Yom HaShoah 5783
Rabbi Gary Pokras
Emil Fackenheim, the noted 20th century Jewish philosopher and Reform rabbi, is most famous for positing what he called the 614th commandment. The holy torah contains 613 distinct commandments. Following the Shoah, Fackenheim felt the moral imperative to add another: “Thou shalt not hand Hitler posthumous victories. To despair of the God of Israel is to continue Hitler’s work for him.” In other words, we should fight assimilation because assimilation leads to the diminishment and potential elimination of a Jewish future.
While the 614th commandment has been embraced by many, especially in regard to Holocaust remembrances, I strongly disagree with the underlying premise of this teaching. Of course, we should fight assimilation. That is a given. However, I think it wrong to frame our motivation in terms of the Holocaust. We should fight assimilation through inspiration and joy, not guilt and fear. A Judaism which includes Hitler as part of its mission will not ultimately succeed.
The Holocaust remains for us a horrendous, generational trauma. It has become a part of our historical identity. When I was a child, we were just starting to come to terms with the extent of the trauma, and we needed many ways to process our loss, our pain, and our fears. In addition to Yom HaShoah, we remembered Kristallnacht (the night of shattered glass) and then added International Holocaust Remembrance Day to our annual calendars. Much of my personal identity was bound up in these observances, along with the extensive Holocaust education I received as a teen. In part, this emphasis informed my decision as a young man to reject organized religion in general and Judaism in particular. I saw religion not as a source of spirituality and righteous behavior, but as a weapon used to subjugate the “other.” Thank God I eventually reconsidered and returned.
For the past 20 plus years as a reform rabbi, I have observed anecdotally that having too strong an emphasis on the Holocaust has driven a surprising number of families away from synagogue life and weakened the Jewish communal connections of far more (this trend is most pronounced in the demographic groups that are now in their 50s or younger). Over time, I have come to understand that eighty years after the Shoah, it is necessary to rebalance the extent to which the Holocaust defines our Jewish identities. As a congregational rabbi, I have chosen to dial back the reminders of the Holocaust (although we continue to devote the entire 7th-grade year of our Machane TBA educational program to Holocaust education). Today, I look to Yom HaShoah as our annual, and only, formal remembrance. I do not send congregation-wide messages regarding International Holocaust Remembrance Day or Kristallnacht, even knowing that these are meaningful dates, especially to many in our older generations. This was not an easy decision for me to reach. Some in my own family were killed in the Shoah, and others escaped – including my wife’s grandparents (for which I am eternally grateful).
It is essential that we “never forget.” Yom HaShoah should be a permanent addition to our cycle of annual observances. Its horrors were so heinous that we still need to grieve, we still need to honor those who died and those who survived, and we still need to remember so that history does not repeat itself. And, as antisemitism continues to rise, we need to remain vigilant.
However, we should do this not out of guilt but because of our Jewish values; because we are proud of our Judaism; because we recognize that our tradition has such intrinsic value that we are inspired to carry it forward. For me, to be a Jew is to affirm and safeguard life, and to work towards a better future for all of God’s Creation. This, too, we should never forget.