Judaic Studies and the Holocaust


Selection in the Birkenau concentration camp (image from the Wikipedia Commons)

Selection in the Birkenau concentration camp (image from the Wikipedia Commons)

Judaic Studies and the Holocaust

by Claudia Moscovici 

As I begin my research and writing on the Holocaust, it’s only natural to reflect about the discipline such a project pertains to: namely, the field of Judaic Studies.  In what follows I’d like to describe what “Judaic Studies” means to me.

Diversity. In my estimation, Judaic Studies is more about intellectual and artistic affinities, a wide-ranging cultural curiosity, and the willingness to learn from one another than about having a common religious or ethnic identity. The Jewish people themselves come from every culture and civilization; speak almost every language on Earth; range widely in religious background (from deeply observant orthodoxy to secular), and have no agreed-upon political views. And yet, for thousands of years they have felt affinities with each other and been united in a strong yet mysterious “family resemblance,” or a series of overlapping connections and similarities, to use Wittgenstein’s term.  Personally, I feel a sense of subjective affinity with the Jewish people and traditions that are partly motivated by my upbringing and family history but that can’t be reduced to that.

Centripetal and centrifugal cultural forces. Judaic Studies therefore is not about manifesting or seeking an ethnic essence or unified cultural and religious identity. In such a program, there’s no competition of who is most “authentically Jewish.”  This makes sense, especially given the fact that, as history has shown, to be discriminated against on the basis of your “Judaism” you don’t have to have Jewish parents or religious beliefs. According to Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws, a “Jew” was a person who had three or four Jewish grandparents. This tenet cast a wide net of discrimination. One of my favorite painters, Marc Chagall, was obliged between the years 1941-1948 to escape from occupied (Vichy) France to the United States once the Nazi regime occupied France. But so was Vladimir Nabokov, the prize-winning Russian author. Nabokov was not Jewish himself, but he expressed affinities for the Jewish people.  That was enough to endanger his life. I am impressed by what I’d describe as a simultaneous push and pull, or the centrifugal and centripetal forces, that exist in a hybrid program like Judaic Studies. There’s a force away from any set identity or even agreed-upon religious core yet, at the same time, an attraction to Jewish culture, religion and achievements in all domains across the centuries.

Manifest curiosity about all fields without claiming to master them. To write a work pertaining to Judaic Studies, you don’t have to pretend to know everything about Jewish cultures and religion. Thank goodness, since that would be an impossible task. How can anyone know everything about thousands of years of such heterogeneous cultures and traditions? Nowadays, nobody can become Encyclopedic in the way the philosophes were during the Enlightenment. There’s no way anyone can be familiar with thousands of years of Jewish history; the vast transformations in Judaism and its religious and cultural practices; the multiplicity of languages spoken (aside from Hebrew and Yiddish); the immense contributions that both Jews and those who were interested in Judaism have made in every field of human knowledge.

 The Holocaust and Judaic Studies. Any study of the Holocaust is central to the field of Judaic Studies because it pertains to the darkest epoch in Jewish history, when the Jews were targeted for discrimination, deportation and eventually extermination precisely for being Jewish. In The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt emphasizes repeatedly that although other groups were also targeted by the Nazi regime for extermination—for example, the Gypsies—it was not accidental that the extermination of Jews throughout Europe and, if possible, in the entire world was Hitler’s (and various Nazi regimes) number one social priority. And yet, in my book reviews, I also wish to emphasize that the Holocaust is not a subject that is relevant only to the Jews or that pertains only to the discipline of Judaic Studies. While having particular relevance for the Jewish people, it is at the same time a subject with universal, human significance. As Primo Levi states in The Drowned and The Saved, “It happened, therefore it can happen again.” Whatever complex historical conditions made it possible to dehumanize, ostracize and kill millions of people can occur again, in a similar manner, against the Jews or other groups of people.  The only way to address these atrocities is by acknowledging them, learning about them and doing our best to avoid them now and in the future.  This begins, on an existential level, with saying “No” to even the first step of dehumanizing groups of people in order to discriminate against them and do them harm.  The books I will be reviewing in Holocaust Memory offer vivid reminders about where the process of dehumanization can lead and how it impacts individuals, not statistics.  It’s unfortunately quite possible to depersonalize suffering when considering it on such a massive, almost unimaginable scale: the death of over six million people. The way they died– most often shot en masse or in gas chambers after being subjected to enormous cruelty and abuse–was in itself, quite deliberately, the most abject form of dehumanization. Each Holocaust narrative from a survivor pays homage to, and helps us remember, the importance and the value of each of the millions of human beings who suffered and perished in the Holocaust.


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