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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Praying from the Abyss: the Holocaust and the Hebrew Bible

A week today we shall observe Holocaust Memorial Day on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on 27 January 1945.  So I should like in this lecture to offer some reflections on the Holocaust from the standpoint of an episode of ancient history that is one of the major defining events in the Hebrew scriptures.  I am aware, of course, that Holocaust Memorial Day is designed to be a commemoration of all acts of genocide in the modern world, such as for instance the Armenian Massacre, Cambodia and Rwanda.  But I focus on the Nazi era for two reasons.  The first is purely personal, as I shall explain presently. The second is that I am an Old Testament theologian, not an historian.  My interest is in how historical events shape human experience both collectively and personally, and how that experience is reflected upon, and becomes embedded in the stories people tell, especially the discourse of religious faith.  We do not perhaps immediately turn to ancient history to illuminate the recent past and our contemporary experience.  Nevertheless, I believe we have much to learn from it as I shall try to show this evening. 

Some of you may have read Eva Hoffman’s acclaimed memoir Lost in Translation published in 1989.  The title was stolen by the well-known film of that name which tells a different story – about different people and a different situation, that is, though the theme is related.  That theme is exile in a strange land and the consequences of being far from home, with the loss of what is familiar, the heightened significance attached to memory, the reconfiguring of the landscapes of the mind, and the need to become a practitioner of ‘translation’, meaning not simply acquiring a new spoken language but, at a far deeper level, learning entirely new rules about how human beings interact and relate to one another.

 Eva Hoffman was born in Poland just after the end of the war.  Her Jewish parents had been victims of the holocaust who had lost family members in the death camps.  They were among the few survivors of a once flourishing Polish Jewry.  While Eva lovingly describes her childhood in Cracow as ‘paradise’, her parents decided, like many of their generation, that there was no future for them in Poland.  Unlike most of their contemporaries who went east to the newly established State of Israel, they emigrated westwards to the new world to make their home in Canada.  For Eva, leaving her beloved homeland and learning to make her way in an alien country was traumatic in the extreme.  She describes a dream she had a few days after arriving in Canada.

            I’m drowning in the ocean while my mother and father swim further and further away from me.  I know, in this dream, what it is to be cast adrift in incomprehensible space; I know what it is to lose one’s mooring.  I wake up in the middle of a prolonged scream.  The fear is stronger than anything I’ve ever known…. I try to calm myself and go back to sleep, but I feel as though I’ve stepped through a door into a dark place.  Psychoanalysts talk about ‘mutative insights’ through which a patient gains an entirely new perspective and discards some part of a cherished neurosis.  The primal scream of my birth into the New World is a mutative insight of a negative kind – and I know that I can never lose the knowledge it brings me.  The black, bituminous terror of the dream solders itself to the chemical base of my being – and from then on fragments of the fear lodge themselves in my consciousness, thorns and pinpricks of anxiety, loose electricity floating in a psyche that has been forcibly plied from its structures.  Eventually I become accustomed to it; I know that it comes and that it also goes, but when it hits with full force, in its pure form, I call it the Big Fear.[1]

 As I read that, I have to conclude that this is more than simply a frightened response to endings and beginnings.  It has all the hallmarks of what we now call the experience of the holocaust survivor, in her case of the second generation.  This is the inherited memory of the ordeals either or both parents underwent during the Nazi shoah.  It was not recognised until comparatively recently through psychoanalytic engagement with children of survivors that such memories could be transmitted to the next generation, often unconsciously.  This ‘colouring’ of life is frequently described as an unexplained shadow that haunts existence.  And if second-generation trauma is not restricted to the holocaust (for the memory of any terrifying experience, particularly if endured for a substantial period of time, may well be inherited by children), the events of the shoah undoubtedly provide the most extreme instance of it in the history of the past century.

I recognise something of Eva Hoffman’s story in myself.  My mother was born into a prosperous middle-class Jewish family in Düsseldorf.  Her father owned a thriving business in the town.  He had fought for Germany in the Great War and was proud to be an assimilated Jew in a civilised and flourishing nation.  They were liberal Jews who observed Passover, did not eat pork and would not have been seen shopping on Yom Kippur, though they did not attend synagogue regularly.  They loved what Richard Wagner called in Die Meistersinger ‘holy German art’: it was a cultured home full of books and paintings and music.  The 20th century was for them a time of optimism.  Then came the rise of Hitler.  Like most of their family and friends in the Jewish community that time, they did not at first see in Nazism more than a temporary aberration from the historical values of a great nation, a fit of madness that would soon exhaust itself. 

