Much ink has rightfully been spilled on the recent massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. I would like to add a thought to the discussion in light of a profound experience I recently had.
I just got back from Berlin, Poland and Israel on what was a life-changing experience with a group of people who have become like family.
Many fear that as time progresses, the important lessons of the Holocaust will begin to fade as there are fewer and fewer survivors to tell their stories. While I am not myself a Holocaust survivor, every single person in the group that I travelled with is now a witness of the atrocities that were committed.
As witnesses we accepted the sacred and serious responsibility to testify. To testify of what we saw and to testify whenever the experiences we had can make a difference.
This is our testimony. Testimony that I hope is read and internalized, because it is the only way to bring an end to the anti-Semitism and hate that resulted in the death of 11 more Jews in modern-day North America.
I often think about how we as human beings make decisions. How is it that we can be in the same place at the same time, our eyes seeing the same sights and our ears hearing the same words, and yet the choices we make in response to our experiences can oftentimes differ so drastically.
We have the ability to truly discern and understand. It's the highest of human qualities. It's what we share with the Divine.
One of the earliest verses in the Torah tells us that humanity was created in the "image and likeness of God." Some of the greatest minds in history discuss what exactly this means. Rashi, one Judaism's most important commentators, explains this multifaceted verse as referring to the uniquely human gift of "understanding and discernment." We have the ability to truly discern and understand. It's the highest of human qualities. It's what we share with the Divine. But, it doesn't just happen automatically. In order to utilize this Godly quality inherent in every one of us, we must learn, question and challenge.
Learning, questioning and challenging are the powerful tools we have to become discerning human beings. And the use of these tools has always been the loftiest of Jewish values.
So salient is discernment in our tradition that our greatest leaders are those that questioned, those that challenged even God Himself. Our greatest leaders have always been those that would not rest until truth was manifested in the world.
The very name of the Jewish people, Israel or Yisrael, means to wrestle with God. And if we find great virtue in intellectually wrestling with an omniscient God, imagine how constructively critical and nuanced our interaction with information from human sources needs to be.
As I travelled through Berlin and Poland, the significance of this Godly quality reverberates over and over again in my mind.
As I stood in the Bebelplatz, the historic square bounded on its west side by buildings of Humboldt University, I closed my eyes and for a few moments imagined the Nazi book burning of 1933 on the very ground I was standing on. I pictured Nazi-aligned students burning 20,000 of some of humanity's most important works written by the likes of Karl Marx and Albert Einstein, as Joseph Goebbles' poisonous words were heard throughout the square. And I contemplated two very different Humboldt Universities.
The university prior to the Holocaust that produced a remarkable 29 Nobel Prize winners, and the university after that point, one that continues to struggle to find a place amongst the world's and Europe's top schools. I couldn't help but think that those books going up in flames were not just the beginning of the university's regression, but also symbolized the toxic and ultimately horrifically devastating shift taking place on the soil of a once enlightened Germany.
The moment when learning and questioning are threatened is the greatest indicator that Godliness and the goodness of society is under siege. The moment our Godly power of discernment is obstructed must forever be a warning sign of pending falsehood, injustice and toxicity insidiously infiltrating a society, a community, a country, and sometimes even a world that you thought you knew and loved.
Utilizing our human ability to learn, reflect, question and ultimately to discern is the marker that stands between the pursuit of truth and the worst regression our world has ever known.
Witnessing the Wannsee conference
I will never forget reading the transcripts of the Wannsee conference of 1941, the conference at which the Final Solution was formally decided upon. The names of the men in attendance were the names of incredibly well-educated men, and they sat around a table, in this pastoral villa, discussing how to most efficiently deal with the "Jewish question."
If I had not seen the transcripts with my own eyes I would never have believed it. These very bright men had completely let their uniquely human ability go and were discussing what any school child could have told you was preposterous. They were debating what to do with people in "mixed" marriages, where one spouse was Aryan and one Jewish. This group was civilly analyzing how to best ensure that Jewish blood wouldn't "contaminate" the Aryan race. One of the best ideas they could come up with was forced sterilization for the Jewish partner.
I could not believe what I was reading. Grown and educated men talking about the most preposterous things as if it was real science. And it was from this circus of the absurd from which was born an industrialized genocide of the Jewish people.
Martin Sampson of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs has said that "if you spend any time scrutinizing the purported rationale of anti-Semitism you'll swiftly conclude that it would be laughable if it were not so consequential."
As I was standing in Wannsee, looking out at the peaceful Greater Wannsee river, I could not stop thinking about a much different outcome that could have ensued had anyone in a leadership position had the courage to learn, question, and challenge, if only there had been some sort of discernment present.
And I think of all of the atrocities humankind has suffered throughout the roller coaster of our history and contemplate if only we had taken what makes us unique to heart.
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Shortly after returning home from this journey, the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue hit me so hard. My heart aches as I think of it. Because I think if only — if only the murderer would have been educated. If only the murderer would have used discernment, then the conspiracy theories and illusionary ideas about Jews, the hate that propelled this evil deed would never have been born because it's based on the absurd and preposterous. If only, I think to myself, those 11 innocent Jews would have been back in synagogue again this Shabbat.
Discernment born of education and critical thinking are the only ingredients that stand in the way of us regressing into the most destructive species on Earth. Only in a world filled with systematic human discernment can we confidently say "Never Again."
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