Rodger Kamenetz - our third moderator (Editor)

We are pleased to announce our next moderator. Rodger Kamenetz is a poet and author of "The Jew in the Lotus," an account of Jewish Buddhist dialogue and now a documentary film. His most recent book, published by Schocken Books, is "Terra Infirma: A Memoir of My Mother's Life in Mine." Kamenetz won the National Jewish Book Award for Jewish Thought in 1997 for "Stalking Elijah." He lives in New Orleans and can be found at his website

As a first question for discussion, Mr. Kamenetz suggests the following:

Is there any situation in your own life that resembles in some way or another the situation faced by Simon Weisenthal? Or to put it another way, what relationship in your own life most resembles the relationship between Weisenthal and the dying soldier?

Introduction (Rodger Kamenetz)

Hello everyone. I'm happy to be sitting in as the moderator of this discussion and look forward to a lively one.

Welcome and Response (Aron Trauring)

First I would like to welcome our latest moderator. We look forward to reading his insights and commentary. First I'ld like to welcome our latest moderator. We look forward to reading his insights and commentary.

I would like to open the discussion with a personal response. My mother (who was 18 at the time) and her family were living in Belgium when the Nazis occupied it. I remember as a child studying the weekly Torah portion of Exodus with my grandfather. When we got to the verse where Pharoah tells the Egyptian people: "Let us deal shrewdly with them [i.e. the Israelites] so that they may not increase..." my grandfather turned to me and said "The Nazis were the same way. They dealt shrewdly with us. When they came into a place where the Jews lived, they lulled the Jews into complacency with assurances that no harm would come to us." My grandfather, however, saw the parallel between Hitler and Pharoah . One day, he and his family walked out of their newly redecorated house, as if they were going on an outing. In reality, of course, they were abandoning their home forever. They travelled underground until they escaped Europe.

Many years later, my mother returned to Belgium and visited the street and house where she grew up. When she came back, we asked her how she felt, but she couldn't articulate her feelings. Then I asked her "Weren't you angry? Didn't you want your house back? Don't you want compensation?" She looked at me and said in a quiet voice and said "no."

I know my mother does not "forgive" the Nazis for what they did. Many of her family and friends were killed. And yet I never heard her speak in anger or hate or fear about the Nazis. I would say she, like Simon, reached a state beyond forgiveness, although I can't really articulate what that state is. Perhaps, Rodger Kamenetz can use his skills as a poet and writer to help put this feeling in words.

Feelings and beyond feelings (Rodger Kamenetz)

Thank you Aron for your response. I'm honored by the charge you have given me. A little background first on anger. I feel Jewish culture and Jewish religion are saying very different things about anger.

Jewish culture: The collective Jewish culture in the postwar era has validated anger as a response.Never again has become our collective slogan and behind the slogan is the idea that we will always remember what the Nazis did and driven by that paradigm we will respond forcefully to every threat AS WE WISH WE HAD RESPONDED TO THE NAZIS. Not forgiving means remaining angry-- and if anger is justified, as surely it would be in the case of Aron's mother for instance-- then it is vald to hold on to it. That's the logic. Aron's mother obviously did not follow that logic and her response seems to point in a different direction.

Jewish religion: the Talmudic sages in Pirke Avot praised those who restrain themselves from anger; Maimonides (in Mishneh Torah and his commentary on Pirke Avot] taught that anger is tobe avoided at all costs; Maimonides equates anger with idolatry. We need to ask why anger is equated with idolatry. The word idol in Hebrew (pessel) means "that which is partial"; to worship what is partial instead of worshipping the creator of all is idolatry. In a state of anger, we are absolutely sure of who is right and who is wrong; we construct a partial reality that is utterly convincing. When we are angry, anger is our god and we cannot at that moment be in touch with any larger awareness. WE are cut off from God in our anger as surely as an idol worshipper is. That is why Resh Lakhish, a Talmudic sage, teaches that when a wise person who is angry loses his or her wisdom; an angry prophet loses the "ruakh hakodesh", the spirit of inspiration. Victims carry a very heavy burden. In addition to the injury, they carry the anger. Even if the anger is quite justifiable, it is damaging to the soul.

So the question is: how do we do honor to the situation, without destroying ourselves in the process? Perhaps therefore, to return to the specific case of Aron's mother, she found a way to move beyond anger for the sake of her own soul. And in doing so, she reached a much larger vision of the situation than the personal. She moved through her feelings to a realm beyond feelings.