Almost too late, they realised that they must act to save themselves.  Thanks to the intervention and generosity of my grandfather’s cousin Wilhelm Levison, the eminent medieval historian who fled his professorship at Bonn to come to Durham in the 1930s and spent the rest of his life here, my mother’s brother Karl Leyser, who himself became a distinguished historian of Ottonian Saxony, was able to leave Germany and continue his education in England.  My mother followed in 1938.  My grandparents fled to Holland, leaving behind family and friends most of whom ended their days in Auschwitz.  After the invasion of Holland, they went underground, being hidden by an amazing family in Edam.  In 1945, my uncle who had joined the Black Watch drove his tank into the town square of Edam, and calling through his loud-hailer asked if anyone knew the whereabouts of his parents.  My grandfather died shortly afterwards, broken by the war.  But my grandmother lived on to a great age, first in Holland and then in this country where she exercised a profound influence on all her grandchildren, particularly the one who is speaking to you now. 

It did not dawn on me at once that the Holocaust was part of my own formation.  My mother had married my father in 1947.  He was an Englishman she had met during the war.  He was a disenchanted Anglican who had discarded churchgoing along with short trousers and model railways.  He regarded religion as a principal cause of human division and conflict, of which the war was a recent instance.  Any vestigial faith my mother might have had was shattered by the experience she had lived through.  So I grew up in a home in which religion was not to be spoken about other than with disparagement: at best as an irrelevance, at worst, as malignant.  But we did not speak much about the Holocaust either.  It was not one of those ‘secrets in the family’: it was simply too painful.  At times the spectre of anti-semitism would come up, and I was reminded by my mother that as a child born to a Jewish mother, I was myself Jewish according to rabbinic law and while this was not something to make too much of, neither was it to be forgotten. 

It was only as I became a teenager and a Christian, that I became curious about my family’s story and my own identity.  Even now, I can only say that at best it is work in progress.  For instance, I was not expecting when I first drove my family through Holland on holiday in the 1990s how moved I would be to find myself in the country that had taken in my family when they needed asylum and kept them safe.  Similarly when I helped lead a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 2000, and we visited the Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem, I was not anticipating that I would be incapable of speech in the face of what overwhelmed me there, particularly the memorial to the millions of children who perished at that time.  I think it was only then that I began to understand three things.  Firstly, that I was a ‘survivor’, and that it was really rather extraordinary that I was alive.  Second, that the personal history I have been describing was for me a participation in the fragility and dislocation that so often emerge as the dark heart of things in a broken world, Eva Hoffmann’s ‘Big Fear’.  But third, that we must never succumb to despair and that tragedy must always purify our vision.  If it does not do this, if it does not lead to a more just and humane aspiration for life, then the last word will have been uttered by all that is evil and destructive.  This is why Holocaust Memorial Day is important. 


At Yad Vashem, fugitive pieces of ancient history began to coalesce as a narrative with profound meaning for our times.  That history, enshrined in the Hebrew Bible, is semitic rather than classical, but like the classical historians, its writers demonstrate remarkable insight into the nature of history not simply as the chronicling of uninterpreted events (which is not history) but as carrying meanings.  The locus classicus of this is the way in which they tell of the cataclysmic crisis that overtook the nation of Judah in the 6th century BCE, the exile in Babylon.  The narrative is easily told, and those of you who have visited the Babylon exhibition at the British Museum will have no shortage of images to furnish your imaginations at this point. 

