How Could God and the Jewish Holocaust Co-exist?Kenneth PreissMay 2006
Jewish experience brought to humanity, in biblical times, a philosophy of thought, law and action that had a deep and lasting effect. This brief paper points out that Jewish experience again offers humanity an essential message of thought and behavior.At every annual Passover dinner the Jewish family traditionally reads the exodus story. This does not dwell on the misery of slavery in Egypt, but relates primarily the flight to freedom and the building of a community of free people under God-given laws for society and for the individual. Tradition credits God with the achievement of freedom, but the effort was made by people. They prepared to flee, they followed Moses into the waters of the sea, and when he brought them the law they said they would first accept the law and only then ask for explanations. In a powerful two-word Hebrew sentence they said, "we will do then we will hear". It is unlikely that those individuals spent forty years in a religious trance; more likely they were caught up in their daily chores, worrying about a personal and collective future they could not possibly foresee. They had no idea, and could not imagine, that nearly 150 generations and 3500 years later they would be considered part of a heroic generation, and that the stories told to them would have become woven into the cultural fabric of billions of people living in a world of unprecedented material comfort. It was unimaginable to them that the irksome laws to which they were subject would become the basis of what many generations later would be termed 'Civilization'.Jewish tradition mandates that no one should be uninvited and lonely at Passover night; telling the Passover story is both a personal and collective experience. In the telling each person says "this God did for me in bringing me from slavery in Egypt. Me and not another." Emerging from slavery to build a society of free people under God-given law is told as a story of current personal experience. In the Exodus story the travails of slavery are no more than the context for the principles of Mosaic law and practice. In current human affairs two major and related factors are exponentially expanding technological capability and exponentially expanding population. These expansions are intertwined both in their causes and their effects. Increasing population increases the numbers of people who create technology, and changes in technology facilitate increase of population. The historical data shows both how large the human population is and how rapidly it is increasing:In 1800 there were 1 billion people on the planet.In 1900 there were 1.6 billion, 15% in cities.In 2000 there were 6.0 billion, 55% in cities.The 20th century saw a fundamental change in humanity, from being sparsely distributed and rural, to being densely distributed and mainly urban. UN predictions for this century are that by year 2050 human population will be in the range 7.7 to 10.7 billion. By the time a baby born today in a developed country reaches its life expectancy, in the year 2080, the world population will be up to double the year 2000 value. This increase in population, with all its many implications, will be the principle determinant of 21st century history.The exponential increase in population is accompanied by an exponential expansion of scientific and technical knowledge. Kurzweil presents data showing that scientific and technical knowledge has been expanding exponentially for at least a century. This exponential expansion is to be expected because the rate of creation of such knowledge depends upon the total stock of knowledge existing at any point in time. We live in an era when exponentially expanding scientific and technical knowledge meets an exponentially expanding human population. The Jewish experience during the 20th century illustrates the two opposite modes of behavior created by this collision.The conceptual machinery that fueled the enterprise of systematic extermination by the Germans and their allies, of all the Jews they could find, was rational technology based upon scientific knowledge. That effort exhibited all the characteristics of technological planning: scale-up of the capacity of the killing process from Treblinka to Majdanek to Birkenau; experiments in the killing facility of Majdanek to find the dose of a carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide mixture and batch size, that would optimize the killing rate of people per day; supply chain scheduling and coordination to bring living raw material to the Europe-wide killing facility at Auschwitz 2 (Birkenau). Jews were bio-mass: useful while alive only as raw material to provide work or experimental media for medical experiments. After death they were processed into industrial products, and the residual bodies, being considered high-volume polluting waste (approximately 50 cubic meters for each 1,000 people), were disposed of by incineration. The Germans and their allies showed one pole of human behavior that derives from the interaction of human scientific knowledge and population.One third of the Jews in the world had been exterminated by the German Nazis and their helpers. Those who survived had been subjected to the most extreme and drawn-out