“Remembering Amalek: A Contemporary View”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

While this coming week’s parasha is Parashat Tzav, I would rather focus today on the joyous, but complex holiday that Jews all over the world (except those residing in ancient walled cities like Jerusalem) will be celebrating on Monday night, the holiday of Purim.

The story of Purim, of course, is about wicked Haman who schemed to annihilate the Jews of Persia, men, women and children, on one day, the 13th of Adar, in the year 519 BCE. Fortunately, through the intervention of G-d, Mordechai and Queen Esther, the Jewish people were saved from this attempted mass genocide.

Jewish tradition looks upon those who seek to destroy the Jewish people as the heirs of Amalek, that fierce nation, that was the first to attack People of Israel, especially the elderly, the weak and the young, after the Exodus from Egypt. In our time it was the Nazis who were considered the contemporary Amalekites, and our pledges never to forget, parallel the words of the Torah (Deut. 25:17-19) which exhort us never to forget what Amalek did to the Jewish people. Nevertheless, I would like to attempt to give some balance to the Amalek-Nazi equation that we often draw, point out some differences, and warn of some palpable dangers.

There is almost nothing more sacred or more sensitive for Jews living in the generation after the Holocaust, than the memory of the 6 million martyrs of the Nazi genocide. The poignant question, “Where was God?” rather than being a theological provocation, is more likely a reflection of the abiding pain which lingers from the staggering losses. After all, what could possibly be more important than sanctifying the memory of those who died — except ensuring a future for those who wish to live as Jews?

There is great justification for the continuing Jewish obsession with the Holocaust. It was numerically the greatest loss of Jews ever in Jewish history, and the wound is still raw. Survivors, who actually witnessed the horrors, can be spoken to personally. And now that “revisionists,” who seek to deny the Holocaust, have become even more brazen, sensitive Jews are reacting with even greater passion.

But preoccupation with the Holocaust is exacting a great price.

According to the 1990 Council of Jewish Federations National Jewish Population Survey, record numbers of Jews are now walking away from Judaism. Two million American Jews no longer acknowledge being Jewish. One million American Jewish children are being raised as non-Jews, or with no religion at all. And 625,000 Jews or their children have converted out of Judaism. A Gallup organization survey of religions in America reported that while there seems to be a resurgence among Protestants and Catholics, Jews as a group are drifting away from their religion.

There are many reasons for this wholesale abandonment of Jewish identity. Our grandparents hoped that America would be a melting pot for future generations; instead it has become a meltdown! Jewish education is woefully inadequate. For many decades intensive Jewish education was derided as being separatist. So now young Jews walk away from Judaism, not because of dissatisfaction with the faith, but out of ignorance. And the ignorance is overwhelming. The average American Jew knows who was the mother of Jesus, but doesn’t have a clue as to who was the mother of Moses; probably knows the meaning of the word “trinity”, but is unlikely to know what the word “mitzvah” means. Similarly, the typical American Jewish child could probably sing the first verse of “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly,” but is unfamiliar with the first line of “Ma’oz Tsur” — the joyous Hanukkah hymn.

We have no one to fault but ourselves. We failed to properly educate our children, and when we did, the experiences were so negative that it’s been said, only half in jest, that if the Jews for Jesus were smart they would pay to send every Jewish child to an afternoon Hebrew school because, in most instances, it’s proven to be the greatest turn-off to Jewish life.

The American Jewish community stands now at a most formidable crossroads, a crossroads which will likely determine whether Jewish life in America continues, or ceases to exist altogether. America’s Jews, like the Israelites of old, are being asked to choose between “life and death”, between “the blessing and the curse.”

Unless we “choose life,” unless there will be within the very near future, a dramatic turnaround in the patterns of Jewish assimilation and intermarriage, we are probably witnessing the last generation of Jewish life in America as we now know it. Our community will not be recognizable within 25 to 30 years.

