Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemöller and Karl Barth: A Tale of Three Anti-Semites

 

Jesus once said:

 

  • ·                   “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will know them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. So by their fruits you will know them” (Mt 7:15–20).

 

  • ·                   What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

 

  • §   NT James 2:14-17

 

Both of these statements contain a fundamental truth: faith by itself has little value unless it can mold and shape a person into an ethical human being. Although the Catholic Church has made a concerted effort to confront and challenge the church to respect Judaism and strive to cultivate better interfaith relations, the Protestant Church has demonstrated repeatedly that they still have a long way to go. 

In some ways, the hatred of the Jew is ancient centers on the concept of “chosenness,” or “divine election,” which gave rise to the doctrine of supersessionism, a.k.a., “replacement theology.” Since the days of the Early Church Fathers, the Jew has been branded by many of the most famous Christian thinkers  as, “Christ killers” worthy of any earthly retribution for failing to accept Jesus and the Church’s authority as the one sole means of heavenly reward. 

  • Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus called Messiah?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!”  But he said, “Why? What evil has he done?” They only shouted the louder, “Let him be crucified!” When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all, but that a riot was breaking out instead, he took water and washed his hands in the sight of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. Look to it yourselves.” And the whole people said in reply, “His blood be upon us and upon our children.” Then he released Barabbas to them, but after he had Jesus scourged, he handed him over to be crucified. (Mt. 27:22-26).

Mel Gibson especially loved this passage, which he highlights in his film, “The Passion of the Christ.”

Whenever one reads the anti-Israel emanating from many of the Protestant Churches today, one gets the distinct impression that we, as Jews, have been down this road before many times. Naturally, our Protestant churches love to distinguish between the Zionism and Judaism; however, in the years leading up to the Holocaust and the subsequent years that followed the Holocaust, leading Christian theologians made a distinction between the “symbolic” Jew and the “real Jews.” These thinkers had no trouble with the notion of a Jew as an abstraction, but dealing with “real” Jews proved to be irritable and unpleasant. 

When we think about some of the great people who defied Nazism during the Holocaust era, the names Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemöller and Karl Barth are synonymous with courage. Most Jews consider these men to be among the other great righteous Gentiles who stood up for human dignity. 

Yet, we would be deluding ourselves if we think that each of these men “liked” or “respected” the Jewish people.

True, Dietrich Bonhoeffer became famous for saying on the night of Kristallnacht, “If the synagogues are set on fire today, it will be the churches that will be burned tomorrow.” Yet, who could imagine that the same man would say to one of his colleagues, “that the Nazis were merely giving what was owed to the Jews. After all, “they nailed the Redeemer of the world to the cross,” they had been forced to bear an eternal curse through a long history of suffering, one that would end only “in the conversion of Israel to Christ.”[1]

Here is one more example of Bonhoeffer’s animus against the Jews:

  • The Church of Christ has never lost sight of the thought that the “chosen people” who nailed the redeemer of the world to the cross must bear the curse for its action through a long history of suffering…. But the history of the suffering of this people, loved and punished by God, stands under the sign of the final homecoming of Israel [the Jews] to its God. And this homecoming happens in the conversion of Israel to Christ…. The conversion of Israel, that is to be the end of the people’s period of suffering. From here the Christian Church sees the history of the people of Israel with trembling as God’s own, free, fearful way with his people, because God is not yet finished with it. Each new attempt to solve “the Jewish question” comes to naught . . .[2]

Shades of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde!

Before I came across this passage, I never realized that Bonhoeffer suffered from religious schizophrenia when it came to the Jews. Bonhoeffer did not regard the Jew as a brother in faith, worthy of ecumenical respect.  He felt no sympathy for the racial anti-Jewish laws passed by the Nazis throughout the lands they conquered, after all, the German government was just carrying out classical Christian doctrines that were in place since the days of the 3rd century, where the Early Church Fathers promoted nothing but hostility toward the Jew. Short of actually killing the Jew, everything was considered permitted—even hard labor. After all, the Jews must suffer for their crimes against the Savior!