humiliations imaginable. At the personal level their survival required superhuman perseverance, will and luck. At the end of the war hundreds of thousands of Jews suffered individually and collectively from symptoms of the then unrecognized condition known today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. During the 20th century, the Zionist movement succeeded in harnessing the energies of individual Jews to take their fate into their own hands and reclaim political independence in their ancient homeland. This movement got under way at the end of the 19th century and achieved recognized statehood three years after defeat of the Nazis. In the late 19th century, 30,000 Jews emigrated to Israel from Eastern Europe while 2,000,000 immigrated to other countries. Those 30,000 joined the Jews who had lived for many generations in Palestine, then were later joined by others including many who had survived the Nazis. The efforts of these people changed a country that had been largely desert and malarial swamp, making it fertile, a way station for half a billion birds that now land in Israel twice yearly while migrating between Africa and Europe, a country now rated by a UN survey as 22nd in the world in quality of life, and 8th in life expectancy.This is an achievement of biblical magnitude to which we are still too close to properly appreciate. Now as in biblical times the Jewish collective faces intense and almost universal hostility. Nevertheless it has established a state based on tradition and governed by law, that is among the world leaders in many aspects of science, technology, high-tech industry, arts and culture. The fact that the future currently faced by the Jews appears uncertain, does not diminish the greatness of these achievements. They are the antithesis of Nazism.The creation of material wealth, although based upon technology, is primarily a question of societal organization rather than of stand-alone scientific and technological knowledge. The late economist Mancur Olson investigated data from wealthy and poor countries in order to understand why some are rich and some poor. The conclusion, as related in his book Power and Prosperity, is that necessary conditions for prosperity are individual and property rights under law, and absence of predation by corruption or by special-interest groups abusing the legal process. Without respect for the individual and the concomitant balance between the individual and society, as immortalized by the Hebrew bible, countries are dysfunctional and poor, and will never be able to offer their citizens a decent life.Civilization is based upon a delicate balance between the demands of the individual and those of society, expressed as a system of law and order, which itself is based on biblical teachings. Within the Western system of national governance modern scientific capability expands exponentially. As pointed out by Mokyr in his book The Gifts of Athena, this growth of knowledge is not at all inevitable. Past periods of knowledge growth slowed or even regressed, and did not show the exponential growth that is a characteristic of Western modernity. In biblical times Jewish experience illuminated the path that led from barbaric slavery to modern civilization. In the 20th century, that was prelude to our critical 21st century, Jewish experience again illustrated these two poles of choice for humanity. As victims they showed to what depths individuals and society can sink. As inheritors of an ancient culture that fueled the recreation of Jewish sovereignty in modern Israel, they showed to what heights the human spirit can rise. Humanity today will choose its path, by default or by conscious decision. Under the weight of population and depredation of the environment, humanity will either sink into a new dark age, or will behave collectively in accordance with ancient biblical precepts of justice and societal organization, to provide a reasonable standard of life and health for all the many billions that soon will inhabit this planet.Eliezer Berkovits, in his work Man, God and History writes: "In a perfect world there would be no challenge and no choice, no decision and no responsibility. …… All this seems to indicate that God, in creating the universe, has delegated a measure of responsibility for its own history to creation. We find ourselves not in a universe of puppets, dangling from the strings of the Almighty and obeying every one of his commands, but instead in a universe in which freedom makes the deed possible."That Jewish experience illustrated both poles of human behavior 3,500 years ago and again today, may appear to some people as coincidence. Others may prefer to see this as a demonstration that Jewish experience is God-given, a message that humanity faces an unavoidable choice between the two extremes of human behavior - burgeoning population as biomass or people in the image of God, living under legal precepts that derive from Mosaic law. REFERENCESEliezer Berkovits, God, Man and History, 4th edition 2004, edited by David Hazony, Shalem Press, Jerusalem, page 83.Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines, Penguin Books, 2000.Joel Mokyr, The Gifts of Athena, Princeton University Press, 2002.Mancur Olson, Power and Prosperity, Basic Books, 2000.