Archive for January, 2010

Farewell to Miep Gies

January 30, 2010

If we had to, each of us could name at least one perpetrator of the Shoah. Hitler, Eichmann, Heydrich — the vile names trip off our tongues. If we wanted to, each of us could name at least one victim of the Shoah —  Anne Frank. Anne is the quintessential, archetypical Shoah victim — a young woman whose life and death stand out as a symbol of both the innocence and the death of innocence. In our collective memories, Anne Frank is perpetually young, frozen in time at sixteen years old. It is hard to believe that had she lived, Anne would have turned eighty years old this past June.
But herein lies a tragedy. Far fewer of us know the name of Miep Gies, who died this week at the age of one hundred years old. Miep had been Otto Frank’s secretary, and she was among those who risked their lives to help the Frank family. As The New York Times obituary mentioned, Miep found food for them, brought books and news and provided emotional support. She is credited with having brought Anne her first pair of high-heeled shoes. On one occasion, Miep and her husband Jan Gies spent a night in the annex so that they could fully understand the terror of living in hiding.
But more than that: It was because of Miep Gies that we have one of the great classics of twentieth century literature. She was the one who found Anne Frank’s diary, and who gave it to Anne’s father, Otto Frank, after the war.

Life imitating Torah: Miep’s extraordinary life ended within days after we read the portion of Shemot, the first section of the book of Exodus, which chronicles the story of Shifra and Puah, the midwives in Egypt who defied Pharaoh’s murderous decree and saved the lives of Israelite children. Why did they do so? They “feared God,” which is how the Torah refers to non-Israelites who demonstrate basic moral decency. The biblical text tells us that in reward for their heroism, God gave them “houses.” Some commentators interpreted this as meaning that God gave them children (after all, they had saved the lives of Israelite children, so that reward made perfect sense). Other commentators suggested that Pharaoh sought to find and kill the defiant Shifra and Puah, and so God made houses for them to hide within — genuine houses that would be impervious to Pharaoh.

Miep Gies claimed no mantle of heroism for herself. She saw herself as simply doing what was right, as following in a long line of Dutch moral heroism. Her story makes us remember that we must remember — yes, not only the perpetrators; yes, not only the victims; but also those who helped Jews. There were not as many as we needed, but there were far more than we know.
I would like to think that God built special houses for Shifra and Puah in the World to Come. I would like to think that God has made a house for Miep Gies as well.
No, scratch that. I would like to think that Shifra and Puah are, at this precise moment, throwing open the doors of their houses in heaven and saying: “Miep, Miep, welcome! We’ve heard all about you up here! Welcome!”


Who will keep the flame burning

January 26, 2010

Our Torah portion for this past Shabbat was Bo, found in the Book of Exodus.  It contains the last of the plagues and the release of the Israelites from slavery.  No other event in Jewish or world history plays such a central role in Jewish consciousness and in our theology. Every major Biblical festival, including Shabbat, is called “a remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt.”  The Ten Commandments begins with the proclamation that “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” The Sh’ma concludes with the words “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God.”

Some religions center themselves upon the lives of specific individuals (Jesus, Mohammad) but Judaism bases itself upon the interaction between God–the one God–and the people of Israel.  The central event in that history is the Exodus from Egypt.  Even God’s creation of the world, as important and central that is, takes second place to the Exodus.  The Exodus demonstrates God’s care for Israel, God’s fulfillment of the promise made to the Patriarchs.  Without it the covenant of Sinai could never have taken place.  Without it, the settlement in the Promised Land could not have taken place.

In the portion Bo, a prelude to the last and most terrible plague, the killing of the first born of the Egyptians, is a section containing 28 verses devoted to instructions to the Israelites how they are to observe the first Passover and subsequent ones. From the placement of these mitzvot, these laws, we learn a crucial lesson:  laws and regulations by themselves are not enough. Judaism also wishes to influence our beliefs and our thinking.  It does not want blind obedience, nor does it believe that the observance of mitzvot is enough.  It is necessary, but not adequate. Observance alone can breed a kind of blind religious adherence that ignores the richness of the tradition.

On the other hand, ideas and beliefs without deeds leads to a vague kind of “spirituality” that has no backbone and no staying power.  Judaism at its best is a combination of both–mitzvot with meaning.

For Reform Jews there is a lot to think about here.  So many of us have come to define Reform Judaism in terms of all the things we give ourselves permission not to do. As a result,  for many of us Judaism is only about traditions and culture.  But, what about our children and their children? They have grown up after the Holocaust and after the founding of the State of Israel.  There has been no Yiddish heard in their homes and, for many, Jewish cooking is bagels and lox–if that.  What are we left with, then, if mitzvot don’t compel us to act in a certain way? If there is not sense of obligation that leads us to observance, what will motivate the preservation of Judaism?

I don’t have the answers to the questions I raise, but I would suggest that we must be thinking about them.  If not, Judaism will cease to be– if not for us, then for  future generations.