What we call the ‘Fertile Crescent’, stretching north-westwards from the Persian Gulf up valleys of the Tigris and the Euphrates and then southward down the Mediterranean seaboard was the cradle of a succession of great civilisations in the ancient near east.  Like the Hebrews (and unlike the Egyptians), these cultures were semitic.  The Babylonian empire was at the height of its power by the middle of the 6th century, having supplanted its Assyrian predecessor with the destruction of its capital Nineveh in the year 605.  In the arid conditions of the near-east, land-hunger for the acquisition of productive terrain was the driving force of every imperial power.  At the other end of the Crescent, the small kingdoms of Israel and Judah, divided since the end of the 10th century, were increasingly vulnerable.  They were not only squeezed between competing hostile hegemonies, the Mesopotamian empires to the north and Egypt to the south.  There were equally hostile natural environments that hemmed in its scarce, precious resources: the desert to the east and the sea to the west.  The northern kingdom of Israel had succumbed in 721 when ‘the Assyrian came down like a wolf to the fold’ as Byron graphically put it.  Judah struggled on, surviving the onslaughts on its cities by Sennacherib whose siege engines are so graphically depicted in the marvellous Assyrian relief sculptures in the British Museum.  But the days of the Assyrian Empire were numbered.  In Babylon, always a source of trouble, the powerful Nebuchadrezzar acceded to the throne in 605, that year defeating Egyptians at the Battle of Carchemish and thereby placing the entire Fertile Crescent under within his influence.  In 597 he captured Jerusalem, installing a vassal king and exacting tribute.  A decade of futile attempts on the part of ineffective Judan kings to foment rebellion culminated in a final, catastrophic invasion by Nebuchadnezzar’s forces in 586.  The land was overrun, its cities ruined, Solomon’s temple at Jerusalem destroyed, and a large proportion of its population were deported. 

As an experience of physical suffering, the exile was not the most extreme event in the history of Israel.  The persecution of Jews under the Hellenistic Seleucids, notably Antiochus Epiphanes four centuries later was far more brutal, more like the Holocaust in what it did to thousands of human lives cut short without mercy.  But I want to suggest that the exile did have a similar psychological, emotional and spiritual impact on the nation.  This history defined them irrevocably, just as the Holocaust defines Judaism today.  I mean more than that the events of the 6th century became embedded in the long history of an ancient people.  I mean that its effects in fashioning the identity, culture and self-understanding of the Jewish community were permanent.  I think that there are maybe only three such decisive ‘kairos’ events in the history of Judaism: the exodus, the exile and the Holocaust.  

So we need to consider what exile meant for the people of Judah.  Three institutions had been crucial to her identity.  The first was the land, understood to have been her inheritance promised to the patriarchs and the goal of her long march out of Egypt and across the wilderness under the leadership of Moses.  The second was the monarchy, inaugurated in the time of David to whom an unending dynasty had been pledged through an eternal covenant.  The third was the temple built by Solomon according to divine command, the locus of divine presence and blessing, of which the Davidic kings were the guardians.  All three had been removed at a stroke.  So central had they been that it was inconceivable that the nation’s identity as the people of Yhwh could continue in exile with no land of their own, no monarch and no shrine. 

This sense of loss and desolation is quintessentially captured in one of the best-known Psalms, 137:

By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and wept
when we remembered Zion. 
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’[2]

It is not the last time in history that the oppressor requires entertainment by the oppressed.  Yet no taunts will evoke a song out of exiles.  ‘How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?  Instead, they lay upon themselves the solemn duty always to remember their homeland, sealed with an oath:

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

What this psalm testifies to is more than a kind of bereavement that is incapable of healing.  It is that exile has opened up a black hole, a singularity, at the core of a people’s identity.  There are no precedents for this experience, no road-map by which to travel a this wholly unfamiliar landscape.  So we are not altogether unprepared for the vicious curse on the enemy with which the Psalm ends:

            Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
                        the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
            How they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
            O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
                        happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
            Happy shall they be who take your little ones
                        and dash them against the rock!

 The thread throughout this important Psalm is the word ‘remember’: ‘there we wept when we remembered Zion’; ‘let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you’; ‘remember, O Lord, the day of Jerusalem’s fall’.  There is a profound theological and spiritual dynamic here that recalls the ancient Passover ritual in which the Hebrews ‘remembered’ their Egyptian captivity and how their deliverance from it was the result of God himself ‘remembering’ them. 

Among many other texts of exile in the Psalms and prophets, Psalm 74 gives a graphic account of what the invader has inflicted on the holy place.  After a twofold plea to Yhwh to ‘remember’ his people and ruinous Zion once his dwelling place, it continues:

            Your foes have roared within your holy place;
                        They set up their emblems there.
            At the upper entrance they hacked
                        The wooden trellises with axes.
            And then, with hatchets and hammers,
                        They smashed all its carved work.
            They set your sanctuary on fire;
                        They desecrated the dwelling place of your name, bringing it to the ground.
            They said to themselves, ‘We will utterly subdue them’;
                        They burned all the meeting places of God in the land.[3]

It is not simply the depredation and destruction wrought by the enemy, but the apparent abandonment of the covenant community by God himself that is so bitterly felt.  ‘We do not see our emblems; there is no longer any prophet, and there is no-one among us who knows how long.’  The prayer culminates in a desperate plea to a god who is perceived as not only absent but unable, or unwilling, to take action against the enemy:

How long, O God, is the foe to scoff? 
Is the enemy to revile your name for ever?
            Why do you hold back your hand;
                        Why do you keep your hand in your bosom?

