1) The Torah of Auschwitz, a series of sacred teachings and practices that enable us to confront the darkest demons of seven decades ago. At the same time, this narrative is filled with positive and life-affirming les- sons that can have an enormous impact on not just the Jewish people, but the entire world.
2) Jeremiah, in chapter 31, envisions the creation of a “New Covenant,” and this passage is used by Christians, Jews and Muslims to validate their post-biblical additions to the sacred canon. But the prophecy fits even better as a harbinger of the Torah of Auschwitz, in this mashup of relevant verses: “Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the uttermost parts of the earth, and with them the blind and the lame, the woman with child and she that travails with child together; a great company shall they return hither...Behold, the days come, says the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt...And there is hope for your future, says the Lord.”
3) The Torah of Auschwitz that is now emerging will feature Anne Frank’s wisdom as its book of Proverbs and Elie Wiesel’s Night as its book of Job. Auschwitz was the Nazis’ attempt to extinguish the human spirit. The Torah of Auschwitz has reignited that sacred torch.
4) The Torah of Auschwitz has taken root to the point where it now is no longer joined at the hip to Zionism.
5) The Torah of Auschwitz stands, like the Jewish people itself, as a living refutation of Hitler’s pathological nihilism. To remember the Holocaust without a social conscience is not to remember it at all. As Elie Wiesel said in his Nobel acceptance speech,“Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.”
6) Choose Life! Here’s where the Torah of Auschwitz veers from the Torah of Sinai’s path. The Torah of Auschwitz teaches that “Choose life!” calls upon us literally to choose life in the face of death, to seek the path that will engender survival, despite any odds, and that survival itself is victory. It goes beyond simply making each moment of life as full as possible, as Psalm 90 implores:“Teach us to count our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” The Torah of Auschwitz goes beyond that, imploring us simply to add to life by continuing to live, and thereby make our lives into a statement of persistence and courage.
7) So the Torah of Auschwitz interprets that verse from Psalm 126 anew: Those who procreate in tears shall witness the end of their suffering, as they reap the sweet joy of their first fruits, and against all odds, a life imbued with hope continues with a new generation. And we can now understand Deuteronomy 30:19 from the perspective of the survivor: “Choose life, so that you and your children may live.” For the survivor, the directive is to choose life in the most literal sense, by having children.
8) Psalm 16 is calling on us to place Auschwitz itself before us always. No, not the place of death and destruction, but the place of renewal and hope, the place that now exists to forever remind us where hate ultimately leads, the place visited by more people every year than were killed there, the place of pilgrimage for heads of state and leaders of all faith traditions—and a place where thousands of Jewish youth congregate every year for Jewish youth’s annual Spring Awakening, the March of the Living. That Auschwitz.
9) In the Torah of Auschwitz, Rywka Lipszyc is our new Elijah, a prophet who attained his status in Jewish folklore in large part because in the Bible he is never recorded to have died. Rywka is now the one to visit every Seder, even if she is still underage for the wine.
10) What the mezuzah was to the Torah of Sinai, the swastika has become to the Torah of Auschwitz, in a perverse, inverse fashion—a talisman of fear rather than a sign of our escape from the Destroyer, who in Egypt passed over those doorposts marked in lamb’s blood. Jews mark that bloody spot with a mezuzah, while anti-Semites scrawl a swastika. One chases evil away, the other invites it in.
11) The Torah of Auschwitz commands us to come face to face with our darkest impulses, the hatred that persists toward the Other—and the fear that persists within ourselves.
12) In the Torah of Auschwitz, the mezuzah has been transformed from a security blanket into a time capsule, a herald of heroism from a dark past, beckoning us toward a brighter future.
13) In the Torah of Sinai, on the seventh day, God rested. In the Torah of Auschwitz, at the conclusion of the seventh decade, the dead began to rest in peace.
14) Never Forget (Zachor) became perhaps the rallying cry and first commandment of the Torah of Auschwitz, alongside its corollary,“Never Again.”
15) The Torah of Auschwitz emphasizes zachor, not as a call to punish the villains—even those who reside within our psyches—or simply to re- member the Holocaust as a singular event. Rather it is a call to remember the victims—each individual—and not merely the victims of the Holocaust itself. Our task is to ensure that never again should a cry from the depths of despair, danger and loneliness go unheeded—from anywhere and anyone.
16) The call to remember, zachor, is not simply a call to preserve the memory of one dark chapter in history, but to preserve historical memory, period. Never forget means to remember always that there is an authentic basis for experienced truth, that facts matter and we should be account- able to them.
17) The commandment zachor, as filtered through the Torah of Auschwitz, has come to mean that we’ve got to remember and to cherish the uniqueness and sanctity of every human being, down to even the smallest shreds of their existence—every strand of hair, every single letter of every name. Which, incidentally, is why Nazis hate Jews—then and now. While Nazis have always been more about numbers, Jews have always been more about names. The second book of the Torah is called “Shmot,” “names.”
18) In the Torah of Auschwitz, a mitzvah that nearly equals the one to “Choose life” in importance is that every lost or abandoned person must be found.
