Suffering Without Meaning – Rav Shagar on the Unsayable Trauma of the Holocaust

Below is a translated excerpt from one of Rav Shagar’s derashot for Yom Hashoah, the day Israeli society collectively recalls and remembers the Holocaust. Specifically, it is the introductory section of the derashah, “Muteness and Faith,” which focuses on two ideas:

1. that which exceeds or cannot enter our speech (using Lyotard’s concept of “the differend” and the Zohar’s concept of סתימא דלא אתיידע, “the concealed and unknown”).

2. the Rebbe of Sanz-Klausenburg’s steadfast attachment to his Judaism, beyond reach of any mitsvah–beyond both Hitler and God.

The excerpt below is from the introduction to the derashah, where Rav Shagar meditates on his own relationship to the Holocaust as a child of survivors, as someone for whom the Holocaust was both an “incurable genetic disease” and “a horror on display in the noonday sun.”

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When tragedy strikes, believers typically ask, “What does this mean?”[1] The Holocaust denies all possibility of asking such questions, because it represents a total shattering of the world and its cultural construction. It falls outside the constructive world, the world of discourse.

This is how I experienced the “meaning” of the Holocaust in regard to my parents (of blessed memory), if it even makes sense to say such a thing. The Holocaust tore apart their youth, and they carried it with them for the rest of their lives. They almost never spoke about that time. They went on with their daily lives based on a sort of stubborn muteness, concealing the irreparable. They were victims for their entire lives. They could never speak, for the Holocaust had forced them into an incurable muteness. They lived without feeling like they could trust reality or people, rendering them incapable of accepting the other or addressing them with an open heart. They were barred from experiencing the sense of well-being which Tanakh describes as “everyone under his own vine and under his own fig tree” (1 Kings 5:5). In a certain sense, I myself continue to carry this burden.

This idea reminds me of the Kabbalistic and Hasidic commentaries on Passover and the exodus from Egypt which see the word Pesah as breaking down into peh-sah, “the mouth that speaks”–speech itself leaving its exile.[2] Speech generally enables us to turn a harsh, traumatic event into processable human suffering, which is the first step toward redemption from it. The Holocaust, however, is not just suffering. It is suffering that lacks speech, that is mute. There is no conceptual framework that could render it as suffering. In this sense, my parents never left the Holocaust. The Holocaust wasn’t just murder, it was the murder of murder. It is not an injustice or suffering that took place within the normal circle of human existence–it somehow transcends and refutes it. The Holocaust cannot be rendered conceptually into any other thing, so it cannot achieve any sort of conciliation. That is how I explain my parents’ muteness: they lived their lives in the empty space split open by the Holocaust. This is the meaning of the Holocaust, “the differend”–“an unsayable debt”: “Auschwitz was the death of death. In this death, even the possibility of mourning over what was lost is itself dead. The process of mourning cannot take place, so it is impossible to continue forward and move on.”[3]

When I discuss the Holocaust, I do so not from the perspective of someone who experienced it first-hand, but from the perspective of someone who inherited it–this is the incurable genetic disease of the second generation. In a certain sense, members of the second generation are no less victims of the Holocaust than members of the first. They too experience the Holocaust via an absolute lack of security in existence, in reality’s fundamental need for some basis or foundation. They experience a persistent sense of threat in the background of their lives, due to the presence of a “black hole” just waiting to swallow up everything.

For me, the Holocaust is just such a black hole of non-existence that nevertheless exists. It is a horror on display in the noonday sun–a horror that should have reduced annihilated everything, taking place in a world that continues to turn exactly as before–non-existence that nevertheless exists. This is a reality that leads only to being stuck, without any ability to escape or even to disappear.

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[1] See Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, Bayom Hahu, 256–259.

[2] See, for example, R. Isaac Luria, Peri Ets Hayyim, Gate of the Holy Scriptures, ch. 4; Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav, Likkutei Moharan II 74. This is how I understanding a famous statement by the Hiddushei Harim of Ger: “’And you shall know that I, the Lord, am your God who freed you from the sufferings of the Egyptians’ (Exodus 6:7) – ‘Sufferings,’ so that they no longer suffer from the practices of Egypt” (quoted in Sefat Emet, vol. 2, Va’era 1878). In Egypt, when speech was in exile, a person simply continued to suffer, unable to free himself from the sufferings imposed on him.

[3] Adi Ophir and Avraham Azulai, “Memale Makom: Be’ikvot Sihah Im Leyotar,” in Jean Paul Leyotard, Hamatsav Hapostmoderni (Jerusalem: Resling Books, 1999), 127–128. Indeed, I have often had trouble believing statements about the Holocaust, not because I thought they were insincere, but because I saw them as foolish attempts to conquer the unconquerable.

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