Saturday, April 14, 2007

Yom HaShoa - Holocaust Remembrance

Acts 5:27-32 * John 20:19-31

This Yom HaShoah my thoughts run in several directions. Silence. Any reflection on the Holocaust eventually takes us to silence. The great truths, the abject horrors, the banality of evil – all dwell within silence – a deep and terrible silence.

We have all heard World War II Veterans tell their stories – or Viet Nam vets – or Gulf War I vets. Often at a certain crucial moment in their recollections, they stop. There is a silence. It is a silence that is understood – a silence that speaks more than words could possibly tell. Usually it is an awe-full silence, a memory too painful and too difficult to reconstruct.

There is a legend that says that when the Romans quelled the first Jewish rebellion in the year 70 by burning the Temple and the entire city to the ground, that a Rabbi Jose stood among the rubble and ashes in the silence of the total destruction of the center of the Jewish universe and Jewish life. Rabbi Jose stood among the silence of up to one million Jewish men, women and children slaughtered by the Romans. And in the midst of this silence Rabbi Jose is said to have heard the echo of the voice of God sounding like a dove over the face of the ruined city. Legend calls this echo of God’s voice the bat qol.

In the face of the unthinkable horrors of the Holocaust – of how people like you and me, mostly Christian people were turned into murderers, torturers and cold-blooded killers driven to exterminate the people from which our faith, the faith of Jesus, originates – we often find our selves standing amongst the memories of the devastation in silence listening for the echo of God’s voice, the bat qol, to show us the way.

What I hear God saying to me these past few days is an urging to remember just where our texts come from. What we call the New Testament texts were at one time Jewish writings, Jewish stories, Jewish texts – a continuation of a story going all the way back to Genesis and Joshua, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – Jacob who would wrestle with God and become Israel. In the beginning our texts were texts of Israel –those who wrestle with God and God’s love for the world God created. The story of Jesus is a part of this story.

That is, there was no “Old” and “New” testament. There were only Jewish texts, some in Hebrew and some in Greek. Jesus and his followers were Jews. After the Resurrection his disciples continued to worship in Jerusalem in the Temple every day. This we are told in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, a stridently Jewish text.

It would not be until the end of the second century – after the quelling of the second Jewish rebellion that came from out of Galilee in the year 135 - that the texts become divided. The division is arbitrary, but not without purpose, and that purpose has not served either of our people at all well, Christians or Jews. To designate something as “new” suggests that somehow the “old” is of lesser value, is inferior. The “new” is more important, more true, more essential. For our texts and for our history, this division is misleading and untruthful, since in the end they are all Jewish texts telling a Jewish story.

When the emerging church made this decision the preaching of many of its leaders, who were by then Gentiles, betrayed the truths in the texts themselves and made the new texts out to be superior, and the people of the old texts to be inferior and enemies of the new. This seemingly simple decision, to divide the texts, set a tragic wheel in motion that resulted in crusades, inquisitions, ghettos, pogroms and ultimately the Holocaust.

One survivor of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel gets to the heart of this tragedy of dividing and labeling the texts when he raises the following questions:

How is one to explain that neither Hitler nor Himmler was ever excommunicated by the church? That Pius XII never thought it necessary, not to say indispensable, to condemn Auschwitz and Treblinka? That among the S.S. a large proportion were believers who remained faithful to their Christian ties to the end? That there were killers who went to confession between massacres? And that they all came from Christian families and had received a Christian education? (Elie Wiesel, A Jew Today [New York: Random House, 1979] p.13)

Those responsible for the Holocaust had all too much help from the Church throughout the centuries – most of all its silence. Once Constantine, the Roman emperor, married a Gentile Christianity to the pagan religion of the empire, the wellfrom which we have come to drink was been poisoned. Out of this poisoned well more than six million Jews alongside some five million others were slaughtered. All of the men and boys were circumcised for the same reasons Jesus and his cousin John were circumcised – that they might enter into the Covenant with the God of Israel, and then into Torah, and then into marriage, and then into good deeds. If Jesus and John had been born in the Eastern Europe of the early 20th Century, Constantine’s Christianity would have killed them too, when it was discovered that they were circumcised.

Jesus, we read, breathes on the disciples. To us this sounds odd – even impolite. To those Jews who wrote and first read these texts, this was a sign. For in Hebrew and in Greek the words for breath also mean wind and spirit. God’s spirit-wind-breath is first pictured hovering over the chaotic waters of creation. When the first formed human lay completely lifeless, God breaths spirit into its nose and it becomes a living being. When the hopes of Israel in exile were cut off, the people a dead people, Ezekiel is commanded to call to the breath, and the breath came rushing from the four winds and raised the slain of Israel to new life and new hope. In Acts the wind blows into Jerusalem, and Jews from all over creation are gathered together and brought to life.

Jesus breathes this spirit-wind of God into the disciples who are hiding behind closed doors. It is a replay of Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. It is a replay of Adam and creation. It is a promise of new life and new hope for a people who stood among the ashes and ruin of Jerusalem and its Temple when these texts of ours were written.

The day I stood among the ruins of Dachau eleven years ago it was cold. The wind blew rain and snow alternately through the air. I wandered the acres of the camp alone, in silence. In the ruins of the crematoria I heard a voice calling to me, the wind whistling, a lone figure across the acres of cold stones and abandoned buildings gestured to me – began calling to me. I recalled the legend of the bat qol. In words alternating from German to English and back to German, he tried to tell me his story. He had been in Dachau as a young man for trying to help Jewish children. He is still there today. He too was trying to hear the voice on the wind and understand the bat qol. He reached into a bag and pressed a pamphlet in my hand and said, “This is for peace.” Then the wind blew him away just as it had brought us together for that fleeting moment frozen in time. Then it was silent again.

Perhaps the question for Christians on a day such as this is can we sit still enough, silently enough, to hear the bat qol? Are we yet ready to see both the truths and the untruths of our tradition – untruths that have resulted in unspeakable acts against the very people of God Jesus brought into our lives? Can we find new life and new hope among the ashes? Amen.

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