Many years ago, my synagogue sponsored a short film on the life of Bonhoeffer and the producer of the film was there as part of the panel. I was curious why Bonhoeffer was never included among the righteous Gentiles in the Va’ad Ashem in Jerusalem, but given his smug theological attitude concerning the Jews—it is not hard to figure out why.

(Part 2 to follow)



[1] Anders Gerdmar Roots of Theological Anti-Semitism: German Biblical Interpretation and the Jews, from Herder and Semler to Kittel. (Boston: Brill, 2008), p. 396. 

[2] Matthew D. Hockenos, A Church Divided: German Protestants Confront the Nazi Past (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004), 21.

 

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Synchronicity and Its Meaning for Experiential Faith (Part 2)

The Scarab’s Tale of  Death and Renewal

Here is the story how Jung arrived at this original concept. One of Jung’s patients had a strong rationalistic bent to her personality. Indeed, she challenged and may have even frustrated Jung on many different levels. Jung describes her rationalistic temperament:

My example concerns a young woman patient who, in spite of efforts made on both sides, proved to be psychologically inaccessible. The difficulty lay in the fact that she always knew better about everything. Her excellent education had provided her with a weapon ideally suited to this purpose, namely a highly polished Cartesian rationalism with an impeccably ‘geometrical’ idea of reality.

After several fruitless attempts to sweeten her rationalism with a somewhat more human understanding, I had to confine myself to the hope that something unexpected and irrational would turn up, something that would burst the intellectual retort into which she had sealed herself.

Well, I was sitting opposite her one day, with my back to the window, listening to her flow of rhetoric. She had had an impressive dream the night before, in which someone had given her a golden scarab – a costly piece of jewelery.

While she was still telling me this dream, I heard something behind me gently tapping on the window. I turned round and saw that it was a fairly large flying insect that was knocking against the window-pane in the obvious effort to get into the dark room.

This seemed to me very strange. I opened the window immediately and caught the insect in the air as it flew in. It was a scarabaeid beetle, or common rose-chafer (Cetonia aurata), whose gold-green color most nearly resembles that of a golden scarab.

I handed the beetle to my patient with the words, ‘Here is your scarab.’ This experience punctured the desired hole in her rationalism and broke the ice of her intellectual resistance. The treatment could now be continued with satisfactory results. [1]

Why was Jung so effective in dealing with this type of individual? Maybe because  Jung recognized that modern people have an ontological hunger  for mythic meaning in their lives. Freud would have considered such thinking as an illusion, but Jung believed that the archetypal patterns and symbols reconstellate themselves within the psyche in the form of myths and dreams.

Archetypal Reverberations

The scarab is a good case in point.  In archetypal symbolism, the ancient Egyptians believed that the scarab  symbolized the self-renewal of the sun’s rays upon the earth and also resurrection. Re, then, characterizes the powerful and bright noonday sun, while Atum symbolizes the old and worn-out evening sun. The Egyptian word for this beetle was kheper, a homonym for their word meaning “to come to be” or “to happen,” and the word also became the name of the early-morning sun deity. Continue reading “Synchronicity and Its Meaning for Experiential Faith (Part 2)”

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Synchronicity and Its Meaning for Experiential Faith (Part 1)

A Bridge Across Time?

You have probably heard of  this  story before.  Every time I come across this citation, it makes me pause and wonder. American presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were both tragically assassinated during their terms in office. Despite the difference in time, both of these men share a number of unusual circumstances–or more precisely, coincidences. Consider the following.

– Lincoln’s name has 7 letters
– Kennedy’s name has 7 letters

– In Lincoln’s & Kennedy’s names the vowels & consonants fall in exactly the same place, in the order of c, v, c, c, v, c, c

– Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846
– Kennedy was elected to Congress in 1946

– Lincoln was elected president in 1860
– Kennedy was elected president in 1960

– Kennedy had a secretary named Lincoln
– Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy

– War was thrust upon Lincoln almost immediately after inauguration
– War was thrust upon Kennedy almost immediately after inauguration

– Lincoln gave Afro-Americans freedom and legalized equality
– Kennedy enforced equality for Afro-Americans

– Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863
– Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963

– Lincoln was loved by the common people and hated by the establishment
– Kennedy was loved by the common people and hated by the establishment

– Lincoln was succeeded, after assassination, by vice-president Johnson
– Kennedy was succeeded, after assassination, by vice-president Johnson

– John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated Lincoln, was born in 1839.
– Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated Kennedy, was born in 1939.

