I was very moved last Monday to take note of the seventy-fifty anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by the Red Army in 1945. As all my readers must surely know by now, the Shoah is the backdrop against which I’ve lived out both my professional and spiritual lives for as long as I can remember. And although I could make some sort of semi-rational argument for not feeling personally involved to that degree—my own people, after all, came to these shores long before the First World War—that is not at all how things have played out. Nor is it at all difficult for me to explain why the Shoah looms so large in my thinking: surely no one who professes belief in a just, caring, God can just wave Auschwitz away as a mere aberration in a millennia-long narrative featuring God as the ever-watchful Guardian of Israel who neither slumbereth nor sleepeth. That thought, of course, comes directly from the Bible—from the 121st psalm, to be exact—and has been recited by so many rabbis (including myself) at so many funerals so as almost to sound more like a truism to be embraced than a challenge to be faced. And yet that is precisely not how it works—or has ever worked—for me: in those few words lies the weight that has been pressing down my shoulders from above for my entire adult life.
The summer after I defended my doctoral dissertation but before I began work in earnest on preparing my thesis for publication, I attempted to write a book of post-Holocaust theology. In retrospect, it feels like just so much youthful hubris to have allowed myself blithely to wander into a maze which even rabbis scores of years older than myself had failed successfully to negotiate. On the other hand, surely one of the great gifts of youth is the willingness to run a race merely because it exists and wholly without reference to other people’s successes or failures at running it! Nor was this just a gauntlet I wanted to take up as a way of measuring myself against others, but rather a real challenge that I needed to address for my own internal reasons and not simply to see if I could do better than others in addressing them.
As I’ve mentioned before in this space, the Jewish communities of my great-grandparents’ towns in Poland and Belarus were totally annihilated during the war, the only survivors at all being not “real” survivors at all but merely people like my great-grandparents and grandparents who left decades earlier. So perhaps it was that detail—combined, I admit, with the seminal experience of surreptitiously reading Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman’s The Black Book of Soviet Jewry: The Ruthless Murder of Jews by German-Fascist Invaders Throughout the Temporarily-Occupied Regions of the Soviet Union and in the German Nazi Death Camps Established on Occupied Polish Soil During the War 1941–1945 as a boy of eleven or twelve, the single experience that, at least in retrospect, I think probably affected my adolescence more profoundly than any other—it was the contemplation of the fate of the Jews our “our” towns in Europe that created the context for me to feel called personally to attempt to create a plausible version of Jewish theology that specifically led through, not around, the gates of the camps.
I cast around for a long time trying to find a way in. I read all the standard books of post-Shoah theology and found most of them all to be wanting in some specific way. (And some I found wanting in every way.) The best of them, I noted, were predicated on the supposition that the Holocaust was basically a cosmic riddle in need of a solution. If God knew about Auschwitz as people were being murdered there in such unimaginable numbers, then either it either was or was not beyond the scope of divine power to save them. If it was within the scope of God’s might to save them, then either they were not saved for a real, cogent reason or they were left unrescued for no particular reason at all. But because both of the above apodoses—the “then” clauses—are fully inconsonant with traditional Jewish belief, most of the authors I read ended up proposing that the Jewish people in the post-war era simply make their peace with living on the horns of the terrible dilemma that requires supposing either that God could have saved the millions but didn’t (which effectively negates the notion of divine mercy enduring forever), or that God would have saved the millions but couldn’t (which negates the notion of divine omnipotence), or that God would have saved the millions and could have but was simply unaware that they needed saving (which effectively denies the notion of divine omniscience). There was, I admit, a certain wistful cogency to this line of reasoning. But the thought that Jews in the post-Shoah era are condemned by their own history—by our own history—to live forever balanced on the horns of an unresolvable dilemma did not sound like something I could imagine myself teaching others or, to speak frankly, embracing as my own theological stance either.
I needed to take a different tack, therefore, one that would sidestep the Shoah-as-a-cosmic-puzzle motif entirely. For a while, I considered my options. And then, when I felt I had no real choice but to rise to my own challenge, I began to write about the Shoah as the shadow cast on the earth by the demonic realm.
