The Special, Two-Faceted Sensitivity of Jews
A Column from “A Modern Orthodox Life.”
by Emanuel Rackman
Simone Veil, the distinguished and highly respected political leader in France, is a survivor of the Holocaust. At times we Jews have reason to be critical of her views on Israeli policies. Yet no one denies that she is a Jew identified with her people and loved by thousands of them.
Recently she lectured at Bar-Ilan University. The occasion was the dedication of a chair in her honor. The chair was for research into the European resistance movements as reflected in European literature. And Veil spoke of herself as a survivor and the impact of the Holocaust on her psyche.
It was a most revealing talk. Too often survivors hesitate to open up. She did, and we were privileged to listen to what was virtually a confession. She described herself as a tormented, conflicted person for whom moments of peace of mind are rare indeed.
On one hand, she lives with people, gives the appearance of normality, enjoys what they enjoy and participates in all activities that are associated with her cultural environment art, music, theater. One can hardly detect that she is not altogether at one with everyone around her and visibly be identified with all that is happening then and there.
Yet on the other hand, she is wondering: What is she doing there? Why is she alive? How, did she survive? Where are they with whom she once suffered? Was her concentration camp experience real or only a dream, a nightmare? The real world seems so unreal to her when she brings to mind the horrors which she endured.
Guilt feelings also bear heavily upon her; from among all who were there, why is she among the few who lived to tell the tale?
No one who has heard survivors unburden themselves would have found her self-analysis unfamiliar. Yet I dared to respond by telling her that hers was the existential situation of every Jew, even those who did not experience the Hitler Holocaust. Of course, the experience of survivors of the Holocaust was infinitely more traumatic and perhaps it is improper to compare it to anything else.
Nonetheless, the Jew, by the very nature of his history and mission, is expected to be in such a perpetual state of tension. He is to be very much a part of this world, “living it” and enjoying it. The Jew is not allowed to dissociate himself from the normal activities of all mankind. At the same time, he cannot forget even for a moment that the world needs “mending”; that our history bears witness to the worst in human behavior; that we were slaves in Egypt: that, when we were helpless, we were attacked from behind by Amalekites; that in antiquity no great power permitted us to enjoy peace; that our forebears fought with lions in Roman stadiums, were massacred by Crusaders, were sent into exile from almost every country in Europe, were butchered by Cossacks, Chmielnickis, Petluras, Denikins and most recently by Hitler, his cohorts in Europe, and his spiritual successors in the Middle East.
At once the Jew is expected to enjoy Sabbaths and festivals, creative cultural enterprise of every kind, especially within his own heritage, raise families who will yield nachas and radiate the joy of being alive. Of course, for Holocaust survivors it is much harder to cope with the tension between what is and what was. But this is expected from all Jews perhaps from all human beings who are sensitive to the fact that the world is not yet right, that the Kingdom of God is still not here.
This most people overlook. A sensitive person, Jewish or non-Jewish, must ever live in two worlds, the real and the one he wishes to make real. What he sees in the real world helps him to fathom what ought to be made real, and this knowledge drives him to achieve it. This is the polarity of one’s existence as a sensitive human being. But for a Jew the polarity is more pronounced. The evil the Jew knows is the worst imaginable; the dream he dreams is the most visionary universal peace and plenty, a perfect world, even resurrection of the dead. He always veers between these two widely separated poles.
Jews who have been denied their birthright and are ignorant of their past may not feel this way. But they are to be pitied. They are to be compared to orphans. This was how the late Prof. Uriel Tal spoke of them. For there are those who are orphans because they suffer the loss of their heritage. The knowledge of their past could help them maintain a veering between the real and the visionary; this veering helps to safeguard one’s sanity and healthy psyche, if one is a sensitive person.
However, Holocaust survivors have lived the most horrendous history which most of us know only from books. Perhaps that is why so many of them are doing so much to hasten the realization of the messianic dream. But many also find it hard to rediscover the art of veering between the poles that lessens the inescapable turbulence within the Jewish soul.
It was this that Simone Veil was describing. And I tried to help her see that her bifurcated consciousness was only an aggravated instance of what is typical Jewish living, even as it is found among non-Jews who are sensitive to the potential of the human species both for the most lofty and the most depraved in human performance.
There is one difference, however, between the Jew and the non-Jew. For the Jew the tension is not only his lot but the lot of his people. It is the raison d’etre of their national existence. The founding Covenant so provided, for that is the meaning of their becoming a “holy people and a kingdom of priests.” (Exodus 19:6) They committed themselves from the beginning to be a part of the world and yet “holy,” separate and committed. Other people’s can choose to be that, but they do not conceive of their very conception and birth that way.
One last thought, one that is relevant to observance of the Day of Atonement. What is more appropriate on such a day than that every Jew should think of himself as he is and at the same time think of himself as he might be. It is a painful thought but also challenging. And one ought to act before what is is irreversible, before it is too late.