In 1999, the historian Peter Novick published a valuable contrarian book called The Holocaust in American Life (Houghton Mifflin). It seeks to answer "why in 1990s America—fifty years after the fact and thousands of miles from its site—the Holocaust has come to loom so large in our culture." Asking questions that few others have raised in print, Novick brings his skeptical intelligence to bear on a subject that is too often obscured by unctuous pontification and self-serving myths. His account of the evolution of discourse about the Holocaust, from the immediate postwar years to the present, is particularly helpful and frequently surprising.

Still, when all is said and done, Novick misses something vital. He argues against the notion that there are "'lessons of the Holocaust,'" asserting that "lessons for dealing with the sorts of issues that confront us in ordinary life, whether public or private, are not likely to be found in this most extraordinary of events." But by that argument, we would have no "lessons" to learn from much of the great literature of the world, so often concerned precisely with extraordinary situations that highlight the drama of human freedom to choose good or evil.

Above all, Novick the resolute secularist is scornful of those who, like Elie Wiesel, Irving Greenberg, and many others, both inside and outside the Jewish community, see a profound religious significance to the Holocaust, a metaphysical dimension. "Even many observant Jews are often willing to discuss the founding myths of Judaism naturalistically," Novick writes. "But they're unwilling to adopt this mode of thought when it comes to the 'inexplicable mystery' of the Holocaust." He just doesn't get it.

Another hardheaded secularist who nevertheless is a superb guide is Yehuda Bauer, whose book Rethinking the Holocaust was published last year by Yale University Press. Bauer's book is quite unusual in its weighing of evidence and counterevidence; as you read, you feel you are looking over a historian's shoulder, able to see how he arrives at his judgments rather than having them served up ready-made. He is blunt and refreshingly clear.

In his chapter "From the Holocaust to the State of Israel," Bauer shows in some detail how the shifting political goals of Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, and other players ultimately led to the foundation of the State of Israel—an event that was by no means inevitable, nor to be explained primarily in humanitarian terms. (Novick makes the same point.) He adds that the outcome of the Jewish-Arab war in 1948 was very much in doubt, and that were it not for an infusion of arms from communist Czechoslovakia at a crucial point, the Jews would probably have been defeated. As it was, the victory came at a high cost: 1 percent of the Jewish population in Palestine. "In the United States there are, say, 250 million inhabitants. One percent would be 2.5 million. I need say no more."

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Earlier, in his introduction, Bauer writes that, because his parents "had the good sense to escape in 1939, I grew up in Mandatory Palestine, where I went to school and played soccer while my relatives and everyone else in my former home were being murdered. I studied in Britain, participated in the Israeli War of Independence (and a few other Israeli wars, as all my friends did), and came to the study of the Holocaust because I wanted to be a historian of Jews." He acknowledges that this experience shapes his outlook, yet he strives for objectivity.

Christian readers should take special note of Bauer's chapter, "Theology, or God the Surgeon," in which he considers Jewish theological accounts of the Holocaust. Much of the chapter is given to his explication of a section of a booklet by Rebbe Menachem Mendel Shneersohn, the New York-based leader of a Hasidic sect who was regarded by many of his followers as the Messiah. (Shneersohn died in 1995.) It is characteristic of Bauer that, while he is extremely critical of Shneersohn's theodicy, he pays tribute both to the Rebbe's great learning and to the "strength and genuineness of his moral convictions."

The questions that the Rebbe wrestled with are certainly familiar to Christians. On the one hand, Bauer shows, the Rebbe insists that God is above our judgments; it is not for us to seek his reasons. And yet in the next moment the Rebbe cannot resist trying to find an explanation for the Shoah. He tells a story—again, familiar to Christians in many variants—of a visitor to a hospital who is ignorant of medical practice. He sees a patient in surgery, apparently the victim of torture. The visitor doesn't realize that all this is being done for the patient's own good. So too the Shoah—the "operation" brings about "a tikkun [lit., "correction"; the return of the individual, the society, and the world to a divine order]." (The bracketed explanation is Bauer's.) At the same time, the Rebbe maintains that those who carried out the Shoah were responsible for their own actions.

Bauer's conclusion? "The theology of the Holocaust is fascinating, but it is a dead end." Yet what does his own admirable humanism rest on, if not on the shattered theological foundation he wants to disavow? At least he admits a grudging respect for the alternative proposed by some Orthodox thinkers: "to be angry with God but believe in him anyway." After the Shoah, yes, that answer seems "not so bad," and not only to Orthodox Jews.

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John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

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This month, Books & Culture Corner is looking at books that provide an opportunity for meaningful reflection on the Shoah. Previous parts in this series include:

'In the Beginning Was the Holocaust'? | Blasphemy, rage, memory, and meaning of the Shoah. (April 8, 2002) has 27 sample pages posted online of Yehuda Bauer's Rethinking the Holocaust and 28 pages of Peter Novick's The Holocaust in American Life.

Other reviews of Rethinking the Holocaust include:

Yad Vashem historian probes the Holocaust for more meaning in his new bookJewsweek
Rethinking the HolocaustForeign Affairs magazine

Reviews of The Holocaust in American Life include:

Two books ask how—and why -a European catastrophe became central to American culture —
"We Knew in a General Way" — The New York Times

Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:

'In the Beginning Was the Holocaust'? | Blasphemy, rage, memory, and meaning of the Shoah. (April 8, 2002)
The Gospel According to Biff | A conversation with novelist Christopher Moore. (April 1, 2002)
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The State of the Game | After one of the best World Series ever, baseball faces a crisis. (March 18, 2002)
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Does Creationism Equal Holocaust Denial? | Yes, says Michael Shermer in Scientific American. (Feb. 4, 2002)
Theodore Rex | Is "popular history" getting a bad rap? (Jan. 28, 2002)
Letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. | A progress report. (Jan. 21, 2002)
Keeping the Dust on Your Boots | Remembering the Afghan refugees—and the church in Iran. (Jan. 14, 2002)
Coming Attractions | Books to watch for this year. (Jan. 7, 2002)
Books of the Year, Part 2 | After the top ten, here's the best of the rest. (Jan. 4, 2002)
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"Daddy, What Is the Soul?" | Does the church have an answer? (Dec. 10, 2001)