Interpreting Doc. 8 | 10

[ (b.) The Logic of Credo quia Auschwitz ]




Midrash proffers a remarkably apropos allegorical precedent which, not surprisingly, belongs together with the same original case of a man who argued with God, namely Abraham. The midrash essentially functions as an explication of the background of the case. The precedent is developed as an exegetical interrogation of the verse with which the world-historical career of Abraham begins: ‘Now the Lord said unto Abram: Get thee out of thy country, etc.’ (Gen. 12:1).

Rabbi Isaac unlocked [the meaning of this verse, Gen. 12:1, using another scriptural verse as a key]: ‘Hearken, O daughter, and consider, and incline thine ear; forget also thine own people, and thy father’s house’ (Ps. 45:11) This may be allegorically compared to a man who used to move around from place to place when he saw a palace in flames. He said, ‘Do you mean to say that this palace is without a superintendent?’ The landlord of the palace looked out at him and said, ‘I am the landlord of the palace.’ Similarly, because our father Abraham said, ‘Do you mean to say that the world is without a superintendent?’ the Holy One, blessed be He, looked out at him and said to him, ‘I am the Landlord of the world.’ ‘So shall the king greatly desire thy beauty, for he is thy lord’ (v. 12): so shall the king greatly desire thy beauty to beautify you in the world. ‘And worship thou him’ (ibid.) Hence: ‘the Lord said unto Abram.’1

This midrash compares Abraham to a nomad who must have seen all kinds of habitational structures during his wanderings and sojourns: tents, houses, buildings, etc.. At some point in his life, relates the midrash, this nomad finds himself approaching a magnificent edifice engulfed in flames. Is this the first time he has seen such a thing? If not the first time he has seen a habitation damage by fire, probably the first time he has come across a conflagration of such proportions. ‘A man used to move around from place to place when he saw a palace in flames.’ It is not only the fire that is of great proportions, but also the palace. Dumbfounded in his tracks by the uncommon spectacle, the man speaks. ‘He said, ‘Do you mean to say …?’’ —To whom does he says this? And who means to say anything by the spectacular sight? Does he speak to himself? Are his words a spontaneous ejaculation meant for no one in particular, just something said out loud? After all, can he actually expect anyone, other bystanders, his contemporaries, to understand his question? The question itself is odd. Or is the question, however spontaneous, also a result of thoughtful deliberation? And directed at an addressee? ‘Do you mean to say that this palace is without a superintendent?’ Whereupon, quite miraculously—for it cannot be explained otherwise—the master of the house pops his face out—from where?—and says, ‘I am the landlord of the palace.’ A landlord who is very peculiar in that, besides being a fire-proof wizard with a bizarre sense of humour, he is evidently also a teacher of some sort, and a philanthropic one at that, who cares what this nomad has to say about the pyrotechnic display. And this entire surreal scenario is compared to the experience of the father of the ‘believers sons of believers,’ to Abraham, who is supposed to have asked, although of course there is no scriptural mention of this:—’Do you mean to say that the world is without a superintendent?’ The question is provocative enough. It provokes a response from God. ‘I am the Landlord of the world,’ says God. —And? Is that enough? Is Abram satisfied with the sheer theophanic appearance, in the way that Buber believed Job to have found some satisfaction at the end of his perosnal tribulations, exclaiming ‘Now I see Thee!’ (Job 42:5), on account of the sheer experience of the ‘nearness’ of his heavenly tormentor which in itself proved to be such a consolation that no actual explanation of his sufferings, no articulate content to fill out the form of the encounter, was necessary?2 From the emptiness of God’s response to Abram regarding the causes of the fire, we retroactively note the feebleness of Abram’s question. Surely, had he stood in front of the hot ovens of Auschwitz, he would have lost his mind and vomited out howls like: ‘Where the hell is the superintendent of the world?! Let him step forth right now and explain himself!’ Or are we to imagine that this what Abram means with his question? Yet if he does mean this, if his question does imply this in a rhetorical manner, the Landlord of the world, in any case, ignores a request for such an explanation. True, He does show up. Which is worth something. But He explains nothing. As if to say: ‘Silence! Thus it arises ….’ And what is this parable supposed to explain? According to Rabbi Isaac, it explains the special daughter-like beauty of Abraham, for which he deserved to be summoned by God to leave his homeland in Mesopotamia and his father’s house and to venture forth.

