End of the Holocaust Generation

I officiated at a funeral on Friday that I realized afterwards may be a consequential moment. The deceased was in her 90s and she was a Holocaust survivor. She was a very young child when Hitler came to power. The significance is that this may be my last funeral a Holocaust survivor, as most of them have passed.

I have buried a number of aged survivors over the years and always, the funeral and internment were unique points of sacredness. These funerals have been more complex than most, with unusual layers of meaning that have been shared but will not be spoken, and with more layers of meaning that have never been spoken and will be left unsaid, even though we, the next generation, know the content. God: mentioning God at a such a funeral is a minefield of accusation, futility, anger, regret and in rare moments, reconciliation. Yet, they requested a rabbi to officiate.

Holocaust humor is an extreme form of gallows humor, which often circles around the subject of God and God’s apparent impotence to save the Jews. While gallows humor seems to transcend generations, Holocaust humor appears to be quite specific to the immediate generation. I have had this bit of Holocaust humor sitting in my files for years, waiting for an appropriate context. The piece was left unused because the humor is biting and quite frankly, the opposite of what most people consider to be humor. Even more, placing the piece between paragraphs of context before and paragraphs of explanation after diminished the stark power of this humor.

The Holocaust generation is almost gone though, and this piece, with its contradiction and condemnation, should be preserved.

“A Jew dies. He ascends to the heavens and meets God. Standing before the Throne of Glory, the Jew tells God a Holocaust joke, but God does not laugh. When he realizes that God is not laughing, the Jew shrugs and says, “I guess you had to be there.”

My younger colleagues will never know the privilege of officiating at a funeral for Holocaust survivors. It is a privilege I never wanted and one for which a person could never prepare. Their presence in my rabbinate has been a blessing.

 

First Verse of Genesis

The inability of science and religion to reconcile their points of view occurs in the first verse on the first page of Genesis. “When God began creating the heavens and the earth” is interpreted by literalists as the scientific beginning of the world as if these ancient monotheists were modern scientists publishing their findings. Science as we understand it today was not invented when Genesis was committed to parchment. Debunking their argument, the Bible is not a scientific text and should never be construed as one. Tanakh (Hebrew for “Bible”) is first and foremost, a proudly theological collection of books. The books are about Adonai God and the people of Adonai God, the children of Israel.

Theology and science are disparate disciplines, fundamentally different and incongruous. To read a compromise between theology and scientific inquiry on the first page of Genesis is an act of futility – there is no compromise because theology and science are two divergent disciplines. The battles we witness between the “the Bible is wrong” crowd and the “science is evil” crowd is the continuing failure to find compromise when none is available, plausible, or more to the point, necessary. The battle is the result of a categorical error.

Too many assume that the both approaches are attempting to answer the same question: how was the universe made? Science asks that question and has reams of exciting facts, theories, and emerging hypotheses. Science asks what is the process and how does it work. Science leaves the “why” or more precisely, “why was the universe created?” to philosophy and religion.

The author(s) of Genesis ask a different question: “Does the universe have meaning?” The typical-of-its-time mythology of the Greeks has Zeus chopping off the head of the monster and hoisting it up in the heavens as a bloody trophy called earth. There is no meaning for humans in crawling across the face of rotting skull like maggots. In contrast, the Genesis story argues that if God made the world, then the world has meaning. By being created by God, humans have a meaning for existence as well. To argue that our lives have meaning is a worthwhile theology to hold dear.

Science has nothing to say about the maker of the universe and Genesis has nothing to say about the science of creating universes. They are asking different questions. The fault of our thinking is assuming that science and religion are opposite of each other when they are actually working in two different, though parallel realms, answering different, though both worthy questions.

On Elder Suicide

A colleague just lost a 72 year old father-in-law to suicide. He wanted to assure us that are the family making a concerted effort to remember the joys and successes of the man’s life and not just his tragic end. Only a short time has passed since Robin Williams took his life while in his sixties. Elder suicide is not a new phenomenon and its tally has been recorded for decades; it is not uncommon. There are many lessons to be learned in these tragic deaths and the first and most important is that not everyone can be saved from their own destructive impulses.

The media frenzy surrounding Robin Williams’ death immediately pointed to his history of depression and perhaps other mental illnesses even though he was under treatment for Parkinson’s disease. The message left for entertainment consumers is that depressed people kill themselves. The media left for fresher tales of woe and then ignored information that was released later. Rarely does the media circle back to examine earlier released articles, meaning that a later review of Mr. Williams death got little play.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive disorder of the central nervous system of the brain. The disease is incurable and affects brain chemistry. Besides the physical symptoms of stiffness and tremors of limbs that an observer can see, victims of Parkinson’s disease experience organic depression. “Organic” signifies that the depression is not from an external source (i.e. loss of a spouse or a job) but is an issue caused by brain chemistry. Medications for organic depression may not be effective and in this case they were not. Robin Williams committed suicide but he died of Parkinson’s disease.

The case of Robin Williams is not atypical for the disease. No one failed Mr. Williams and Mr. Williams did not fail himself. However, practitioners of certain religious systems condemn Robin Williams and his death, consigning him to their version of after death damnation commonly called “Hell”. What these people believe is not of consequence but the pain they inflict on mourners is consequential. Of course mourners have doubts; they have doubts whether they were attentive enough or aggressive enough. If only they had observed “x” or seen “y” or asked “z”, they bargain that they could have prevented the tragic end. Or they are angry at the deceased for causing them such pain. Hellish condemnation only fuels the pain of profound mourning.

One of the formidable reasons for religion is to guide us through the painful episodes of our lives. When a religious system causes more pain at the point that it supposed to provide solace, the theology is false. Any religion should be able to understand suicide as a disease, as our medical science demonstrates that it is. Suicide in the oldest cohorts of human beings is not wholesale preventable or simple to understand. Even more, these adults are old enough and have enough experience to succeed in their destructive impulse. If anyone can succeed in acting on this urge, our elders certainly will.

Our ever evolving understanding of disease and its courses forces us to reassess our elders’ motives and our judgments of their behaviors. Disease attacks mind, body, and spirit. When the brain is afflicted by a disease, boundaries of behavior may disintegrate. It is the disease not the person and the caregiver is helpless. Condemnations and self-recriminations are common, wrong and only spread the destructive consequences of the disease beyond the afflicted.

My colleague in mourning is correct: celebrate the successes of a life when lived well and invoke the good memories. If one wants to pray for these souls who have been released from the burden of their tangled minds, then pray for cures that allow mortals to go gently into that long, dark night.