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“Faith After the Holocaust” by Rabbi Burt Jacobson (High Holydays 5773/2012)

A Yom Kippur Afternoon Sermon


On Yom Kippur afternoon in traditional synagogues the cantor or prayer leader chants a section of the service called “Elah Ezkara,” which means, “These things I remember . . .” In keeping with the somber nature of the Day of Judgment, the Elah Ezkara recalls the martyrdom of the ten most important rabbis who were murdered by the Romans following the Bar Kochba revolt in the year 136 of the common era. In modern times, the names and stories of other Jewish martyrs have been added to the Elah Ezkara. And in many synagogues the six million Jews and the five million non-Jews murdered in the Holocaust are also remembered. My talk this afternoon is, in part, a link with the Elah Ezkara tradition. But following my talk Sandra and Shulamit will be conducting a healing service, and so this teaching will connect with healing as well.


I was born in 1936. During my childhood years, my mother was waging a furious campaign to convince the leaders of the Jewish community of Cleveland, Ohio that Adolph Hitler’s rise to power in Germany posed a threat to the Jews of Europe. She also traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with senators and congressmen. But her Cassandran warnings were ignored. The sense of helplessness she felt as her catastrophic visions materialized left her enraged, bitter and depressed. Against the onslaught of history and the fate of millions, the needs of her children—my younger brother Stuart and myself—seemed an irritant and a distraction.


My mother’s sighs and her dread about the fate ofEurope’s Jews entered my soul, contaminating my sense of being Jewish with the misery of victimhood. During those years I was traumatized by bouts of bronchial asthma and allergies, which at times threatened my young life with suffocation and death. My parents did not have the capability to offer a loving environment to support my development, nor did my family provide appropriate emotional and physical boundaries to protect my sense of self.


During my adolescence, and most especially during my college undergraduate years I turned to Judaism and I developed a faith in God as He was depicted in the Bible and in rabbinic literature. I decided to become a rabbi and I entered the conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary. But a few years later, I began to read novels and memoirs about the Holocaust. One of these was Elie Weisel’s Night, an autobiographical account of the author’s ordeal in Auschwitz, where he watched his father wither away. Weisel’s father died of a beating while the boy lay silently on the bunk below for fear of being beaten too.


These novels re-opened the wounds of my childhood. Like Weisel, I wondered where God had been during the Holocaust? Where had He been when I was a child? These ruminations brought me to believe that my attempt at becoming a traditional pious Jew had been a sham, and my subservience to the God of Judaism had been disingenuous. How could I have allowed myself to accept all this traditional garbage? The world is off-kilter, flooded with moral chaos. If there is a God at all, I concluded, he must be evil as well as good. And if he is evil, then why worship him? I thought seriously about leaving the Seminary, but I had nowhere to go.


But obviously, this was not the end of the story, because I was not only ordained, I helped start the Jewish Renewal movement, which emphasizes spirituality, worship and joy. What was it that saved me for this vocation? It was a remarkable experience that I underwent towards the end of my senior year in the Seminary, a mystical encounter that would change my perspective on the Holocaust. In fact, it would change my life forever.


During the experience, I ascended into a state of consciousness in which all my normal cares and anxieties simply lifted from my awareness. In turn an incredibly wondrous living energy began to pulsate through my body and awareness. As my sense of boundaries dissolved, I became a vast transparent center of awareness, totally open, accepting, loving and ecstatic. Being was an entirely blessed and holy state—indeed, the only state, and I recognized myself to be a small part of a vast oneness, of what I had always termed “God.”


The world was incredibly awesome, beautiful, bountiful, good. There was a transparency and perfection to it all. Each thing was in its rightful place, as it was meant to be, and nothing was lacking.  The realization came to awareness that what people called “evil” was really only a slim thread winding through this wholeness that was in its essence perfection.  The ascent continued, and now there were no things at all, nothing to speak of—only the intense rapture of mysterious Is-ness.  Consciousness completely merged with cosmos.


Though the initial intensity of this experience eventually faded, it had shaken me out of my agnosticism. I could no longer not believe in something greater than myself, a mystery, a oneness that lay beneath ordinary existence. I call it God, but I’m not tied to that word, for what I experienced was so much greater than the “God” of classical Judaism.


Over the years I searched for a way to tie my mystical experience into Judaism. I studied kabbalah and the works of the great modern Jewish mystic, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook. But it was the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of 18th century Hasidism, who spoke most deeply to my heart and mind. This was because the mystical experiences that the Ba’al Shem Tov underwent opened him to an understanding of the world that was tremendously expansive and quite similar to what I myself had encountered. The Ba’al Shem taught that the universe is filled with divine energy, and that an individual who possesses a spiritually discerning eye will be able to actually perceive the life force that pulses within everything he or she sees.


To the Jews of Eastern Europe, who had weathered massacres, poverty, and collective depression, the Ba’al Shem brought a message of healing and hope, teaching the importance of ecstasy, joy, love and faith. Discovering the Ba’al Shem’s message offered me a way to ground the insights I had gained from my mystical experiences in a positive vision of human possibility. He seemed to be telling me to put the darkness and despair of the Holocaust behind me, to turn to light and hope instead. This provided me with a more secure faith in God, even though I knew that God could bring about evil as well as good. What I learned from the Ba’al Shem gave me a faith in myself and by extension, in humanity. From its reservoir I gathered the courage that I needed to get myself through life, whatever travails I might have to endure.