– Both assassins were known by their three names.
– Both names are composed of fifteen letters.

– Lincoln was shot at the theater named ‘Ford.’
– Kennedy was shot in a car called ‘Lincoln’ made by ‘Ford.’

– Lincoln was shot in a theater and his assassin ran and hid in a warehouse.
– Kennedy was shot from a warehouse and his assassin ran and hid in a theater.

And the lists goes on and on . . . .It definitely sounds like Fringe or X-Files type material.

Are these parallels just an urban legend, which break down upon deeper and more sober analysis? The skeptic in me would probably answer that question in the affirmative. On the other hand, I am fascinated by the psychology that seeks to discover anomalous parallels.

Faces in the Clouds?

While our minds are hardwired to look for patterns and order in the universe,  sometimes our minds sees things of its own fabrication and invention. It’s a little bit like the stories one reads in the National Inquirer about people in Mexico seeing the face of Satan in the clouds, or like pious Christians who see the face of Jesus etched in the snow. The mind can play tricks on itself–as we know all too well. Just ask David Copperfield, the illusionist extraordinaire. Continue reading “Synchronicity and Its Meaning for Experiential Faith (Part 1)”

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A Pre-Shabbat Meditation: “When Shift Happens . . .”

Byline: March 5th, 2010 — 5:45 PM

Life’s Unexpected Upheavals

With all the economic upheaval and uncertainty we face these days, it is important to not lose faith in the possibilities of today’s momentous hour. Nobody can afford the luxury of a negative thought—whether we like it or not, we are on a journey. Where exactly the road is taking us, is anyone’s guess, but the boundaries that have for decades been intact are in a state of movement. When I think about the earthquakes that have devastated Chili, Haiti, and other places in recent times, it reminds me of the economic, psychological and spiritual earthquakes that are forcing us to reinvent ourselves anew.

So far, this has been one real unusual year. It is amazing that life brings us on the threshold of new experiences whether we are ready for it or not.

Shift Happens

A professor once lectured how the borders of the various European nations were all in a state of shift after the cold war was over. The borders of the Czechs, the Hungarians, Russians were changing and so on; all changed. One fellow, with a wry sense of humor, offered the following double entendre: “I hear that even the Poles were shifting (e.g., the North and Southern Pole),” to which the professor quipped, “So what does all of this prove? It proves that “Shift happens.”

Attitude and Change

Indeed it does. Shift happens, whether we like it or not, one must learn to embrace the changes, because if there is any one constant in the universe, it is that change is—and  will forever be—inevitable–except when it comes  from pay phones and vending machines. The evangelical scholar Charles Swindol once said something I can actually agree with, “The remarkable thing we have is a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past… We cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude.”

The Eternal Flux of Creation

My favorite modern Sufi thinker, Hazrat Inayat Khan, wrote about the ontological nature of change–from the macro–to the micro:

“Life is full of inconstancy, at least so much of life as we can see. It is constant changing activity. A mystic calls life motion. It is constant motion in every aspect, both fine and gross, and in all its planes. Where there is motion there must be change and diversity. If there was no motion there would not have been creation and without change, there could not be diversity. The first two aspects of nature are male and female and the significance of them we can notice by keen observation in all objects and even plants, so that we may see the outcome of motion and diversity in life. Colors and sounds are due to rays of light and the changes of vibrations. The diversity of sounds come from uneven and invisible vibrations, while those of colors are even and visible. So that all that is visible and perceptible in form is constantly changing. It is nature which makes them intelligible and we recognize them as life  . . .”

Our attitude colors the way we experience change. A negative attitude can cripple us, a healthy and buoyant attitude can make all the difference in the world.

Yes, change is inevitable. The boundaries of our lives are always in a state of shift and change. Sometimes we have to touch the nothingness and void in order to experience the miracle of resurrection and renewal. All of this is doable, provided we have but the courage to embrace the impossible, and She [the Shekhinah] will do the rest.