19) In Leviticus 19:14, the Torah of Sinai says that we should not place a stumbling block before the blind. But the Torah of Auschwitz says, Yes, you should place these stumble stones everywhere a victim lived, to remove blinders from the eyes of those who try to forget their suffering. The Torah of Auschwitz commands, You should place a stumbling block before the blind—those blind to the suffering of others.
20) The Torah of Auschwitz asks us to go beyond just reciting names. We need to learn their stories. But in this hyper-visual era, where a picture is worth a thousand words and an Instagram a thousand Tweets, we need to go one step beyond even that: We need to remember faces too.
21) The experiences of the Holocaust can help us confront a dizzying world where everything has been turned on its head; where everything we thought was true turns out not to be; when “new normals” become what’s normal. The Torah of Auschwitz instructs us never to stop dream- ing of the destination, even as our inner GPS seems to be constantly recalculating the route.
22) But here’s where the Torah of Auschwitz takes over and raises Pikuach Nefesh (the mitzvah to save a life, even if it means breaking a commandment) to the next level. Adaptation, once a grudging concession to reality, has now become a mitzvah. Once an exception to the rule, it has become the rule.
23) The Torah of Auschwitz, which reflects Jewish historical experience with a Darwinian twist, says that Judaism must be flexible enough to save itself, to remain relevant in a radically changing world—while remaining true to its core values.
24) The Torah of Auschwitz compels us to eradicate those boundaries. I believe we have entered a world of connection rather than separation and distinction. We are moving, in a sense, from Kosher to Kesher. These nearly identical Hebrew words signify the old ways and the new. The laws of keeping Kosher are, like the rest of the Sinai laws of holi- ness, built on distinction, on drawing lines of separation. Kesher, on the other hand, is the Hebrew word for connection, calling on us to dissolve distinctions.
25) The Torah of Sinai says, “God is One,” referring to that ineffable name proclaimed only by the High Priest on Yom Kippur Day, as he hoped for the expiation of Israel’s sin. And the Torah of Auschwitz responds, “We are One,” with that word being the final, ineffable cry of battered bodies and intertwined souls; and still we await the expiation of God’s sin. The final letter of Echad, the daled, trails off into silence, opening the door—delet, in Hebrew—to eternity, as the doors to the gas chambers were pried open and the bodies were heaped in piles.
26) When the Torah of Auschwitz cries “Echad,” it is far less concerned with the embroiderer than with the tapestry itself. It is not dwelling on God’s essence but rather on the Oneness of humankind. When we speak of our being “one,” we’re not merely speaking of a virtual oneness, a cyber community or a soulful connection, but a physical connection too: body and soul, spirit and sinew; Rikma Enoshit Echat—sharing our very real and very fragile earth, the same heating air, the same rising oceans, the same parched soil. We are all inextricably connected.
27) The Torah of Auschwitz states, “Love the stranger, because not only do you know how it feels to be a stranger who is hated, but you also know how it feels to be a stranger who is loved—by someone who was a stranger to you.” And it says, “Don’t merely love your neighbor as yourself; cultivate kindness in yourself and accept grace from others. Love your neighbor, because you have been loved by your neighbor. And through that love, your faith in humankind has been restored.
28) “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a sin- gle garment of destiny.” Those words of Martin Luther King perfectly capture the essence of the Torah of Auschwitz.
29) Adam’s and Eve’s family was resettled to the east. Unlike the Torah of Sinai, the Torah of Auschwitz begins not in paradise, but way, way east of Eden; with hell, not paradise, as its starting point, and it traces the journey back home, back to the Garden—a journey that in 1945 took the survivors through fire and water and scorched earth, far more lethal than the flaming swords of the cherubim.
30) The earth is ours and we are utterly responsible for all that happens to it— all of it—the people, and the flowers, too. The flowers at Dachau have become a symbol of God’s ultimate helplessness and our ultimate responsibility. We still pray, though no longer for divine intervention, but in gratitude for the basic tools provided us: warm summer days, rain in its season, the miraculous ecosystem. We look to heaven for resolve but for little else, for “the earth has been given to humankind.” That is the environmental message of the Torah of Auschwitz.
31) The Torah of Auschwitz compels us to continue our unrelenting questioning and not to give up on God so easily, whether or not God has given up on us.
32) In the Torah of Auschwitz, the path back to God is littered with shattered dreams, flavored with a strong sense of the absurd mixed with a pinch of wonder. We remain attuned to the possibility of an orderly universe, despite all that we have witnessed.
33) The Torah of Auschwitz sees art as a path toward a restoration of the Sacred, as we join Betzalel in continuing to defy the darkness by designing sanctuaries, making music, writing poetry and dancing.
34) While the Torah of Auschwitz might give us glimpses of the artist-formally-known-as-God, the focus always returns to us.
