Discussion Guide for "Embracing Auschwitz"

The following can be used as a discussion guide for book groups and courses, and can be adapted as suggested interview questions for the author.

Chapter 1:

1)   For most of my life, I felt that the Holocaust took up far too much Jewish bandwidth, that it smothered joy and suffocated Jews with guilt and resentment. It posed questions that were unanswerable. It eclipsed centuries of Jewish achievement and it brought out the worst in people. It gave us an excuse to hate—and it gave our children the excuse to opt out of being Jewish altogether. Who would want to be part of such a hopeless, hapless people?

Do you agree that the Holocaust has been overemphasized in Jewish life?  Has its impact been primarily negative? Has the Holocaust been a positive force in the development of your religious / cultural identity?

2)    One criticism of the “March of the Living” and similar programs is that it has fostered an attitude of victimization among impressionable teenagers.  Has the Holocaust’s treatment in Jewish educational circles been primarily negative and parochial, or has it emphasized the universal lessons of the event?

Chapter 2:

1)    After seven decades of grief for what was lost—and so much was—Yisrael’s tale of triumph over tragedy, of life over death, is an early indication that the Holocaust narrative is beginning to shift, from a story of abject despair to one of astonishing, incredible and miraculous (though not necessarily divinely ordained) survival.  Yisrael Kristal might be Exhibit A that, for the Jewish people, at least, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.

Do you believe that the mere fact of survival is heroic?  What of “survivor’s guilt,” which has haunted Holocaust survivors for decades?  Has that guilt begun the process of melting away – into something more akin to pride?

2)    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. Here’s one more way the commandment from Deuteronomy 30, to “choose life,” plays out in the Torah of Auschwitz: through the survival of Yisrael—not Yisrael Kristol the individual—but through Israel the collective, the Jewish people.  

How do you interpret the commandment to “choose life?”  To what degree is your interpretation influenced by the Holocaust? To what degree is it reflected in your personal life journey?

3)    We are all survivors—and maybe God is a survivor too. But after Auschwitz, perhaps the God of Psalm 16, the one whom we place before us, is survival itself, that life force that drives us to breathe and to love and to find hope among the ashes, if only we will choose life.

Can you imagine God in this way, as a life force? 

4)    In the Torah of Auschwitz, perhaps Auschwitz itself must be the place where a true divine vision can best be seen—not the Auschwitz that existed in 1944 but the Auschwitz that today exists for the sole purpose of remembering that prior incarnation.

Can Auschwitz ever be transformed into a symbol of the triumph of that life force, despite all the horrific things that occurred there?

Chapter 3:

1)    Long before the Holocaust, Jews were already a glass-half-empty people. Born of slavery, perpetually exiled and perennially hated, there is good reason for Jews to be prone to cynicism and despair. We have a dark side and it is not something that can be easily exorcised— this is a major lesson of the Torah of Auschwitz.

Do you feel that the Jews too often succumb to pessimism and negativity?  Can this be exorcised?   Has it been?

2)    Even as we struggle to forge a feel-good vision for a new age, we will never stop dancing with Amalek. Perhaps that is for the best, because we’ve gotten pretty good at it, and we can teach others how to keep those dark forces of resentment and victimization in check.

Do you agree with this assertion?

Chapter 4:

1)    It has been axiomatic in Jewish history that approximately seven decades after an enormous disaster has occurred (and there have been many), new, creative expressions of faith surface as a new generation comes of age. It’s uncanny how often this “seven-decade rule” has borne itself out.

Does this rule play itself out in individual lives as well, that great disruptions, say, the death of a parent or spouse, or a financial loss, or a health setback, are often followed by times of great creativity? 

2)    Jews break glass at weddings to recall one of our saddest moments, the destruction of the temple.  Rituals have developed to memorialize the Holocaust, such as the lighting of a yellow yahrzeit candle on Holocaust Remembrance Day.  But as yet we’ve not, for the most part, brought Holocaust memorial rituals into everyday activities and sacred moments that are not in and of themselves connected to the Holocaust.  Can you think of ways Jews (and others) can do that?  Should we?

