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On Looking into the
Face of Evil

by Rabbi Yisrael Rutman

Like any major historical subject, the Holocaust is rich in data, complexity, and the corresponding potential for conflicting interpretations. In his article at, "The High Stakes of Holocaust Scholarship," Mark Greif surveys the hot issues. For example, he cites the issue of Nazi motivation and decision-making as "one of the key enigmas of the Holocaust." There seem to be two schools of thought: Originally, it was believed that the Final Solution was the well-organized implementation of Hitler's genocidal plan, as outlined in his pre-war ravings. Thus, the "intentionalist" school, ascribing full genocidal intent from the beginning of the Nazi enterprise. A strong challenge to this view has been mounted in recent years by the "functionalists," those historians who contend that the machinery of annihilation was more or less improvised as things went along. The progression from mobile killing units that did most of their dirty work by shooting, to the infamous gas chambers of Auschwitz (which came into use only after 1942), was a function of the unpredictable development of war. A kind of situation ethics in reverse, in which the method of mass murder is fashioned in response to the particular needs of the moment.

A similar, though somewhat better-known dispute, concerns the psychopathology of the murderers themselves. The young historian Daniel Goldhagen raised a furor in 1996 with the publication of Hitler's Willing Executioners, in which he argued that, raised on an age-old, "eliminationist anti-Semitism," ordinary Germans went to their work of killing Jews with a natural flair. Other, more senior historians, however, rejected Goldhagen's methods and conclusions, taking a more developmental view. As historian Christopher Browning put it, "Scholarship is still trying to figure out the balance between ideology and culture on the one hand, and institutional, organizational, and situational factors, on the other hand." Their debate centers on the grisly record of Reserve Police Battalion 101, which Greif describes as "one of the lowest-level killing units."

As a student of the Talmud, I have been trained to ask of a thing (any thing): What practical difference does it make? In this case, is there any benefit to be had by the ongoing analysis of the ambiguities of the psychopathology of Nazi genocide? And is this the proper focus for some of the leading scholars of the generation?

Critics of mass media have documented the pernicious effects of long-term exposure to sex and violence on the viewer, especially on children. Their insight parallels the view of Jewish tradition that a person is influenced by his environment, including what he sees and reads. Hence, the prohibition against looking into the face of the wicked, since the wickedness he emanates may have an undesirable effect on the person looking in. What are we to say, then, of devoting years of academic research to the detailed study of the images, the demonic acts and the intimate thoughts of an endless gallery of war criminals? It is not necessary to predict that Holocaust scholars and the reading public will metamorphose into war criminals themselves; but surely a constant exposure to the basest elements of humanity will have an effect.

By contrast, the traditional approach to the calamities of our history has not been to focus on the methods and motives of our oppressors. The lamentations of the Ninth of Av sometimes graphically describe the cruelties inflicted upon the Jewish people by the Romans and Babylonians, but the emphasis is on the spiritual loss. What was the imperial strategy of Rome in the Mideast at the time? Was the average Roman centurion a natural Jew-hater, or did he have to be taught how to torture and kill? These are questions that the Talmud does not much delve into. The destruction of the First and Second Temple was accomplished amid the massacre of the Jewish population, and the suffering was horrific. We refer to it, however, in terms of Churban HaBait, the Destruction of the Temple, because the loss of that spiritual glory is central to our consciousness, and it defines our existence to this very day.

Without the divinely-inspired, authoritative voice of our Sages, we are hard put to define the spiritual origin of any particular tragedy, whether private or communal. But we can take our cue from their wisdom, and learn to focus our attention less on the outward contours of oppression, and more on the inner condition of our people.

It was in this vein that some years ago Rabbi Moshe Sherer spoke of the phenomenon of "Holocaust Judaism;" of those who make the mistake of substituting the study of Jewish suffering for the celebration of Jewish life. They remember all too well the crimes of Amalek, the biblical enemy of Israel, but tragically forget to "remember the Shabbat to keep it holy." The Midrash points out that the word zachor ("Remember!"), is used in connection with both commandments, but that they are not equal. Our primary task is to remember who we are and how we are supposed to live Jewishly; only secondarily are we to remember our victimization.

For, in the final analysis, if the remembrance of Amalek and Hitler is to have meaning, the remembrance of our spiritual task must be primary. If we do not live authentically Jewish lives, of what significance will be the study of all those Jewish deaths?

* Reprinted with permission from



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