Years ago–before 9-11– I was taking Greek History, and my teacher asked us as we read part of Thucydides quoting Pericles, “People ask today, ‘What is it that is worth dying for? Is anything? Do we really know?” She asked this because Pericles is defending the Athenian way of life against the Spartans. He says to live in a democracy–the world’s first–is a privilege worth dying for. Well, I hear him there. When I was thirteen, even though I was a girl I fantasized about joining the marines. I actually watched M*A*S*H* fantasizing about fighting the Korean War with Hawkeye, barely caring that he thought it was a useless war that didn’t need fighting. Well, time past and my youthful desire to join the military faded. Partly this was probably because I was a girl, and also because with all of my pschotropic drugs I am not even eligible for the military. A mental patient on the battlefield is a liability and not an asset. Yet part of me regrets it in a way. When 9-11 hit, could I have “fought the good fight,” good fight or no? (Even at the time I knew that fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t make a lot of since: besides being a two-front war, Sadam Hussein didn’t play any real part in the 9-11 attacks. I hated George W. a lot in fact. I still believe his economic policies led to the Great Recession, too.) Anyway, I didn’t fight.
Yet for me there is one cause holier than even democracy: God. Would I die for him? I may never know. I hope, in a way, that I never will know. Yet I think of Rabbi Akiba. I read somewhere that in fact he may only have died in a Roman jail cell–and it was for reasons of his religion. Yet in the Ten Martyrs, a famous Jewish prayer read on Yom Kippur, he says, “All my life I have wondered why it is that the Sh’ma says that we shall love God ‘with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our might.” Now he knows: the heart in Judaism is the same as the mind, the might is his possessions–but the soul is his very life. Now he could go to God happy, because like Shel Silverstein’s Giving Tree, he has given all he had. Only he gave not to a boy he loved but to God.
Since the Holocaust, Jews have shied away from expressing the faith in a way that emphasized beauty in martyrdom. They were traumatized and cannot know if, after Auschwitz, even God is worth such a terrible sacrifice. Even an Orthodox rabbi I had who was very narrow minded said, “I don’t know if I would die for God. Yet I live for God. I don’t need to know more than that I live for God.” Another rabbi, a Conservative one, told me the Talmudic rabbis tried to discourage Kiddush HaShem–Sanctification of the Name, a form of martyrdom which existed because there were Jews who when Roman soldiers told them on pain of death to violate Shabbat would not do so. Because of the Holocaust, Jews have even seen the Akedah–the Binding of Isaac–not as a beautiful tribute to their faith but as a crime. Who could give up a child that way–even for God? And this is by Jews who still love God, and perhaps as sincerely as Rabbi Akiba.
As somebody who never went through the Holocaust or had a relative who did, I can never fully appreciate the grief this represents. Yet it blames the wrong person. It is not God or Abraham who cause the Holocaust. It is Aldolf Hitler. More, his motivations had nothing to do with the teachings of Judaism nor perhaps even the Teachings of Christ (whether we agree with Christians on much or not); they were formed in the cauldrons of modern race theory. Jews should not feel guilty for the Holocaust. Jews should feel proud that their ancestors would give so much for God. Or if they are not religious, they should feel proud that their ancestors would die for the sake of an idea or a way of life. Jews may yet turn out to be the heroes of human history.
I remember as a child I read Anne Frank’s diary. I loved Anne. She was everything I wished I could be. More, I loved her relationship with Peter. Yet the tragedy of her death has haunted me ever since. Yet it was her basic goodness that moved her. She believed everyone should have a God of some sort. More, she believed human beings were “basically good” even after all that had happened to her. I remember reading about how she went to the camps, and how she saw some Gypsy children, lined up to be gassed, “Lies,” she said to a friend, “Their eyes, look at their eyes.” Her friends said that she told them at last they were together, and in that there was nothing to fear. More, despite the surroundings–think of those poor gypsy children–she was never hardened into not seeing pain in others. That was her victory over Hitler. That and her diary.
I never blame Jews who wonder why I joined their faith. I know that the Jewish people suffered a lot to even survive. More, there is anti-Semitism in my background that I seldom tell them about: my dad’s whole family hated Jews and Catholics in a way that was cruel and selfish. Yet I truly believe God spoke to the Israelites in the Wilderness. I won’t go into what I believe Judaism is based on (sometimes besides being an author in my spare time I am a lightweight theologian–at one time I even hoped to be a philosopher). Yet I really believe that if I am lucky perhaps in Heaven, I shall get to meet the real Anne Frank. I won’t tell her if I think God is something a person should be willing to die for. I will say something else here, though: Anne Frank is worth being willing to die for, and her diary, too.