Respecting the Human Face

Martin Gilbert in his book on the Holocaust tells the story about a young sixteen year-old named Zvi Michalowski. On September 27, 1941, Zvi was supposed to be executed with 3,000 other Lithuanian Jews. He had fallen into the pit a fraction of a second before the Nazis shot their guns. That night, he crept out of the pit, and fled to the closest village. He knocked on a door of a peasant, who saw this naked man, covered with blood. He begged the elderly widow and said: “I am Lord Jesus Christ. I came down from the cross. Look at me—the blood, the pain, the suffering of the innocent. Let me in.” The widow threw herself at his feet and begged for forgiveness and she hid him for three days. The young man managed to survive as a partisan (The Holocaust, [London and New York, 1986]) 200f.

One cannot help but compare this anecdote to the passage one of the most famous of the pastoral parables:

“You may remember, I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’ ” (Matthew 25:35-40).

What does the human face say to me when no words are ever verbally said? The human face says, “Look at me; treat me with humanity; I am like you.” In the parable of Jesus, the 1st century rabbi gently reminds his disciples that kindness and compassion must find tangible expression in the language of good deeds.

When we look at the children who Hitler killed in the millions, what do their faces say to us from their pictures? The human face, as you know, is capable of almost infinite expressions; the face is the mirror to the soul. According to the French philosopher and Holocaust survivor Emmanuel Levinas, the human face always challenges us to respond ethically toward others. No commandment even need be given, when I see the human face looking back at me, I cannot deny his humanity without destroying my own in the process. In the age of push-button warfare, it is so easy to kill millions without ever having to look at the human face that commands us to be aware of our mutual humanity.

Remembering the victims of the Holocaust must be more than a brief recollection. The act of memory in the Bible is always dynamic as it is transformative. How we remember the death of the six million is important, for as the philosopher George Santayana said, “He who forgets the past is condemned to repeat it.” But are we really faced with a similar menace like the Jews were in the days that led to the Holocaust? Most certainly!

The ghost of Adolf Hitler is alive in well in Iran’s dictator Mahmud Ahmadinejad—whose Holocaust denial is has made him a cult-hero to many of his fellow religious fanatics—even as he develops the nuclear weapons to someday create a new Holocaust in Israel. The world cannot afford to take a passive or indifferent attitude toward the one country that has done more to export international terror than any other terrorist organization in the last several decades. No other country in the civilized world has vowed to wipe another country off the map like Iran’s leaders. Yes, the human face demands a response. But how we ultimately respond to the bellicose threats of this demented regime will determine the fate of millions in the world today.

As always, the choice is in our hands.

Further Reflections on Buber: Where can we find the Eternal Thou?

The Kotzker Rebbe once asked his students “Where is God?” His students said “Does not the Bible tell us that the whole world is full of His glory?” To this he, responded ” That maybe fine for the heavenly angels, but the answer for man is different. God is present wherever human beings allow God to enter.”

According to Lurianic Kabbala, the existence of world began with the creation of space, which allows for the existence and emergence of our freedom and creativity, so too, according to Buber, the indwelling of God depends upon us creating a space for the Shechina to indwell. It is in our daily encounters with people, this possibility can be realized and fulfilled. It is in our human and eco-relationships, we must come to see God’s Presence unfold within the world. No sterile philosophy or theology will do.

Buber’s theology of encounter may also be understood in terms of God’s own divine act of self-emptying (kenosis) where God intentionally forgoes “losing” some attributes so that we may freely discover the Divine in one another.
Buber once said,

If believing in God means being able to speak of Him in the third person, then I probably do not believe in God; or at least, I do not know if it is permissible for me to say that I believe in God. For I know, when I speak of him in the third person, whenever it happens, and it has to happen again and again, there is no other way, then my tongue cleaves to the roof of my mouth so quickly that one cannot even call it speech.

In summary, in the meeting of “I and Thou”, for Buber, the edifice through which the human being builds up in his I-centered thinking are abolished, frontiers which imprison him in his egoic vision of the world thus separating him from his fellow human beings. In the thinking of Buber, the I-centered dimension of human life is the It – a world where the modern individual is cut off from the experience of love as well as the experience of transcendence. In the universe of the I– It, human beings are shackled to the securities of his concepts and systems without meeting the last and deepest dimension of human life, isolating himself from his fellow human beings and the world around him. The “I” dimension to life is what makes modern people especially lonely and hungry for genuine human contact that culminates in love, and a sense of belonging.

This limiting isolation is conquered according to Buber in the Thou – once the individual enters the world of the “I – Thou,” in the meeting of “I and Thou”. In this meeting the human being becomes a person in the face of the Other; real dialogue takes place and the eternal Thou of God speaks to the human being through the ordinary reality of the world.

Buber points towards the presence of the eternal Thou in poetical words:

“In every sphere in its own way, through each process of becoming that is present to us, we look out toward the fringe of the eternal Thou; in each we are aware of a breath from the eternal Thou; in each Thou we address the eternal Thou. Every sphere is compassed in the eternal Thou, but it is not compassed in them. Through every sphere shines the one present.”

One could say based on Buber’s vital insight, that God is the Presence that overcomes estrangement and enables man to fulfill himself as an integrated personality.