Shoah or Churban?

Shoah or Churban?

Reflections occasioned by Pierre Bouretz Witnesses for the Future[i]

The popular Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami, provides a clue to the entrancing plot of his Kafka on the Shore with a particularly apt quote – placed for the reader at a somewhat unexpected moment – from Henri Bergson:

The pure present is an ungraspable advance of the past devouring the future. In truth all sensation is already memory. [ii]

Murakami’s work is built upon the Second World War, particularly the devastations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the effect of collective trauma upon the individual and society.  The Anglo-Jewish community has similarly struggled through a period of apparent consolidation and normalisation following the Holocaust and the birth pangs of the State of Israel.  It is perhaps not surprising that, on the whole, the Jewish world appears largely oblivious of wider global concerns. Though rabbis certainly give topical sermons and may make references, for example, to miracles at Chanukah in relationship to world oil shortages, there is little mainstream Jewish involvement in the critical issues which are likely to effect the future for our children and our children’s children – whether climate change, shortage of resources, over-population or biodiversity and the disappearance of species.

But Judaism is nothing if it does not dream of the future and find ways to realise those dreams. The task laid upon Abraham ‘to be a blessing to humanity’[iii] remains the central call of the Jewish people and this is not a dream in the sense of some vague, vacuous hope – Torah, oral and written, is filled with the details as to how the present can be repaired. Such is tikkun olam and we lose sight of it at our peril. But there is a promise: ‘The doctrine of the Messiah who will be sent by God to redeem Israel and usher in a new era in which all mankind will worship the true God is one of Judaism’s most distinctive teachings.’[iv]

To help us, Pierre Bouretz has written an extraordinary book Witnesses for the Future, a rich kol bo of nine twentieth century, originally German, Jewish thinkers. Bouretz (1958 – ) is Director of a French Higher Education Social Sciences Academy and a Jewish scholar of repute. The book is beautifully translated and easy to read and his comment upon Scholem is true of his own work: its strength is that ‘it manages at one and the same time to block out vast structures in broad outline and to fill in miniatures’. [v]

Leo Strauss once suggested, perhaps optimistically: ‘No one can be both a philosopher and a theologian…but every one of us can and should be either one or the other, the philosopher open to the challenge of theology, or a theologian open to the challenge of philosophy.’[vi]  Bouretz provides us with both the materials and pointers to find our own way through the thickets but there is no avoiding the complexities. Understanding here demands struggle but the work is lightened by fascinating details. An example occurs in the Introduction and gives a taste of what follows:

There is a page in Kafka’s journals that reveals, even better than the “Letter to His Father,” the private feelings shaping a historical consciousness. He has just heard the prayer that ends the meal after a circumcision, and notices that, with the exception of two grandfathers, no one understands the meaning of the words. “I saw Western European Judaism before me in a transition whose end is clearly unpredictable and about which those most closely affected are unconcerned.” That note is dated 24 December 1911. In reading Scholem’s autobiography, we discover that he, on the very same day, attended a family Christmas ritual for the last time, a ceremony that for him had become a palinode: thereafter he would leave his parents’ home for that evening. For him it was the fact that a portrait of Theodore Herzl had been placed at the foot of the Christmas tree that brought on the crisis.[vii]

The confusions of Jewish life and thought and the events of the century that were to unfold form the background context which shapes the writers. They, Bouretz explains, are:

Jewish thinkers, born during the time of the disenchantment of the world, of the “death of God,” and the destruction of reason [who] in a sense, [they] saved German idealism…chiefly because they remained metaphysicians. It is true that each expressed this in his own fashion: classical in Cohen, and reflected in the history of philosophy in Strauss; reconstructed for Rosenzweig, Levinas and Jonas; wrenched apart for a Benjamin who would find in Bloch a kind of surviving brother who had revived hope; gracefully by way of Buber’s empathy with his mystical object; austere in Scholem, who at times pretends to be no more than a detached historian.[viii]

