Exile and Return as the Structure of All Judaism

Leading scholar's commentary on the Holocaust religion
Published: 1996-12-23

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David Thomas, 1/6/97

Subject: [...]: Leading scholar's commentary on the Holocaust religion
From: [email protected] (anonymous)
Date: 23 Dec 1996 19:03:18 -0800
Message-ID: [email protected]

[Erroneous description of discussion group structure deleted.]

(See addendum to this note)

Post continues:

Exile and Return as the Structure of All Judaism

...the Judaic system as presented by the five books of Moses, [the Pentateuch], as well as by some of the prophetic books, did two things. First, it precipitated resentment, a sense of insecurity and unease, by selecting as events only a narrow sample of what had happened (exile). Second, it appeased the same resentment by its formula of how to resolve the tensions of events of dislocation and alienation (return). That is, Judaism in its initial model not only guaranteed its own persistence by creating resentment at how things were, but also provided a remedy for that anger...

Clearly, the paradigm that has imprinted itself on the history of this period did not emerge from, was not generated by, the events of the age. First came the system, its worldview and way of life — formed whole we know not where or by whom. Then came the selection by the system, of consequential events, and their patterning into systemic propositions. And finally, at a third stage (of indeterminate length) came the formation and composition of holy writings that would express the logic of the system and state those "events" that the system would select or invent for its own expression...

The Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption

The "Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption" focuses on Germany's destruction of most European Jews (1933-1945) and on the creation of the State of Israel (1948). It transforms these events from secular, this-worldly occurences to generative symbols of mythic proportions. This particular Judaism is communal, stressing public policy and practical action...

....Whereas the Judaism of the dual Torah proves compelling only on specific occasions (rites of passage such as puberty, marriage, and death), the Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption enjoys a perpetual and nearly universal response. That is, for a great many Jews, this recent Judaism asks an urgent question and answers it with a self-evident and compelling response... Jews in North America respond to the Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption by imagining that they are someone else, living somewhere else, at another time and in another circumstance. That somewhere else is Poland in 1944, or the earthly Jerusalem of the State of Israel. Evidently, people define their everyday reality in terms of "Holocaust" and "redemption". So for this Judaism, the Holocaust defines the question, the State of Israel the answer, to the Jewish condition....

Is the Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption a religion? Of course it is, because it has the power to turn "being Jewish" into a mode of transcendent and mythic being. What that means is that things are not what they seem, and "we" are more than what "we" appear to be. Specifically, "we" were there in Auschwitz, which stands for all of the centers for the murder of Jews, and "we" share, too, in the everyday life in that faraway place in which we do not live but should, the State of Israel. So the Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption turns things into something other than what they seem, teaches lessons that change the everyday into the remarkable. The Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption tells me that the everyday -- the here and now of home and family — ends not in a new Eden but in a cloud of poisonous gas, that salvation lives today, if I will it, but not here and not now. And it teaches me not to trouble to sanctify, but also not to trust, the present circumstance. ...A mark of importance of this other Judaism is that it has the capacity to draw more people into public activity than the synagogue and its Judaism. Most of the organized and collective life of the Jews as an ethnic group appeals to the myth and symbols of this Judaism of Holocaust and Redemption. That is why it is important.

[end of excerpts from "Judaism", by Jacob Neusner]

Commentary: The vast majority of Jews are no longer Creationists; nor do they (we? both Neusner and I seem confused on this point) believe literally in the other supernatural elements of the Torah. The modern scientific worldview of the Enlightenment, Darwin, etc., to which Jewish intellectuals, as with almost all other intellectuals, have become committed, has caused the Torah to lose most of its persuasiveness for most Jews as well as for non-fundamentalist Christians. We are not longer able to accept as historical fact miracles such as the Passover of the firstborn of Israel, plagues against Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, etc. Most Jews strive to find a scientifically plausible substitute for the exile/restoration way of explaining their culture to themselves. In the nineteenth century, for many ethnic Jews this took forms such as Jewish Socialism, the eschatological political visions of Marxism, the Jewish racial theories of D'Israeli et. al., and early Zionism. As with many Jewish ideas throughout history, these ideas or elements of these ideas which were not too specifically Jewish proved highly popular outside the Jewish community as well as within.

In the late twentieth century the need for a scientifically justified Judaism takes the form of Holocaust and Redemption. In addition to the elements described by Neusner, it is interesting to observe some other, less important but indicatively improbable details from Jewish religious tradition found in the theology and vision of Holocaust and Redemption:

Numerology: The number six has long been held by Jews and Jewish spinoff religions as a symbol of evil. A well known example is 666, "The Number of the Beast", but the Evil Six is ubiquitous in Jewish literature from the Bible to the Kabalah. The number "6 million" is recorded related to Jewish persecution in stories circulating in the Jewish community dating back to WWI, and again of course in WWII.

Fire: The term "holocaust", before the Jewish encounter with Nazi Germany, was a term used exclusively to refer to fire. For Jews it brought to mind visions of being sacrificed in a fire. Fire was the traditional Hebrew method of sacrificing animals. There is a long tradition of stories of Jews being burned at the stake during the Middle Ages; this was a common way in which the Catholic Church punished religious heretics. So, for Jews, persecution has traditionally been been associated with and visualized as fire. When stories circulated in the Jewish community about mass murder persecutions in WWI, fire was again invoked, and the term "Holocaust" used. This term was again used in WWII, and remained in use as a compelling, horrific-sounding word even after visions of gas chambers replaced visions of fire in Holocaust and Redemption Judaism.

Hiding the Innocent: The Diary of Anne Frank is one of the main canonical works of the Holocaust and Redemption literature. It echoes the emotion-packed theme of hiding children to avoid persecution that figures prominently in several other important works of Jewish origin: the Torah story of Moses being released into the fens of the Nile Delta to avoid a genocidal Pharoah, the story in the Gospel of Jesus' parents fleeing to avoid Herod's murder of children, and so on. Anne Frank combines this basic, powerful theme with sophisticated twentieth century Freudian psychoanalytic themes to produce a compelling account of an innocent, good Jewish child doomed by evil Gentiles to die in horror.

Evil Despot: Pharoah takes off his robe and dons a brown shirt; shaves off his beard and grows a short mustache.

Selective Editing: Neusner well noted the effective condensation of Israel's historical experiences to fit the self-perpetuating cultural paradigm of exile, alienation, and return. In the twentieth century Jews can witness their cultural paradigm of persecution (WWII stock concentration camp footage) and redemption (Israel on the evening news) brought to vivid life in the mass media.

The compelling nature of the Holocaust/Israel story overwhelms mere scientific or historical debate. The horror and pathos of this story, like the pathos of many other Jewish religious masterpieces, is indeed compelling for Jew and Gentile alike, albeit with positive effects on Jews (who are the innocents of the story, and so can participate in Redemption) and negative effects on Gentiles (those who believe are left with feelings of guilt and moral inferiority). Essential for Holocaust and Redemption believers is that this compelling belief system be backed by an account more scientifically and historically plausible than the miracles of the Torah. Generating such accounts, and debunking deniers of the belief who make counter-arguments to such accounts, is a critical, and thus highly motivated part of believing and practicing the religion of Holocaust and Redemption, and thereby preserving the function and cultural effects of Judaism in a scientific age.

Sharma et. al., Our Religions; "Judaism", by Jacob Neusner

Additional information about this document
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Author(s): Jacob Neusner
Title: Exile and Return as the Structure of All Judaism, Leading scholar's commentary on the Holocaust religion
  • David Thomas: comments
Published: 1996-12-23
First posted on CODOH: Dec. 21, 1996, 6 p.m.
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