At this point the psalmist reminds himself of the sources of his faith, how God is the mighty creator who subdued the mythical monsters of the primordial deep so as to effect creation.  Therefore, he is able to conquer the enemy too.  But there is a constant undertow of hopelessness.  There is another twofold plea to God to remember the havoc the enemy has wreaked, for where there had once been peace, now the ‘dark places of the land are full of the haunts of violence’.  ‘Do not forget the clamour of your foes, the uproar of your adversaries that goes up continually.’  They are not the peoples’ enemy only.  They are God’s.  

Let me consider one more text of exile.  Psalm 89 is one of the most important of the Psalms in that it appears to have undergone several adaptations in its long history. It seems to have originated as a hymn of praise to God, to which a celebration of the Davidic dynasty was added later, making it one of an important group of Psalms known as the ‘royal’ psalms.  This section lauds God’s promised faithfulness to David and his descendants ‘for ever’, describing the king as God’s son and firstborn, from whom it is impossible that God’s favour could ever fail.  But later still, during the exile, another psalmist adds a powerful and poignant section mourning the loss of the precious monarchy that had been the inalienable sign of divine presence and favour. 

            You have renounced the covenant with your servant;
                        You have defiled his crown in the dust.
            You have broken through all his wall;
                        You have laid his strongholds in ruins.
            You have removed the sceptre from his hand,
                        And hurled his throne to the ground.[4]

Like Psalm 74, this rehearsal of catastrophe turns into the prayer of desperation.  ‘How long, O Lord?  Will you hide yourself forever?  How long will your wrath burn like fire? 

But the remarkable thing about this psalm is that it is prepared to contemplate the unthinkable, that with the collapse of the Davidic dynasty, God’s covenant with Judah is effectively at an end.

            Lord, where is your steadfast love of old,
                        Which by your faithfulness you swore to David?
            Remember O Lord how your servant is taunted…
The psalmist cannot say what future awaits the people.  It seems as though all hope and possibility is striped away in this bleak historical moment.  But there is an acute insight into the psychology of exile in all these texts.  When everything else is stripped away from them, all that is left to exiles is the power of memory.  In one sense it is nothing: ‘how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’  Without the institutions that defined religion, faith was no more than a cherished memory.  The literal definition of nostalgia is ‘aching for home’ and in that technical sense this Psalm is deeply nostalgic for an era that had vanished for ever.  Yet in another sense, memory is everything, especially when it is collectively harnessed and externalised through ceremony and ritual.  It preserves identity and confers it on succeeding generations.  For Israel, undergoing the desolating experience of exile, this meant returning to the primitive sources of faith and nourishing them so as to preserve the essence of what had defined them as the people of the covenant.  So the seventy years of exile saw the birth of diaspora Judaism marked by visible signs of faith among a community in dispersion: devotion to the holy books of the Torah, the beginnings of synagogue worship, and circumcision as the sign of the covenant engraved like the tablets of the law on the flesh of human beings.  The exile of the 6th century was to prove the most fertile period in the entire history of Judaism.

As the 6th century neared its end, so did the Babylonian Empire, bloated with its own power and wealth, unstable at its core.  Another world power had already entered the stage of the Fertile Crescent.  This was the legendary Persian Empire led by the charismatic Cyrus, one of history’s great military tacticians.  In 538 BCE Cyrus took Babylon and designated himself, according to a contemporary inscription, ‘King of the world, great king, king of Babylon, king of the four rims [of the earth]’.[5]  He proclaimed himself a liberator both to the Babylonians, restoring pre-eminence to their god Marduk, and to their vassal states by permitting them to return to their homelands and rebuild their shrines. ‘May all the gods whom I have resettled in their sacred cities ask daily Bel and Nebo for a long life for me.’[6] 

