Rabbi Irving Greenberg is the new chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which oversees the holocaust museum in Washington DC. He spoke with the Monitor on the legacy of the World War II death camps and ongoing efforts to come to terms with it.
On the Holocaust as a transforming event:
There are events in history that force you to rethink the way you see the world. As a religious Jew, I found that the Holocaust posed very hard questions about belief in God when faced with such cruelty and devastation. Judaism is a religion of hope. I found that I could not go on in my religious life until I came to new understandings.
On the value of human life:
The weight of those 6 million killed is a testimony that there is no dignity and value in humans. I feel strongly that one of the primary responses to the Holocaust must be to reaffirm the value of human life - a new level of charity and social investment, and a rallying of conscience to make sure that it doesn't happen again.
It wasn't just the mass murder that made the Holocaust so terrible, it was the fact that there was systematic degradation of people even before they were killed. The idea that human beings are made in the image of God is the central teaching of the Bible: It implies the infinite value, quality, and uniqueness of every human being. If you thought human beings were valuable and unique, you could not kill them. You have to first stereotype them to deny their uniqueness, and then you can put numbers on them - then, it's not like killing a person.
On the challenge to religion:
I took away from my study of the Holocaust a challenge and critique of Christianity: Here was the Gospel of love that had turned out to be a major source of the stereotyping of Jews. It set Jews in a circle of hatred that made them vulnerable to the Nazi movement. There's a challenge that goes out of the Holocaust for every religious tradition: Is there anything in your tradition that doesn't do justice to the uniqueness and equality of every human being.
That question led me to a critique of my own tradition: Does Judaism have within it elements of stereotyping and negative images [of others] that need to be critiqued? I came to the conclusion that Judaism had to improve its attitude toward non-Jewish religions.
On response to the Holocaust Museum:
This museum was set up by unanimous vote of Congress, and 80 percent of its visitors are not Jewish. I think this reflects a view that the implications and the lessons of the Holocaust go far beyond the Jewish community. At first, people said that no one would come because people want to hear happy endings. I believe quite the contrary, people want to know what is challenging morally.
On response to future genocides:
The world didn't stop [the killing in] Rwanda or Bosnia. But we intervened more than we did 50 years ago. I dream of a world where, sensitized by memory of the Holocaust, the whole world intervenes to stop it from happening in the future.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society