Literati Parlor

The aim of Literati is to find parallels in the rabbinic oeuvre to select passages in classic writers such as Dostoevsky and others. By drawing upon the voluminous Talmudic material, we hope to shed light upon some of the ideas set forth therein.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Serious Discussion of The Holocaust

While searching an obscure database for religious/philosophical works, I came across an essay titled: The Holocaust and the Problem of Theodicy: an Evangelical Perspective. This piqued my interest greatly. I had always wondered how the Christians dealt with the mass extermination of six million Jews from a theological standpoint and was curious as to how an Evangelical theologian would deal with the issue.

The author, John Jefferson Davis, a professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, begins with the following quote from the leaders of Conservative Judaism: “Given the enormity of the horror represented by Auschwitz… the question of how a just and powerful God could allow the annihilation of so many innocent lives haunts the religious conscience and staggers the imagination.”

He proceeds to offer up the main Jewish views on the topic, including those of the Satmar Rav, Richard Rubenstein, Irving Greenberg, Emil Fackenheim, and Eliezer Berkovitz. A brief synopsis of each of their views is in order, and I will briefly list them below.

The Satmar Rav sees in the Holocaust an element of divine retribution. The secular/Reformist gravitation towards Zionism and the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine prior to the arrival of the Messiah, was a form of arrogance in which they sought to bring about a reality that only God could accomplish through his chosen Messiah.

Richard Rubenstein is at the opposite end of the spectrum. According to him, to see any meaning and purpose in the Holocaust would have us look at Hitler and the S.S. as instruments of God’s will. This is too obscene to accept.

As Davis writes, the other views presented fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Irving Greenberg asks that we keep in mind when reflecting on the Holocaust, that “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.” He writes that Christianity needs to examine itself and its legacy of anti-Judaism and that the survival of the Jewish people and the creation of the State of Israel are renewed testimony to God’s continuing presence in history.

Emil Fackenheim, a distinguished philosopher and Reformed rabbi, exhorts us not to hand Hitler posthumous victories. The Holocaust must be overcome with a commitment to the State of Israel, a witness that Hitler did not ultimately prevail.

Finally, Eliezer Berkovitz proffers another Orthodox approach. While we are unable to arrive at a rational justification of God’s ways in the Holocaust, we need to take example from Job: “We must believe, because our brother Job believed; and we must question, because our brother Job could not believe any longer.”

Davis then briefly goes through some of the Evangelical treatments of the Holocaust. Some are simplistic and, according to Davis, “parallel and continue some of the elements of the anti-Judaic theology of the early church fathers and middle ages.” In any case, Evangelical discussions of the Holocaust and theodicy are scant and, in this, Davis finds his imperative to present his own approach.

Theodicies generally fall into four categories: “Non-theodicies,” “Divine Retribution,” “Free Will and the Greater Good,” and “Limited God” theodicies. The “Free Will and the Greater Good” theodicy is the approach I believe has the most merit as it provides some understanding while maintaining consonance with the Biblical depiction of God. Davis also bases himself on this approach and, so, I’d like to spend some time discussing it.

Davis cites John Hick that free-will is inherent in what we mean by “personhood.” The preservation of free-will then, necessitates the possibility of evil. Hitler chose to do evil on a massive scale. Hitler, not God, should be blamed for the Holocaust. Davis now cites Harold Kushner: “If the question is asked, where was God at Auschwitz?” Kushner’s answer is that “He was with the victims and not with the murderers.”

The “Greater Good” theodicy views evil as a regrettable means for a greater good. In this context, this greater good would seem to be the heightened sense of compassion affected by the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel. Davis mentions that critics are quick to point out: for whom was this good? What about the victims? To put it crudely (my way of expressing the critique), “was the butchering of six million Jews for the State of Israel and this heightened compassion worth it? Could it not be done in any other way?”

I’ll quote Davis in full on this one: “In defense of the “greater good” type of theodicy, it could be noted that the critics have their own set of questions to ponder: “If you say that God should have stopped Hitler, how about Mussolini? If Mussolini, then how about Pearl Harbor… If God should have intervened to stop the slaughter of six million, how about five? Four? 400,000? 40,000? 4000? 400? 40? 4? On what basis can you say that “X amount of evil” is inconsistent with the ultimate purposes of God? How can you know that precise quantity “X?” Do you fully understand the universe that God has created or the eternal purposes of God?”

I don’t really think that this is an adequate response for the Holocaust. The Holocaust would seem to be inconsistent with the ultimate purposes of God if those purposes were merely the heightened sense of compassion he speaks of, that has long since ebbed, and the State of Israel. Let’s move on to his approach, the one he terms a “Martyreo-Eschatological Hermeneutic.”