One of these communities was of course the Jewish people in exile.  At this time they were being fortified by an unnamed prophet we call the Second Isaiah because his peerless oracles have become attached to the earlier utterances of the 8th century prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem.  Second Isaiah read the signs of the times accurately.  He saw in Cyrus ‘the Lord’s anointed’[7], a claim even more extraordinary than Herodotus’ epithet ‘father to his people’: extraordinary when we consider that to a Hebrew, the phrase ‘the Lord’s anointed’ or ‘messiah’ was reserved for the kings of Israel and Judah[8].  In this oracle, God gives Cyrus the vocation ‘to subdue nations’ and ‘to strip kings of their robes’, that is, to de-throne the powers in order that God himself may be seen to be sovereign so that the exiled community might be returned to their home and rebuild their broken institutions.  There would be a new exodus, a second long march to freedom like the first but more glorious, for which God himself would prepare a mighty highway, levelling the mountains, shattering defensive walls and himself leading the people back to the Zion neither he nor they had for one moment forgotten. 

This prophet did not naïvely believe that Cyrus the Persian was somehow an anonymous Jew.  ‘I call you by your name…., though you do not know me.  I am the Lord and there is no other; besides me there is no god.  I arm you, though you do not know me’.  In the history of religions this is an important statement for its unequivocal monotheism (the doctrine that there is only one god and that the pantheon of deities in Canaanite, Egyptian and Babylonian religion have no real metaphysical existence).  A consequence of this is the unambiguous conviction that historical events are determined by a divine hand, what theologians call providence.  I am saying that the prophet could see, in the political strategies of Cyrus, the work of God.  That strategy was based on the shrewd observation that vassal states were more compliant and productive when they were in their own land rather than exiled.  So in the 530s, many of the exiles returned to Canaan and began to rebuild the temple.  Many, but not all: some of the best educated and most influential Jews remained in Babylon where, following Jeremiah’s advice, they had settled and flourished, and had learned to speak the new language both literally and metaphorically, realising that Judaism could not only survive but prosper in the new environment of strange lands that had themselves become familiar.

The new (or ‘second’) temple proved something of a paradox.  It was the natural fulfilment of three generations’ hopes and longings, attended by expectations of a powerful divine epiphany such as had graced the dedication of Solomon’s temple five centuries previously.  It was confidently predicted that the second temple would result in the whole world acknowledging Yhwh’s supremacy: ‘the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together’[9].  This symbolised the problems of return.  Who and what were this people reinstalled in their land, yet now without a king, and with the ties that had once irrevocably connected them to the temple fatally unravelled by the exile?  Tomorrow, now that it had become today, was not what had been hoped for.  One narrative tells how some of the elderly who had remembered Solomon’s temple wept when they saw the new one, so inferior was it to the glorious building whose memory they had carried with them for three score years and more.  (In this city we have our own unique instance of a temple’s remembered glory in the Rites of Durham written in the 1590s - through his tears we might almost say - by a very old man who had possibly been a young professed monk or a novice in the 1530s in the last days of the Benedictine Cathedral Priory, who writes lovingly of the church as it had been in those distant times, now stripped of its glory.) 

A faltering economy and an uncertain vision of the future were compounded by tentativeness in religious faith that had become habituated to the abrasion of exile and did not easily transplant back into the soil of Canaan.  Many of the post exilic writings testify to what sociologists call ‘cognitive dissonance’: the effect of failed expectations on how a community understands itself, the stories it tells and the ambitions it harbours for the years ahead.  It is hard not to conclude that the Jewish community remained metaphorically in exile even when it had been reinstated in its historic homeland.  And just as the Hebrews in the wilderness wondered in their desperate ordeals of hunger and thirst why Moses had ever led them out of Egypt if it had come to this, so it would have been natural for the question at least to be whispered when it was observed how those who had remained in Babylon continued to flourish: should they perhaps have stayed there?  Was the return a terrible mistake? 


Let me return to the Holocaust.  It seems to me that there are a number of themes in the history of the exile that are important in the way we appropriate and interpret the events of the 1930s and 1940s.  Here I am inevitably speaking as a person of faith within the Judaeo-Christian community, but I should like to think that some of these concluding reflections have universal value, whatever our own religious faith or outlook on life.

