The Torah teaches that ‘a hanged man is a curse unto God’, even when such a death is imposed by due judicial process. He must be taken down and buried that very day. In illustration the Talmud tells a shocking parable, partly perhaps to explain why the rabbis shunned the death penalty:
- This is like two identical twin brothers who lived in the same city. One was appointed king; the other took to robbery and murder. The king issued a command and they hanged him. All who saw him said: ‘The king’s been hanged!’ The king issued a further command and they took him down.
In such parables the king always represents God. The murderer is God’s identical twin. Made in God’s image, we contain them both in potential. Which twin shall humanity be?
The Nazi Holocaust, like all previous and subsequent genocides, is the product of at least three kinds of evil.
First are evil ideas. The Nazi degradation and dehumanisation of the Jew had many roots: in envy and fear; in the need for a scapegoat; in a history of political anti-Semitism; in certain Christian images of the Jew, and in popular theories of race. Without the principle of Aryan supremacy in the merciless competition for land and survival, what ensued could not have taken place.
This is followed by evil processes. Government, the judiciary, the press and the administration became instruments of persecution. The Nuremberg Laws stripped Jews of citizenship and turned them into subjects in the worst sense: subjects to everything the state might choose to inflict upon them. Nazism was subtle as well as violent. Rights were progressively withdrawn by ‘legal’ means: to work, to access monies, to shop, to travel, to possess a radio, bicycle or warm coat, to move, to breath.
This is accompanied by violence legitimised by a total release from the demands of moral law and conscience. The brute within the person is set free; is it not, after all, perfectly legitimate, have we not been instructed by the higher powers, to kill these mere non-humans? When a state descends to that level, no-one can know with certainly whom he or she may prove capable of becoming.
Only when we, the whole of humanity including every group and person within it, succumb to none of these evils will it ‘never happen again’.
Every human being therefore has to ask him- or herself: do I harbour ideas or notions which deny the equality and dignity of others? Do I support or benefit from laws or practices which steal from others, or curtail, such rights and forms of dignity as I would seek for myself? Are all my deeds governed by fairness and compassion and weighed in the conscience?
Although the conditions and challenges governing the choice are never equal, each of us ultimately chooses which twin we want to be. No doubt we all harbour ambiguities.
To carry the divine image faithfully, to represent truly ‘I am the Lord your God’, means ‘to love your neighbour as yourself’. To that unending task, at once simple and unfathomably difficult, each of us and humanity as a whole must rededicate ourselves without cease.