The Three Princes of Serendip

Let me share with you a caveat.

In the medieval period there was a legend about the “Three Princes of Serendip”  (the ancient name for Ceylon). Three young noblemen take off to discover the hidden treasures of the world before them. Rarely did they find the treasures they were actually looking for. But as Providence would have it, these three princes constantly found themselves discovering other treasures that were equally great or even greater which they were not seeking.  In looking for one thing, they found something else.

It dawned on them, that this was one of life’s clever and wonderful tricks. When they realized this, they developed a whole new slant on life, and every day resulted in a new and thrilling experience. Continue reading “A Pre-Shabbat Meditation: “When Shift Happens . . .””

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The Best Question of the Passover Seder

Children have an unusual ability when it comes to confronting our spiritual hypocrisy as parents and as adults; very often they get to the essence of the problem as they perceive things. Frequently, as parents we often fail to hear the questions our young people ask of us; often we overreact whenever we feel that our beliefs and values are being questioned or attacked.

Rather than listening with an inner ear, as parents, we often react with harshness and anger. Sometimes we wish our children were more respectful and compliant, or at least, “mind their place” at the Seder table and not misbehave or draw undue attention to themselves. As any Woody Allen fan certainly knows, passionate family discussions have always been a part of Jewish life since ancient times. Unanimity has never been the goal of any kind of discussion wherever you have two or more Jews together engaged in dialogue. Passover is no exception to this rule.

During Passover, this thought finds expression in the question of the “Rasha ” (better known to most of us as the “Wicked Child”). Without his presence and participation, the entire Seder would be a dull experience. Here is a literal translation of the controversial passage we read in the Passover Hagadah:

The wicked child, what does that he say? “What is this service to you?” Note what the Torah says, “To you,” but not to him. Because he has excluded himself from the community, he has denied a basic teaching of the faith. Therefore you shall smack his teeth and tell him, It is because of this that God wrought for me in my going out of Egypt (Exod. 13:8) “For me,” but not him. Had he been there, he would not have been redeemed.

The above translation poses two obvious problems:

(1) As a parent, I have often wondered how anyone could call their child “Wicked”? The glaring meaning of “Rasha” is arguably offensive. Obviously, some modern translations prefer to sugarcoat their translation by giving the “Rasha” a less offensive epithet, e.g., “deviant,” or “troublesome.” I am unsure whether the “Deviant Son” is much of an improvement over the “Wicked Son” for both translations are clearly judgmental and pejorative. If we are to choose a less offensive title, let us describe him or her as a “Wayward Child,” or perhaps more accurately a “Rebellious Child.” At any rate, our Rasha is a person who is a young person who stands perilously close to the edge of his/her Judaism; without a proper pedagogical response, the “Rasha” may grow up to disaffiliate as a Jew.

(2) Now, to add injury to the insult of being labeled a “Rasha,” the rabbinic framers of the Hagadah recommend that the father ought to give his child a “patch in panim” a smack in the mouth for asking such impudent questions. Unfortunately, not all the rabbis of the Talmudic era were skilled educators. Continue reading “The Best Question of the Passover Seder”

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When Numbers Become Obscene

In the beginning of Exodus 30:12-13, God commands Moses not conduct a head count of the Israelites before they go into battle against future adversaries:

“When you take a census of the Israelites who are to be registered, each one, as he is enrolled, shall give the LORD a forfeit for his life, so that no plague may come upon them for being registered. Everyone who enters the registered group must pay a half-shekel, according to the standard of the sanctuary shekel, twenty gerahs to the shekel. This payment of a half-shekel is a contribution to the LORD . . . ”

Interesting passage, isn’t it? Why not conduct an actual head count? The biblical writer may also  indirectly be alluding to a census that King David carried out toward the end of his reign, which produced disastrous consequences (2 Sam 24ff.).

The answer to this question has a lot to do with the ancient’s fascination with numbers and the process of counting. Here’s the background information: Numbers play a very important part in our everyday lives. Life constantly demands that we measure and count. Numbers have always played a role in all civilizations from mathematics to astrology. Numbers also play an important symbolic role in much of the Bible, e.g.,  one, two, three, four, five, seven, twelve, forty, fifty, seventy, hundred and thousand. This is not the place to examine the significance of each of these numbers, but they often have symbolic and rhetorical significance.