The first theme is the importance of memory.  ‘Lest we forget’ is a noble aspiration for the nation when it stops to focus its thoughts and recollections on Armistice Day.  But it is essential if the human race is to be genuinely humane.  Without it, the Jewish community could not have survived the exile, whether it was through remembering a past when all seemed well, or the memory of a cataclysmic event that almost destroyed the nation.  Every community and every individual is kept alive by the faculty of memory.  Memory is the golden string we hold on to in the dark labyrinth of existence so that a story can be told.  Without it, we are dissociated, helpless in the chaotic seas of meaninglessness.  Eva Hoffmann’s book charts the luminous power of her memories of Cracow as life-saving in the new world.  The stories of the death camps, both from those who perished and those who survived, testify to the supreme importance of memory. 

So we in turn must remember those who were the victims of the Holocaust and remember the evil that was inflicted on them.  It is a form of ‘bearing witness’, the phrase that is now used to describe what is required of visitors who go to Auschwitz, Yad Vashem and other places of memorial.  And although I am a Jewish man for whom the Nazi genocide is a personal as well as a global tragedy, we must not forget the homosexuals, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the gypsies and those who courageously attempted to resist Nazism: these too were its victims.  Memory is not an infallible defence against the awful possibility that we may repeat these horrors in another age: the genocides of the post-war period are evidence of that.  But Holocaust Memorial Day is a symbolic act of anamnesis that pulls us out of ignorance or indifference into solidarity with the victim against the oppressor, with the truth against the lie.  Through such rituals, attitudes and motives can be scrutinised and their dark side redeemed. 

The second theme is the inevitability of lament.   The shocking conclusion to Psalm 137 offends our wish for resolution, the happy ending.  If we are Church of England people, we will not wish to hear the choir utter such violent screams of vengeance at Cathedral evensong on the 28th evening of the month: it violates our wish for everything to be ‘nice’. 

Yet we should perhaps examine ourselves here.  For one thing, literature and piety flourished in the death camps, as if the inalienable human urge to practise creativity was itself an act of defiance in the face of extinction.[10]  What is more, poetry and art provide coherence and meaning, if not solace, at times of bewilderment, despair, shock and outrage.  They help order chaotic worlds and create solidarity.  This recognition that disorientation needs to be articulated if a new orientation is to be achieved is one of the functions of lament in ancient communities, whether the sorrow is public or personal.  The Psalms I have quoted are among a large class of Hebrew poems in the Psalter that scholars call ‘laments’.  Some are laments of a suffering individual; others, like these three, are laments of a whole community.  Some of these, like our Psalm, include terrible imprecations against the enemy who has done such wrong to the innocent.  In the Psalter, these are not in fact curses at all. They are prayers that God may put right what is wrong; that he may restore ethical order to the chaotically amoral or immoral world in which such wrong can happen.  We are not surprised to learn that Psalm 137 came into its own in the USA at prayer services following 9/11. ‘Its mix of mourning, rage, imprecation and petition reflected the anguished mix in the souls and hearts of many persons as they mourned that terrible destruction and cried out to God.’[11]   So it is not only justifiable but required that we stand with the victims of the Holocaust in imaginative empathy and make their screams of pain or defiance our own.  Only when we dare to express passion can we truly engage in compassion for victims and protest dispassionately against injustice. To do this, we need the literature of suffering such as the laments to provide us with words we would not dare to invent for ourselves.  This is why the register of lament needs to be kept alive even in our contemporary society.  It is powerfully cathartic, if we use it wisely.

The third theme is the persistence of exile.  The Babylonian invasion was a catastrophe because Judah did not believe it was even a possibility.  She had taken, or mistaken, the teaching of the prophets and the rituals of temple worship to mean that Jerusalem was inviolable, and that Yhwh would guarantee the security of the temple as his eternal dwelling place.  This shock to an easy theological system was not quickly assimilated.  But once the insight had entered the bloodstream of Judaism that nowhere was uniquely sacred and divinely guaranteed, the astonishing consequence began to be absorbed that everywhere was the place of divine presence and therefore the possibility of worship.  We could call this a  kind of secularisation. (Saeculum means ‘world’: so etymologically, ‘secularism’ does not mean per se an anti-religious standpoint, only that faith has come to be practised ‘in the world’ as well as at the shrine, a vital coming of age for every faith tradition.) 