Too difficult a question? (Orna Nimrodi)

One of the things that struck me when reading the book was exactly that most of the respondents, with a few exceptions, stated the difficulty they had responding to Simon because they couldn't truly place themselves in his shoes. So being Jewish, I'll turn around and ask the moderator "Can anyone except a holocaust survivor or victim of other genocide answer your question?"

The incommensurable (Rodger Kamenetz)

I believe the questions raised by the Holocaust belong to all of humanity. I'm intrigued by your phrase "being Jewish". I know it's used casually, but I'd be genuinely curious to know precisely how you mean that, how you feel that. It goes to the point I raised in my response to Aron's question. I distinguish between being Jewish (by birth, family, identification, culture) and the teachings of Judaism. I don't believe in the genetic transmission of values they come down through education, through religious practice, through study, prayer and deeds of lovingkindness. As Jews we might feel a particular identification with the suffering of Holocaust victims, but I hope that identification leads us to a more general identification with and concern for the suffering of all human beings.

As Jews we are torn: we want to affirm the uniqueness, the incommensurability of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust especially in the face of those who would deny the Holocaust or downplay its seriousness. At the same time, if we go too far in this direction, and say the Holocaust may only be discussed by its victims, we are in some ways denying their common humanity, as well as our own.

On Victimization (Lee Stahl)

In Orna's original post, and in the moderators response there are common threads of misconception that I find troubling. First let me speak of the Jewish "uniqueness" with regard to the Shoah. It is true that the shoah left over six million Jews dead; it is also true that, in total, the Nazi regime, directly or indirectly, lead to the deaths of almost ELEVEN million HUMAN BEINGS!

I, too am a Jew by birth, parental education, and (I try for) philosophy, but I think it is important not to feel too unique with regards to the Shoah. Many people died along side the Jews then, there have been "ethnic cleansings" since, in Bosnia, there is one currently in Serbia, not to mention the Catholic/Protestant war, or all the other wars going on in the world today. What really troubles me is that Jews that were not alive and in concentration camps during the war feel as if they have no right to feel victimized by the Nazis. Beyond the simple fact that many Jewish families are missing members due to the Nazis regime, the fact remains that, as never before, the faith of the Jewish community was shaken by the Shoah to such an extent that the reverberations can still be seen and felt. These effects take many forms, from not showing outward signs of Jewishness for fear of persecution to people's belief that "G-d is on leave", that he didn't or doesn't care for his chosen people, or, worst of all, that many survivors, having seen such inhumanity and evil, lost faith in the existance of G-d, a disbelief that has filtered through the generations. In the story, a man who was preparing for the seminary was sent to the camps where he could no longer believe in G-d. Imagine if all the Jews in the camps had lost their faith!

Perhaps it would have meant the end of Judaism! Even if the Jews in the camps survived the torture, Hitler's aims could have been met. I look at the Jewish community as a whole and imagine how much richer it couldhave been if those six million Jews, with strong faith in G-d intact, were a part of it today, and I feel the pain off their loss for myself, my family, and all the generations to follow. It is from this position, and from the moral teachings I've recieved from the temple and my parents, that I wrote my response to the question of forgiveness (on the main page).

Holocaust and Jewish Politics (Debbi Cahan)

Wow! Rodgert Kamenentz's response above really put things in place for me. In the course of the past few weeks a few people (including me) have raised the issue about the Jewish vs. non Jewish responses in the book.n the book. The distinction between the post-Holocaust reaction of the Jewish people as a people vs. the reaction dictated by Jewish thought and religion finally puts this in perspective for me.

Which leads to my question, namely the use of the Holocaust in Jewish politics. I use the word politics broadly. So often "representatives" of the Jewish people use the Holocaust for purposes which seem outside its real meaning. You mention "Never Again" and that brings to my mind the JDL. Just this week the chief rabbi (I think?) of Israel compared Reform Judaism to nazism and there was all kind sof talk in Israel about the Nazi-like connotations of a slogan used by Bibi Netanyahu. Looking at all these examples I get a very bad feeling about how the Jewish people are reacting to this awful event in our history. What kind of guidance can we find in Jewish religion and thought to help us escape the trivialization of the Holocaust?

Red Heifer (Rodger Kamenetz)

Debbi Cahan asks: "What kind of guidance can we find in Jewish religion and thought to help us escape the trivialization of the Holocaust?" And one might add, what kind of guidance can we find to help us escape trivialization? Kabbalists speak of two levels of consciousness, which translate as "big mind" and "little mind." And we travel back and forth between them.So when people use Holocaust rhetoric as a hammer to beat down their opponents, or to scare them out of thinking they are in "little mind" and they are trying to scare others into staying with them. The anger we carry whether justified or not damages us spiritually by keeping us in "little mind", or reactive mind. That is why I think the ancient ritual of the red heifer, for instance, was necessary in order to purify the contamination that arises in the presence of the death.