The famous anthropologist Sr. James Frazer notes that certain African tribes were afraid to count children for fear that the evil spirits might hear. They also believed that cattle should not be counted because it might impede the increase of the herd. [1]  In Denmark, there was a tradition not to count hatched chickens lest some be lost. In German cultures it is believed that the more you count your money, the more likely you will decrease it. [2] Continue reading “When Numbers Become Obscene”

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“Purim Torah” or Purim Synchronicity?

Purim Torah is a remarkable genre of Jewish literature. It is rabbinic satire at its best that centers around the festivities of Purim. Those individuals writing Purim Torah display remarkable wit in weaving Talmudic logic in fabricating conclusions that border the absurd and sublime.

Earlier this week, I received a delightful section of a fabricated Talmud–replete with all the Aramaic expressions one would expect to find in a Talmudic debate. The selection contains a discussion involving President Obama, Al Gore, and the debate about global warming.  Even the commentaries of Rashi and Tosfot that explained the make-believe text looked pretty authentic. The name of the tractate is Mesechect Obama Metzia (a pun on Bava Metzia).

Here is another example of “Purim Torah” that almost sounds like a Rod Serling story from the Twilight Zone.

The story is well-known. Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews of the Persian Empire ended in disaster for Haman and his family. Queen Esther and Ahashverus have a conversation (Esther 9:12-14).

And the king said to Esther the queen: The Jews have slain and destroyed five hundred men in Shushan the capital, and the ten sons of Haman…Now whatever your petition, it shall be granted; whatever your request further, it shall be done.

Then said Esther: If it please the king, let it be granted to the Jews that are in Shushan to do tomorrow also as this day, and let Haman’s ten sons be hanged upon the gallows.

One might ask: Esther’s request seems somewhat strange. The ten sons of Haman had already been killed, why bother to hang them? The simple approach suggests she made this request so that everyone would know the consequences that would befall them, should anyone attempt to harm the Jews.

Rabbinic commentaries have a different spin. Commenting on the word “tomorrow,” in Esther’s request, the Sages comment:

“There is a tomorrow that is now, and a tomorrow which is later.” (Tanchuma Bo 13 and Rashi on Exodus 13:14).

From this interpretation, 20th century rabbis extrapolate that Esther was asking that the hanging of Haman’s ten sons not remain an isolated episode in history… But wait! What other “tomorrow” could Esther have been alluding to? Inquiring minds want to know!

And now you are going to hear–the rest of the story …

Rabbi Moshe Katz writes about one of the most remarkable “Torah Codes” of all time. In general, I have never subscribed to the belief in a hidden computerized message that is embedded within a biblical text. This particular interpretation is too striking  to ignore. If nothing else, it is an incredible synchronicity. He writes: Continue reading ““Purim Torah” or Purim Synchronicity?”

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The Haman Archetype Lives On

The joke is as old as the hills.

A Chinese man and his Jewish friend were walking along one day when the Jewish man whirled and slugged the Chinese man and knocked him down. “What was that for?” the Chinese man asked. “That was for Pearl Harbor!” the Jewish man said. “Pearl Harbor? That was the Japanese. I’m Chinese.” “Chinese, Japanese, you are all the same!” “Oh!” They continued walking and after a while the Chinese man whirled and knocked the Jewish man to the ground. “What was that for?” the Jewish man asked. “That was for the Titanic!” “The Titanic? That was an iceberg.” “Iceberg, Goldberg, you are all the same.”

Like Haman, Hitler, Hamas, and Ahmadinejad would certainly agree. It made no difference what kind of Jew they wanted to kill. Old, young, male, female, straight, gay, Haredi, Hassidic, Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Humanistic, Reconstructionist, Ortho-form, Re-conservadox–you name it. Our enemies really don’t care what we call ourselves.

Whenever I read about religious politics of “Who is a Jew?” in Israel, I often think about anti-Semites impassioned hatred for all Jews–regardless whether their names are “Iceberg,” or “Goldberg.” However, today it is no longer fashionable to be “anti-Jewish,” it is much more avant garde to be “anti-Zionist.”