Chapter 5:

1)    The Jew has an obligation to remember, but then to shed confining casing of resentment and despair, and to transform the disaster into an embrace of life and a relentless pursuit of justice and dignity for every human being. For a Jew is responsible not merely to be a witness, but to dream, to imagine a better future—despite the darkness that surrounds us.

Do you agree?  Do most Jews agree?

2)    The Hebrew word for soul, neshama, has the word shem—name— right at its heart. Jews are, after all, Semites—descendants of Noah’s son Shem—so Jews are literally “Name-ists.” And the hater of Jews is, by definition, an anti-Shem-ite—the “Denier of names.” One who defiles God is one who perpetrates what is called a “Hillul ha-shem,” a desecration of the Name; and one who dies the holiest of deaths, as a martyr, dies,“Al Kiddush hashem,” in an act of ultimate sanctification of the Name. To be named is to be—and even more, to be holy.

What are the ways that totalitarian regimes try to deny the basic humanity of their enemies (and quite often, their own people as well)? 

3)    How does this chapter’s reinterpretation of the command, “Zachor!” (Remember!) stray from the original meaning.  Name several ways this commandment has been reinterpreted in light of the Holocaust and discuss whether it has become the most important commandment, aside from the mandate for saving life itself.

Chapter 6:

1)    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.

How can the experiences of the Holocaust – the testimony of witnesses, the poetry, the essays, the philosophy of people like Elie Wiesel, Primo Levy and Viktor Frankl – inform those experiencing the enormous disruptions of the early 21st century, including technological change and most recently the Coronavirus crisis?  Do we experience these more recent disruptions differently, having “been” through the Holocaust?

2)    There is no greater task for post-Holocaust Jews than to teach humans how to live with hope and dignity, like Naftali Stern and those who prayed with him on that fateful Rosh Hashanah in 1944. How to rise above the raging torrent, how to survive with grace and love, and how—as I learned so painfully on a cold night in Krakow—to appreciative the regenerative powers of each breath and to never stop growing.

Apply those lessons to your life experience.  What lessons of perseverance, hope and dignity can you teach the world?

Chapter 7:

1)    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 holiness, 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…. “We are not leaving Kosher behind, but now we need to look at it through the prism of Kesher; because in the end, we are all one human tissue, as we were at Auschwitz.”

This is among the more radical assertions made in this book.  With a world-wide battle intensifying between forces of nativism, xenophobia and other strains of radical nationalism (as opposed to good old fashioned national pride) and those seeing the underlying connections between all people, I clearly stand on that latter side.  I also assert that the Torah of Auschwitz does as well.  What do you think?  Has Judaism – along with other faith traditions – evolved to a point where we’ve begun the journey from Kosher to Kesher?

2)    Many people bemoan the fact that more gentiles, in Poland and Hungary especially, didn’t do more to save Jews. There is some validity to that, but I am amazed that anyone would have risked their lives to help a people who, since early childhood, they had been taught to despise, who, they had been taught for many centuries, had killed their god. Anti-Semitism was thoroughly ingrained in their culture and especially in the church. But still, some were able to bypass centuries of prejudice and get right back to the core values that spawned Christianity in the first place. Something was able to cut through it all, something innate and good, and it led thousands of people to acts of incomprehensible risk and selflessness.

It's far easier for me to take this glass-half-full approach to righteous gentiles, focusing less on their rarity than on my amazement over the fact that there were any at all.  Especially when compared to other situations – like Egypt in Exodus, when no one raised a finger to help the Israelites.  Where do you stand on this issue?

Chapter 8

1)    Before the Shoah, when the earth still belonged to God, we, who had once experienced Paradise firsthand, could only imagine Eden’s opposite. As David Grossman writes in his masterful novel, See Under: Love— “We always pictured hell with boiling lava and pitch bubbling in barrels,” until the Nazis came along,“showing us how paltry our pictures were.” Now, nothing is left to the imagination. The earth is ours and we are utterly responsible for all that happens to it; all of it—the people, and the flowers, too.

Has God ceded control over the destiny of the earth to humanity?

