Primo Levi’s Natural Law

The Italian writer and scientist Primo Levi (1919-1987), best known for his Auschwitz memoir, If This Is a Man (English title: Survival in Auschwitz), was also a prolific author of essays, short stories, and other works. In his review of the newly released Complete Works of Primo Levi, Edward Mendelson writes about Levi’s moral understanding of the universe, which underlay his work both as a writer and as a chemist:

Unlike almost everyone else who wrote about science in the 20th century, Levi never imagined that science was value-free. Just as human beings were moral or immoral, so, in his eyes, were chemical elements and compounds: “Sodium is a degenerate metal”;  “chlorides in general are riffraff”; cerium “belongs to the equivocal and heretical family of the rare-earth elements.”

Morality, as Levi understood it, is not a set of rules or laws imposed by some divine power beyond ordinary reality; it is integral to reality, a matter of fact, not of opinion. In both the concentration camp and the laboratory, to lose sight of morality was to lose sight of what is real. Levi said of the Nazis who took up Nietzsche’s myth of the superman: “It is worth considering the fact that all of them, master and pupils, gradually took leave of reality at the same pace as their morals became detached from the morals common to every time and every civilization.”

The core of Nazi barbarism, as Levi saw it, was its reduction of unique human beings to anonymous things, mere instances of a collective category—Jews, for example—that can be slaughtered collectively because they have no individual value.

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More about: Friedrich Nietzsche, History & Ideas, Holocaust, Morality, Natural law, Primo Levi, Science

The Proper Jewish Response to the Pittsburgh Massacre

Nov. 21 2018

In the Jewish tradition, it is commonplace to add the words zikhronam li-vrakhah (may their memory be for a blessing) after the names of the departed, but when speaking of those who have been murdered because they were Jews, a different phrase is used: Hashem yikom damam—may God avenge their blood. Meir Soloveichik explains:

The saying reflects the fact that when it comes to mass murderers, Jews do not believe that we must love the sinner while hating the sin; in the face of egregious evil, we will not say the words ascribed to Jesus on the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” We believe that a man who shoots up a synagogue knows well what he does; that a murderer who sheds the blood of helpless elderly men and women knows exactly what he does; that one who brings death to those engaged in celebrating new life knows precisely what he does. To forgive in this context is to absolve; and it is, for Jews, morally unthinkable.

But the mantra for murdered Jews that is Hashem yikom damam bears a deeper message. It is a reminder to us to see the slaughter of eleven Jews in Pennsylvania not only as one terrible, tragic moment in time, but as part of the story of our people, who from the very beginning have had enemies that sought our destruction. There exists an eerie parallel between Amalek, the tribe of desert marauders that assaulted Israel immediately after the Exodus, and the Pittsburgh murderer. The Amalekites are singled out by the Bible from among the enemies of ancient Israel because in their hatred for the chosen people, they attacked the weak, the stragglers, the helpless, those who posed no threat to them in any way.

Similarly, many among the dead in Pittsburgh were elderly or disabled; the murderer smote “all that were enfeebled,” and he “feared not God.” Amalek, for Jewish tradition, embodies evil incarnate in the world; we are commanded to remember Amalek, and the Almighty’s enmity for it, because, as Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik explained, the biblical appellation refers not only to one tribe but also to our enemies throughout the ages who will follow the original Amalek’s example. To say “May God avenge their blood” is to remind all who hear us that there is a war against Amalek from generation to generation—and we believe that, in this war, God is not neutral.

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More about: Amalek, Anti-Semitism, Judaism, Religion & Holidays