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Rabbi Marc E. Berkson - Rosh Hashanah - 2nd Day - 2009/5770

The Holocaust Metaphors

I began a Yom Kippur sermon to you five years ago with that saying which used to simply rattle right off of my tongue–“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”  It was my response to teasing directed at me-it was also my response when others, particularly my younger siblings, complained whenever I picked on them.  Words are cheap, the saying seemed to indicate, surely nowhere near as important or powerful as sticks and stones and other more tangible items.  While not particularly ancient, variations of the saying go back to the 15th century.  Wrote the English author Robert Green in 1584, “words break no bones so we cared the less for his scolding.”

It took me years to understand how wrong Robert Green and his later interpreters were.  Yet Jewish wisdom on the topic was far wiser than Green-or me.  For we find dramatically different words in the second century BCE work entitled The Wisdom of Ben Sira:  “The stroke of the tongue breaks bones./  Many have fallen by the edge of the sword/  But not so many as have fallen because of the tongue.”  In fact, our tradition takes us back even further, in just four distinct words from the Bible, from the book of Proverbs, “Mavet v’hayyim b’yad ha-lashon,” “death and life are in the power of the tongue.”

If nothing else, these days should teach us of the power of this personal weapon of mass destruction.  For words can break, if not bones, surely hearts and minds; words can destroy and kill.  As Rabbi Sidney Greenberg wrote, “the tongue is in a very wet place and it is so easy for it to slip.”  As it slips, we proffer words which inflict wounds, wounds much deeper than any we could deliver with sticks and stones.

That sermon then went in a very different direction.  But, in a much shorter way today, I want to address some of the words being bantered about in the public square-in all of today’s manifestations.  And my concerns surely go far beyond the current nonsense regarding Serena Williams and Joe Wilson and Kanye West.


Take, for example, what I have come to call the Holocaust metaphors.  I think I was first introduced to the Holocaust metaphors some thirty years ago when I began to hear about a holocaust here in America, the holocaust of abortion.  The web site of Survivors, a Christian, pro-life activism organization dedicated, in their words, to educating and activating high school and college age individuals reflects this abuse.  It says:

If you were born after 1972, we challenge you to consider yourself a Survivor of the Abortion Holocaust. 1/3 of your generation has been killed by abortion in America! The Survivors are taking an active stand on behalf of those who have already been lost, and for those who are scheduled to die through abortion. We are empowered by the truth, enabled by extensive training, and unafraid of condemning the death of innocents.

Well, I guess that makes my kids survivors-and their children will be, you guessed it, children of survivors.  Consider, abortion is a matter of choice in America today.  Decision-making rests in the hands of the individuals involved.  True Holocaust victims had no choice; the state undertook mass murder.  So a second difference.  Genocide is murder; abortion, feticide, is not.  Abortion may be killing; but abortion is surely not murder.  The sixth utterance, the sixth commandment, does not say “thou shalt not kill.”  It clearly commands, “thou shalt not murder.”  Killing, at times, is allowed.  War and self-defense are the most obvious examples.    As a sidelight, even when abortion was illegal in America, it was never considered murder.  To use the term holocaust in such a vile way is an utter obscenity-not only to my mother-in-law, a Holocaust survivor, and my wife, a child of survivors, but to all of us.  And, to put it mildly, such use simply shuts down any other kind of discussion.

And that is how the Holocaust metaphors are used today-to shut down discussions, to wipe out disagreements, to end any dialogue.  Just think over the last weeks how many times you have seen pictures of our president from various protests portrayed with a Hitlerian mustache surrounded by slogans such as “Act now to stop Obama’s Nazi Health Plan.”  We can disagree about health plans–but once we remake our opponents into Nazis, the discussion is all over.

Yet the damage of the Holocaust metaphors goes much deeper.  Take those metaphors and consider how some people use them to delegitimize the other.  Not specific enough?  Consider their use by those who are not, shall we say, sympathetic to the situation facing the state of Israel.  The Holocaust metaphors are used to not only malign Israel, but especially to delegitimize its existence.  Calling Israelis Nazis, comparing Israel’s actions to genocide, working to divest from Israel and boycott its products and universities because of its Nazi-like behavior-need I say more?  We may have serious disagreements with Israeli policy and behaviors in the territories and towards its Palestinian Israelis-I surely do– but to use Holocaust metaphors as descriptions is not only a distortion but ultimately an attempt to destroy Israel.  And if we use the metaphors ourselves, how can we expect others not to?

