From grief to hope - a religious Shoah message

By Lord Jonathan Sacks, April 28, 2011
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For the past two years, we have been engaged in a major experiment in Anglo-Jewry: finding a way of giving religious expression to Yom ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day - which falls this Sunday - in a way that will guarantee its continuity across the generations even when there are no more survivors to share their memories and stories with us.

Isaiah Berlin called Jews the people of history, but it is more precise to say that we are the people of memory. Jews, as Professor Yosef Hayyim Yerushalmi noted, were the first people to see memory as a religious command, and as central to the religious life. Zakhor is one of the great Jewish imperatives but it applies to the Holocaust with particular force.

The problem is that we have still not found an adequate way of giving remembrance a canonical religious expression, in the way we do for the exodus on Pesach, or the destruction of the Temples on Tisha be-Av.

We have no Holocaust equivalent of the Haggadah, although there are many Haggadot, including my own, that include a prayer in memory of the Shoah. Nor do we have an equivalent to the Kinot, Elegies, said on Tisha be-Av in memory of the destruction of the Second Temple and of Jewish tragedies subsequently, through virtually every service on that day includes a Kinah about the Holocaust.

Holocaust remembrance has until now tended to be secular

So we have religious ways of remembering the Shoah on other days but not on Yom ha-Shoah itself. Some synagogue movements have developed them, and there have been various writers, religious and secular, who have written Megillot about the Holocaust, inspired by Chaim Nachman Bialik's Megillat ha-Esh (Scroll of Fire) written in 1905, but none has won general acceptance.

Neither have the several forms of Holocaust Seder service. Nor is this surprising. The Holocaust resists easy assimilation into the religious paradigms of the past. It is sui generis. It does not do it full justice to see it as one more form of slavery in Egypt, or one more echo of the destruction of the Temple.

Until now, most Holocaust remembrance ceremonies have tended, in essence, to be secular events based on survivor testimonies. But we have to plan for a time when there will be no more survivors.

To be sure, their testimonies will survive in the many books they have written, or that have been written about them, and in the recordings made, most notably by Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation Institute, as well as in the permanent Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum. But still we need an act of Zikaron, religiously inflected memory, to ensure that Yom ha-Shoah has a permanent place in Jewish life.

So, two years ago, we assembled a group of rabbis, cantors, a choir and children of survivors to devise such a service, built around music, narration and imagery. Its theme was and will remain, "From grief to hope", and the passing on of memory from one generation to the next. Commemorations have been held at the Elstree and Borehamwood Synagogue and Edgware and both have been intensely moving. This year, it will be held at the Ilford Synagogue on the night of May 2.

Later in the year, we will be making a film based on this service, which will be available to all synagogues and schools throughout the world, on DVD and YouTube.

The aim is not to establish a definitive form of service but rather to inspire and stimulate individual communities and schools to create their own. It took many centuries for the Haggadah to become what it is today, and I have no doubt that the same will be true about Holocaust remembrance. But at least we will have made a start and set a process into motion.

Memory takes time. If you look carefully at the biblical texts relating to the questions of the four sons of the Haggadah, you will see that three of them appear in the book of Exodus. One - the wise son - appears in the book of Deuteronomy, set 40 years later.

It can take several generations even to ask the right question, let alone to find an adequate answer.

However, the astonishing fact is that after the worst crime against humanity in all of history, the Jewish people did not sit paralysed by grief, weeping for its lost communities and murdered children, nursing hatred and seeking revenge. With an awesome strength of mind and will, it faced the future and chose life.

It created the State of Israel. The leaders of the Yeshivah and Chasidic communities encouraged their followers to marry and have children and repopulate their shattered world. We in Anglo-Jewry, this past generation, have built schools at a rate unprecedented in our community's past.

The Jewish people rebuilt itself in ways that will one day be recognised, by all who study history, as one of the greatest-ever victories of the human spirit over despair. That is the post-Holocaust journey from grief to hope.

Lord Sacks is Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth

    Last updated: 10:22am, April 28 2011