How quaint.

Whenever you think of the 100,000  missiles in Lebanon aimed at Israel, know that Hezbollah really wants to destroy “Zionists,” and not “Jews” who live in Israel.

Whenever you hear how Iranian mullahs want to “nuke” Israel, they really want to just get at the “Zionists,” and not hurt the Jews, right?

When a terrorist attack strikes a kindergarten in Israel, the terrorists are only trying to kill “Zionists,” and not Jews, right?

Isn’t funny that in any future Palestinian State, Jews will not be allowed to live within its borders–but only Israel practices “apartheid,” right?

Nazi-war criminals lived a celebrity style of life in Egypt, like the world’s most-wanted Nazi war criminal, concentration camp doctor Aribert Heim. He died in Cairo in 1992. Aribert_heim The report said Heim was living under a pseudonym and had converted to Islam by the time of his death from intestinal cancer.

Countless Nazi war-criminals went to the Arab countries because they were anti-Zionist, right?

As one friend of mine explained the problem:

We refuse to acknowledge the Jews as a people, and think they are only a religion. We do not have an answer to how people who do NOT practice the Jewish religion can still be regarded as Jews. But that does not mean we have anything against Jews as such. Continue reading “The Haman Archetype Lives On”

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Purim Memories and Reflections

Purim is here once more. For me it is a bitter-sweet holiday.

The year was 1996. Earlier that day, I went to the hospital to wish my father a “Freilach Purim” (Happy Purim).  I was reading the Megillah for my synagogue, when suddenly, somebody informed me,”Rabbi, your father just died.” Feeling stunned, I could not finish reading the Megillah.

Death is as mysterious as life; I believe we have to find meaning in the events that occur around us.  Psychologist Victor Frankl discovered in Auschwitz that a human being needs something more to live for, other than fulfilling one’s biological needs. The search for meaning  and personal fulfillment propels us toward living a more spiritual kind of life.

So I wondered . . . Why did my father pass away on this particular day? What is the meaning of this event? How is my father’s death related to Purim, a day when Haman attempted to commit genocide on the Jewish people?

The answer was only too obvious.

My father, Leo Israel Samuel, was a survivor of the death camps of Madianek and Auschwitz. Like so many other Holocaust survivors, he faced “Haman” and survived. Because of his own miraculous survival, Purim was always a special holiday for him. I suspect his soul saw something almost poetic in passing away on a day that epitomized his own life journey.

The Jewish people have a long list of adversarial foes who have tried to destroy her. Some have taken aim at destroying her spirit, through attempts to inculturate the Jews to whatever the dominant faith happened to be, e.g., Hellenism, Christianity, Islam. Other enemies tried to physically destroy the Jew, because the Jew represents hope for a more enlightened and tolerant world. Continue reading “Purim Memories and Reflections”

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From Skinhead to Haredi Jew: A Tale of Personal Transformation

In the previous posts, we touched upon the dynamics of the shadow archetype that hides the inner person that exists inside us. The key to a optimum psychological state of health requires that we get understand the hidden depths of our souls and psyches. Here is a remarkable story about coming to terms with one’s shadow, compliments of  NY Times and the Failedmessiah–two excellent websites.

————–

From Skinhead to Orthodox Jew

Adam Lach for The New York Times

Pawel in the Warsaw synagogue. A former truck driver and neo-Nazi skinhead, Pawel, 33, has since become an Orthodox Jew, covering his shaved head with a yarmulke and shedding his fascist ideology for the Torah.

By DAN BILEFSKY
Published: February 24, 2010

WARSAW — When Pawel looks into the mirror, he can still sometimes see a neo-Nazi skinhead staring back, the man he once was before he covered his shaved head with a yarmulke, shed his fascist ideology for the Torah and renounced violence and hatred in favor of God.

Adam Lach for The New York Times

Pawel in the Warsaw synagogue. A former truck driver and neo-Nazi skinhead, Pawel, 33, has since become an Orthodox Jew, covering his shaved head with a yarmulke and shedding his fascist ideology for the Torah.