Basically, Davis posits a theodicy that has the raising of the dead and post-history retribution as necessary underpinnings to maintain God’s retributive and compensatory attributes. Transvaluation of the suffering might be possible if the eternal reality of afterlife is taken into account; the suffering, as such, can be counterbalanced and viewed as the birth-pangs preceding an eternal gratification of sorts. This can be appreciated without diminishing the acuity of the suffering; acute pain and suffering can be understood as being counterbalanced by eternal good. This is analogous to childbirth: the most acute physical pain is experienced by a mother during childbirth, but nonetheless, mothers would say that the suffering was more than made up for by the child. Faith that there may be reasons unfathomable to the human mind with the plausibility of there being a counterbalance to the suffering would suffice to lay the ground stones from which theodicies dealing with the Holocaust can proceed.

Davis explains the “martyreo” aspect of his hermeneutic, but I can’t make out his intentions. He cites Emil Fackenheim as questioning the viability of martyrdom as regards the holocaust and that it is time “… to suspend the time-honored Jewish exaltation of martyrdom … after Auschwitz, Jewish life is more sacred than Jewish death, were it even for the sanctification of the divine Name.” Davis now paraphrases Fackenheim, “The supreme value for the Jew is the continuation of Jewish existence, and this is demonstrated in unwavering Jewish commitment to the State of Israel and Jewish self-defense—lest ‘Hitler be given posthumous victories.’” He continues, seemingly now explaining what he meant before by the “viability” of martyrdom here, “In Fackenheim’s view, the dehumanization of so many in the death camps, that reduced human beings to the living dead, removed the real possibility of ethical choice presupposed by the traditional understandings of martyrdom.” From subsequent paragraphs, it seems Davis was trying to make the following point: martyrdom can’t be looked as an ideal when we discuss the holocaust because of the gross dehumanization the victims suffered and its toll on their ability to make ethical choices. We can’t fault them for their failed faith. He then cites Eliezer Berkovits who defends martyrdom in the holocaust. Davis takes Berkovitz’s approach and, this is really fascinating, he uses the traditional Jewish interpretation of the “suffering servant” in Isiah 53 (Christians generally interpret this as prophesying the crucifixion of Jesus) to answer Fackenheim’s objections for the usage of martyrdom in the holocaust: “could one not still appeal to a notion of the solidarity of the Jewish people, and say that one (heroic Jewish martyr) died for the many?” The suffering servant is understood to be referring to the Jewish people as a whole who have suffered throughout the generations and died as martyrs for His Name. He explains: “a Jew, even a non-religious Jew, who was murdered merely for being a Jew, the bearer of a name associated with the God of Abraham, could thus, in an extended sense, be viewed as a martyr. ‘Jew-hatred is God-hatred’: anti-Semitism is theological phenomenon, in that hatred of the chosen race is in the final analysis hatred directed against God himself.” As for why he conflates post-holocaust martyrdom with marytdom during the holocaust itself, and how, at all, martyrdom assists him in the development of his theodicy, I’m at a loss.

I found Davis’s article to be well written and deferential to the victims of the Holocaust. He seemed to be writing to a Jewish audience as well as a Christian one, invoking throughout his essay as support for his themes, the Torah and rabbinic literature. Most of what he writes need not be in conflict with a Jewish approach to the Holocaust.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Guest-Blogging On Godol Hador

Check out my contribution to Godol Hador's blog, titled "Chareidi Modern Orthodoxy."

Monday, August 01, 2005

Absolution In The Rabbinic Corpus

In Tolstoy’s "Anna Karenina," we encounter Konstantin Levin, a cattle-breeder residing in the country, who travels to Moscow set on proposing to the girl who for long consumed his thoughts, Kitty Shcherbatsky. Upon arrival, he discusses his intentions with his longtime friend, Stiva, who assures him that all will go well.

His resolve now strengthened, he relates to Stiva a certain malaise that now grips him, that of disgust: “But there’s one terrible thing… You’re married, you know this feeling… The terrible thing is that we older men, who already have a past… not of love, but of sins… suddenly become close with a pure, innocent being; it’s disgusting, and so you can’t help feeling yourself unworthy.” Not satisfied with his friend’s attempts at consolation, he finds solace on his own, “There’s one consolation, as that prayer I’ve always loved, that I may be forgiven not according to my deserts, but out of mercy. That’s also the only way she can forgive me.”1

I’d like to use this as a springboard for a treatment of the rabbinic conception of contrition. Stirred to repentance, how does one confront He whom he has wronged? On what basis does the supplicant implore God to cast away his iniquities? I proffer to the reader what I have culled thus far.

One justification for seeking pardon from God is the realization that He created both our body and soul; consequently, one who sinned should be pardoned perforce as though he’s part of Him. In fact, we commence the “Selichot” with precisely this defense: “The soul is Yours and the body is of Your handiwork; take pity on Your labor.”2 This approach alone deserves a full treatment which is beyond the pale of this essay.

