The 615th Commandment

The outgoing Jewish year, 5755 has been punctuated by many events to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the fall of the Third Reich. The return of old soldiers to the Normandy beaches last summer through to the VE celebrations outside Buckingham Palace were occasions to recapture history. It reminded us that Jews are required to remember and not to forget.

To understand that the Jews have a different history and a different memory of those violent times. To differentiate between the Allied victory and the Jewish disaster. Indeed, Britain may have won the war, but can the same be said about the Jews?

If the summer of 1944 recalls the sacrifice of D Day, then it also commemorates the Red Army’s liberation of Majdanek. As the Soviets advanced across Poland, they discovered the razed death camps of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka where there were no survivors to report the murder of two million people. On 27 January 1945, the Red Army stumbled upon Auschwitz and hardly publicised its secret. But it is the images of the living dead and the mountains of unrecognisable corpses which characterised the liberation of Dachau, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen by British and American forces in April 1945 that are forever burned into Western minds.

The people of Britain began to comprehend what had happened when they heard for the first time the voice of a BBC reporter inside a Nazi concentration camp when Richard Dimbleby broadcast his harrowing description of Belsen. Wynford Vaughan-Thomas met Dimbleby after he left the camp and was shocked by the reporter’s appearance. ‘He was a changed man… until then I had always regarded him as a man who would never let his feelings show through his utterly professional surface efficiency.’

Yet Dimbleby hardly mentioned the Jews in his historic dispatch. Neither did the rest of the British media in their reports. It can, of course, be argued that the real extermination centres lay to the East and that these were death camps by default due to the enforced migration of many nationalities and the chaos at the end of the war. To do so is to ignore the shallowness of British policy towards the Jews in World War II. In the eyes of the British government and the press, Jews were almost invisible at this darkest moment. They were regarded as nationals of the countries of their passport of the lands of extermination. And yet, so many people in Britain including many Jews, accept the myth that this was the defining moment in the revelation of the Holocaust, that ‘we knew nothing until after the war’.

A cursory look at the British press between May and December 1942 shows that this was not the case. The growing list of reports from Poland and the deportations from occupied Europe are there to be examined. Historians such as Martin Gilbert, Walter Laqueur, Bernard Wasserstein and Tony Kushner have all indicated in great detail that the British agenda did not include ‘saving those Jews that could be saved’. The mono-cultural attitude of civil servants, their disdain for the ‘otherness’ of the Jews, their fear of Zionism and other reasons were all responsible for government immobility when concerted action was required to minimise the destruction of European Jewry.

In 1995, all Jews are survivors. We have learned that powerlessness leads to the gas chamber. The violence of our enemies and the indifference of our allies has forced us to ask searching questions which are not only political in nature. Deserted by ‘the family of nations’, were we also deserted by ‘God? Where indeed was God at Auschwitz? Lord Jakobovits in a commemoration at the camp earlier this year said that he had no answer.

‘Perhaps there is none…maybe the question is inscrutable – in the words of one of our great medieval philosophers: “If I knew Him, I would be Him; or if I could comprehend Divine justice, I would myself be Divine”.

Arthur Cohen in his book The Tremendum has argued that God is a non-participant in human history as this would limit our freedom of decision and action. God’s intervention in our affairs is through His Law and the principles of justice therein are available to all. As one writer pointed out ‘We would not be able to accept [the principles of justice] unless we could at the same time reject them…Blaming God for the Holocaust is like blaming the government for the fact that people get killed when they drive too fast and break the speed limit’ [Oliver Leaman, Evil and Suffering in Jewish Philosophy, Cambridge 1995].

Yet there are numerous philosophers who have tried to make theological sense that an omnipotent God neither prevented the Holocaust nor intervened to save His people. Some indeed have abolished God from their vocabulary. Nearly 30 years ago, Emil Fackenheim told us the opposite, namely that we are not permitted to grant Hitler a posthumous victory by ceasing to be Jews and by exorcising our Jewish heritage. The commanding Voice at Auschwitz exhorted the Jews to survive. This was Fackenheim’s profound formulation of the 614th commandment to add to Maimonides’ 613. It undoubtedly struck a chord with the post-war generation and gave credence to a muscular Jewish politics after the Six Day War.

Yet Fackenheim’s startling yet uplifting pronouncement implies a separation of God and Judaism. Oliver Leaman argues that if the raison d’etre of the 614th commandment is to provide for Jewish continuity, all we require is a religious lifestyle based on Judaism and no more. The question of ‘where is God?’ – and more important ‘Where was God at Auschwitz?’ becomes irrelevant. After all, the Nazis killed Jews and not believers in the Jewish God.

Fackenheim has strangely extrapolated the 614th commandment to marginalise other — non-Jewish— suffering in the world. He has, for example, ‘turned his face against the peace process in the Middle East and against any rapproachement with the Palestinians. The uniqueness of the Holocaust touched the central core in the essence of human evil. Any connection to other atrocities, according to Fackenheim, must be avoided. Yet did the commanding Voice at Auschwitz exhibit no universal qualities whatsoever? Are we commanded to turn our backs on the suffering in Bosnia? Is the murder of millions in Rwanda of no relevance to Jews? To accept Fackenheim’s interpretation of the 614th commandment is to belittle its significance and to relegate the importance of universalism in Jewish teaching. The haftorah on the second day of Rosh Hashanah relates that ‘the people that were left of the sword have found grace in the wilderness’. For those Jews who continue to live amongst non-Jews, there can be no turning away from the horrors of the world. Fackenheim’s invocation – his call to arms – must be made whole. The 615th commandment must be, ‘Remember that you too are a part of suffering humanity and you are required to confront and challenge evil’. This too denies Hitler a posthumous victory.

Judaism Today Autumn 1995


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