In Jewish history, the Holocaust is known as the largest manifestation of anti-Semitism in recent history and constantly sparks conversation. According to Ellis, “one cannot understand the Jewish community today without a sense of its past, for it was born in struggle and hope” (15). In today’s world, the Holocaust is the largest example of Jewish suffering and questioning of their personal identity.
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For many, the Holocaust is what has shaped their Jewish identity but for some, their identity has been shaped by the establishment of the State of Israel. In order to better understand Judaism, it is important to know what has shaped Jewish identity throughout history. Jewish identity throughout history has been shaped by the Holocaust, the establishment of a Jewish state, and the continued prominence of anti-Semitism in the modern world.
When talking about the Holocaust, it is important to understand how much of an impact it had on Judaism and Jewish identity. The Holocaust sparked lots of confusion throughout much of the Jewish religion and led Jews to question where God was in their time of need. One of the most controversial responses to the Holocaust comes from Richard Rubenstein and his “Death of God” theory. According to Rubenstein, up until he introduced his theory in 1967, most Jewish authorities accepted that the Holocaust was a divine punishment from God (Dorff and Newman 377). However, he argued that if Judaism was to accept the Holocaust as divine punishment then they would also have to accept Hitler as “an instrument of God’s divine will” (Morgan 94). Rubenstein argued that the Holocaust could not just become another part of history that gets ignored and for that reason, Jews would have to establish a new identity (Morgan 100). According to Rubenstein, in order for Judaism to survive, Jews have to reject the traditional concept of God which asks for a radical change of Jewish identity (Dorff and Newman 377). He also claimed that “God really died at Auschwitz” and that no Jew could possibly defend the traditional God found and discussed in the Torah and Talmud after everything that happened during the Holocaust (Morgan 91). Rubenstein further explains that the State of Israel helped the Jewish people be reborn, post-Holocaust, and that the State of Israel should be the primary focus for the Jewish people and is where their Jewish identity should lie (Cohn-Sherbok 183). Rubenstein’s theology concludes that Jewish identity lies within the State of Israel and that no Jew should continue to believe in God, post-Holocaust because of everything He allowed to happen during the Holocaust. It sounds as though Rubenstein is angry with God for allowing such a mass murder to occur and for not guiding the Jewish people during their time of need. Therefore, Rubenstein’s Jewish identity lies more with the State of Israel than with God and the religion.
In contrast, Eliezer Berkovits had almost the opposite view from Rubenstein. Berkovits bases his understanding of the Holocaust on the Book of Job and the idea of a suffering servant who was still loyal to God (Cohn-Sherbok 182). Berkovits’ argued, in response to the Holocaust, that any explanation for the massacre of European Jews should be stopped and should be understood to be part of God’s plan and that it’s not something to be judged or explained (Cohn-Sherbok 182). Instead, he believed that Jews should remember and focus on their history and tradition because they’re God’s chosen people and their identity as Jews lies within tradition (Morgan 110). To Berkovits, nothing has changed in terms of how Jews should view tradition or God because it’s the same as before the Holocaust but with more emphasis on post-Holocaust Jews to remember their tradition and identity. Berkovits’ ideology is supported by Michael Wyschogrod, who believed that the Holocaust shouldn’t change Jewish faith at all but should instead inspire Jews to identify as a Jew through Judaism and to not use the Holocaust as a basis for their Jewish identity (Cohn-Sherbok 182). In contrast to Rubenstein’s theology, Berkovits feels as though the Holocaust happened for a reason and that Jews should use the Holocaust to form their Jewish identity. He believes that it was all part of God’s plan and that we should put our trust in God and use the Holocaust to learn, grow, and form our Jewish identities.
For many Jews, their Jewish identity lies within the existence of the State of Israel. After many years of war, the Jewish state of Israel was formed in 1948 in response to the massacre of European Jews. It has been argued that the creation of Israel was in response to Jewish suffering (Cohn-Sherbok 312). Although there has been quite a lot of political and military turmoil since its founding, Israel has played a very important role in post-Holocaust Jewish identity. For many Jews, Israel was a reward to the Jewish people for the suffering they endured during the Holocaust (Cohn-Sherbok 312). According to Ellis, the formation of Israel as the first Jewish state gave Jews an identity not seen since biblical times (Ellis 2004). The State of Israel is a home for all Jews and some believe that it was given to them by God as a result of the Holocaust. Building off of Rubenstein’s idea that God was missing during their time of need, Cohn-Sherbok believes that to make up for his absence he provides a peace offering in the form of a Jewish state. The newfound Jewish state is home to all Jewish people and helps them form and create their Jewish identity.
Although many people only associate anti-Semitism with the Holocaust, it is still a real and constant danger in the modern world. American history has had its share of anti-Semitism, as evidenced by the anti-Jewish rhetoric and discrimination that flared up throughout the periods of high Jewish immigration (“Facing Anti-Semitism”). In more recent times, anti-Semitism seems to be on the rise. On August 11, 2017, the Unite the Right rally took place in Charlottesville, Virginia where prominent Ku Klux Klan leaders were present. Videos emerged from the rally in which those in attendance were chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” For the Jewish community, this sparked fear and worry and had them questioning their Jewish identity and their safety (Heim). Since Charlottesville, at least two more prominent anti-Semitic attacks have occurred on the Jewish community. The first at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 27, 2018 where a man opened fire for about 20 minutes during Shabbat morning services. Eleven people died and the attack is known as the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States (Selk). The second attack occurred on April 27, 2019, exactly six months after the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue. The second attack occurred at the Chabad of Poway synagogue near San Diego, California where a 19-year old gunman opened fire, killing one and injuring three others (Press).
These attacks on the Jewish communities in America and the rise in anti-Semitism are leading Jews to question their Jewish identity. The Holocaust became an important focus for Jewish identity and it became a central part of American Judaism. For some it even serves more powerfully than the State of Israel as a primary symbol of Jewish peoplehood (“Facing Anti-Semitism”). These attacks on American Jews today are uniting them and leading them to question and reevaluate their Jewish identities so they can be stronger for today’s America.
In order to have a better understanding of modern Jewish identity, it is important to look at what has helped shape Jewish identity throughout history. When trying to establish a post-Holocaust Jewish identity, the theologies of Jews like Rubenstein and Berkovits paint a picture of Jewish feelings and their responses to the massacre of European Jews, where God was during the Holocaust, and what the Jewish people should do post-Holocaust and where their identity should lie. However, Jewish identity is extremely complex since it is up to each individual to decide for themselves what their Jewish identity is. There is not one theology or movement that can represent or explain it fully. Jewish identity is constantly changing and therefore it can be assumed that there are multiple Jewish identities each one more personal than the other. While there may be many different individual Jewish identities, there is a global identity which is found in the common bond of the Holocaust, the State of Israel, and the presence of anti-Semitism in today’s America. Although the Holocaust is in the past, it was a large influence on the global Jewish identity many Jews now hold. While it is in the past, it will always be part of the present because, “The post-Holocaust birth of a Jew, whether he or she is conscious of it or not, is a statement against Nazism. The Nazis wanted to destroy the Jewish people, but Jews exist. Their very existence is a statement of a fight against Nazism, and a victory, if you like, over Nazism” (Bauer).
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