There is a theory that there was once more than five books of Moses. The supposition is based upon a phrase in the book of Numbers. In the middle of wandering and kvetching, we find this curious phrase “Therefore the Book of Wars speaks of . . .” A total non sequitur! There is no trace of the aforementioned Book of Wars. Yet, history has recorded additional chapters about the conflicts that beleaguered the Jewish people.
Writing this from Hungary, and having just toured the Czech Republic and Slovakia, I am acutely aware of what a modern book of wars might recount. A common refrain in Central and Eastern Europe is what the Nazis didn’t destroy, the Russians took. The worst was reserved for Europe’s Jews. In our travels we viewed synagogues that are now museums and cemeteries that are the last traces of Jewish communities.
What books should one read on such a trip? I brought Deborah Lipstadt’s book Antisemitism Here and Now, and the Holocaust novel, We Were the Lucky Ones. My intent was not to obsess on the past but to be sufficiently informed to move forward. As Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi taught, we do not discard our past but we cannot live the future of Judaism by looking only through the rear view mirror.
I am conflicted. I yearn to share Judaism that is joyful in its effect and progressive in its content. All the while, I’m carrying recent chapters of the Book of Wars in my backpack and my brain. How do we acknowledge the tortuous Jewish past while creating a better Jewish future? This question arose for me recently.
With a crisis on the U.S. Mexican border, many Jewish leaders, particularly those who identify as progressive, used Holocaust imagery in their rhetoric. I am disturbed by what I see as a betrayal of the memory of the six million Jews killed. The Shoah was not a universal phenomenon but a unique result of two millennia of anti-Jewish insolences. Concentration camps were built specifically to eradicate the Jewish people. We can and must decry the horror of detention centers. We should do so without invoking the language of the Shoah.
Why this concern with language? Because I fear that the last chapter of the Book of Wars has not yet been written for the Jewish people. With Survivors’ numbers dwindling and anti-semitism rising, the world still needs a reminder of how Jews were irrationally singled out for destruction.
Here in Hungary, President Viktor Orban uses anti-semitic imagery to establish himself as a populist. Jewish philanthropist George Soros, whose funding sent Orban to college, is accused of leading an international conspiracy. Sound familiar? All the while, these European nations struggle with the Shoah narrative, some exculpating their own people and pointing fingers at Nazis and Communists. The problem is that the complicity and silence of the citizenry are excused in biased historical representations. Thus, we imperil our future if the Holocaust becomes generic for all acts of oppression. The Shoah was specific to Jewish history and its lessons are sidestepped by on going anti-semitism.
For our own sake, I believe we should jealously and vigorously guard not just the memory but also the exceptionality of the Holocaust. The English language is more than adequate to otherwise describe the horrific conditions of detention and internment.
While the Book of Wars is lost, accounts of violence against Jews continues. Our obligation is to bring forward that legacy in a way that no such books need ever be written.
Rabbi Evan J. Krame