I wrote the below words on a plane, returning from a trip to Germany during the Aseres Yemai Teshuvah. I did not send them at the time because, frankly, I was very disappointed with the behavior of my Talmidim on Roish Hashanah: Everyone was constantly talking. The men were Davening without Kavannah. The women had their Sheytlach on lopsided. And all in front of Hakkadoshboruchhu, on His birthday no less! You should all be ashamed of yourselves!
Well, now, two months later, I have forgiven you. The Reboinoisheloilum probably hasn’t, but He seems to have His hands full, what, with the European economic crisis, the various civil uprisings in the Middle East, the NBA lockout, and Herman Cain’s harem.
I had the good fortune of being designated the Chief Rabbi of this year’s Oktoberfest in Munich, a hearty celebration of creation: The men celebrate the creation of beer by consuming excessive amounts of overpriced lager while walking around in Lederhosen, leather Gatkis held up by suspenders, looking like overgrown little boys. (This was Michael Jackson’s favorite annual holiday, they say.) And the women celebrate creation by prominently displaying the excessive cleavage with which the Aimishteh generously endowed them. “Boruch Oiseh Maisei Beraishis!”
It is odd to visit Germany during Tishrei, the month that begins with Roish Hashanah, includes Yoim Kippur, and ends with Sukkois. According to Chazzal, the book of life is written on Roish Hashanah, it is signed and sealed on Yoim Kippur, but it is only picked up by FEDEX on Shmini Atzeres. So nearly the entire month is dedicated to contemplating the past and repenting, as well as spending many, many hours in Shul to avoid having to spend time with your mother-in-law.
When visiting Germany at this time of year one cannot help but think about the broader theme of repentance and forgiveness, not the Teshuvah of an individual, but the repentance of a collective, of a whole society. Can a society which committed such extreme crimes truly repent? And at what point does forgiveness become manifest?
I must say that today’s Germany is a beautiful country. The people are largely very nice. Some of the architecture is magnificent. Germany is clearly the economic engine of the whole of Europe, propping up the Continent in its moments of crisis. And, if we are honest, it is a country whose actual sinners are no more. Any remaining Nazis from World War II are infirm, are in hiding, or are institutionalized at Saint Adolf’s Home For Retired Nazis, whiling away their time playing checkers.
So, in day to day in Germany you are highly unlikely to meet a person who has Jewish or Russian or Polish or Gypsy or Communist or Homosexual blood on his hands. In that sense, a chapter of history is over.
And let’s face it: They may have killed my grandparents and my aunts and uncles, but any society that produces the greatest beer in the world and eats soft pretzels for breakfast cannot be all bad…
So the notion of individual sin in Germany is no longer relevant. But yet, there is a collective legacy .
Truth be told, Germany is a society which has struggled to come to terms with its legacy. Reparations were paid in the billions to individuals and to the State of Israel (and continue to be paid). Germany is an anchor of support for the State of Israel in many quiet ways that are not well know, such as serving as the conduit for negotiations for Israeli soldiers being held captive, including Gilad Shalit. And, indeed, Jewish life has undergone a renaissance in many cities throughout Germany, especially in Berlin. In Munich, the new Jewish Cultural Center is a museum that houses the city’s central synagogue and is broadly celebrated for its architecture. This in a city that is famous for its grand architectural tradition, as well as its Beer Hall Putsches.
Not all is perfect of course. There are Neo Nazis. There are extensive business dealings with Iran and other countries that are not our friends. But one can say the same about any Western country. And if you are looking for places where Jew hating is a daily sport, you need not look beyond Mea Shearim, Bnei Brak, Williamsburg, or Boro Park.
And one must certainly contrast the German approach with the Austrian approach, where denial of complicity in the Shoah continues to this day. So on the whole, guilt has been acknowledged and repentance has been manifested. Teshuvah has been performed.
But is there forgiveness?
I recall a recent e-mail debate about whether the Yeshivah’s Kiddush Committee should participate in a boycott of certain brands of scotch that are either manufactured or bottled in a specific region of Scotland that is boycotting Israeli products. I was a strong advocate of the scotch boycott, though one detractor argued that if one buys German products, why shouldn’t they also buy these specific brands of scotch. So a debate ensued in which discussion of a contemporary issue morphed into a discussion of how one should relate to historical crimes. Do all of the reparations, all of the political and social measures, compensate for all of the loss of life? Can you put a price on loss of life and human suffering?
Which brings us to the exchange of Gilad Shalit for over 1,000 Palestinians prisoners, many with “blood on their hands”, personally guilty for some of the most heinous acts of terror of the last 15 years. Does the release of the planners of the Sbarro bombing and other such acts signal forgiveness, especially when there has been no Teshuvah? And yet, a price was paid as ransom. But would any of us argue in our right minds that forgiveness of prison sentences in this instance is in any way equal to the forgiveness of crimes committed?
So forgiveness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
When we contemplate our own repentance, we tend to focus on Teshuvah as an individual act for individual sins. But we should not forget communal Teshuvah as well. How often have we looked the other way within our own community when we knew of people cheating the government in areas like taxes and social welfare programs? How often have we ignored the silent victims of sexual and child abuse, because to address the issues face on would be a “Shanda for the Goyim”? How often have we fallen into the trap of arrogance or self-righteousness? “They persecuted us.” “We are only doing what others do.” “I put on Tfillin, I am Chosen, therefore I am exempt.”
Teshuvah, you Minuval, is not a simple formula,. It is not that the Klopping on the chest and the recitation of endless Al Chayts naturally guarantee forgiveness. These are formulas designed to create a state of ,mind, a sense of humility, as well as countless black and blue marks. But insincere words and deeds do not constitute Teshuvah.
I am reminded of a Maiseh Shehoya. The Kotzker Rebbe was once suffering from a toothache, so he went to visit the dentist. After the dentist performed a tooth extraction, he asked for a payment of fifty zloties. “I will give something even better than zloties” the Kotzker responded. “I will give you words of Toirah.”
So the Kotzker delivered a Drasha on the power of Kavanah and the seven levels of heaven, culminating in the secret formula for reaching Oilam Habbah, being rewarded in the World to Come.
“But Rabbi” the dentist said, “I am a Roman Catholic. I don’t believe in a word you said.”
“That’s OK” the Kotzker replied. “Neither do I.”
Rabboisai, Klal Yisroel is scarred by our collective history. Many of us struggle with keeping our historical legacy of persecution in perspective: The Romans, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Poles, the Cossacks, the Nazis, etc. We retain grudges and prejudices against individuals over communal crimes, in many cases long in the past. It is a part of our own collective identity. I am persecuted, therefore I am. But while we need to retain the lessons of the past, we mustn’t be trapped in it. Your mother-in-law may have given birth to your spouse, but you certainly don’t want her to move in and sleep with you every night.
Ah Gutten Shabbos, You Minuval.