When do we stop sitting shiva for the Holocaust?

A young Palestinian waits for Israeli soldiers to check his ID at a flying checkpoint in the West Bank city of Hebron, October 2007. (Mamoun Wazwaz/MaanImages)


I marched and lobbied in DC last June to call for an end to forty years of Israeli occupation and the US policies that support it. The sign I carried posed a single question. It is one that urgently begs to be addressed, debated and answered. I believe it holds significant implications, not only for Jews, but for the entire Middle East. “When do we stop sitting shiva for the Holocaust?”

Shiva is the traditional seven-day period of mourning which follows a Jewish funeral. It takes place in the home of the closest surviving relative, because this is where the spirit of the recently departed is traditionally believed to be present. So where in the world were we as a people, go to sit shiva for the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust? It seems that the state of Israel was destined to become the designated “shiva house” for the Holocaust. And based upon a kind of literalistic biblical perspective, it would appear to make a certain intuitive sense. It could serve as the spiritual and ancestral home for those who died in the death camps in Europe. It may even be seen by many as G-d’s compensation for “allowing” the Holocaust to happen, a kind of divine reconciliation.

However, this formal period of mourning is only the first step in the process of healing and growth. So why haven’t we moved on? Why has the “shiva house” become a living, breathing war machine, fueled on self-destructive fear and violence? Why the dehumanizing oppression of a people who did not even participate in the Jewish genocide? How can this “House of Israel” continually try to justify crimes against humanity while still claiming victimhood? Why does it expect the rest of the world to feel perpetual empathy, when it refuses to hear the cries of anguish and outrage echoing from within its own walls and throughout the planet?

While sitting shiva we disconnect from the outside world. We do not leave the house or conduct business as usual. We refrain from listening to the news of the day. Those who come to pay a “shiva call” bring food and sustenance, comfort and support. There is no talk of today — only yesterday. We remember. Our mirrors are covered with black cloth so we cannot reflect upon our own image. We are not to care about how we appear to others. We exist in a state of suspended animation. Time stands still.

After the week is ended, we are directed to leave the house and re-enter the world of the living. This is when we begin to experience and process the meaning of our loss. If we are deeply sincere with ourselves, confronting and working through our most profound feelings of anguish, pain, fear and rage, it brings us to a deeper understanding of ourselves and of life itself. Our perspective expands, our maturity grows and we become ever wiser. In other words, we learn and evolve. This is the path of psychological and spiritual healing. But we are the ones who must take the responsibility to do it. Sitting shiva is intended to be part of a much larger process. It is a means to an end, not an end in itself. If we do not take the next step and move forward, we lose our sense of reality and direction. Our world view becomes distorted and constricted. We become deeply depressed, alienated and irrational.

It seems clear that we have had a profound failure of imagination since the construction of the state of Israel. We have lost our way and are afraid to move on. We are stuck in a downward spiral of guilt, violence and dread. We keep ourselves psychologically insulated because we can’t bear to confront the nightmare we have created. It is time to tear the coverings from the mirrors and face what we have become. We do need to care about how others percieve us. We have no choice but to break through the walls of memorialized trauma and enter into the world of the here and now. We have a moral obligation to grapple with profoundly disturbing emotions and existentially tough questions. The truth is that we don’t know where to go from here, because we lost our faith sixty years ago. We have reached an impasse and it is time to admit it. Our very survival depends on it. When our only sense of security comes from weapons and brute force, a loss of trust and vision are clearly implied. When the US pays a shiva call, it brings aid and comfort in the form of military funding. Weapons sustain fear and hatred, not human beings.

Our shiva sitting has become interminable, because what we are truly grieving is the apparent loss of our relationship with G-d. We gave up on G-d when it seemed that G-d gave up on us. And this is precisely where and why we are stuck. We were supposed to be “His Chosen People.” We had a Covenant. How could this have been allowed to happen? And although these questions have been brought to the table, we’ve never really gone the distance and arrived at meaningful conclusions. We haven’t brought authentic meaning to the Holocaust because we’ve never found the transformative element within that experience. And it can’t happen until we take seriously our ethical imperative to “wrestle with G-d.” This is, after all, the meaning of the name, “Israel.”

The story goes that on Rosh Hashanah, a group of inmates in Auschwitz put G-d on trial and found “Him” guilty of cruelty and betrayal. That evening, after pronouncing the verdict, the group met to recite prayers. This is the quintessential expression of the dissonance that has yet to be authentically and fully addressed and resolved. We tolerated G-d’s less-than-steadfast protection for three-thousand years, but this time life went too far. And our outrage expresses itself in our contempt for international law. G-d broke a sacred covenant with us, so why should we be expected to uphold our end of the agreement? Any Palestinian who suffers abuse and humiliation at the hands of Israeli soldiers at the checkpoints, is being punished for our unresolved anger at G-d. Each time a home in Gaza is bulldozed or an undetected cluster bomb rips the limbs from a Lebanese child, innocent human beings are being victimized by our self-righteous, unexamined rage.