These are the nine writers and the liveliness of the book lies partly in the richness of their conversations and interchanges. In fact, the relationships and the details of their lives are so evocative – the fact that Heschel taught Buber modern Hebrew,[ix] for example, or how moved Scholem was by finding Kafka’s picture on S.H. Bergman’s piano on his arrival in Jerusalem[x] – that we may be tempted to relegate their ideas to secondary consideration.  Bouretz does not do this. Instead, he scrutinizes, through close examination of one or more areas of each writer’s work:

…an idea sometimes perceived as the only one to survive the decline of the Tradition, but sufficiently malleable to be interpreted for different ends: that of a messianism that delineates, on the horizon, a consummation of history, or announces its apocalyptic interruption, suggesting a continuous perfection of the world or at least its progressive repair.[xi]

How do we think of the time of the Messiah? This is a central question and the past is made present here as the writers look back in order to make sense of their own times. The way of looking is pivotal:

Know that there is a twofold way of looking at all worlds. The one reveals their exteriority, that is to say, general laws of the world in terms of their external form. The other reveals the inner being of the worlds, that is to say the essence of human souls.[xii]

The key issues turn out to be ‘language,’ ‘time’ and ‘evil’ (as well as ‘Zionism and Israel’.) As early as 1918,  (that is, well before Heidegger’s major 1927 work on Being and Time,) Scholem wrote in his Diary some Remarks on Judaism and Time, first quoting Hermann Cohen, in words that echo those of Bergson but without the passion and entirely missing the key Jewish component of memory:

Being is not immobilised in the present, but it is in suspense beyond the present. Present and future are united in that Being that is God.

Scholem then, probably influenced by his discussions with Benjamin, refers to Exodus 3:14,

The true Name of God is also the I of time. This means that the basis, but also the complement, of all empirical time is the divine, the eternal present; thus God will be what he was in all the generations.’  He continues, What does the biblical expression “in all the days” mean? The fact that the kingdom of God that “will be” is already present and that the messianic kingdom is the “present of history.”[xiii]

Scholem appears to suggest here that the germ of messianic times is present at every moment. But how does this concept survive the destruction of European Jewry? Bloch’s work is unexpectedly helpful. He, too, breaks with the tradition (begun by Calvin and continued by Mendelssohn,) of translating the Name of God as, ‘I am the Being who is eternal,’ and chooses instead the words of Buber and Rosenzweig,: ‘“I shall be who I shall be” – that is, not a substance identical with itself but ‘the solidarity of God with the human experience of time, against the backdrop of an unpredictability of the future.’[xiv]  This enables Bloch to re-read Job in an original way. Basing his interpretation on Job 19: 25-27, initially on the phrase ‘I know that my redeemer lives,’ Bloch points out that Job and God do not speak the same language: the God of the Creation is answering one who calls in the name of the God of the Covenant. Bloch points to the derivation of ‘redeemer’ from the root meaning of goel: blood avenger! Bouretz comments, ‘[Bloch] solemnly calls upon God…against God… Messianism is here made manifest, in all the strength of its antithesis to the given world.’[xv] In the idea of a world born of a divine contraction (tzimtzum), Bloch sees the indication that messianism is older than belief in the Messiah: ‘Instead of the glory of the alpha or morning of creation, the wishful space of the end or day of deliverance presses forward….no religion has passed through so many layers of sublimation, even of utopianization of its god.’[xvi] Bloch here rejects “theodicies of non-responsibility” – the multiplicity of figures elaborated to explain the experience of evil – by finding, at one and the same time, “a language in which to accuse” and “a light to nourish his rebellious hope.”[xvii]

This sensitive reading of goel demonstrates the importance of examining language in detail. The meaning of ‘messianism’ and associated words and concepts changes through history, which leads directly to the sharp warning that Scholem gave on the use of Hebrew in Palestine as the vernacular and the potential descent to the abyss: ‘if we…resuscitate the language of the ancient books so that it can reveal itself anew to [the Volapuks], must then not the religious violence of this language one day break out against those who speak it?’ [xviii] Of course, at another level entirely, mystics like Abulafia penetrating below the level of words, listen to the individual letters and their combinations so that the ‘plucking of each  ‘is compared to a finely tuned string and becomes music.’[xix]