And, most embarrassing, sometimes we Jews are most at fault.  For we, too, use the h

Holocaust metaphors.  Settlers calling Israeli soldiers Nazis when they are stopped for identification crossing over the Green line from the territories; ultra-orthodox residents of Jerusalem calling Israeli police Nazis as they try to control a crowd protesting the opening of a parking lot on Shabbat.   And we American Jews are not off the hook either.  Remember, this is just like 1939.  Ahmedinajab is the new Hitler.  A few years ago I think it was Farrakhan.  From trivialization to delegitimation, the Holocaust metaphor ends any discussion.

So what does Jewish tradition tell us about appropriate civil debate?  For we expect, in fact, as Jews, we yearn for differences of opinion.  And, as Jews, we are surely accustomed to hearing those differences aloud, in fact, loudly aloud.  Jews always disagree and, if everything has been said, not everyone has said it yet.  Perhaps the best answer appears in one passage from Pirke Avot, that tractate from the Mishna primarily concerned with ethical behavior.  There, in Avot 5:20, the ancient rabbis tell us that “every controversy conducted for God’s sake will in the end prove fruitful; every controversy not conducted for God’s sake will in the end prove fruitless.  What sort of controversy was for God’s sake?  The one between Hillel and Shammai.  And what sort was not for God’s sake?  The one of Korah and his band.”

Korah, we know.  He led the most threatening rebellion against Moses in the wilderness.  No, he did not use a Holocaust metaphor.  Rather, as Moses’ cousin, he challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron in front of the people, crying out, “All of the community of Israel, all of them are holy, and God is among them all; why do you raise yourself above them?”  Korah claims holiness.  It appears to be something which is automatically bestowed upon us, something already a fact.  Thus, Korah and company have no obligation to do anything about that holiness; they are convinced that it is theirs simply by nature of who they are.

That conflicts with the holiness reflected in the verses immediately preceding that episode, verses discussing tzitzit, those fringes attached to our garments, for us today, our talitot, for us to look at and remember and do all of God’s mitzvot and become holy unto God.   They are kind of like strings tied to our fingers to remind us to do something, in this case to strive to become holy.  This holiness is not a fact, but a goal.  We are not holy; we have to work at becoming holy.  The holiness connected to the tzitzit deals with process and faith in God; the inherent holiness of Korah becomes a form of idolatry.  Martin Buber-in one of his more understandable statements-saw this as the basis of the conflict between Moses and Korah.  “Both Moses and Korah desired the people to be…the holy people.  But for Moses this was the goal.  In order to reach it, generation after generation had to choose again and again…between the way of God and the path of their own hearts….For Korah, the people…were already holy…so why should there be further need for choice?”  [from Moses:  The Revelation and the Covenant]  In different words, if we are already holy, what is the point of any discussion?  Already holy, Korah and company had no need to listen.

Hillel and Shammai we may not know as well.  Great teachers in the first century of the Common Era, two schools of thought developed through them and their disciples.  The Talmud relates hundred of differences of opinion between the two schools with each asserting, “The law is according to our view” and with a voice from heaven asserting “Both these and these are the words of the living God.”

Still, in this world, one opinion had to become the dominant one; in almost every case, it was that of Bet Hillel.  Bet Hillel’s opinions were followed, according to the Talmud (Eruvim 13b), for three reasons:  1)  because Bet Hillel’s disciples were humble; 2) because Bet Hillel’s disciples made sure to teach what Bet Shammai said along with their own opinion, and 3) in so doing, Bet Hillel always put Bet Shammai’s teachings first.  Not a bad guide for a civil debate-and stay away from the Holocaust metaphors.

Finally, one last suggestion for a civil debate.  The Hebrew word for controversy or debate is?  Mahloket.  And the shoresh, the root, to which the Hebrew word can be distilled?  Het-lamed-kupf, helek, meaning a piece or a portion.  Now, do any of you know the blessing that one says upon meeting a wise person?  Baruch ata ad.., eloheinu melech ha-olam, shechalak mechochmato l’vasar v’dam-Blessed are You, Eternal Our God, who has given a portion of Divine knowledge to flesh and blood.  In other words, notes Rabbi Jack Riemer, the notion is that each of us has a part of the truth and each of us has only a part of the truth.  Our task, day in and day out, is to listen to each other and learn from each other, striving day by day to become holy.

Ken yehi ratzon-May it be so.

Thu, May 30 2024 22 Iyar 5784