35) The realm of ethics must be a major component of the Torah of Auschwitz. While moral dilemmas are hardly new and predate the Holocaust by many centuries, since Auschwitz we’ve entered a brave new world of complex choices. The ethical tenets of the Torah of Sinai, highlighted by the Golden Rule, need now to be retrofitted to reflect the impossible, “Sophie’s Choice” scenarios described by Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, the partisans, the Sonderkommandos, those who gave up their children, and those who ran away from their elderly parents to save themselves. Even the actions of the notorious Judenrat, who betrayed their fellow Jews hoping simply to survive, only to find themselves meeting the same fate, deserve to be addressed from an ethical standpoint. Primo Levi spoke of the Holocaust yielding a complex set of ethical dilemmas that he called the “Gray Zone,” because rarely are the solutions black and white.
36) Here’s a case where the Torah of Sinai and the Torah of Auschwitz come into direct conflict. One form of “tattoo” (wearing tefillin) commands us to aspire to the triumph of life; the other marks humankind’s deep descent to the realm of death.
37) So many of the Torah of Sinai’s fundamental moral laws have taken on added meaning in the Torah of Auschwitz. Take the fifth commandment, for example. Honoring parents was difficult enough before people had to decide whether to abandon them to the advancing SS when it was possible to survive by escaping to the forests with the partisans. In the Torah of Auschwitz, some bedrock moral certainties have traded in their exclamation points for question marks, while others have gained prominence in the pecking order of thou shalts and thou shalt nots.
38) Now, just as the concept of objective truth has been once again been placed under attack by a new generation of Nazis and Nazi-enablers, the Torah of Auschwitz is riding to the rescue: Holocaust denial is the canary in the coal mine of Orwellian doublethink, the mother of all fake news, in that it not only defies all standards of empirical science and rejects meticulously documented history, which any act of historical denial might do, but in this case, doing so also attempts to whitewash the greatest moral crime ever perpetrated.
39) The Torah of Auschwitz makes clear that the commandment to remem- ber the Holocaust is about keeping alive the essence of all objective truth and the pursuit of fact-based truth as a fundamental value. The Book of Exodus states that when the Israelites received the Torah they said “Na’a’seh v’nishma,” often translated as, “ We will obediently act and then we will understand.” But the word “na’a’seh” connotes active engagement, not blind obedience. In our age of bots and fake news, the Torah of Auschwitz reframes this verse to be better understood as, “We will grapple with each word to assess its validity, and then we will understand.”
40) When the Torah of Sinai stated, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” it probably had no idea that it was talking about truth in the abstract sense. The Torah of Auschwitz has come along to affix a corollary to the Ninth Commandment. “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor—who died here.” The deaths at Auschwitz were not conjured by conspiracy theorists. These murders are objective, verifiable truth; while ethics can be oftentimes complicated, messy Gray Zones, especially after Auschwitz, moral relativism cannot become the rule to justify future atrocities.
41) The eradication of racism is, for the Torah of Auschwitz, its chief call to arms, and this call begins with a revision of the Torah of Sinai’s second commandment. The original commandment states, “Thou shalt have no false gods before me.” The Torah of Auschwitz amends that it to add,“...and the falsest of false gods is the noxious ideology known as racism, which wrongly values some human beings higher than others, and which, when taken to its ultimate end, establishes a particular group as a godlike ‘master race’ and a single person above them all—and above God.” If there is one chapter that must be included in our Torah of Auschwitz, it is this section, this restatement of the second commandment, which totally debunks these disgraceful, destructive racial theories that formed the ideological underpinnings of the Third Reich.
42) The Holocaust has given us a common point of departure, a place where we were all present, even if we weren’t. It is said that every Jew, past present and future, stood at Sinai. Well, every Jew stood, metaphorically, in those gas chambers, and it didn’t matter whether you were male or female, traditional, liberal or secular, born Jewish, converted to Judaism or married to a Jew. By embracing the Torah of Auschwitz, we can come together—Jews of the broadest possible definition—to proclaim to the world that Auschwitz must never happen again.
43) And so, as filtered through the Torah of Auschwitz, that passage from Deuteronomy known as the Sh’ma has taken on added meaning, re- minding us that we are all now edim, (witnesses), not merely to tragedy, but also to the majesty of the cosmos, to the miracle of life, to the eternal lessons of the Jewish experience and to the unity of all humanity.
44) In the Torah of Auschwitz, chosenness still calls on us to strive to repair the world, as it did at Sinai; but now our moral voice has been amplified 10 times over by historical experience. When Jews invoke Auschwitz, the world listens—because we were there. Many hate us for that, especially if they idealize fascism. Others admire us. But everyone listens.
45) The Torah of Sinai includes the most hopeful of prophecies in chapter two of Isaiah: “The Lord will mediate between nations and will settle international disputes. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” The Holocaust counters with that more menacing image indelibly burnt into my soul back when I was forced to watch Night and Fog while in Hebrew school: “And they shall turn their fat into soap and their skin into lampshades.” But the Torah of Auschwitz—tying together threads of narrative, synthesizing fact, memory, and the inextinguishable human instinct to overcome the darkness, reclaim hope and choose life—looks squarely at the soap and lampshades, without denying them, and asks: What now? How can we reconcile Hitler with Isaiah? We reconcile the two by rising from shiva and turning Hitler’s demise into a more lasting victory for humankind.