Explore the ways in which the Holocaust continues to affect our generation and colors what it means to live as a Jew today.
The Holocaust forces us to grapple with the existence of evil and suffering. It challenges us to find faith and optimism in the face of devastation and despair. And it humbles us as we encounter heroes of the spirit who fought for truth and decency in the darkest of times.
The Holocaust is the singular event of the last century that most marked the face of contemporary Jewish life. It was a shocking example of what cruelties are tolerated by modern civilized states. It devastated the Jewish people, destroying the existing structures of their society. And as Jews struggled to rebuild from the rubble, they were forced to confront their deepest beliefs about what it means to continue to live as a Jew.
Three generations later, many Americans do not know anyone who personally experienced the Holocaust, and are shockingly unaware of even rudimentary information. At the same time, there is an ever-growing flurry of Holocaust deniers spreading their falsehoods. As fewer people are aware of the evidence that refutes their claims, these voices are given more prominence.
Yet, an even greater challenge to keeping the Holocaust alive in collective memory is an attitude of apathy or resistance toward hearing about the Holocaust. Many see no benefit to dwelling on the painful past, and are uncomfortable with the conflicted emotions it arouses. It is this second challenge that the course primarily seeks to address.
Rather than focusing on history, the course focuses on the continuing relevance of the Holocaust in a new century. We address themes such as altruism, the nature of anti-Semitism, the existence of evil, and the search for meaning in the face of suffering. While the course is open to all who wish to attend, it examines the Holocaust through the lens of classical and contemporary Jewish thought.
It has been said that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Beyond Never Again seeks to ensure that the lessons of the Holocaust are remembered, and that these lessons inspire a new generation to greater tolerance, moral courage, and personal integrity.
Why do evil people prosper? Why does G-d permit the suffering of the innocent? Moses, Jeremiah, and Job asked these questions, and we still grapple with them today. A non-believer may consider world events as random, requiring no explanation, but the believer is forced to struggle with these questions. Judaism believes in a benevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient G-d, and that ultimately, there will be a time when all suffering ceases. Thus, there is no easy answer to explain the Holocaust, nor do we seek one. For if we were to explain suffering, we might accept it. Our response to global suffering must be to decry its existence and fight for its eradication.
We cannot hear the universal message of the Holocaust unless we appreciate the particulars of its evils. While people of many nationalities suffered during the war, we must recognize that the Holocaust was disproportionately a war against the Jews. Each of the six million Jews who perished has a story that deserves to be told. Their stories remind us that every lost life represents the loss of an entire world.
Judaism affirms the value of life and forbids suicide. And yet the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem (Sanctification of G-d’s Name) involves the willingness to face death under certain circumstances. How are these two values reconciled? In this class, we take a historical view of both individual and collective martyrdom, considering examples like King Saul. Rabbi Akiva, the martyrs of the Crusades, and those who perished in the Holocaust. We will explore the religious context within which martyrdom takes place and consider how these ideals impact our modern world.
While we must never be complacent with regard to the suffering of others, we can learn to find meaning in the face of our personal challenges. Life’s purpose unfolds on many levels, and it is impossible to know the true impact of a given event. While we cannot always know why something happens, by fostering our appreciation that G-d is intimately involved with the universe, we can learn to use every experience as a catalyst for positive transformation. Faith is not a crutch for the weak, but a scaffold for life constructed with inner strength. Trust in G-d is not born of simplistic denial of harsh reality, but of profound humility in the presence of the divine plan.
Halachah (Jewish Torah law) serves as a guide for life, even in the most trying of times. In this class, we will examine actual halachic advice sought during the Holocaust. The responses have much to teach us about Jewish values, but the more astonishing fact is that these questions were asked at all. Some of these questions reveal the sacrifice Jews were willing to undergo in order to observe mitzvoth. Some reveal the moral courage of Jews who debated whether they were permitted to save their own lives at the expense of others. All are testament to an inner integrity and strength that transcended the horrors of that time.
When examining human behavior in light of the Holocaust, we are presented with a number of paradoxes. The most culturally and scientifically advanced society on earth used its sophistication to create the most efficient genocidal machine the world has ever known. And many of the righteous gentiles who sacrificed their own safety and well-being were poor, uneducated, and provincial in their worldview. What can we expect of humanity after the Holocaust? Can we prevent human progress from falling prey to moral bankruptcy? How can we retain faith in the future of the universe—and what we can we do to ensure a brighter tomorrow?