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Debriefing Auschwitz: Part 1

by Rabbi Robin Podolsky

July 1, 2012 | 6:14 pm

So I’m back in the States, on retreat(ish) working through the lessons of this trip to Auschwitz.
What did I learn that I didn’t know?  Of what was I reminded?  Am I changed?  (No this hasn’t become a Holocaust blog, but this excursion is going to be my curriculum for the next little while.  There will be other subject matter eventually.)

With answers to the above, I’ll get back to you, but here’s a thought for now:  this trip itself is a product of the Shoah, proof that people can indeed learn from the past (so there is still a point to studying it).  Over a dozen seminarians, people who are devoting their lives to their religious traditions, can have wonderfully crunchy, intricate discussions about theology and about the day-to-day practice of serving God and can treat our differences with genuine profound respect.

Not only did nobody try to convert, or sneer at, or in any other way deprecate the tradition of the others—we were actively fascinated with one another, secure enough on our own paths to appreciate the particular beauty of other ways.

This is, I believe, a product of post-Shoah thinking, what some call postmodernism.  Horror at what happens when people try to impose their absolutes, an understanding of human knowledge as partial, situated and interested, and a willingness to entertain the idea that difference is a gift, not a threat.
Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, one of the thinkers we studied together writes, “…universalism is an inadequate response to tribalism and no less dangerous.  It leads to the belief, superficially compelling but quite false, that there is only one truth about the essentials of the human condition and it holds true for all people at all times.  If I am right, you are wrong…From this flowed some of the great crimes of history…”

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