This isn’t a good time to mention Hitler, it being peace-on-earth-good-will-toward-men-season. But late December comes in somber brown hues that leave me brooding on religion.
Religious belief is both an explanation of and escape from the terrible vulnerability at the core of the human condition. It rationalizes our suffering and gives us the context, meaning, dignity, and stability we desperately crave. That’s why it remains such a powerful force, for better and worse, in our increasingly materialistic, data-driven, impersonal society.
I’ve been fascinated by religion since childhood. I started with Judaism, the religion I was born into, going to Hebrew school for five years and attending sabbath services almost every Saturday in fifth grade. An unhappy adolescence cooled my sectarian ardor, but not my interest in religion; by my senior year of high school I was reading holy books from other traditions, such as the Bhagavad Gita, although not understanding them very well.
I studied religion more systematically in college, taking courses in Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, and reading the New Testament for the first time. Nor did I ignore Judaism; I took a class called “Legacy of the Jews” and still have the 22-page paper I wrote on Martin Buber. (Hell yeah I got an A!) Even as I grew to recognize the common characteristics of religions, I retained notions of Jewish exceptionalism: because Jews had been persecuted for so long and had so acutely suffered from discrimination, they better understood how to bring peace and justice to our troubled world.
The September 1982 massacre of Palestinian civilians in Sabra and Shatila, Lebanon, dispelled that illusion. My Israel-right-or-wrong friends and family members tell me that such misdeeds, and Israel’s transformation since then into an authoritarian, theocratic state, are necessary for Jewish survival. Maybe so; I’m not blind to anti-Semitism, which never goes away, just ebbs and flows. But survival is the primal instinct of all earthly organisms, up to and including tribes, sects, and states, so making Judaism and Israel about survival is an admission that Jews are no different from anybody else.
Which is where Hitler finally enters the picture — at least as his writings are interpreted by Holocaust scholar Timothy Snyder.
I haven’t read anything Hitler wrote; to me his actions spoke loudly enough. But Snyder read Hitler closely for his 2015 book Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. And though it hardly seems possible, he arrived at a fresh understanding of Hitler’s motivations for killing Jews:
What Hitler says is that abstract thought — whether it’s normative or whether it’s scientific — is inherently Jewish. There is in fact no way of thinking about the world, says Hitler, which allows us to see human beings as human beings. Any idea which allows us to see each other as human beings — whether it’s a social contract; whether it’s a legal contract; whether it’s working-class solidarity; whether it’s Christianity — all these ideas come from Jews. And so for people to be people, for people to return to their essence, for them to represent their race, as Hitler sees things, you have to strip away all those ideas. And the only way to strip away all those ideas is to eradicate the Jews. And if you eradicate the Jews, then the world snaps back into what Hitler sees as its primeval, correct state: Races struggle against each other, kill each other, starve each other to death, and try and take land.
At first this thesis shocked me, not only for its novelty, but because it’s the most persuasive argument for Jewish exceptionalism I’ve seen in decades. If you ask whether I believe the Jewish deity is better than any other, I’d say no. If you ask whether I believe Jews are better than other groups of people, I’d say no. But if you ask whether Jews should get credit for the idea that we’re all pretty much the same, regardless of race, nationality, ethnicity, color, gender, sexual preference, age, disability, etc., I’d be mightily tempted to say yes, even though I don’t think the idea is originally or exclusively Jewish.
My father’s parents volunteered with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). Since then, HIAS’s mission has become universal: “Today, HIAS does not help refugees because they are Jewish. HIAS helps refugees because we are Jewish.” The xenophobic murderer of eleven Jews in Pittsburgh last October cited HIAS’s activities as a justification for his horrific crime. Our own actions over the next year may determine what kind of society we have for the next several decades. After the Squirrel Hill mass shooting, I sent HIAS a donation. In our respective small ways, let us all honor our common humanity, reduce the suffering of others — and pray that does not make us exceptional.