Jews, of course, are great music lovers, not least amongst them Rabbi Tony Bayfield, who has found in it sustaining energies and would probably agree with Schopenhauer’s observation of ‘its unrivaled capacity for listening to being’. Bloch, too, hears hints in music of the coming of the Messiah and Bouretz, drawing upon him, writes:

To Nietzsche, music was of all forms of culture the one that comes last, bringing to one epoch the language of the one preceding it before disappearing. Handel, bringing to the ear the best of Luther, Mozart musically evoking the courtly style of Lous XIV, or Beethoven externalizing an eighteenth century “of vague elation, ruined ideals and fleeting joys”: so many indications in [Bloch’s] view that music “comes too late” when it frees what the world of yore contained in a muted mode.[xx]

Bloch even suggests:

clairvoyance is long extinguished but should not, however, a clairaudience, a new kind of seeing from within, be imminent, which, now that the visible world has become too weak to hold the spirit, will call forth the audible world, the refuge of the light, the primacy of the inner flame instead of the former primacy of seeing, if ever the hour to speak in music comes?’ [xxi]

Clearly we have in Bouretz almost limitless resources to study how twentieth century Jewish thinkers both dealt with the issues they confronted and were able to think towards a future, philosophically and theologically.

Now, the divine unity upon which Jewish thinking is dependent, which it exemplifies and out of which the messianic strain arises, calls us as we look towards the future, to act in righteousness and justice in meeting the needs of our times and so bring about the coming of the Messiah. So are we taught by the Prophets, who passed judgment on their times, criticising false values in the Name of the oneness of the true God.  If part of Rabbi Tony Bayfield’s unique contribution has been educational as the way to enhance Judaism’s self-understanding,  another has been inter-faith work, both learning from other traditions, and teaching our understanding and experience, so that, as Rosenzweig explained, the Star can radiate outwards. Murakami’s work, for example, won The Jerusalem Prize in 2009 and Steven Johnson chooses to use Benjamin’s Angel of History as the prologue to his tale of how a doctor and a clergyman, working together, discovered in the 1840’s that cholera was a water-borne disease, leading to its potential eradication.[xxii] The Angel hovers, looking back but irresistibly blown forward by the storm from Paradise. ‘Where a chain of events appears to us, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet… What we call progress is this storm.’[xxiii]

Each of the nine teachers was in continual dialogue with the great philosophers and theologians of the age: Kant and Hegel in particular, but also Nietzsche and, of course, Heidegger. In the ‘global village’ in which we now live where the speed, the ubiquity of communication and developing paradigms of thought, (including the necessity to hear the voice of women, [xxiv]) forces us to recognise the unity of humanity and all life, we, too must engage with great teachers from other traditions who will challenge us to make sense of the situation in which we find ourselves and respond adequately.

We may turn, for example, to the Latin American ‘liberation’ theologian, Leonardo Boff, who drawing on new understanding that has emerged in our time,[xxv] writes:

A sustainable way of life is humankind’s new ethical and cultural dream. It entails another way of conceiving the common feature of Earth and humankind and, accordingly, it demands a true revolution in hearts and minds, values and habits, forms of production and relationship with nature. It entails understanding that “Humanity is part of a vast evolving universe” and that “Earth, our home, is alive”; it also entails living “the spirit of human solidarity and kinship with all life,” and assuming responsibility for the present and future well-being of the human family and the larger living world,” taking care to use the scarce goods of nature rationally so as not to do harm to natural capital or to future generations who also have a right to a good quality of life and minimally just institutions, “being more, not having more” and living “with reverence for the mystery of being, gratitude for the gift of life and humility regarding the human place in nature.”[xxvi]