In order to make it clear, first of all, what this midrash does not say, it is necessary to juxtapose it with the more often cited midrashic legends about Abraham’s gradual awakening to the reality of the true God amid the soporifically incense-scented air of idolatry that filled his father’s home in Ur Kasdim.3 Those more popular midrashim are basically precursors of the theological argument from design, an argument once illustrated by Rabbi Akiva with the example of a garment and its weaver.4 William Paley, whose name is most often associated with the argument, preferred the example of a pocket watch that is discovered by chance during a stroll on the heath; ‘the inference, we think, is inevitable,’ says Paley, ‘that the watch must have a maker.’5 How much more so, then, the infinitely more complex and infinitely more wonderful mechanism of the universe at large! Can we suppose such an exquisite marvel of engineering to be the concoction of some divine chimpanzee at play in a workshop? And yet we may wonder, along the lines of Hume’s criticism of the argument, what other inference Paley might have arrived at had he continued his stroll on the heath into Poland and as far as Auschwitz. Abraham, in any event, the midrash tells us, did arrive at another inference when he came across a burning palace. (Was it, too, full of burning human bodies, like Auschwitz? The midrash does not say.) Yet, oddly enough, this inference of Abraham’s arrived at essentially the same conclusion as the earlier inference that he had drawn from the majestic parade of the starry heavens above. ‘The palace must have a superintendent.’ Why must it? Because there is a fire? That’s just stupid; it doesn’t mean anything; whereas the folly we are after is a complex folly, it means something.6 Somehow, the palace must have a superintendent despite the fact of the fire. The ‘must’ that refers to the necessity of a superintendent’s whereabouts comes from somewhere other than the fire. And yet this same fire, despite its wholly destructive effects, and in spite of which the nomad suspects the whereabouts of a superintendent, somehow provides the needed stimulus to excite and embolden and enflame the nomad’s initial suspicion into a full pious conviction. It is certainly true that the energy of a fire has an purposeless entropic momentum that leads only to destruction and death. Yet by provoking a life-embracing response from the nomad, the same brute momentum is harnessed by the nomad and turned around in the direction of life. Death contains a secret and deep source of vitality that life, left to its own resources, would never discover by itself and could never reach into except for death’s terrible provocation. In Lurianic and hence Ḥabad nomenclature: the most luminant luminance draws its powers from wellsprings of the darkest darkness.7 Because the fire is destroying the palace and wreaks a deadly havoc everywhere, therefore the nomad, thrown back upon his precious life, is transcendentally provoked to access a stronger connection with the innermost secret of life and to realize a stronger confidence in the covenant between his life and the Tree of Life that the Maker of the universe fixed at the vital centre of His cherished garden, in other words, at the epicentre of His universe.8

It should be evident that the transcendental provocation of such trust in God, while its impetus and intent evidently comes from the outside, watches its final result unfold deep within the interior of trust. Putting it in terms of the midrash again, we might say: it stands to reason that the palace must have a superintendent simply because it is a palace. Palaces, like good pocket watches, are carefully constructed and, generally speaking, carefully owned. One might ask: But is this particular superintendent not a careless one? Not necessarily. The fact that the palace is burning down is not proof of neglect. First of all, there may be extenuating circumstances. Perhaps someone has outsmarted the superintendent’s fire-regulations and provisions for such an emergency, some embittered servant of the landlord who has worked out a painstaking vengeful plan of arson, or some enemy of the landlord in possession of a powerful incendiary weapon. But even beyond such extenuating possibilities and excuses, if we assume, for the sake of argument, that the superintendent is not lacking in adequate resources or know-how to ensure the complete safety and security of the palace from any fire hazard (an assumption in keeping, after all, with the allegorical role that the superintendent plays in representing the infinitely resourceful Caretaker of the world), then the suggestion that some neglect might be afoot (the only remaining possibility) is difficult to reconcile with the fact of the palace itself, that is, with the august palatial countenance of the building, discernible through, and now even gruesomely highlighted by, the consuming flames, a countenance that by definition implies a landlord who must have originally dictated his intentions for this stately pleasure-dome to a talented architect (i.e. cosmic design) and thereafter entrusted its care to this perfectly capable and resourceful superintendent (i.e. providence). Why the palace is engulfed in flames is certainly a mystery. But this dark mystery has no authority to erect a permanent question mark over the concern, and more, over the affection that the landlord must have for the palace and in view of which he appointed his trustworthy superintendent. This affection is not a mystery. It is plain to see, albeit through the flames, in the beautiful construction of the palace in which the king must have invested so much personal concern and in the good maintenance that the palace must have enjoyed right up until the unhappy hour wherein it was overtaken by the conflagration. ‘The palace must have a good landlord,’ is what the nomad means when he infers that it must have a landlord. Then why is it on fire? —This of course is the overwhelming evidence that threatens to weaken the inference. Whence this is where we feel the full epistemic impact of the folly that is mobilized and rallied for the protection of the inference.

