What's the Fuss? (Ideas #19)


Ideas are meant to be evaluated critically and accepted or rejected based on their respective merits. And so too the ideas of R. Ovadiah Yosef.


As opposed to off-the-cuff crowd-pleasers that R. Yosef has dished out in front of the media in the past, his statements about the Holocaust were obviously the result of serious theological inquiry. If I can be so bold as to surmise the line of reasoning, he is bothered by the relative righteousness of many of the victims. Since G-d only punishes the Jewish people according to our merits or lack thereof, why should he have chosen the victims that he did. While largely assimilated American Jewry escaped unscathed, the bastions of traditional Judaism in Eastern Europe were obliterated. Many communities known for their Torah scholarship and piety perished alongside their leaders. Historically and geographically, an Orthodox Jew need wonder why these victims were chosen. And so R. Yosef ingeniously applied the kabblistic concept of reincarnation to keep the premises intact while providing the rationale as to the choice of victims. While this represents a radical innovation in the traditional approach to tragedy, this must have seemed preferable to the other two alternatives: to challenge the premises or to simply shrug his shoulders and plead ignorance.


While I have read some of the commentary, I honestly cannot comprehend any of the emotional backlash. Are people insulted by anyone who tries to give a theological explanation for the Holocaust? Do they feel the Nazis are whitewashed from guilt if the events are consonant with Divine will? If so, they should be upset at the approach to tragedy outlined in the Torah itself. Much of the books of the early prophets are replete with tale after tale of Jewish suffering as a result of the Jews' own misdeeds. At the same time, Jewish tradition is full of accounts of the punishment that has and will be meted out to the perpetrators of Divinely sanctioned punishments. The Talmud tells us that Haman was able to *help* the Jewish people much more than any of our own leaders - it was his policies that led to a religious renaissance among the Jewish people. The fact that he thus did G-d's will grants him no reward - he, like the Nazis, is judged for the intentions of his actions and no more.


Maimondes (Hilchot Ta'aniot 1:3) tells us that anyone who looks at tragedy without looking inwards to see what we have done to cause it is exhibiting cruel behavior that fosters the continuation of our own unethical behavior, which ultimately results in greater disaster. In this, he is simply reformulating the classical position - the history of the Jews is not random. If we cannot pinpoint the exact cause of Divine decrees, critical self-analysis remains eminenently appropriate in that it helps us improve our own character. If people choose to be insulted by this central tenet of Jewish belief, so be it.


If there is anything wrong with R. Yosef's approach, it is that he is unneccesarily charitable. If we can seek out the fatal mistakes of Moshe and the partriarchs, why is it taboo when it comes to the victims of the Holocaust. No one accuses us of presenting ourselves to be better than Moshe or to be presumptuous enough to judge him. As long as it is done with due respect, all should be open to constructive criticism. Judaism takes a didactic approach to life - we are supposed to take life lessons from what we experience and learn. We learn to improve ourselves by taking a critical approach to ourselves and others.


While it is not difficult to explain why the Jewish people would be punished at the height of the greatest defection from religious observance in history, R. Yosef wonders why so many who had not defected would also be punished. In my mind, it comes as no surprise that the Orthodox would be the most punished. First, our history is full of situations where the righteous receive more exacting justice as this is ultimately for their benefit. Punishment justly meted out is always for the benefit of the recipient. Secondly, who else should be blamed for the defection? Those who defected were attracted by what seemed like brighter lights elsewhere. Those who did not defect, however, allowed it to happen. Where were our leaders? Why was the Torah not made accessible and attractive the way it was in the time of the Ba'al Shem Tov? Can this be viewed as anything but a failure of historical proportions? Noach insufficient concern for others was atoned by being forced to reach out beyond himself for survival in the ark. His whole daily routine consisted of taking care of the myriad animals that he was directed to bring with him. So too, the Orthodox remnant's dismal numbers in the post-war years forced it to reach out outside of itself in order to survive. Our numbers have now grown and we are thus no longer *forced* to reach out. Time will soon tell whether we have learned from our mistakes.


R. Yosef's efforts to give a theologically sound approach are commendable. More objectionable is what has come across in the media as the "mainstream" Orthodox approach of pleading ignorance. True, no answer is better than a bad one, but fifty years after the event, we must have the courage to say the truth. No new theological problem is raised by the Holocaust:rather many old problems simply reappear. One who accepts the traditional answers to these problems should be at intellectual peace with G-d. Anyone whose peace has been broken, reveals his lack of commitment to Jewish tradition.


In the meantime, an entire Holocaust culture has been built stressing man's potential for cruelty and the evils of intolerance. This may well be a valid humanitarian theme. Yet, shrouded in solemnity, this approach to the Holocaust has taken on religious overtones - a secular dogma has been created. Anyone with a different message such as R. Yosef is attacked for daring to step on holy ground.