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The Hebrew Rabbinate is especially perplexed by the sheer unaccountability of human evil festering beneath an indifferent heaven, although Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, former Sephardi Chief Rabbi and spiritual head of the Shas Party in Israel, appears to have settled the issue to his satisfaction by deposing that Holocaust victims were the souls of re-embodied Jewish sinners who “had been incarnated to atone.” The good Rabbi, it would seem, is merely righting the retributive balance by bringing back the recreants who escaped punishment the first time around to pony up for their transgressions later on. How to explain a million and more murdered children escapes the rabbi’s juridical attention. Rabbi Yosef’s egregious, administrative attempt to balance the books should be seen as one more expression, albeit an extreme one, of how the Holocaust in itself, together with the passionate need to justify the ways of God to man (assuming He is not absconditus), is fundamentally the obdurate and undisclosing fact for Jewish life in our time—that which we are struggling to domesticate.
Thus the question of theodicy, of whether it is still possible to “assert eternal Providence” in the midst of our contemporary Gehenna, continues to baffle and repel understanding. For the condition of the Jew is precisely the reverse of the little Christian boy’s in Chaucer’s Prioress’ Tale, who was murdered by Jews and flung into a cesspit where he persisted miraculously in singing the Alma Redemptoris. But the fictive fate of the Christian is the real fate of the Jew, only the question now, in the apparent eclipse of hope and, for many, the imminent death of faith, is how to sing the Alma Redemptoris in the face of an absent or detached God or, what is even worse, a God who has capitulated to the void that He could not fill. As Celan writes in one of his strangest poems, “Unoccupiable I”:
The Supernothing threw
its lot with me;
it gives up the fight.
Even the word we have turned into currency points up the difficulty of imagining and naming the nature of the cataclysm that could not have occurred under the watchful and custodial gaze of a benevolent Creator: “holocaust” originally and properly signified a whole burnt offering or sacrifice to the gods or to God and is consequently a disturbing misnomer which capitalizing does little to rectify. (Celan used instead the periphrastic “that which happened,” and in his “Conversation in the Mountains” referred to the Lord as HearestThou and No One, the God who does not answer Jewish prayers.) Others will use the standard Hebrew term “Shoah” (calamity)—and others, like this writer, will use the words interchangeably. In effect, the word “Holocaust” is inappropriate whether God exists or not, yet we are constrained to use it in common speech for lack of any other readily comprehensible word to designate what is both unimaginable and ineludible, that which cannot be experienced by proxy or adequately described but which must somehow be confronted and absorbed.
Given these factors, an earned redemption from the stain of false consciousness may well be beyond the strength and capacity of most of us who live in elegiac proximity to the unspeakable, yet it must be undertaken.
The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas identifies a strange ontological force or phenomenon that he calls the “there is” (an adaptation of the Heideggerian concept of Dasein), something independent of personal initiative, like insomnia or infirmity, which vanquishes and depersonalizes consciousness. “In the maddening experience of ‘there is’,” Levinas writes in Ethics and Infinity, “one has the impression of a total impossibility of escaping it.” The Holocaust is the great and inescapable “there is” for Jewish consciousness and life in our time, which insists absolutely that we come to some sort of terms with it.Yet the relationship of the relatively unscathed individual with a collective and tragic history of this amplitude must always be a scalene one, not only because it is unimaginable but because responsibility is not for the self, as Levinas argues, but “initially for the Other. This means that I am responsible for my responsibility.” As if this were not enough, this responsibility, Levinas rightly claims, is “untransferable”; it cannot be assumed by another who comes to relieve us of the burden of confrontation or to cleanse us of our sins of omission, let alone those of commission.
As a character in The Last of the Just asks, now that the sky has shattered, “If God is in little pieces, what can it mean to be a Jew?” The Jew remains perpetually vulnerable to the unthinkable—this is what it means to be a Jew. And for this reason the Holocaust must be remembered, grappled with, revived in thought for all its horror and incommensurability—and for all our deficiencies of character and our paucity of genuine empathy. The “injunction is simply to keep this moment in Jewish history,” writes the French-Jewish philosopher Alain Finkielkraut in The Imaginary Jew, “so that it does not gradually disappear into oblivion.” Forgetfulness may subsidize the ubiquitous drive to extermination to which Jews are always susceptible. The horror must be spoken even if it cannot be truly imagined, even if we feel facile and inadequate before that which we have not suffered, even if it is diminished and falsified as in Norman Finkelstein’s reprehensible The Holocaust Industry, and even if it remains fundamentally incommunicable.
The bottom line is: we still need to talk about what we cannot talk about. We still need to speak the unspeakable, regardless of our inherent human shallowness and petty infatuations. The indifference of many, both Jews and non-Jews, must be countered, just as the enmity of Islamists, Holocaust-deniers and those apostate Jews who have turned against their own people must be decisively checked. As we strain to avoid another cataclysm, the word and the text, the repository of memory, must be kept alive in the face of the unqualifiable. Awareness precedes action. Recollection influences the future. And speech is a prelude to engagement. This is the only way to try to ensure that Never Again does not become Ever Again.
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