“I still struggle every day to discard my past ideas,” said Pawel, a 33-year-old ultra-Orthodox Jew and former truck driver, noting with little irony that he had to stop hating Jews in order to become one.

“When I look at an old picture of myself as a skinhead, I feel ashamed. Every day I try and do teshuvah,” he said, using the Hebrew word for repentance. “Every minute of every day. There is a lot to make up for.”

Pawel, who also uses his Hebrew name Pinchas, asked not to use his last name for fear that his old neo-Nazi friends could target him or his family.

Pawel is perhaps the most unlikely example of a Jewish revival under way in Poland in which hundreds of Poles, a majority of them raised as Catholics, are either converting to Judaism or discovering Jewish roots submerged for decades in the aftermath of World War II.

Before 1939, Poland was home to more than three million Jews; over 90 percent of them were killed by the Nazis during the Holocaust. A majority of those who survived emigrated. Of the fewer than 50,000 who remained in Poland, many either abandoned or hid their Judaism during decades of Communist oppression in which political pogroms against Jews persisted.

But Rabbi Michael Schudrich, the chief rabbi of Poland, noted that 20 years after the fall of Communism, a historical reckoning was finally taking place. He said Pawel’s metamorphosis illustrated just how far the country had come.

“Before 1989 there was a feeling that it was not safe to say ‘I am a Jew,”’ he said. “But today, there is a growing feeling that Jews are a missing limb in Poland.”

Five years ago, the rabbi noted, there were about 250 families in the Jewish community in Warsaw; today there are 600. During that period, the number of rabbis serving the country has grown from one to eight. The cafes and bars of the old Jewish quarter in Krakow brim with young Jewish converts listening to Israeli hip hop music. Even several priests have decided to become Jewish.

Pawel’s transformation from baptized Catholic skinhead to Jew began in a bleak neighborhood of concrete tower blocks in Warsaw in the 1980s. Pawel said he and his friends reacted to the gnawing uniformity of socialism by embracing anti-Semitism and an extreme right-wing ideology. They shaved their heads, carried knives, and greeted each other with the raised right arm gesture of the Nazi salute.

“Oi Vey, I hate to admit it, but we would beat up local Jewish and Arab kids and homeless people,” Pawel said on a recent day in the Nozyk Synagogue here. “We sang about stupid stuff like Satan and killing people. We believed that Poland should only be for Poles.”

One day, he recalled, he and his friends skipped school and took a train to Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp, near Krakow. “We made jokes that we wished the exhibition had been bigger and that the Nazis had killed even more Jews,” he said.

He says his staunch Catholic parents, a teacher and a businessman, suspected he was a skinhead, but hoped it was just a phase.

“I never got caught for what I did or got arrested, so my parents didn’t realize things were so bad,” he said. “But they would get stressed out when I would come home in the morning wounded and covered in blood.”

Even as Pawel embraced the life of a neo-Nazi, he said, he had pangs that his identity was built on a lie. His churchgoing father seemed overly fond of quoting the Old Testament. His grandfather hinted about past family secrets.

“One time when I told my grandfather that Jews were bad, he exploded and screamed at me, ‘If I ever hear you say such a thing again under my roof, you will never come back!”’

Pawel joined the army and married a fellow skinhead at age 18. But his sense of self changed irrevocably at the age of 22, when his wife, Paulina, suspecting she had Jewish roots, went to a genealogical institute and discovered Pawel’s maternal grandparents on a register of Warsaw Jews, along with her own grandparents.

When Pawel confronted his parents, he said, they broke down and told him the truth: that his maternal grandmother was Jewish and had survived the war by being hidden in a monastery by a group of nuns. His paternal grandfather, also a Jew, had seven brother and sisters, most of whom had perished in the Holocaust.

“I went to my parents and said, ‘What the hell?’ Imagine, I was a neo-Nazi and heard this news. I couldn’t look in the mirror for weeks. It was a shock and it still is a shock to me,” he said. “My parents were the typical offspring of Jewish survivors of the war, who decided to conceal their Jewish identity to try and protect their family.” Continue reading “From Skinhead to Haredi Jew: A Tale of Personal Transformation”

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