This behavior and attitude suggests that international laws need not apply to Israel, because these imply a “just” and caring G-d or Universe. One that no longer exists for us. Crimes against humanity are crimes against G-d, and we are angry as hell and refuse see or feel beyond that. This belligerent attitude has become part of our new identity and given us a dangerously distorted sense of empowerment. We have exempted ourselves from humanitarian law because we believe we have earned the right to behave as though the ends justify the means. It is glaringly obvious that this stance is leading to a repetition rather than a re-creation of history. Chutzpah without wisdom and compassion is a roadmap to disaster. There are no loopholes in universal law, and deep inside everyone really does know this.

Do we sincerely believe that a nation-state that stands for nothing except survivalism as an end in itself, suggests G-d’s compensation to the Jewish people? Does this place truly reflect anything that implies a “Promised Land?” Does it exemplify transcendent values of any kind? I see nothing transformative about the state of the state of Israel. The larger question implies coming to terms with our relationship to the infinite, with the very laws that suggest a meaningful universe. And we can utilize our own penchant to wrestle with G-d as a means to move forward. We need to realize that conceptualizing the Holocaust as an exclusively and uniquely Jewish event, disconnected from our deeper humanity and higher aspirations, limits our vision and keeps us trapped. This is precisely why Victor Frankl never wanted to frame his own internment in Auschwitz within that context. He wanted to avoid precisely this kind of finite mindset.

Infused within every traumatic experience lies the seeds of its own redemption, its “saving grace.” The more shocking and shattering the event, the greater the potential for growth, transformation and ensuing wisdom. An event as monumentally tragic as the Holocaust can and must be used as a catalyst to move us beyond our traditional definitions of who we are and bring us to a much vaster and clearer understanding of our place in the scheme of things. A very profound re-envisioning of our identity is called for now. Nothing less will do. But it cannot occur until we are willing to move out of the tight box that we have quite literally walled ourselves into. When we disconnect from something more expansive and deeper than ourselves, we cut ourselves off from a world of infinite possibilities, not just geographical neighbors. We are trapped within a closed system, imprisoned within the parameters of our own fear and unmitigated rage. This anger should propel us forward on our journey to becoming evermore fully and universally human, not backward into mindless and destructive survivalism. As long as these two forces are at war internally, we will be at war externally.

The only way to stop history from repeating itself, is to change ourselves. As Albert Einstein said, “No problem can be solved by the consciousness that created it.” The time to authentically struggle with G-d is here and we cannot afford to stop until we come to a some kind of reconciliation. One that generates solutions that do not circumvent our own conscience. We need to surpass ourselves by giving G-d the benefit of the doubt. This means summoning up the courage to take a momentous risk. It calls for trusting that life itself may in fact make deeper sense than we previously imagined. But as Job exemplified and Victor Frankl taught, it is up to us to discover what that might be. It is our personal and collective responsibility to continually seek the deepest and most inclusive understanding of all of life’s events. If we cannot currently fathom what that might mean, we need to challenge our deepest and most ardently held assumptions. We must navigate through the seemingly treacherous waters of dissonance once and for all. This will surely trigger an identity crisis of major proportions. But this is exactly what is needed.

If we sincerely research and confront our deepest truth, we will always arrive at new perspectives. There is a far vaster and more elegant design than we can ever fully imagine. This is the nature of infinity. We need to continually push the boundaries of our limited and deeply entrenched belief systems. Not by denying our own outrage at the unfairness of life. But by realizing, as did Job, that there must be an answer that does not insult our intelligence or sense of justice. Job was a “righteous man” because he never acted out destructively, even in the face of confusion and suffering. He remained authentic and demanded the kind of meaning from life that Frankl searched for in Auschwitz. He refused to deny his own mind and heart and superficially go through the motions. He would not and could not affirm the dogma of his own society. His experience forced him to outgrow the only framework he had ever known. If he hadn’t evolved, he would have gone mad or been destroyed. His was a journey of psychological and spiritual heroism.

Job’s story reaches out from the distant past and offers us a blue print. It shows us the way to successfully break through the immature and restrictive assumptions that prevent our evolution as human beings. He was a trail-blazer who respectfully wrestled with G-d and glimpsed the infinite. And this transformed and liberated him. He was able to bring justice to his own tragedy precisely because of his deep integrity and love of Truth.

We can choose to use Job as a role model, and become as a “light among nations,” or we can remain trapped in our fear and anger. If we stubbornly refuse to take seriously our responsibility to challenge ourselves in the most courageous and essential ways, we will render ourselves irrelevant and meaningless. And in the end, there will be no one left to sit shiva for anyone.

Rita Corriel has been working as a psychotherapist for twenty years, and has worked extensively with issues of grief and post-traumatic stress disorder. She has been an ardent peace activist most of her life and currently resides in Pennsylvania. She can be reached at rcorriel AT fast DOT net.