In 1981, Rabbi Bayfield chose to entitle his guide for young people, Churban,[xxvii] basing himself on the teaching of Rabbi Maybaum that ‘the churban has the messianic power of achieving progress.’[xxviii]  Maybaum’s messianism did not include a return to Israel, while Scholem and Buber thought that it was only ‘over there’ that the Jewish people could ‘revive,’[xxix]  (though Buber himself quickly became critical of Zionist leadership.) The current apparently intransigent situation of Israel will, no doubt, be just one area which Tony will consider as he continues his work to realise the vision: ‘Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life.’[xxx]


[i]   Published by John Hopkins Baltimore 2010) The title is taken from a letter from Benjamin to Scholem, page 7

[ii]  H. Bergson Matter and Memory quoted by Murakami, H. Kafka on the Shore (publ. Penguin 2005) page 294

[iii] Genesis 12:3

[iv] Jacobs, L. A Jewish Theology (DLT, London 1973) page 292

[v]  Bouretz page 350.The text is fully referenced and citations can be found on notes to the page.

[vi] ibid.page 14

[vii]  ibid page 3

[viii] ibid page 6

[ix] ibid page 359

[x]  ibid page 225. Kafka’s influence is constantly present.

[xi] ibid page 6

[xii] ibid page 429, probably from Safed kabbalists.

[xiii]  ibid page 238

[xiv]  ibid page 469. On page 864 note 169, Bouretz comments: This translation could claim the authority of Rashi, who draws on the Talmud (Berakhot 9b) to explain: ‘I will be with them in that trial as I will be with them in their subjugation to other empires.’

[xv]  ibid page 466 The passage from Bloch that Bouretz quotes is, he notes, missing from the English translation

[xvi] ibid page 468. Pages 469-70 deal with the conflict between responsibility and hope exemplified by Jonas and Bloch. Bouretz quotes Levinas, ‘Monotheism surpasses and subsumes atheism, but it is impossible for those who have not reached the age of doubt, loneliness and revolt,’ and suggests this could not be better illustrated than by Bloch page 475

[xvii]  Levinas comments (Bouretz op. cit. pages 472-3) that Bloch’s exceptional daring here resides in the effort to place the presentiment of a victory over death at the exact point where philosophy begins: astonishment. This follows Plato who suggests that philosophy begins in wonder.

[xviii]  ibid page 344 in a 1926 letter from Palestine to Rosenzweig.  The Volapuks speak an artificially constructed language.

[xix]ibid page 262

[xx] ibid page 450. Schopenhauer, Bouretz notes, hears it the other way round: music heralds or ushers in the age.

[xxi] ibid page 451

[xxii] Johnson, S. The Ghost Map (publ Penguin 2007) Johnson is a systems thinker, a specialist on internet development.

[xxiii] Bouretz op. cit. page 215

[xxiv] Bouretz comments Arendt was excluded as being “marginal as a ‘witness for the future,’ though exemplary from the point of view of a thinking of ‘dark days’ (a phrase she borrowed from Brecht).” Note 15 page 722. Perhaps, however, her thought remains too challenging.

[xxv] Particularly that of James Lovelock, the Gaia theory, that Earth is a living system.

[xxvi] Boff, L. The Ethics of Care in Corcoran, P.B. and Wohlpart, A.J. A Voice for Earth (Georgia UP, Athens and London 2008.) Quotes are from the Earth Charter www.earthcharter.org

[xxvii] Bayfield, A. Churban (publ Michael Goulston Educational Foundation, London 1981)

[xxviii] Maybaum, I. The Face of God after Auschwitz (publ. Polak and van Gennep, Amsterdam, 1965) In contrast to churban, shoah suggests destruction without hope.

[xxix] Bouretz op. cit. Page 163 Rosenzweig says that Scholem wrote him the Judaism of the Diaspora ‘was in a state of the clinically dead’

[xxx] The sentence that completes the Earth Charter, contributed by Rabbi Awraham Soetendorp.

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