2)    Es brent…It is Burning" is a Yiddish poem–song written in 1936 by Mordechai Gebirtig. The Yad Vashem website states, “The song became a prophetic song of the impending Holocaust, describing the burning of the Jewish shtetl. The poet calls upon the Jews not to stand idly by, but to be proactive and put out the fire that is consuming their precious town. They should extinguish the fire and demonstrate to the world that they can take care of themselves.”

This song calls on Jews to take matters into their own hands, before it is too late.  Would you say that the Jewish people or others have become more proactive in the decades since the Holocaust?  Have our politicians learned to take the long view?

Chapter 9:

1)    We are drawn to theological speculation as moths to a flame. Some say we have a “religious instinct,” asserting that if there were no God we would be compelled to invent one. Whether or not that’s true, it’s worthwhile to explore new ways to imagine God, ones that do no shame to the memory of the abandoned martyrs.

Do we try too hard to salvage God’s reputation after cataclysmic events, especially this one?  Would we be better off simply leaving God out of the conversation for a generation or two?

2)    Do any of the ideas offered here resonate with you?  Have you come up with a theology of your own that takes the Holocaust seriously?

Chapter 10:

1)    The Torah of Auschwitz makes clear that the commandment to remember the Holocaust is about keeping alive the essence of all objective truth. The dilution or outright denial of this truth is the nullification of all truth. The Holocaust was objectively, verifiably, utterly—and not alternatively—a fact. That fact is one of the pillars of our epoch, a fundamental truth, and a foundation upon which we are trying to reconstruct a civilized society.

If you could put together a top ten list of self-evident truths, along the lines of the Declaration of Independence’s “we hold these truths…” would the fact that the Holocaust happened be right at the top?  What else would be on that list? Would these truths have to be scientifically verifiable – or can they rely on faith? Why is it important to have such a list?

2)    Would you have killed baby Hitler? 

Chapter 11

1)    Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal and evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of Reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.”

How is it possible that racism still exists after the Holocaust?  It seems like the world took a deep breath after witnessing genocide first-hand (and doing nothing to stop it), spent a couple of worthy decades coming up with a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, spawning a United Nations, liberating some colonies and creating states like Israel, and then eventually getting around to ridding the world of Jim Crow and South African apartheid.  That was a pretty good half century, but we are far from rid of racism. Why is it that so many of the questions on the U.S. Census form revolve around an artificial construct called race?

2)    Can a symbol of hate like the swastika be reclaimed by its original owners as a symbol of love?  Can you design a new symbol of global unity and equality, along the lines of the ubiquitous “Coexist” bumper sticker?

Chapter 12:

1)    Rather than giving Hitler a posthumous victory by our dissolving into irrelevance through infighting and apathy, we can achieve Hitler’s ultimate posthumous defeat by using his plan for a Final Solution as a blueprint for a worldwide Jewish renaissance.

So what do you think?  Can using the Nuremberg Laws, one of the most racist, anti-Semitic acts of legislation in history - as filtered through the Law of Return - turn the tables on the Nazis and be the ultimate slap in Hitler’s face?

2)    Do you have a better idea? Or is the unity of the Jewish people no longer relevant?

Chapter 13:

1)    For Jews and others who take on the responsibilities of the Torah of Auschwitz, it is our responsibility to bear witness to the truth, no matter how uncomfortable that may be. And it is our responsibility, as a people who stands in Covenant, to open ourselves up to the flow of divine love and to bring light and blessing to the lives of others. That is what it means to bear witness.

What does it mean to you to bear witness to the Holocaust?  Will that change in another generation or two?  In a thousand years, how will the Holocaust be recalled?

2)    How can we acknowledge that the time to weep has yielded, as always, to a time to dance—not with the shadow of Amalek, but with an eternal life-force, with renewal and hope—while acknowledging that these tears will never completely go away? How can we enable the anguish and the anger to be absorbed into the realm of ritual and story, despite the pain, despite the continued presence of anti-Semitism and hate in our world, and thereby enable the Holocaust to become transcendent and ever-present?

That’s the question I leave you with.

I invite you and perhaps your class or book group to continue this conversation, by emailing me at rabbi@tbe.org.


A digest of “mitzvot” from the Torah of Auschwitz

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. 

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