If we are to stop the hemorrhaging of Jewish life in America, intensive, positive, joyous Jewish education and experiences must become a priority. But for the past decade, focus seems to be on building Holocaust memorials. Over the last ten years, more than $1 billion has been spent or pledged to build 25 Holocaust memorials and 36 research centers or libraries in America. And yes, some cities, like Los Angeles, have 2 or 3 competing Holocaust memorials.

It is to my mind criminal that the wealthiest Jewish community in all of Jewish history has no mega fund ensuring a meaningful Jewish education for any child who desires one. There are presently thousands of children in North America who would be attending Jewish Day Schools, were the tuitions not so outrageously high.

More than a quarter of the books published on Jewish themes today concern the Holocaust. Jews who have never opened a Bible, have broad expertise in Holocaust studies. Jews who have never read a single page of Jewish philosophy, are fully conversant with Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Jews who are totally ignorant of the ABC’s of Judaism, have enrolled in intensive courses analyzing the most obscure details of the European Jewish destruction. It is quite likely that a young Jew today knows who Hitler and Eichmann were, but has no idea of Rabbi Akiva and Maimonides.

We’ve reached the absurd point where the only feature of Judaism with which our young Jews identify is that of the Jew as victim — murdered, cremated or turned into a lampshade. As the prophet Jeremiah said (Chapter 8), “HaTzori Ein B’Gilead?” Is there no joy in Jewish life? Is there no balm in Gilead? No wonder our young Jews are turned off and walking away from their heritage.

It is hardly likely that we will be able to stop the proliferation of Holocaust centers in America, and the central role they now play. However, there is still time to make certain that these centers include a joyous and positive message for Jewish life. We must make certain that young Jews who enter these centers encounter a message which will inspire them to live as Jews, (like the exhibit at the NY Holocaust Museum of Jewish Heritage), and not be turned off by the specter of endless victimization and suffering. If we fail to accomplish this, then these vaunted Holocaust centers will soon become the tombstones of the present generation of American Jews.

There is a major destruction taking place in America right now. We can’t hear it, because there are, thank G-d, no barking dogs; we can’t see it because, thank G-d, there are no goose-stepping Nazi soldiers and no concentration camps; we can’t smell it because, thank G-d, there are no gas chambers. But the net result is exactly the same, the end of Jewish life.

I agree with the late Chief Rabbi of the UK Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, that while remembering is important, rebuilding is far more important.

In Tel Aviv, says Rabbi David Hartman of Israel: [Secular Jews] walk with their puppies. In Jerusalem [religious Jews] walk with their children. “American Jews,” he said, “build Holocaust memorials. Religious Jews have children. This way, religious Jews, have defeated Hitler. They have re-established every institution that existed in Eastern Europe before the war. That’s a powerful statement.”

I maintain, that 50 years from now, it is very likely, that only those Jews who fast on Tishah Ba’Av, who remember the victims of the two temples, who recall the bodies of Jewish victims of the Bar Kochabah rebellion that the Roman murderers refused to allow to be buried, who remember the hundreds of thousand of victims of the crusades, and read the Kinot bemoaning the destructions of kehillot Shum – Spire, Worms and Mayence, and are familiar with the brutal murders of Ukranian Jewry at the hands of the great Ukranian liberator, Bogdan Chmelnitsky in 1648-1649, will be in a position to recall, or will care enough to remember, the victims of the European Holocaust.

And so I say to you who read or hear these words, that if we fail to act now, if we fail to share with our young Jews the beauty and meaningfulness of Jewish life and Jewish heritage, there will be few Jews left in the next generation who will even know that there ever was a Holocaust of European Jews. The “silent Holocaust” will have done its job, and G-d forbid, Hitler will have emerged victorious.

May the joy of the special holiday of Purim permeate the hearts of our people, especially the hearts of our young people, so that they will feel how good it is to be a Jew. Only then will they have reason to remember Amalek.

Happy Purim.

May you be blessed.