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  • Double Takes: Thinking and Rethinking Issues of Modern Judaism in Ancient Contexts
  • Eugene J. Fisher
Double Takes: Thinking and Rethinking Issues of Modern Judaism in Ancient Contexts, by Zev Garber and Bruce Zuckerman. Studies in the Shoah, Volume 26. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2004. 238 pp. $43.00.

This book contains ten essays, written individually and collaboratively by the authors. Seven are connected deeply with the Shoah, three with ancient biblical themes in modern context. In a "blurb" Catholic theologian John Pawlikowski calls the opening chapter on the terms "Holocaust" and "Shoah" a "gem" and the chapters on the Auschwitz Convent and the Rabin assassination "equally excellent." He is right, though I have a couple of footnotes to add, in the spirit of dialogue the authors both evoke and so well exemplify themselves.

The first chapter on Holocaust/Shoah should be required reading for any undergraduate or, indeed, graduate student in any field of study, so trenchant is its analysis of the power of a single word to encapsulate and subtly manipulate our communal historical memory. I do not mean to use the term "manipulate" in a pejorative sense here, since all historical memory is a complex of themes and subthemes chosen to frame and pass on to subsequent generations what meaning a given generation has managed to grasp out of the swirl of events and experiences of its time. The period of World War II, for its generation and indeed for that (Garber's, Zuckerman's, my own) which followed, is one such period in human history that must, for Jews and Christians alike, be encapsulated and passed on with what small illumination we may have been able to grasp from its enormous cost in human life and, indeed, humanity's understanding of itself as basically decent if flawed.

As Garber and Zuckerman show, the term "Holocaust" carries a profound sub-text, that of the solemn religious sacrifice of the Bible, 'olah, or "whole burnt offering." It is [End Page 149] used in this sense by Elie Wiesel, they also show, who sees in it a modern sacrifice or "binding" of Isaac. Christians, likewise, see Jesus' sacrifice as well as that of Isaac in the systematic murder of two-thirds of European Jewry. But is this theological interpretation, with its implication that the Holocaust might have some "higher" meaning, justified when it cannot be said in any rational sense that the victims, unlike Isaac or Jesus, went to their deaths willingly? The authors are right, I believe, in their rejection of this implication, subliminally comforting as it might be to our all too limited human sense of justice and hope. They note rightly, too, that Shoah, while preferable since it preserves the distinctive Jewishness of history, is also limited in that it implies a rather implacable natural event rather than the massive choosing of evil by a society and, ultimately, a continent. This reflection on words is bolstered and deepened by the second essay written by Garber, an historical one, which shows some of the ways believing Jews rethought the practice of their religion during the Shoah.

My one footnote on the first chapter would be to the authors' footnote 17, which notes that the first use of "holocaust," in the sense we understand it today, comes from a 1949 article by C. O. Dunbar. They are doubtlessly correct in this. But the first use of the term with reference to what was to become the Holocaust was, to my knowledge, uttered by a Catholic bishop in a national radio broadcast only a few days after Kristallnacht. After condemning the attacks on Jews in Europe, the bishop called for all people of good will to offer a "holocaust of prayers" for the victims. This, of course, was still the biblical usage of the term.

The jointly written article on the Auschwitz Convent imbroglio, which I must in the interests of free disclosure admit covers a set of events of which I was much more than a disinterested observer, is equally trenchant and required reading for anyone who wishes to understand the present period of Jewish-Christian relations. Just as a small aside it was in...


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