Friday, July 5, 2019

Writing a Book about Elie Wiesel

I have decided to write a book about Elie Wiesel.  Elie Wiesel is arguably the most important theological writer in the past fifty years.  Wiesel wrote fifty-three books as a witness to what happened during the Holocaust.  In many of these books he grappled with his understanding of God.  I am planning to write a book dealing with Wiesel’s understanding of God during those days.

In his first and most celebrated book, Night, Wiesel declares his problem with the justice of God.  As he says, “I was no longer the accused.  I was the accuser.”  Wiesel wrote his many books in the name of those millions of Jews murdered during the Holocaust.  Their voices had been stilled but their questions could not be silenced.  Wiesel wrote on their behalf and asked questions about the character and methodology of God.  The strange part about Wiesel’s work is he did not see his questions as a sign of unbelief but as part of a commitment to God and God’s promises.

Whenever a writer writes, the blank page or screen stares back and makes him or her wonder if they have anything worthwhile to say.  But this book has been cooking inside me for many years.  So here it goes.

Friday, June 21, 2019

Vacation is Fine, But . . .

I love to travel but I do not travel well.  My circadian body and brain waves know when I have left the comforts of home and they insistently and anxiously enquire as to why I have vacated such a pleasant place.  I explain that it’s called summer vacation.  You travel to northern Minnesota to experience the shimmering beauty of Ten Mile Lake.  You relaxingly walk through the quaint shops and eating facilities of Walker and Hackensack, Minnesota.  In the house you rent, you sit on the deck and stare at the water, listen to the loons communicating with each other, get away from the everyday and come down a bit from the usual tensions of life.  All of this is true.

Vacations are fine but they take you away from the one place where you have some control and comfort.  That place is called home.  Yes, I have travelled throughout the world, from India to Israel to Poland to Slovakia to Montreal.  But, as I get older, I find myself increasingly becoming a homebody.

It is well said that the opposite of faith is control. At home, you feel mostly in control and relatively safe. On vacation, you are less in control and forced to trust without knowing for sure.  Along with all the wonders of the lake are its uncontrollable aspects: the weather cloudy and cool with chances of rain each day, the hungry voracious mosquitoes who inhabit your bedroom and seem to delight in waiting until you go to sleep before they attack,  the low seat uncomfortable toilets with which my becoming older body is less than pleased, and the indigestion and stomach aches which kick in whenever I indulge in a lot of junk food.

And, think about it, the word travel itself originates from the old French word travail meaning “work.”

Vacations are fine but . . .  they are a lot of work.  I give massive credit to my wife for getting everything ready for the trip and organizing the schedule of what to do and where to eat up there.  And, don’t get me wrong.  I love sitting in front of the lake and watching the sun touch the water creating a sparkling diamond effect.  Just plain spiritually beautiful!  But when I come home, I feel my whole limbic system take a sigh of relief and relax.  The work is done, now the true vacation begins.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Believing and Not Believing in God

Years ago, I was traveling to Salt Lake City to deliver a lecture at a conference dealing with “The Aftermath of the Holocaust.”  Sitting in the courtesy van after arriving in Utah, I was seated next to a gentleman from Israel, also attending the conference.  As we talked, he asked me what my presentation would be about.  I told him the title of my paper was: Speaking of God After Auschwitz?”  He gave me an odd paternalistic look and then in the kindest solicitous voice said, “My good sir, there is no god.”  It was as if he were telling me as a child, there is no Easter rabbit or Santa Claus. 

Such events make me wonder if indeed, as a religious affirming person, I am wrong.  Have I invested my life in nonsense? Am I just another human being distressed by the thought of being alone in the world, fearful of death, and controlled by fear, imagining myself being accompanied by a parental character called, God, when there is nothing there?

This, of course, is our contemporary dilemma.  We hear the voices of those who are convinced there is no God and no meaning to our existence.  We wonder if they are right and we are wrong.  Those of us who think about such things know we must ask the questions, though they may cause doubts and even unbelief, because they bring integrity to our faith.  Our scriptures are aware of our existential plight: “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”

My sense is this:  If you’re going to be a person of honest faith, trusting without knowing for sure, you are going to have to live in the tension between belief and unbelief.  Some days you will think all this talk of God is part of some religious mythology made up and imagined by the ancients, while other days you will wonder if something of purpose is going on in our lives.  Such is the life of trusting in an invisible, mysterious, inscrutable, puzzling force at the heart of the universe, who we hope is for us and not against us.  