When most moderns think about demons, they think about Halloween-style imps with pitchforks and devilish horns. But that is just the paper-thin veneer that somehow manages to obscure millennia of speculation about a demonic realm and the dangers too close proximity to its boundaries can pose to unwary travelers. It’s hard to think of another area of Jewish culture that has more totally been forgotten, however. The ignoramus who wrote that “Judaism does not have a demonology, or any set of doctrines about demons” in the Wikipedia article on demonology, for example, could not possibly have been more wrong. But he or she is in good company!
The Bible is full of demons who function as evil spirits sent from on high to tempt, to seduce, or to test the moral mettle of uncareful mortals. Some of their names are almost well known, while others are obscure. But Mavet, Lilith, Reshef, Azazel, and Dever—among many other unnamed sheidim of various sorts—are a real part of ancient Israelite heritage. The Talmud is even more full of demons and malevolent sprites, but it is in kabbalistic literature that Jewish demonology reaches its fullest flower: entire works, some many hundreds of pages long, were composed to describe the world of demons, to speculate regarding the relationship of King Samael and Queen Lilith, and to muse about the plausible ways the demonic realm exists as the dark edge of all existence, as the shadow cast by life itself on the living, as the living embodiment of the evil inclination and the almost irresistible will to behave sinfully to which all but the greatest tzaddikim occasionally succumb. (Readers interested in learning more can profitably consult Joshua Trachtenberg’s Jewish Magic and Superstition, published in 1934 but still in print and still very readable and useful.)
So that was the vineyard in which I chose to labor. It allowed me to avoid the theology-as-unresolvable-paradox trap and instead to imagine the Nazi hordes as an army of unholy demons in the thrall of King Samael, as the embodiment not of German imperialist chauvinism or even of German anti-Semitism but of the dark forces of evil that only the moral force of those committed to the service of God can keep at bay…and that even so occasionally overwhelm their opponents just as the sea occasionally rises up over beach and sea wall to wreak havoc on those unfortunates who live too close to the sea always to escape its wrath. I imagined the Einsatzgruppen that travelled across Ukraine and other parts of Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe with the sole mission of murdering the entire Jewish population in whatever town or village they found traces of Jewish life—I imagined the members of those killing squads not as men or even as beasts, but as part of a demonic horde that exists in the first place to destroy any who serve God and who promulgate God’s word in the world.
I worked for almost a year on that book and eventually finished it. But I never published it, never felt confident enough to show it around to publishers or, even, to too many colleagues or friends. Eventually, I took one chapter, the one about King Samael, and published it in the margins of the Sabbath and Festivals volume of Siddur Tzur Yisrael. But I abandoned the rest of the project, uncertain of my own conclusions and yet unable seriously to come up with an alternate explanation of how men and women who in their “regular” lives were bakers, schoolteachers, and letter carriers could suddenly turn into the kind of people who could shoot babies in their mothers’ arms, who could murder entire villages of people, who could display a level of cold-hearted cruelty that cannot even be referenced as “bestial” since it is impossible to imagine actual animals displaying that level of callous brutality and heartless malice towards each other.
As I read about the symposium in Jerusalem that attracted so many international personalities and then about the parallel commemoration last week in Poland at Auschwitz itself, and I read the stories of survivors and their descendants in article after article on-line and in print—I was brought back to that project. I called the book then The Dark Lamp, a phrase used in the Zohar to denote energy that exists to obscure rather than to illuminate, to cast shadows rather than light. I even re-read a few chapters, curious to see how my prose would stand up after all these years. I haven’t ever shared the details of that project with anyone before. I’m not even sure that I’m doing the right thing by sharing them now. But I find myself more sure than ever that I was right, that the sole way to keep faith with traditional Jewish beliefs without feeling obliged to look away from the details surrounding the Nazi war against the Jews is to seek refuge in the realm of the demonic and to cultivate the sense that it surely must be as important to note that the forces of evil were eventually beaten back and defeated as it is that they surged forth in the first place, briefly—and unimaginably tragically—overwhelming the barriers erected in the first place to protect the world from their fury, from their rage. Should I publish my book now? I suppose I might! (But maybe not.)