At times we seek forgiveness on account of His name: if He were to take retribution from us, His claim to omnipotence would be sullied. It his for His sake, then, that we beseech Him for pardon. This approach is first utilized by Moshe at the scene of the Golden Calf. Hitherto impervious to Moshe's arguments, Moshe importunes God to forgive Israel so as not to sacrilege His name amongst the nations.

Interestingly, Ohr Hachaim notes3 that this argument was not to pardon Israel, as evidenced by the language in Moshe's argument4 and the observation that Israel was left not unscathed after the appalling incident, even after Moshe had succeded in securing this "pardon." Rather, it was a venerable attempt at preventing divine desecration. It follows, then, that a prayer formulated on this line of reasoning, that forgivness should be granted so as not to defile His sacred name, would prove grossly ineffectual and inadequate to the petitioner who seeks absolution. Why, then, has it found its way into the liturgy?5 Again, it is not the scope of this essay to find a resolution for this difficulty.

We mentioned at the beginning that Levin held an affinity for "that prayer I’ve always loved, that I may be forgiven not according to my deserts, but out of mercy." This prayer and its mode of reasoning is not peculiar to Levin's religious belief system; it occupies our liturgy6 and forms the basis of the Jewish corpus in this area. It derives from the divine compassion that is part of the thirteen divine attributes.

We also invoke God's "goodness" when pleading for pardon. This ostensibly appeals to a form of Divine mercy included in this selfsame attribute, or to that of "graciousness." Also rife in the Selichot liturgy is the invocation of the Patriarchal covenants7 and His promise not to "despise them, nor abhorr them to destroy them, to annul My covenant with them, for I am Hashem their God."8

A central theme in the interaction between petitioner and God is that the petitioner approach Him like a son approaches his father.9 Initially, I understood this to be part of the multi-pronged strategy the petitioner utilizes to further the realization of his aim: absolution. We discussed the "physical" reality that both man's body and soul are the handiwork of the Creator. We also mentioned the potential desecration that might come as a result of the exacting of divine retribution. The trait of mercy that pervades His existence was, yet, another "strategy" to procure His forgiveness. This too, I thought, was the petitioner attempting to underscore his kinship with God and use this to buttress his claims for forgiveness -- not as an appeal to God's general trait of mercy, rather to the mercy engendered in a father dealing with an estranged son.

So I thought, but Malbim differs10. This, I think, is very seminal in defining the petitioner's, nay, man's relationship with God. For if the "father figure" in God is merely a branch of the attribute of mercy, does that not dimish it's importance, it's palpability? Perhaps not, but this topic demands serious attention.

NOTE TO THE READER: I strongly recommend taking a look at the footnotes as they clarify and instantiate the text and, without which, I feel, the text is sorely lacking. The only reason they weren't included in the main body of text was my feeling that they would muddle the sentence structure and disrupt the flow of text.

[1]Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Anna Karenina (New York: Penguin Books, 2000), 39.
[2]Artscroll translation. While in general keen on using my own translations, I utilize that of others when context is an issue.
[3]In his commentary to Numbers 14:15.
[4]Parsing the text, he notes that Moshe's consternation was at Israel's sudden demise; if Israel were to be punished intermittently with only part of the populace suffering the repercussions for their wrong at any given time, his worry would dissipate and, consequently, his argument would become moot.
[5]"Act for Your sake, our God, and not for ours, behold our spiritual position -- destitute and emptyhanded" is just one of the many places.
[6]"For not because of our righteousnees do we cast down our supplications before you, rather because of Your abundant compassion" is one instance.
[7]"Remember for us the covenant of the Patriarchs, as You said etc."
[8]Leviticus 26:44
[9]Malbim writes (Tehilim 103:13): The engendering of mercy by a father on his son is either caused as a result of the biological closeness the father and the son share or, because the father knows the son through and through, knowing from observation and experience the son's weaknesses and vile proclivities, recognizing his son's innate imperfection and, hence, judges him favorably. Similarly, God adopts this approach: whether because the soul is part of Him or, because of His recognition that physicality impedes the person from doing the divine will. See also Berachot 32a.
[10]ibid. There he concludes: "and this derives from the attribute of mercy."

Monday, July 25, 2005

Grappling With Self-Deception

In "The Antichrist," Nietzsche inveighs against convictions, extolling the virtues of skepticism as a manifestation of the "freedom that proceeds from intellectual power"; the man of convictions is a prisoner, inhibited by these convictions from affirming or denying the truths of the things around him. He regards conviction as a "falsehood that becomes a matter of principle because it serves a purpose."

