On Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day: Contending, Again, with the Road to Hell

“I wouldn’t have wanted to be that man,” one of my students said.

“No, look,” I said. “I didn’t say anything. Why should I? He was doing what he thought is right. He was trying to save souls.”

But even as I said it, I knew I was still angry.

That day, a lovely spring day, I’d gone to get some groceries. On the way back to my car, a well-dressed man of around thirty-something approached me with a flyer. The flyer depicted Jesus carrying a cross, bleeding, in pain. The next picture showed Jesus nailed to it. Bleeding, in pain. It advertised a local passion play production.

“I’m Jewish,” I said. And for the first time ever, I pulled out the heavy stuff. “And a rabbi, to boot.”

“We don’t make any distinctions,” he said. “We reach out to everyone.”

I made a polite mumble out of “thanks, but no thanks,” and got into my car. But I couldn’t even leave the parking lot. I had to drive to its outskirts and call my husband, Ralf.

“I told him I was Jewish,” I said. “He makes no distinctions. When can we have some distinctions, please? After almost two thousand years of eviction, oppression, and forcible conversion, can we not have some distinctions? We’ve been strung up and nailed up and gassed. Hell,” I said. “Oh, hell.”

The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions.

Even now, after years of loving and intense interfaith work in the South, I find the Easter season the most difficult time of the year. The crosses on the church lawns, the purple fabrics, and the signs and billboards announcing theatrical renditions of the last hours of Christ—they trigger an old exhaustion in me. I see them and think of the history I teach.

Easter, after all, was historically a dangerous time of the year for European Jews. Easter was often accompanied by accusations of host desecration, claims of blood libel, the replay of the “Christ-killers” epithets and of the attendant mob violence.

Every year I teach mostly Christian students about the history of antisemitism. I also go to one church after another each year. I keep hoping to establish relationships based on understanding that God does not and will not ever need a translator. (If God couldn’t hear humanity pray in any language, then I would have nothing to say to Her.)

Each and every semester I am appalled at the apparent ignorance of my own students, who claim, that all this is completely, utterly new to them. Can it be?

“Can it be?” I ask. According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Jewish crowd willingly accepted the blood of Jesus on their heads and the heads of their children (27:25). Has anyone counted the churches that don’t quote Matthew during Easter as the story is retold? How many churches in America actively, openly name and repudiate this verse for the immeasurable harm it has done for centuries? Which of my Christian students have never, ever heard or read the verses in John in which Jews are labeled the children of the devil?

I know, I know. We bypass, don’t feel, ignore. Most of our living lives, we are completely indifferent to the pain of others. Me, too.

The verses I’ve quoted don’t feel all that real to my students. They don’t associate their texts with Jews they might know. And when they get exposed to the history of antisemitism, they want – badly – to disconnect that tale of woe from any implications where their own religious training has been concerned.  I would probably do the same in their shoes.

Typically, our semesters are challenging. Just as typically, we get where I hope we will go. Whatever I teach always has the same agendas anyway: To demonstrate to my students how little we know about each other (that “each other” includes all of humanity, by the by).  To teach them that humility is – devoutly – wished for in this or any world. To become better people as a result of our education. That is the only education that matters.

Whether they are studying biblical scripture or biblical times, whether we are looking at Jewish feminism or antisemitism, whether we are confronted with the beautiful, the bad, or the ugly, does not matter. We can all do with regular does of humility. We can all be reminded to try and love each other in a way that does not insist on eradicating our diversity.

And yet, if I am honest, I am tired. I am tired of the facts, of the evidence. Six million Jews died within living memory and swastikas still adorn shirts and flags. There are those who still claim Hitler never killed anyone. One million Jewish children were mercilessly murdered and churches around the world still quote Matthew. Passion plays in Europe still depict Jews as Christ-killers and all the old stereotypes and clichés are alive both there and across the Middle East.

The man in the parking lot meant well. But some of the roads to hell are paved with good intentions. Someday, the hell that has resulted from centuries of so many well-intentioned Christians trying to eradicate any belief but theirs must itself be acknowledged.

How will we make real peace on earth otherwise? And is that not the truest and best intention – for all of us?

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Reptilian Rapture in Ancient Israel

Honestly. I thought I’d read it all when it comes to Jews.

Teaching courses on the history of antisemitism and the Holocaust (as I do) forces one to wade through centuries of muck. In the first century C.E, the noted Greco-Egyptian grammarian Apion accused Jews of, among other things, holding some random Greek personage hostage in the Holy of Holies, fattening him up with delicacies and dainties, slaughtering the poor gent, and serving up his remains to the multitude. Shades of Hansel and Gretel.

Or, perhaps, a precursor to the blood libel that emerged in the thirteenth century. In that story, and versions thereof, Jews kill Christian children in a mock reenactment of Christ’s crucifixion, draining the child’s blood so that it can be used to make matzah for the Passover celebration. Little known fact: A blood libel accusation was made in our United States of America as late as 1928 in upstate New York. Better known fact: The blood libel is alive and well in the Middle East and some parts of Europe.

And how’s this for a twenty-first century twist? Jews are actually Nazis, and a Star of David can morph into a swastika. There are cartoons out there showing you just how it works.

We will not regurgitate all the things that have been said and written. You can find them in many other locations, if you must. It’s all old news, really.  And new news, I am sad to say.

Here, however, is a recent addition to all these various calumnies: Jews of ancient times worshiped lizards.

It is true. Not that Jews worshiped lizards, of course, but that a living, breathing person has alleged such a thing.

Said person made this statement on an exam in my course on Hebrew Bible. I do not remember who wrote such a thing. I blocked out the association of lizards and any particular student immediately after grading. For one thing, I have a lot of students each semester. For another, it seemed important to me not to remember which of my dozens of students had made such a claim. I was afraid that I would not be able to look said student in the face if I made the association.

Student raises hand.

Dr. Thiede: “Yes?”

Student: “Is there going to be a study guide for the next exam?”

Dr. Thiede: “Omigosh, aren’t you the student who claimed the ancient Israelites worshiped lizards on the last exam?”

(For the record, I send out detailed study guides before each exam.)

Aside from the mad hilarity said statement caused me then and now, aside from the fact that I occasionally wonder what I might have said in class to induce my student to connect ancient Israelites with the worship of lizards, aside from the fact that I am likely suffering some post traumatic stress after reading said exam, I ask myself: To what end do I mention this at all in any forum?

There is a reason, actually.

There is no hope for a world in which we do not know more about each other. We cannot create peace and lovingkindness among peoples on the basis of our present colossal ignorance. Education matters because, as I keep telling my students, it has the capacity to make you a better person. You can become a whole lot more humble when you have a smidgeon of an idea about how little you know about anything. You can become less judgmental, less inclined to seeing everything through the narrow field of your own experience.

You can learn, and by learning, learn to care.

That’s what this drash is about, actually. That’s what every drash should be about.

The Hebrew word “drash” means to seek, to inquire. Ask. Wonder. Reflect.

Do your thinking with drash, not dross. Have the energy to strip yourself bare of assumptions. Why are Jews still be circumcising their sons? People are asking that question – and they aren’t just gentiles. Is God really “in” everything (and does that include the cow manure)? Why do we keep repeating a prayer that insists that God will choose who shall die by sword and who by fire each year at High Holy Days when most Jews don’t believe any such thing?

Look here (if you like). Adrenaline Drash will do its best to live up to its name.

 

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