Every year at this time, the Jewish people prepares to commemorate on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) the murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazis and their allies. Though the Holocaust was a unique crime in Jewish and human history, we Jews cannot ignore other crimes against other peoples in the last century including, but not limited to, in Armenia, Russia under Stalin, Cambodia, Serbia, Croatia, Congo, Rwanda, Bangladesh, Hutu, Bosnia, Darfur, Chechnya, Urhghurs, Syria, Ukraine, and more.
On the heels of Pesach that emphasizes the virtue of compassion (recall the Midrash describing God’s judgmental response to His ministering angels when they sang praises as the Egyptian army drowned: “My creatures are perishing, and you sing praises!”), it’s impossible not to ask how compassionate human beings can wrap their heads and hearts around tragedies of such scale? How ought superpowers to act in confronting such evil? What are we citizens of western democracies morally obliged to do to prevent such crimes before they happen and to respond when they do?
These are the questions that I presume plague President Biden, the vast majority of the American people, the people of Israel, and the NATO alliance today. My guts tell me to fight fire with fire, but my head recognizes that the President is justifiably worried that Putin will resort to using nuclear weapons if/when he feels cornered or defeated.
With Yom HaShoah and all genocidal tragedies in mind, I compiled a number of quotations written over the centuries addressing the phenomenon of evil.
First, in memory of those who perished in the Shoah, I offer this prayer:
May the memory of our people who perished in the Shoah remain for us, our children, and our children’s children a warning never to be naïve concerning the evil capacity of humankind, or to become ourselves hardhearted, indifferent, and passive in the face of evil political and governmental leaders and their nations that demonize and objectivize the “other.”
The Banality of Evil
“The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such… Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all…he merely never realized what he was doing…he could see no one, no one at all, who actually was against the Final Solution…[what we have demanded in this trial] is that human beings be capable of telling right from wrong, even when all they have to guide them is their own judgment which, moreover, happens to be completely at odds with what they must regard as the unanimous opinion of all those around them.”
–Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), a political philosopher, author, and Holocaust survivor reflecting about Adolph Eichmann during his trial in Israel in 1961 for the crime of genocide
Dualism and the Problem of Evil
“Evil is an independent, active force, apart from and opposed to God. Dualism…explains evil as the work of a mythic counter-force: the devil, the demiurge, Satan, the anti-Christ, the Prince of Darkness, and the many other names for the embodiment of evil…. Dualism resolves cognitive dissonance by saying, in effect, ‘It wasn’t us, and it wasn’t God, so it must be Them,’ whoever ‘Them’ happen to be. It turns penitential cultures into blame cultures, externalizing evil and projecting it on a scapegoat, thereby redefining the faithful as victims…the children of Satan must be masters of disguise, practitioners of sorcery or more modern dark arts. From there it is a short step to seeing them as subhuman (for the Nazis, Jews were ‘vermin, lice’; for the Hutus of Rwanda, the Tutsi were inyenzi, ‘cockroaches.’ They can then be killed without compunction. There is a straight line from dualism to demonization to dehumanization to genocide…Dualism is the single most effective doctrine in persuading good people to do evil things….Those who commit mass murder see themselves as defending their people, avenging their humiliation, ridding the world of a pestilence and helping to establish the victory of truth, racial, political or religious.”
–Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (1948-2020), The Great Partnership, p. 247 – an English Orthodox rabbi, philosopher, theologian, author, public intellectual, and Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth
The Soul of the Murderer
“The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole, men [humankind] are more good than bad; that however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance that fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.”
–Albert Camus (1913-1960), The Plague – a 20th century French philosopher, author, journalist, and French Nobel Prize Laureate in Literature
Evil Derives its Strength from Good People
“The force which makes for war does not derive its strength from the interested motives of evil men; it derives its strength from the disinterested motives of good men.”
–Norman Angell (1872-1967), a lecturer, author, British MP, and English Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
“One who condones evil is just as guilty as the one who perpetrates it.”
–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968) – a preeminent civil rights leader and American Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
The Problem and Sin of Silence
“When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence. A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality, and in the face of mass murder.”
–Rabbi Joachim Prinz (1902-1988), (the above is a portion of the speech he delivered at the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C). – a German-American Rabbi, Zionist, and civil rights leader
Evil and Indifference
“Throughout history, it has been the inaction of those who could have acted, the indifference of those who should have known better, the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most that has made it possible for evil to triumph.”
–Haile Selassie (1892-1975), a former Emperor of Ethiopia
The Triumph of Evil
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [women] to do nothing.”
–Edmund Burke (1729-1797), an Irish-born British statesman, economist, and philosopher
On Guilt and Moral Responsibility
“Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, [and] in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
– Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), a 20th century Jewish theologian, philosopher, and social justice activist