Today is Thanksgiving. It also, by a coincidence of calendars that is both happy and exceedingly rare, the first day of Hanukkah. The root meaning of that Jewish holiday is to give thanks to God for all the gifts that He has given us. Each holiday, in its own way, celebrates a people being rescued from oppression and persecution. We all too easily forget the unspeakable savagery that groups driven by hate and bigotry have exercised against fellow humans in the name of ideology, politics, and even in the name of God. Lest we too forget, lest we allow the racists and bigots and bullies to once again work their violent wills unchecked, I offer the following thoughts of a man who lived through the very worst of such violence.
Emmanuel Levinas was born in 1905 into a Jewish family in a small town in Lithuania. At the age of seven, he and his family escaped a pogrom (a violent massacre carried out by Christians against Jews) and fled to Russia. In 1917, he and his family were driven out of Russia by the anti-Semitics of the Communist Revolution. Levinas eventually achieved a doctorate in philosophy and began to teach in France, but shortly after being recruited into the French Army to fight the Nazis, he was captured and sent to a labor camp for Jewish officers. He lived in that camp from 1939 until the defeat of the Nazis in 1945. After his liberation, and for the rest of his life, Levinas developed and promoted a philosophy of peace, based on the observation that all human meaning arises from our fundamental responsibility for other human beings, a responsibility limited only by our own finite assets.
In one of his many writings, Levinas paused to consider what he learned from all of these atrocities, and most particularly, from that complete abandonment of morality, that free exercise of rape and torture and murder and butchery exercised by the Nazis and their collaborators. He asks, “Beyond the incommunicable emotion of the Passion in which all was consummated, what should or can one transmit in the form of a teaching?” There are, he says, three truths that he wants to impart to those who were born after the Atrocity, the Evil of all times, truths that are “necessary to the new generation.” I have neither the ability nor the right to set forth those three truths in better words than his, and so I quote them here.
“To live humanly, people need infinitely fewer things than they dispose of in the magnificent civilizations in which they live. That is the first truth. One can do without meals and rest, smiles, personal effects, decency and the right to turn the key to one’s own room, pictures, friends, countrysides and sick leave, daily introspection and confession. We need neither empires nor purple, nor cathedrals, academies, amphitheaters, chariots, steeds … In that world of war, forgetful even of the laws of war, the relativity of all that seemed indispensable … suddenly became apparent.
“But — the second truth…: in crucial times, when the perishability of so many values is revealed, all human dignity consists in believing in their return. The highest duty, when “all is permitted,” consists in feeling oneself responsible with regard to these values of peace. In not concluding, in a universe at war, that warlike virtues are the only sure ones; in not taking pleasure, during the tragic situation, in the virile virtues of death and desperate murder; in living dangerously only in order to remove dangers and to return to the shade of one’s own vine and fig tree.
“But — the third truth — we must henceforth, in the inevitable resumption of civilization and assimilation, teach the new generations the strength necessary to be strong in isolation, and all that a fragile consciousness is called upon to contain in such times. We must — reviving the memory of those who, non-Jews and Jews, without even knowing or seeing one another, found a way to behave amidst total chaos as if the world had not fallen apart.”
In these days, when war seems woven into the very fabric of human life, when prejudice and persecution are so often paraded in pretty sophistries and even as the word of God Himself, these truths stand as both a prayer of thanksgiving for those fragile gifts of peace and comfort and a prayer for the strength to be always vigilant against the insidious intrusion of the hate and bigotry that would, given free reign, inevitably destroy that peace and all human value with it.