We are either fools afraid of our own shadows or among the wise who believe what seems ludicrous to believe.  Of course, we may be both.  Don’t run away from this tension, embrace it!

Friday, May 31, 2019

Why I Keep Studying the Holocaust

For the past forty years I have been obsessed by the Holocaust. It may be because my parents were survivors.  Maybe because I am Jewish.  Maybe because so many of my relatives were murdered over there.  Whatever it is, I teach the Holocaust in my classes.  I read what I can on the subject.  I have visited Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  I have been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D. C.  I am presently thinking of writing a book on the works of Elie Wiesel.

Why do I care so much about an event that is almost eighty years in our past?  Isn’t it enough?  What more can possibly be said or discovered?  Let it go.  But I cannot and will not.  Why?

Eighty years ago, in the heart of Europe something happened which revealed to us the light and the darkness of the human soul.  The Nazi revelation teaches us the capacities of the human being to commit evil and to be rationally convinced that doing so is right.  Yes, there have been other horrific events which could also function as a revelation but none so well documented and unprecedented as the Holocaust.

There is book entitled: The Nazi Conscience by Claudia Koonz.  She describes how Nazis woke up each day, went to their jobs, day after day after day, murdered Jews and others in massive numbers and were convinced they were right.  Their consciences were clear.  Many were lifelong Christians who did not see any contradiction between the mass killing and the Gospel of their faith.  For all their training in religious faith, their love of classical music, their education steeped in the liberal arts, none of it prevented the evil which occurred. Some of Hitler’s most prominent supporters were university professors in the Humanities and Natural Sciences not to mention prominent Christian pastors, theologians and philosophers. 

The Holocaust is a warning to us about what can happen.

As time goes by and the survivors continue to die, will the memory of the Holocaust also diminish, decline and fade away?  Today, the younger generations tell us they have not heard of it. 

So, I cannot and will not let go because I hope against hope if we keep studying, it may cumulatively have some effect.  Maybe, some of my students will eventually teach the Holocaust themselves.  Maybe a student who became a Pastor will remember, in his or her sermon, to caution the congregation to be aware of anti-Judaism in the New Testament.  Maybe some will teach their children to remember.  Maybe some will not forget. I hope so.

If I keep studying and teaching the Holocaust it is because I am puzzled and dismayed by the amazing power of fear in our brains.  That fear seems to resist taming by love, religion, the arts, the sciences, theology and philosophy, psychological therapy, and of course common sense.  There is something in our brains that resists taming the fear of the stranger.

To be honest, remembering and studying the Holocaust may not prevent other mass murders.  Since 1945 there have been many catastrophes, from the Cambodian Khmer Rouge murders to the Rwandan genocide and much more.  The killing has not stopped.  We feel helpless and it may be hopeless, but that is precisely why we must do what we can never to forget.  It is why I cannot stop studying the Holocaust.  The old Jewish saying is correct, “In memory lies redemption.”

Friday, May 24, 2019

Remembering My Father

My father, Bernard Haar emigrated to America in 1947.  Having survived the camps which were part of the Nazi madness, he never spoke about his experience.   He married my mother Pola whom he had met in a DP camp in Germany. In New York City, he worked long hours, six days a week, as a clothing operator in a sweat shop but he hated the work.  And he constantly exhorted and encouraged me saying, “Get an education so you won’t have to do this.”  He came home from work each day tired, worn out, falling asleep on the living room chair after supper.

He was Jewish but not very religious though he never ceased to exhort me not to forget I was Jewish.   He could be stern, and he had a temper, but he could also be kind and caring with a humorous twinkle in his eyes.  When I was ill, he had this most wonderfully concerned and caring look on his face.   But, when I had not behaved well during the day, he could, when he came home from work, and at my Mom’s instigation, go after me with his belt.  Such was parenting in those days.

Despite all that, many days I would go to the Moshulu train station on Jerome Avenue and wait for him to come home from work.  I loved him but did not know him and I am not sure he knew what to make of me.  I was rebellious and questioned his authority.  It was the 1960’s and I embraced that era and was embraced by it.  

 He liked to play pinochle on the weekends in the park with “the old men.”  On Friday and Saturday nights he was gone late into the night to play poker with other survivors from those days.

At home he and my Mom argued in Yiddish and Polish a lot, mostly about money, my Dad’s constant card playing and who knows what else?  They did not have much and lived from paycheck to paycheck.  They had come from Europe but had never really acclimated to the States.  All their lives they lived in one-bedroom apartments and slept on a hide-a-bed in the living room, so their kids could have a real bed in the lone bedroom.

