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Community Blog Beyond “Auschwitz or Sinai”

By Joshua Langer

Last Wednesday, April 30, we were privileged to host a lecture by Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His talk “Aushcwitz or Sinai: Israel and the Culture of Memory” reflected on the influential 1982 essay by Rabbi David Hartman, “Auschwitz or Sinai?” The lecture was the final installment in our three-event series, co-sponsored by the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, in honor of Rabbi Hartman, the Institute’s founder, who passed away in February 2013.

I enjoyed Yehuda’s lecture a great deal and wanted to use this space to react to what I found to be the most interesting and provocative aspect of the lecture.

Yehuda outlined three general lessons that we can apply today from our memory of the Holocaust:

  1. Don’t be a victim – earn and exercise power to combat your possible future persecution
  2. Don’t persecute – your experience of suffering teaches that you should never be a source of others’ suffering
  3. Don’t be a bystander – advocate for intervention to save victims of persecution

Yehuda argued that while these approaches are not necessarily mutually exclusive, each of us emphasizes and prioritizes these lessons differently.

Rabbi Hartman’s essay argued that the covenant forged between God and Am Yisrael at Sinai should be the foundational experience and main point of reference in building the new State of Israel. In the essay, written in the aftermath of the Lebanon War, Rabbi Hartman worried that Israel’s actions were driven instead by a response to Jewish victimhood in the Holocaust. Yehuda highlighted that Rabbi Hartman would use the label “Auschwitz” to refer to the broader Holocaust, focusing on Auschwitz as a symbol of Jewish victimhood. And it was on this point that Yehuda respectfully challenged Rabbi Hartman.

He explained that by using the symbol of Auschwitz to represent the Holocaust, Rabbi Hartman was ceding the framing of our collective memory of the Holocaust to those whose primary lesson from that experience was to exercise Jewish power to combat the victimization of Jews. Instead of framing the conversation as Auschwitz vs. Sinai, perhaps Rabbi Hartman should have engaged more deeply in proposing alternative lessons of the Holocaust to shape modern Israel.

I left the lecture thinking about its implications for my work directing Makor, Hebrew College’s middle school learning community. Yehuda’s breakdown of Rabbi Hartman’s writings helped show that “Never Forget” is actually a very complicated statement, with numerous meanings that can have a profound impact on how we live in the world today. I definitely feel a great sense of responsibility in introducing our students to the range of lessons we can learn from the Holocaust, pushing them to think critically about our place in the ever-unfolding Jewish narrative. As we conclude the season of Yom Ha-Shoah, Yom Ha-Zikaron, and Yom Ha’atzma’ut, reflecting on Rabbi Hartman’s work reminds us of the difficult questions our history has left for us, and how our memories of our past will ultimately shape our future. Thank you, Yehuda, for an engaging and thought-provoking evening.

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