In this short and still superficial approach to the unusual logic and epistemic framework of this midrash, of course, a number of assumptions have been imported from the European philosophical tradition. Most notably, an empiricist notion of evidence determines the approach. Evidence is implicitly acknowledged to be the decisive epistemic counter-force to folly. It was for this reason that Kant insisted on empirical evidence as the only force that holds reason back from its desire for boyish flights of fancy into ‘transcendental illusion’ (folly).9 Assuming evidence to be such a force, it might well be said of our midrashic allegory that the destructive fire in it is an example (hence also a symbol) of the hard evidence that contradicts the foolish inference that the palace must have a good landlord. The inference flouts the evidence, foolishly so. The goodness of the landlord inferred from the goodly countenance of the palace somehow promises its goodness to the nomad, telling him not to trust the evidence, as if promising a immanent victory over the facts. Because of this promise, and against the evidence, the nomad thus, foolishly, becomes partisan to the landlord. He joins his cause. He pledges his allegiance to the landlord’s eternal and inflammable aspirations for his palace. He identifies with the landlord’s vision of what the palace ‘really is,’ despite all appearances. And this partisanship, with folly and trust on its side, and evidence against it, very quickly and naturally, as soon as it senses its situation in the arc of time amid the realities of promise, aspiration, and impatience, translates its situatedness into temporal terms that appropriate to it a sharp, cutting eschatological vision of a destiny that lies bone-deep underneath the clear and distinct tissues of the evidence given with the data and the fatality of fate.10 The nomad is convinced that the affection and care with which the landlord must hold his palace dear is more decisive in establishing the palace’s destiny than any evidence that points to its clear fate. Because the palace is burning, the trust in God that foolishly denies this evident fate the right to be confused with the palace’s true destiny must therefore grow even stronger. The trust in God must attain a degree of strength intense enough to be able to confront and defeat the power of evidence, a terrible power that evidence receives from fate. A simple fool, of course, is also someone who lives against the evidence,11 with his eyes shut tightly and his palms pressing hard on his ears. To evidence and argument of any sort, the simple fool prefers a raw statement of theory. He is given over to fixated obsession. But while a simple fool’s obsession is simply something he suffers, tragically, pathologically, not something he chooses for himself, a holy fool is enraptured by his idée fixe as a matter of active and even pro-active commitment, with ears pealed, with eyes wide open, in a vigilant and, wherever possible, scientific awareness of the weight of the evidence against his commitment. His folly, again, is a complex thing.

To be sure, the above distinction between fate and destiny is not always easy to maintain in weekday vernacular. The language in which the commitment of holy folly is to be expressed tends to slide back into tragic idiom, as if language itself had a natural inner fatalistic tendency. We see this tendency at work in a critical moment in the conversation between Wiesel and the Rebbe, where an attempt by the Rebbe to suggest the logic of trust after Auschwitz, a logic that swims with vigorous strokes, upstream, against the current of fate, is interpreted by Wiesel in a more relaxed manner that allows it to drift down a more mainstream fatalism.