But the corollary of this was the growing sense, not always conscious, that Judaism would for evermore be ‘exilic’ and ‘dispersed’ in character.  The return did not change this as we saw.  Holocaust survivors like Eva Hoffmann speak of their disorientation in a world where things do not stay in place, where surface readings of things will often be wrong and not to be trusted.  So she speaks of being ‘lost in translation’, for exile is a state of mind and can never be sloughed off like some un-needed, discarded skin.  It’s akin to the experience of Great War soldiers who having survived the trenches found that their return home to bewildered families and friends perpetuated the sense of being in a strange land with its own alien discourse.  Perhaps the disorientation and lassitude of so much of contemporary Europe owes something to the legacy of the Holocaust.  It would be odd if this darkest singularity in our history did not scar the psyche of our continent.

The fourth theme is the necessity of hope.  The exile proved to be the crucible not of despair but of expectancy.  Perhaps we see in the Psalm a community peering into the abyss.  But their gaze did not rest there.  Somehow, hope was re-born, the belief that life could begin again.  Where did this hope come from?  Its roots were the belief that life was purposeful and not random; and in that coherent meaning lay the seeds of the future.  Eva Hoffmann draws on the metaphor of triangulation in her book.  She says: ‘we need to triangulate to something – the past, the future, our own untamed perceptions, another place – if we’re not to be subsumed by the temporal and temporary ideas of our time.  Perhaps finding such a point of calibration is particularly difficult now, when our collective air is oversaturated with trivial and important and contradictory and mutually cancelling messages.’[12]  One implication of this is that it is not enough to live only in the past, the present or the future.  Each of these offers temptations to which whole societies can rapidly succumb, respectively nostalgia, hedonism and fantasy.  Triangulation means reading the landscape as accurately as we can by establishing reference points of trustworthiness from where a chart or map may safely be drawn.  In a postmodern age that suspects ‘grand narratives’ this is peculiarly difficult.  But the key idea is trust, not certainty.  The first triangulation to the summit of Mount Everest did not get the height quite right, though it was perhaps ‘good enough’ for the time.[13]  Perhaps Holocaust Memorial Day can keep alive in us the need to triangulate frequently as the landscape shifts, sometimes seismically, so that we can read it in a way that is ‘good enough’ for us to be responsible citizens who live by and promote the values of justice, integrity, compassion and truth. 

To acknowledge our own homelessness in this new millennium when we face so many threats may paradoxically be to begin to find our home in it, learn its language, realise its possibilities and recover hope.  We do not need forever to be ‘lost in translation’.  Napoleon said that a leader is a dealer in hope.  If I am asked what I believe my vocation as Christian priest is for, publicly, I often say that it is to keep hope alive.  But leadership can be a chimera, an illusion that all is well when it isn’t.  Today Barack Obama has taken office as President of the United States.  The hopes surrounding him are positively messianic: many see in him a new Cyrus, the anointed of the Lord who will lead us back from exile.  We wish him well, not least an incumbency free from the illusions that have corrupted so many leaders in history. 

But what matters for hope is what we all do next as societies and individual men and women, however well or badly led we are.  It is a summons to action to each of us: not simply understanding or awareness, much as those things are important, but commitment to act in pursuit of a kinder, more just world.  As James Burke famously said, evil triumphs when good men do nothing.  This much the history of the Holocaust teaches us.  It requires of us that we consider the awful possibility that we might be complicit in genocide simply through the consent of silence or choosing not to know what we ought to know, or not knowing that we know it.  The cry ‘never again!’ which greeted the appalling shock of realising what had taken place in Auschwitz-Birkenau, Dachau and Belsen is an imperative to us all.  So it is impossible that we should ever forget it. 

January 2009

[1] Hoffmann, Eva, Lost in Translation, London 1989, 104.
[2] Psalm 137.
[3] Psalm 74.4-8.
[4] Psalm 89.38-45.
[5] Pritchard, J. B., Ancient Near-Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Princeton 1950, 316.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Isaiah 45.1ff.
[8] E.g. Psalm 2.2
[9] Isaiah 40.5
[10] Berben Paul, Dachau 1933-1945: The Official History, Brussels 1975, 175.
[11] Brown, Sally & Miller, Patrick D., Lament: Reclaiming Practices in Pulpit, Pew and Public Square, Louisville, 2005, xvi. 
[12] Hoffmann, op cit., 276. 
[13] Keay, John, The Great Arc, London 2001, 7-8.  

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