Home December 2023 Our Tremendum

Our Tremendum

A new commandment for Israel

This was no ee’roo’a. This is our tremendum. Israelis know how to deal with terrorist incidents. We mourn the victims, we comfort their families, we draw some conclusions concerning how to improve security, and life goes on.
    Indeed, with typical Israeli black humor, the very same Hebrew word used for a terrorist “incident,” ee’roo’a, is the word used to describe a family “event” (typically, a life-cycle celebration). What happened on Oct. 7, however, was terror on such an enormous scale that “ee’roo’a” cannot contain it; we feel what happened as our tremendum.
    What is a tremendum? A little over 100 years ago, a German Lutheran theologian named Rudolf Otto wrote a book called “The Idea of the Holy” in which he refers to the holy as “mysterium tremendum,” both terrifying and fascinating. Horrific evil, just like astonishing goodness, can be perceived as “other worldly,” and borrowing from Otto, Arthur Cohen (1928-1986) in “The Tremendum: A Theological Interpretation of the Holocaust” (1981), used the phrase to describe the Nazi death camps. 
    We in Israel are now dealing with our own tremendum.
    Jews have been abused and slaughtered at different times in different places throughout our history, with Jewish pregnant women being particularly singled out for sadistic torture. But for this to occur in the Jewish State? For this to happen in the one place on earth that is supposed to be a haven for Jews? That’s an existential contradiction for us, that’s the awe-ful power of evil entering our existence, that’s our tremendum.
    If something is experienced as a tremendum, then life cannot return to normal afterward. It fell to a different Jewish theologian to articulate this change for post-Holocaust Jewish life. For Emil Fackenheim (1916-2003), a divine command issues forth from the Holocaust to proclaim: “Thou Shalt Not Hand Hitler Posthumous Victories.” He called this “The 614th Commandment” and said,  “We are, first, commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish.”
    Has something on the order of a Commandment emerged for us after Oct. 7, amid our tremendum? I think it has, and it is this: Israel shall no longer tolerate competing national stories within our midst. 
    There are three corollaries to this “Commandment.” The first is that after our tremendum Israel can no longer make space for a “Palestinian Israeli” identity. When one remembers that the United States put over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps during WWII, one can only wonder what would have happened to any of these people had they proclaimed that they were “Japanese citizens of America.” 
    And yet this is the situation in which Israel finds itself, where many people speak of themselves as “Palestinian citizens of Israel.” I am not suggesting that Israel cannot tolerate dual identities (such as being American Israeli), but I am saying that our tremendum argues for an end toward tolerating allegiance to a competing identity.
  The American experience is also instructive concerning the second corollary for our new world: An end to any Israeli observance of our Independence Day as the nakba (“catastrophe”).  Up until now, it has been taken for granted in liberal circles that it makes sense for Arab Israelis to mourn Yom Ha’Atzmaut, and yet, why do Native Americans not go into mourning on the Fourth of July? After all, their lands were taken, their cultures decimated, and their peoples killed by the United States of America (so that Native Americans now represent just a little over 1% of the population; in Israel, one-fifth of the population is Arab). 
    For Native Americans, the Fourth of July is celebrated with tribal gatherings and by honoring Native American military veterans. A situation where the Fourth of July was treated by Americans as a “catastrophe” is unthinkable. Yom Ha’atzmaut as the nakba by Arab Israelis should also be unthinkable.
    The third corollary, like the second, has wider implications than for just Arab Israelis (i.e., ultra-Orthodox public demonstrations of indifference on Israel’s national holy days must also stop). Our tremendum mandates that there be national service for all. Neither Arab Israelis nor Haredi Israelis will be excused any longer from serving their country.
    While military service might not be appropriate at this point for Arab Israelis, national service is. All Israelis will now be expected to serve their country upon the completion of high school.
    Only after the destruction of European Jewry, only after the tremendum, did Christians conduct a serious reassessment of Christianity’s antisemitic roots and of how the Nazis built upon that. I am not sure whether the Muslim world will ever truly accept Israel in the Middle East, but I do know this: Israel will not allow itself to be destroyed so that Islam can then take stock and reassess its basic theological positions regarding non-Muslims. 
    In the United States, whatever one’s religion, whether or not one even has a religion, “G-d Bless America” is a touchstone of American identity. Israel needs to get to a point where all of its citizens will react similarly to “G-d Bless Israel.”    

TEDDY WEINBERGER is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine. He made aliyah with his family in 1997 from Miami, where he was an assistant professor of religious studies. Teddy and his wife, Sarah Jane Ross, have five children.


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