Auschwitz or Sinai? Revisited

By David Steiner

There are pearls of wisdom in Rabbi-Professor David Hartman’s 1982 essay Auschwitz or Sinai but, just as he would like (need) to argue with his teacher Soloveitchik, I feel compelled to revisit David Hartman who, I am certain, would not like his work to become a holy cow.

John Dewey, whom Hartman clearly appreciated, also played with binaries to make a point. When Dewey did it, however, he wasn’t asking his audience to make a choice; rather, he was pointing out the complexity of his subject matter by limiting it to a simple dichotomy. Hartman, on the other hand, seems to be leading us with his two-answer question; either Auschwitz or Sinai. Jewish identity is much more complicated than that.

Hartman suggests that “[t]he time has come for us to free ourselves from the exaggerated rhetoric of moral superiority (“no one can teach us morality”) and to face the awesome task implicit in the Sinai covenant.” The moral superiority he refers to stems from a perception that our unique suffering leads to an attitude that “no one can judge the Jewish people.” While it is both controversial and provocative to assert, as Hartman does, that “[i]t is childish and often vulgar to attempt to demonstrate how the Jewish people’s suffering is unique in history,” I am fully on board with this assertion. As he suggests, “[i]t is both politically and morally dangerous for our nation to perceive itself essentially as the suffering remnant of the Holocaust.”

My problem with Auschwitz or Sinai? has to do with the only alternative Rabbi Hartman give us to Auschwitz:

The model of Sinai awakens the Jewish people to the awesome responsibility of becoming a holy people. At Sinai, we discover the absolute demand of God; we discover who we are by what we do. Sinai calls us to action, to moral awakening, to living constantly with challenges of building a moral and just society, which mirrors the kingdom of God in history.

Does anyone really believe that Sinai is the only alternative to having the experience of the Shoah organize our collective identity as Jews? Is David Hartman’s Sinai the only way to truly understand the formation and evolution of the Jewish people?

Sinai moments in the trajectory of collective identities are rare and don’t usually speak to the entirety of the collective. Even the rabbis knew this or they would not have insisted that we were all present. A convert at a Passover Seder was probably not a slave in Egypt (if that ever actually happened); still, the convert repeats this phrase as part of his/her/our self-defining ritual. When it comes to Sinai, however, those who want control over defining Judaism will stretch to the supernatural to obligate all self-defined Jews to their conception of Judaism. We were not all present at Sinai.

The same can be said about the State of Israel. Hartman suggests that, “[t]he rebirth of Israel can be viewed as a return to the fullness of the Sinai covenant – to Judaism as a way of life.”

Statehood, of course, has proven these to be mutually exclusive. There is no Israeli way of life, let alone a Jewish one. The State and the covenant are not the same, nor can they be: a rebirth of collective governance is just a moment in time. The will of those people who brought Jewish sovereignty back to the world stage will not necessarily be the will of their heirs, nor should it be. Hartman is right to assert that: “[t]he modern State of Israel has removed us from the insulated world of the ghetto, and has exposed Judaism and the Jewish people to the judgment of the world,” but this doesn’t necessarily lead to a nation that would be willing to inherit any specific way of life. The offspring of the founders won’t necessarily “struggle to integrate the Sinai covenant with the complexities of political realities.”

David Hartman gives us only two choices because he wants us to choose to be “a light onto the nations,” but, while hope tends to be a very Jewish condition, it would probably be more realistic to aspire to being an equal member among the comity of nations and to leave the moral decisions to the people who have to live by them.

David Steiner, Ed.D, is a filmmaker, mediator and rabbinical student at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.