“Never Again!”: How are we doing so far?

Emmanuel Levinas, one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, dedicated the second of his two major works (he wrote many, many more than that) Otherwise than Being with the following:

To the memory of those who were closest among the six million assassinated by the National Socialists, and of the millions on millions of all confessions and all nations, victims of the same hatred of the other man, the same anti-semitism.
On the bottom of the same page, in Hebrew, he dedicates the book to the memory of his father and his mother, his brothers, his mother-in-law and his father-in-law, all of whom were killed by the Nazis. The dedication is sealed with the traditional Hebrew acronym for the statement: “Let their souls be bound in the binds of life.”

The next page has four epigraphs. Two quotes from Ezekiel, one quote from Rashi’s eleventh century commentary to Ezekiel and two quotes from Pascal, from the Pensées.

The second quote from Ezekiel is from Chapter 9:4-6:

Then he … said to him, “Pass through the city—through Jerusalem—and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men who sigh and cry for all the abominations that are done in the midst of it.” And to the others he said in my hearing, “Pass through the city after him, and slay without mercy or pity. Old men, young men and maidens, little children and women—strike them all dead! But touch no one on whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary!”

The narrative context of this strange and powerful quote is the arrival of a scribe in a vision to Ezekiel. That scribe is ordered to go through the city and mark the people who are righteous. Accompanying the scribe are six angelic beings each carrying a weapon of destruction. These latter are the ones who are commanded to “Pass through the city after him, and slay without mercy or pity.”

Rashi’s comment reads the story through the lens of the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat 55a. The Talmud focuses on the last phrase of the quoted passage. The Hebrew might be repointed to read ‘begin with those that sanctify me.’ This shocking rereading comes at the end of this conversation that the Talmud imagines between God and Truth. Truth is arguing that God should not spare anyone. God is arguing that only the wicked should die and the righteous should live. Truth wins.

Truth said to the Holy One of Blessing: “Master of the World, how are these different than these?”
God said to her: “These are completely righteous and these are completely wicked.”
She said before God: “Master of the World, they were able to protest and they did not protest.”
God said to her: “It is revealed and known to me that if they had protested, they would not have accepted the protest.”
She said to God: “Master of the World, though it is revealed to You, is it revealed to them?”

Truth speaks the voice of reality to God’s binary world of good and evil. There is culpability enough to spread around. Truth’s winning argument is that even though God might know that the protests of the righteous would have fallen on deaf ears, the righteous could not have been sure of that. Since this is so, they had an obligation to protest against the acts of the wicked. Not having protested places them in the same category as those who committed the acts.

This, it seems to me is Levinas’ moral rage which fuels his project of framing a way of thinking in which one cannot think war and genocide. It is not enough to be righteous. One must speak out.

For the memory of the the six million assassinated by the National Socialists, and of the millions on millions of all confessions and all nations, victims of the same hatred of the other person, the same anti-semitism, I pray we can live up to this challenge. Never be silent.

How are we doing so far?

Filed under Ethics, Philosophy, Religion, Shoah

One Response to ““Never Again!”: How are we doing so far?”

  1. May I suggest that a story which justifies “slaying without mercy or pity” an entire population including “little children” as the command of God–and then is further modified to justify the killing of even more people in the name of “Truth”–doesn’t seem terribly helpful in this context?

    William Burns · April 9th, 2013 at 7:13 am

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"I may attack a certain point of view which I consider false, but I will never attack a person who preaches it. I have always a high regard for the individual who is honest and moral, even when I am not in agreement with him. Such a relation is in accord with the concept of kavod habriyot, for beloved is man for he is created in the image of God." —Rav Joseph Soloveitchik