A Judaism of Memory Alone

JACOB NEUSNER

April 21, 1993|By JACOB NEUSNER

Abo, Finland. -- The United States Holocaust Memorial, prominently situated near the Mall in the nation's memorial corridor, makes a powerful symbolic statement that America mourns the mass murder of millions of Jews in World War II Europe. American Jewry's obsession with remembering the catastrophe, to the near-exclusion of all else, comes to triumphant conclusion. With Holocaust Museums and memorials established in every sizable city in this country, American Jews have made their statement to the country. What, precisely, have they tried to say?

The answer lies in the beginnings of the Holocaust memorial movement, which some of us have called ''the Judaism of holocaust and redemption,'' and others, ''the Judaism of blood and fire.'' The Holocaust memorials bear two messages:

* Gentiles are not to be trusted, most of them having stood idly by while many of them murdered Jews and only a pitiful minority did anything to save lives. Therefore Jews should remain Jewish.

* The state of Israel, where Jews bear arms to defend themselves, offers the last best hope of survival. The organized Jewish community has spent a quarter-century, from the Six Day War of June 1967 to today's triumphant conclusion, to deliver that message to itself.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, by contrast, Jewry built synagogues and community centers, organized itself as an ethnic community wearing a religious cloak. Nathan Glazer's classic ''American Judaism'' (1955) does not refer to the European catastrophe and treats as peripheral the state of Israel and Zionism. Judaism, a supernatural, other-worldly religion, was recast into an ethnic identity in a country that accepted religious, but not national or racial or ethnic differences, and the Jews' ethnic cheer leaders called themselves clergymen, rabbis -- though politics and practical affairs, not prayer and study of the Torah, captured their best energies.

fTC In those years, the word ''Holocaust'' did not exist; Israeli affairs played a modest role in American Jewish consciousness; and the destruction of European Jewry scarcely entered public discourse, let alone defining its terms.

What changed everything was the 1967 war, or rather, the three weeks from Egypt's closing of the Suez canal to the destruction of the Egyptian air force on June 5. During that awful time, when the Israelis came to the West with the contract of 1956 -- the signed, sealed and delivered pledge to keep open the Straits of Tiran and the Gulf of Eilat -- no one remembered their name.

It seemed like a rerun of the events of 1933-1945. With Arab spokesmen on TV every night declaring that, in a brief spell the Jews would be driven into the seas, many of us fearfully waited for the second and final Holocaust. Once more, no one cared.

So vast numbers of Jews, left indifferent by the ethnic religion thatexplained why they should be Jewish, returned to the ethnic fold, not to the ancient faith. American Jewish Holocaustomania was born with the Israelis' spectacular defense of their lives and homeland, the return to the Jewish memorial of the ancient Temple (''the Western wall'') and the establishment of the state of Israel as a permanent and powerful presence in world affairs. The nations had failed us. But we had not failed ourselves. We have learned lessons of the Holocaust: defend ourselves, don't trust gentiles.

Holocaust without redemption bore no plausible message. But threatened destruction prevented by wondrous salvation through one's own efforts -- that was something else. Here Jews found the benefits of religion -- purpose, meaning, promise and fulfillment -- without the price in other-worldly faith upon things unseen.

Returning to the fold, an entire generation of formerly-indifferent Jewish intellectuals discovered not the Torah but Jewishness. Emil Fackenheim, certainly the best mind of the Holocaust theology, discovered a 614th commandment in addition to the ** 613 commandments of the conventional faith: ''Thou shalt not hand Hitler any more victories.'' By this, people understood: ''Be Jewish,'' since Hitler wanted to murder all the Jews. How or why be Jewish no one was supposed to ask. And no one had to: Give money; support Israel -- these formed self-evident answers.

Now 25 years later, an entire generation of Jews has grown up with the ethnic Jewishness of Holocaust and Redemption: Don't trust the gentiles; do depend for psychic security on the state of Israel. Jews live as a minority of about 2 percent in the United States, where gentiles have elected a U.S. Senate that is 10 percent Jewish and the federal budget dependably provides Israel with billions from year to year. American Jews rarely even visit their supposed ''spiritual center;'' scarcely 20 percent of them have set foot in Jerusalem, even for a day. Jews have defined for themselves a life that is lived somewhere else than where they are located.

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