In the years that followed, I made a conscious decision that further engagement with the Holocaust would be personally destructive, and I kept myself a certain distance from the Shoah. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a large number of Jewish educators were looking for ways to bring the Holocaust into Jewish schools. They believed that if Jewish children could in some way experience the Shoah, this would provide them with a strong Jewish identity. This approach seemed outlandish and potentially damaging to me. When I co-founded Kehilla School in 1982 and started Kehilla Community Synagogue in 1984, I deliberately avoided any focus on the Holocaust. Influenced by the Ba’al Shem Tov, I wanted to contribute to the creation a new kind of Judaism that would be based on joy rather than tragedy. Nonetheless, I must admit that privately the Holocaust continued to haunt me all through those years.


This past July, my wife, Diane, and I spent a few days inWashington,D.C.I hadn’t been there since the 1960s, when I attended a huge protest against the Viet-Nam war, and I had never seen the U.S. Holocaust Museum. By now, I was so rooted in the values espoused by the Ba’al Shem Tov that I felt little apprehension entering the museum, and I did not imagine that I would actually be moved by the displays. Nonetheless, I was surprised by the cumulative effect of the exhibits on my soul. It was as if the Shoah had been a saboteur hiding within, readying itself to smother me if and when it could get loose. That afternoon, the Holocaust opened like a time capsule returning me to the gloomy brooding chaos that had engulfed me so often as a child and a young man. Moving through the displays detailing the implementation of the final solution, I entered a state of nihilistic futility. What I felt is captured in the words of the world-famous Austrian Jewish writer, Stefan Zweig, who was driven to suicide by the Holocaust:


What was most tragic in this Jewish tragedy of the twentieth century was that those who suffered it knew that it was pointless and that they were guiltless. Their forefathers and ancestors of medieval times had at least known what they suffered for; for their belief, for their law. They had possessed a talisman of the soul which today’s generation had long since lost, the inviolable faith in their God . . .


Returning home to the Bay Area in mid-July I felt a certainty that I had unconsciously known for so long: no great spiritual master, not even the Ba’al Shem Tov can erase the darkness, the terrifying uncertainties of life. The Ba’al Shem’s gift to us is a counter-vision of possibility, a way to affirm the goodness within creation and human life despite the great shadow that continually hangs over our existence.


We Jews said “Never again!” but genocide continues. The article on genocide in Wikipedia lists 28 instances of genocides since the end of World War II. So I must address the issue of faith today. What kind of faith can I, can we have in a world filled with unremitting tragedies and horrifying dangers, a world in which the traditional God of the Bible and the rabbis—the God who was supposed to come to our aid and protection and guarantee the continuity of human life—is absent?


I draw my faith from many sources, but most primarily from the Ba’al Shem Tov, reframing his vision of Judaism and God for our own time.


First of all, I have faith in my Self. Not my small peripheral ego-centered self, always changing, at times anxious and fearful, always looking out for what will be best for me. No, my faith in my Self has to do with what I sometimes call my deeper Self, my neshama, my soul or spirit. The Ba’al Shem Tov and the great kabbalists call this deeper aspect of the human Self, helek Eloha mi’ma’al—a portion of the divinity beyond. I sometimes call it the sacred psyche. It is the place of vision within me, the source of my experiences of inspiration, wonder, joy and meaning, the part of me that links me to those I love and to the totality of the universe. This is where I go when I meditate and pray.


The Dominican priest and poet, Paul Murray, begins one of his poems with these words:


                        Smaller than the small

                        I am that still centre

                        within you

                        that needle’s eye

                        through which all the threads

                        of the universe are drawn.


                        Perhaps you think you know me

                        but you do not know me . . .



It is this inward Self that opens me to the fundamentally sacred character of the natural world and of human and Jewish existence, and to the Holy Mystery that lies at the core of reality. In my ordinary state of separate awareness, I see this and that, the multiplicity of the world. But when I move into a more elevated state of consciousness, I can perceive that everything is part of the divinity of this world and that this divinity infuses each and every creation with its life, energy, beingness and love. If I am asked for a definition of what I mean by the word “God,” I answer, ha’ha’va’ya kula v’sod om’ka, “the wholeness of existence and the mystery at its depths.”


My deeper Self opens me to knowing that despite the chaos and tragedy that plague life on this planet, at its heart, the universe is an abode of unity and harmony, holiness and mystery.


My deeper Self affirms that despite human malevolence, there is a divine spark at the core of every human being, and that people of good will can make that spark into a flame in their lives and in the world.


My deeper Self teaches me to have faith in our human capacity for love and justice, our ability to ameliorate poverty, violence and war, and the necessity to engage in such tikkun olam.


My deeper Self links me to my community, here, where we share our joys with each another and are present for one another in times of adversity.


My deeper Self connects me with the Jewish people and with our millennia-old heritage, with those teachings, spiritual practices and holy times that can still open the heart to the depth, wonder and splendor of the universe.


My deeper Self teaches me to have faith in human equality and inclusiveness and in the spiritual empowerment of all people. We are a single human family, and we have a responsibility to preserve and sustain the earth we are a part of.


Barukh ha’Makom. Blessed be the mysterious and sacred Ground out of which we are born, in whose presence we live out our difficult and precious lives, and to which we will all one day return.

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