For Israel, and for many of us in the Diaspora as well, yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day. For now, at least while survivors are still among us to tell us of their horrible experiences and their tales of survival, it is an emotional day of introspection. For those of us of the religious persuasion it is not permitted to be an actual day of eulogizing and mourning since it takes place during the month of Nissan, the month of the great miracles. But introspection is always okay, and one tweet I saw yesterday certainly caused me to have it:
Now, many people would likely be furious to see the deaths of Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley compared to the Holocaust, and rightly so. But really, any two things can be compared, as long as it is very clear what the comparison is and how far the comparison is actually carried. In this case, the comparison between the two situations is the human tragedy involved. Loss of life equally tragic whether it occurs by an act of nature, one person against another, or a person against themselves. Disagree? My proof is the argument of the New Atheists that suffering suggests either no G-d or a cruel one, and they will frequently lump tragedies such as the Holocaust together as with those such as the earthquake in Haiti. Suicide is often left out of this discussion, but considering its prevalence in modern society, it really shouldn’t be.
The question for those with a direct connection with the Holocaust becomes then: what is the tragedy behind the self abuse that has become the hallmark of musicians? To explain that, I will use a broadened definition of the term Holocaust, the very politically incorrect use (or misuse as the case may be) that some Jews used to use to describe the rampant assimilation of American Jewry into greater American society, at the expense of their Judaism. If we’re really to use the term properly, we can’t be speaking that Jews suddenly abandoned their Jewish roots for some greater ideology. In the words of Reb Shlomo Carlebach: “The problem facing us today (in the ’60’s and 70’s ed. note) is not that there are Jews for Jesus or Jews for Reverend Moonie. The problem is that there are so many sweet, holy Yiddelehs for Nothing.”* Thus, the Holocaust isn’t so much that Jews, or anyone for that matter, are abandoning their traditions but that there’s nothing of substance to replace them.
Moshe Rabbenu (Moses) challenged the Jews shortly before his death (Dt. 30:11-20). He told them that G-d had put a choice before them of life and death, good and evil, and told them to choose life. In order for life (good) to be a choice, it has to be a viable one, and this is certainly not the case for many people. I was speaking with a student about their views of Tanakh and I had protested that their views were based on an incorrect reading. When it came to one particular issue, the student called me an idiot for maintaining my view. The student was in tears as they conveyed this message to me. It’s a reaction like this that tells me there is no choice, that this person lacks the knowledge base to make value decisions on much more than emotion. Rav Tovia Singer once told me that the reason he is so settled and calm when he debates is because he is so fluid with the answers from years of research and discussion. He said the people who get emotional during debates are the ones who lack substance behind their positions. If this lack of substance applies to a person’s entire raison d’etre, there’s no wonder this causes crises.
Dr. Viktor Frankel was a psychologist who lived through Auschwitz and developed his theory of logotherapy**. He observed in the camps that there was a difference between those who survived the horrors and those who chose to end it all. The ones who fought their way through had meaning and purpose to their lives while those who had none lost their will to live, quite literally. As these some of these stars demonstrate, one need not be in the middle of a war zone or similar challenge to find themselves in the situation of making the choice between life and death, and lacking the tools to choose life. While certainly treatments for depression and other mental illnesses are crucial, as well as being able to discuss the issue publicly, it’s equally as important that people have meaning and have deeper substantive reasons for what they believe. The tragedy that I speak to is that so many lack this latter tool for dealing with the challenges of life.
*Ahroni Fisch, Dov. Jews for Nothing: On Cults, Intermarriage, and Assimilation
** Frankel, Viktor. Man’s Search for Meaning