In addition to Passover, the month of April—and the Hebrew month of Nissan—contains Yom HaShoah, the day established by the state of Israel to commemorate the Holocaust. Shalom Carmy reflects on the debate, now largely forgotten, over whether the Shoah should receive its own day on the Jewish calendar, or its memory included on other days designated for the recollection of national woes. This debate, in turn, points to the different ways religious and secular Jews have responded to the 20th century’s great catastrophe:
Traditional chroniclers and liturgical poets tended to blend their mourning for the sorrows of their own time with the age-old fast days and poems commemorating the destruction of the Temple. This pattern continues today. Among the accepted elegies recited on the day set aside to mourn the destruction of the Temple, one finds dirges referring to the Holocaust, authored by prominent rabbinic personalities. These religious leaders thus emphasize continuity, not uniqueness.
[By contrast], there is a deeper religious factor that makes it difficult for modern, secularized Jews to place the Holocaust within the continuum of Jewish history. The problem is not what the millions murdered say about God’s providence—the secular mind dispensed with providence long ago—but what they say about man. If theodicy in the broadest sense is the attempt to justify the ways of the world, there can be a secular theodicy, wherein some power other than God supervenes over history. For enlightened people in the 19th and 20th centuries, that power was the goodness and progress of humanity.
Because the Holocaust made it so difficult to sustain modern secular theodicies, its impact on secular conceptions of Jewish life and history is different in kind from its effect on traditional Jewish thinking, which never relied on optimism about modern culture. As a result, the Holocaust can be oddly very important to the spiritual lives of secular and progressive Jews—not in a positive way, but as the nadir of Jewish history, perhaps of human history, the episode of radical evil that casts a long, dark shadow that is far realer than whatever vestiges of the modern narrative of progress continue to guide the secular spirit.