What is that contamination? In my view it is the residual anger we carry inside us, the resentment that we cannot purify out of ourselves. And at a certain point it becomes necessary to purify ourselves so we can live. We no longer have the ashes of the red heifer to purify ourselves, but if we understand that there are spiritual consequences to holding on to anger, we can begin to approach the question as a spiritual problem. I'd like to say that we have a responsibility: we must preserve the memory of the events of the Holocaust, we must memorialize those who died in it and we must find ways of teaching its history. At the same time we should not overlook the consequences of that responsibility, which include the need to purify anger out of our system, whether individual or social.

Simon's dilemma and our own (John Davidson)

Reading the past few posts I think for the first time I understand Simon's dilemma, and why he is still troubled, so many years later by his silence. No one can deny, least of all Simon, that at the time of his encounter with Karl, his anger over his situation (which he so vividly describes) was justified, that his "victimhood" was a harsh reality. But I understand now, to use Rodger's words, that precisely because of the situation he was in, he is concerned, looking back, that he was trapped in his little mind! The question that troubles him, and us, is if he could be in a state of big mind, could he or would he have reacted differently? More troubling is that the very fact of his victimhood, made such a state almost impossible so his opressors hurt him doubly, both physically and spiritually.

Also, looked in this way, Orna's point fades away: there are so many situations we read about everyday in the paper which exemplify the same dillema Kosovo, the Middle East, Chile and Pinochet, Nigeria (just to review current events of the past couple weeks!). The list goes on and on.

What I would like to ask Rodger, since he is knowledgeable in Buddhism too, is if he thinks the belief in reincarnation changes the way different spiritual faiths deal with the anger murder evokes?

Rebirth and anger (Rodger Kamenetz)

John Davidson asks if belief in reincarnation changes the way we deal with anger. Thank you for the question: a huge topic I can only touch on briefly here. I think in general, the concept of karma is more significant here. Whatever action we take has an effect either in this life or in subsequent lifetimes. If you look at a text like Shantideva's Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, a favorite teaching text of the Dalai Lama's, it's clear: a moment of anger can wipe out lifetimes of merit. The sense that our actions have resonance beyond the physical frame is clear for those who believe in rebirth. Also, Buddhist teaching is very clear that anger is a mind poison, that anger harms the person who is angry.

There is equally clear Jewish teaching, from Maimonides for instance, that anger is idolatry which in rabbinic terms is as strong a condemnation of anger as Shantideva's. However, I'd like to say that Jewish teaching stresses that there are various levels of spiritual attainment, and that not everyone should be expected to be on the "path of the hasid", the path of the saint. For those who believe that this life is the only one, who believe neither in an afterlife or in rebirth, the problem of dealing with the anger murder evokes becomes much more difficult.

Mathew Ricard's response (Sharon Michaels)

As a sort of follow up to the previous readers comments, I reread Matthieu Ricard's response, where he said a Budhist would feel compassion for the soldier, , like any other sentient being, who must go through many stages of reincarnation and endure much suffering until he atones for the evil he did. How does this compare to the Jewish idea of punishment in the afterlife? I also think the idea of the afterlife, even if it is part of Jewish thought, doesn't seem to have the same impact in our moral view of this life as it does for Christians or apparently for Buddhists too!

Jewish views of the afterlife (Rodger Kamenetz)

Thanks Sharon. I think it's important to be well grounded in the actual texts and discussions within Judaism when we make comparisons. Often what's going on is we are comparing a notional or casual idea from Jewish culture and comparing that to a well thought out position based on Buddhist teaching. Simcah Paul Raphael has put together a wonderful volume, Jewish Views of the Afterlife, with an introduction by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi which is very helpful in listing the various Jewish positions on the afterlife, which go beyond punishment and reward.

Already Maimonides is very critical of those who think of the afterlife in simplistic terms. However, your point is well taken that the idea of the afterlife "even if it is part of Jewish thought doesn't seem to have the same impact" on the feelings and opinions of many Jews. What we need is more education in our own views.

Thank you, Roger Kamenetz (Aron Trauring)

We'ld like to thank Roger Kamenetz for his stint as moderator. We certainly found his posting thought provoking and uplifting.

A Jewish Perspective on the Clinton affair (Aron Trauring)

At this stage we will continue the Sunflower discussion in a different format. We will post articles related to the issue of forgiveness or the Sunflower. We present here an article by Prof. Susannah Heschel... [Read More]




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