Tonight we concluded our course on Beyond Never Again, How the Holocaust Speaks to Us Today. Tonight’s subject, When Night Will Shine Like Day addressed the question of where was man during the holocaust? I am happy to share the following recap with you.
We began by exploring the incredible success of the German Jewish community’s integration with German society before the war. The pity of it all is that this investment and success did not offer the insulating layer of security that was hoped for. The most successful scientists, academics, artists, musicians and composers were Jewish and yet Jews of all ranks were exterminated; they came to be despised and debased by the very people they had earlier enriched.
We went on to explore the attitude of Germans and Poles who had witnessed the Holocaust. For the most apart these bystanders did nothing to help the Jews, but that does not mean that they were evil. Most people have a well developed sense of good and evil, right and wrong. These people understood that what was happening was evil, but they were unable to muster the willpower, courage and outrage to do something about it. There was a monster in their midst and they did nothing to battle it.
The Nazis did not set out on their campaign of extermination in a vacuum. In this they had the support and active assistance of the brightest minds and the most educated elite in Germany. Doctors and scientists helped them streamline their system and actively worked to exterminate Jews.
We concluded that academic scholarship, scientific progress and cultural refinement do not insulate us against immorality. It is easy to rationalize the murder of another in a relative, rather than absolute, system of morality. If murder is wrong because I am horrified by it then it ceases to be wrong when I cease to be horrified by it. So long as I can justify the extermination of the Jew or of the mentally retarded, I can preserve my integrity and sense of right and wrong even as I do nothing to help the Jew.
The Righteous Gentile that jumped in and helped for the most part already had a strong commitment to right and wrong. They did not deliberate before acting nor did they consult others. They acted because inaction was simply not an option for them; they considered what they did, “normal.”
The difference between the indifferent and those that put their lives on the line to help the Jews lies in their well honed commitment to justice irrespective of color, race or ethnicity. Judaism attaches an absolute value to the sanctity of life. Taking human life is an affront to G-d and cannot be sanctioned by human. Irrespective of our horror or lack thereof murder is always absolutely immoral.
If we can succeed in cultivating this absolute sense of morality in the next generation then we can succeed in going beyond the slogan of never again. We can actually raise a generation with a backbone to resist the pressures that society can bring to bear against otherwise decent human beings.
We have a framework for such teaching in the seven Noahide laws; Judaism’s universal code of ethical living for all of humanity. We must not only teach it, but live it; we must ourselves become shining examples of a people that commits itself to the absolute value of ethics.
If we commit ourselves to this idea then we can afford to believe that the night will shine again; that the morrow will be brighter than today.
Thank you for being a part of this incredible course. If you would like to review any of the six lessons, the recordings will remain available at www.myjli.com till the fall when the next course begins. You are welcome to download the recordings to your own devices.
I wish you a wonderful summer and look forward to being in touch with you before JLI’s next semester, which is scheduled for the fall on the subject of Medical Ethics. If you have the opportunity, I encourage you to consider joining JLI’s National Jewish Retreat in Virginia, August 17-22. You can find more information at www.jretreat.com.