My father and I did not talk much, but we played Stratego, Rummy, went swimming together, and walked to Crotona park to have a catch.  He would throw the Spalding ball high in the air and I would try to catch it.  What a grand memory!  One time we went to Yankee stadium, but he did not enjoy the experience.

After I joined the Air Force, he would write me many letters exhorting me not to forget I was Jewish.  When I was twenty-one and at the height of my adolescent wisdom, nothing my parents said could dissuade me from what I knew was right; I decided to become a Christian.   My Dad tried to talk me out of my great wisdom.  But I was stubborn, foolish and determined. Only with age did I discover how wrong I had been and how I had hurt my parents, especially my Dad unnecessarily.  I am sorry, Dad.

When my father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1979, I went home to see him.  We talked and I confessed that I now realized my mistaken decisions.  We went for a long walk on a beautiful sunny Fall day in the Bronx, father and son just talking.  When it was time for me to leave, and as the taxi waited outside the apartment building on Gates Place, we hugged, I said, “I love you Dad”; we kissed on the lips and said good-by.   There is so much more I still wanted to say to him.  

Up until the day he died, my father had black hair.  He looked twenty years younger than he was.  But when I told him, “Dad, you look young.”  He would routinely answer, “Yes, but I feel old.”

I hope my own children realize the fragility of life.  I hope we will talk and say what we want and need to say.  Life is indeed short.  You’re here and then you’re not here.  Btw, I think my Dad did the best he could with what he had and what had happened to him. I forgave him his human flaws as he forgave me mine.  Here’s to Bernard Haar.  May his memory be for a blessing.  I miss him.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Life After Life

Having entered my seventh decade, I think about what it all means.  While the human brain is amazingly agile, it has problems with mortality.  I know intellectually that getting older and eventually dying is part of life.  But my brain is not at home with that reality.  Maybe I fear the process of deterioration, the thought of saying good-bye, and let’s be honest, disappearing is a strange phenomenon.  Intellectually I understand it but emotionally I fear it.

There is an old word used by theologians called prolepsis.  A future event holds us in its grip for good or for bad though it has not yet occurred.  Christians tell us of their hope that when we die, we shall be raised to live with God eternally.  Jews talk about the “olam haba”, the world to come, where we shall live with God and study texts in that realm.  And Muslims also trust in a life after life where the way we have lived our lives will be examined.  So, why are these words not comforting?

Because I am not sure I believe it.  Is there really something else going on?  I hope so but I am not sure.  Some of you have more certainty or stronger trust than I do.

But, here’s the deal. Every night I lay down, let go, and disappear for about eight hours and the world seems to get along quite well without me.  When I go on sabbatical from the university, they keep right on teaching Religion without me.  And if or when I become seriously ill, how would that be different from what happens to everybody else? The fact is, we are engaged in “perpetual loss” and we are compelled to figure out how to keep going day after day.

This fear of getting sick and dying is sobering and real.  We all feel it.   But I do not intend to let it control me.  We are here to live our lives as well as possible.  I say to you and myself, be honest, express your fears and doubts but don’t let them run your life.  Live your life as well and full as you can and, life after life will take care of itself.

Friday, May 10, 2019

Speaking in Chapel

This past week, I spoke in chapel.  As usual, it was a nerve-wracking experience.  Why?  First, I am a Jew and a former Christian speaking in a Christian Lutheran chapel under the shadow of the cross.  I have about 8-10 minutes to say something worthwhile.  And, I feel like the insider/outsider stranger speaking. 

I spoke about faith being a problematic and unsure endeavor.  Faith means trusting in an invisible mysterious unpredictable being with an inconsistent record.  It means trusting without knowing for sure, with the distinct possibility of being wrong.  As much as I believe there is something going on, that there is meaning and a God behind all that is happening, I could just as easily be deluded. 

After the Holocaust, how God is present in the world is problematic and we ought to be honest about it.  Acting like nothing has happened and we can just turn the page and go on doing what was always done is problematic, a betrayal of the victims, and terribly unjust.

So, chapel is a troubled and anxious space for me.  But I appreciate the honor of being asked, and the willingness of students and faculty to listen. 

As always, I bolted out the side door right after the service, because I feel like an intruder into somebody else’s faith tradition and need to exit quickly.

So, why do it? Why speak in chapel if it produces so much anxiety?  Because after all that has happened between Jews and Christians, between me and the Christian Church, after the Holocaust, it is important to have one Jew, maybe the only one ever in this place, to speak up with all due respect, and say again the ever important Jewish no and yes.