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Dear Rabbi

Your Talmudic Advice Column. This month: Survivor questions and apocalyptic Facebook posts

Tzvee Zahavy of Teaneck has worked as professor of Jewish studies, religious studies, advanced Talmud, halacha, Jewish law codes, and Jewish liturgy, at major U.S. research universities and seminaries. He has published numerous articles and books about Judaism and Jewish life. He received his Ph.D. from Brown University and his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University. Go to www.tzvee.com for details.

Dear Rabbi,

A member of our community has been saying for years that he is Holocaust survivor. In fact he did live in Hungary during the Holocaust, but by all accounts, he was not subjected to any special duress during that period. It seems like this person is engaging in a form of bragging and seeks a special status, even sympathy. Why would someone do that? And what should I do about it?

Befuddled in Bergenfield

Dear Befuddled,

I’ll answer your question in two parts. First the factual. The suffering for Jews during the war was less severe in Hungary than in other parts of Europe. It is true that Germany did not occupy Hungary until 1944, late in the war. During the war, however, many Hungarian Jews suffered deprivation, starvation, humiliation, and other atrocities. Every Jew in Europe during WWII suffered trauma, whether they were in concentration camps, hidden, or partisans in the forest. Even those who escaped direct attack might have been traumatized by the loss of loved ones.

The Jews in Hungary were decimated at the end of the war. As many as 450,000 or more Jews were deported to concentration camps, and anti-Semitic laws were enacted. So as a matter of fact, a person living in Budapest through the war can call him or herself a survivor of evil Nazi rule, if that’s what he wants to do.

The Holocaust is a sensitive subject. You have to be careful of your wording and tone when you discuss it, so you do not suggest that anyone who went through it is less of a survivor. True, some people fabricate their experiences, but that’s not widespread.

You need to accept that a wide range of factors goes into how people in that circumstance choose to describe themselves and their personal histories. On one end of the spectrum, some survivors will not speak at all, even to their families and friends, about their experiences.

Your acquaintance seems to be on the other side of the spectrum — speaking out too vocally for your taste and claiming too much about his past. American culture is quite averse to open conceit. Even when the facts and a person’s achievements make it tempting for him or her to claim special merit, it’s not a good idea. And if it is done in the wrong way, it may backfire for someone who claims attention for triumphs over adversity.

On the other hand, Jewish culture is thick with recollections of enslavements, persecutions, and sufferings. Theologians have spent great efforts dealing with the cosmic and narrative meanings of our adversities over the generations.

A familiar refrain that we recognize from the Haggadah proclaims that, “In every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.” And we have faith that God redeems us from our sufferings.

Cultural analysts suggest that the survival of the Jews as a collective is strengthened by the sharing of stories of survival in the face of barbaric enemies.

Yet some historians have decried the religious meme of the persecuted and suffering Jew as an overemphasis on the lachrymose side of history. Tearful accounts of the past, they say, deflect us from the reality that while many tragic events have occurred to us as a people, most of Jewish history is positive, not sad, unhappy, mournful, or sorrowful.

Your attention-seeking acquaintance seems to have chosen to personalize our Jewish meme and make himself into a singular symbol of past suffering. While that does not sit well with you, I suggest that you try to abide his attitude. Given the historical and cultural contexts of this situation, there is little that you can or should do about it.

Remember, stories of the past ought to make us wary of the real enemies that are lurking out there to attack us. But be balanced. Stay focused, and find meaning in your own present-day Judaism. Do not be distracted from it by others who dwell overly much on the horrors of our history.

Dear Rabbi,

I have Facebook friends who are not personal acquaintances, but people in broad circles, friends of friends. Like me, many of them are staunch defenders of Israel. We share personal and public events related to Israel and news reports about the country. Lately, though, I noticed that a vocal minority in my circles has become louder and shriller about their defense of Israel against all criticisms. And beyond that I see a steady stream of apocalyptic pronouncements, statements that assure me of cosmic threats to Israel by numerous nations, and the catastrophic consequences of this or that. An example of recent note is a continuous drumbeat of the doom that awaits Israel (and the world) if the U.S. makes a bad deal with Iran on nuclear development. I have started blocking some of my friends from appearing on my feed because I do not want to participate in their doomsday fear fests. Have I been unfair to my friends?

Fearless In Fair Lawn

Dear Fearless,

On the one hand, your descriptive term apocalyptic does capture the character of some of the rhetoric that we hear at times from those who believe they ought to speculate about the fast-approaching fate of the world.

Genuine apocalyptic literature is a fascinating imaginative genre, a form of speculative theology and a characteristic of some fringe political thought. In Jewish tradition, the visions in the book of Daniel in the Tanach are classic examples of that mindset. The famous vision in Chapter 7 begins: “Daniel said: ‘In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea.’” The Dead Sea Scrolls also contain conspicuous examples of the apocalyptic imagination.

This inventive thinking and writing often anticipates a high drama that posits that we are close to the end of days, that a great conflict is imminent, and that colorful mythic creatures — as stand-ins for nations of the world — will be part of the horrifying spectacle.

Given the history of anti-Semitism, it is not entirely far-fetched to imagine a world full of evil empires that target the Jews for elimination. And it is always meritorious to be on guard against the potential onslaught of our enemies.

But the dire predictions of disaster that you are reading on Facebook in obvious ways are not similar to ancient apocalyptic preaching. Those classic visions often cleverly encoded the message of the secrets of the end times. Only a select few knew the full meaning of which symbolic beast referred to which great world power or nation.

The shouting posts on your Facebook page are almost certainly totally transparent and obvious in their references to their specific targets. They are loud and shouting, not subtle or encoded or shrouded in any secret.

Bottom line: What you did by blocking the content was correct. Keep doing it. Turn off the noise. Stay focused. Do not be too distracted by others who constantly catastrophize about the future of the Jewish people or by those who claim with little basis some special or divine inspiration that with little nuance or imagination, enables them to express troubling and alarmist opinions about the destiny of our people.

Try to stay attentive to the here-and-now, and to find positive meaning in the rich content of your own present-day Judaism.

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The Dear Rabbi column offers timely advice based on timeless Talmudic wisdom. It aspires to be equally respectful and meaningful to all varieties and denominations of Judaism. You can find it here on the first Friday of the month. Send your questions to DearRabbi@jewishmediagroup.com.

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