Interestingly, Nietzsche notes that some men of conviction are possessing of more finesse than others. In this cast he groups the priests who "have borrowed from the Jews the shrewd device of sneaking in the concepts, 'God,' 'the will of God,' and 'the revelation of God' at this place." Instead of having to confront the veracity of their dogma and its associated rituals, they make pretensions to being the "mouth piece of God," invoking the "law," the "will of God," "the holy book," and "inspiration" as a means of maintaining their power.

In the course of this vituperative railing against convictions, Nietzsche makes the case for synonimity between lies and convictions. He follows with his, by now, famous contention: "The most common sort of lie is that by which a man deceives himself; the deception of others is a relatively rare offence." It is his view, then, that mendacity takes on its most common form in self-deception.

A cursory reading of Dostoevsky's "Notes from Underground" yields a seemingly divergent perspective. There, Dostoevsky deals with secrets and the extent of their disclosure. There are times when man will keep secrets from everyone except his close friends and relatives. Other times, man will opt for disclosure to none besides himself. Finally, there are things man hides even from himself, afraid of acknowledging their existence.

It is your humble author's opinion that keeping secrets from oneself, nay, self-deception is, in Dostoevsky's view, not as common as Nietzsche believes it to be.

One might argue that Dostoevky viewed self-deception as not so common relative to the other forms of same, namely, keeping secrets from others and, certainly, secrets that one selectively discloses to friends, but still more common than lying to others. I'd counter that it just dosen't seem that way from his prose. Intuitively, it seems like it's an altogether rare thing, this self-deception.

While not being aware of a Talmudic perspective on the topic, the Talmud in "Berachot" does discuss the apostasy of Yochanan the high priest, who defected to the Sadducees after officiating in the temple for eighy years. The Talmud warns of man's tendency to hold himself in high regard, never fancying the possibily of a sudden downfall, an ignoble descent into heresy and debauchery. Thus, to combat the baleful tentacles of self-deception, the sages of the Talmud warned coldly that "one should suppress confidence in himself until the day he expires."

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Dostoevsky's "Notes from Underground"

In "Notes from Underground," Dostoevsky's nameless narrator quotes Heine's position on the impossibilty of true autobiographies. The narrator proceeds to vouch for this truism citing man's vanity as a catalyst for gratuitous and even false willful admissions of guilt. As such, the narrator must defend his stated objective in writing down the "notes," namely, "to test whether it's possible to be entirely frank at least with oneself and dare to face the whole truth." Heine and the narrator's subsequent exposition of his belief, now obstruct the realization of the narrator's aim.

The narrator responds using dichotomic reasoning: while vanity may tempt one to slander oneself, the threat of vanity manifests itself solely in the public realm; one need not be wary of vainglorious behavior in private. Thus, the narrator may commit to writing his oppressing memory, Heine's statement notwithstanding. Deliberate misrepresentation of the particulars of this memory would be a non-issue here.

From this passage we may glean the following: 1) that there exists a compulsion, born out of vanity, to confess one's wrongdoings 2) that this vanity can even compel one to malign and slander oneself with admissions of wrongdoings that never took place. 3) that the threat of vainglorious recital of guilt is only manifest where one does so in public; in private one seldom has to deal with paroxysms of contrition.

This parallels the rabbinic position as presented in the Talmud: “R’ Kahana stated: I deem insolent one who enunciates his iniquities, as it is written: “Praiseworthy is the one who rides above sin, the one who covers up his iniquities.” R’ Shlomo Yitzhaki, the basic medieval commentator on the Talmud, writes elsewhere regarding this: “in public, for it seems that he has no shame.”

The Talmud recognizes this potential ulterior motive associated with the admission of guilt. One who nevertheless pays no heed is excoriated.

Later, Dostoevsky's narrator engages himself in finding justification for the recording of these memories in his "notes." "Why, actually," he asks himself, "do I want to write it all? If not for an audience, then couldn't I simply go over everything just in my mind, without putting it on paper?"

One justification he offers is that, this way, "it will be in better style." Yet another reason given is that it would provide him with an exercise in cathatric relief. This character is persistently haunted by oppressing thoughts as seen throughout the book. "Lastly," he says, " I am bored, and I never do anything. And writing things down actually seems like work. They say work makes man kind and honest. Well, there's a chance at any rate."

This also parallels with the Mishnaic statement in Tractate Avoth: "Shmaya said: love work." Besides the pernicious effects of indolence, one disinclined to exertion will oftentimes help himself to the fruits of others. One develops a taste for thievery and a dependancy on the communal bursary.

NOTE: See Maimonides Hilchot Teshuva 2:5, regarding R' Kahana's statement. He writes that this pertains to wrongdoings between oneself and God; one who wrongs his friend is enjoined to admit his guilt in public. See also Tractate Yoma 86b.