of mine, a writer and son of survivors, wrote about in one of his short stories. A rabbi delivers a sermon on Yom HaShaoh, the Day of Commemoration of the victims and Martyrs of the Holocaust. This occurs in Melbourne's Carlton cemetery. The sky is gray and threatening. As the rabbi speaks, the heavens open. What was the rabbi's message? He told the story of Moses leading the people through the wilderness. On his back he carried the bones of Joseph. Moses had to accomplish great things for the Jewish people; keep them together, lead them to the promised land, etc. He called to his brethren, Kadima! Forward. We must always go forward, for behind us lies the way of death. The rabbi's midrashic comment: So, too, the Jewish people must always go forward, but they do so carrying the bones of the dead ontheir back. For if the Jews do not remember the Holocaust and teach whatever lessons it may have engenedered, who will?

Thank you, Dr. Berger (Aron Trauring)

We would like to thank Dr. Berger for his stimulating contribution as moderator. Our next moderator will be the well-known author Rodger Kamenetz. ... [Read More]



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