115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Holocaust Literature as Jewish Ethics

Charles Carpenter, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Ozsvath and Hatley argue that beyond all plots, Holocaust literature is ethical and philosophical. So what kind of ethic is assumed? Biblical literature and Emmanuel Levinas are the appropriate touchstones to discover important, universal themes missed in Holocaust literature.


In the last four decades, Holocaust works have flooded the American consciousness through film, photography, diaries/memoirs, and fictional representation. Diaries and memoirs (Jewish authors mostly) have grounded the historical event, but these writers have moved beyond the mere event. They have addressed a necessary memory, a memory holding eternal significance. This memory is not a negative memory exclusively, but a memory that demands an ethical increase without reductionist principles. David Patterson has addressed this hoary issue significantly; but what still needs to be considered is how to treat Holocaust fiction without flatting the event or minimizing its implications.

In recent years, Holocaust representation has been addressed in many ways, especially the limits of Holocaust representation. This query has led many critics to reject certain works because of the horror described, distracting readers from the kind of wisdom that Holocaust works direct. Very few critics have used a Jewish, religious framework to address these works, which could encouraged better inquiries and important discoveries.  

This is a concern because the America public has been the primary readers of Holocaust works, but lacking the framework to address them. For example, the American consumers tries in vain to pine for familiar frames of reference and literary functions in Holocaust fiction. This in turn encourages the wrong questions, bypassing important ethical themes. The American reader often compares Holocaust works to the American journeying motifs, where the reader pays close attention to the main character, accentuating his heroism or maturation.  

However, in Holocaust works, the reader is not encouraged to pay attention to the main character’s heroic feats or maturation. Holocaust works demand the reader to understand the main character as a moral barometer of a given society. In Holocaust works the main character is not a hero who overcomes great odds, awakening the reader to emulate a certain kind of ethical construct. The main character alerts the reader to a precarious environment, and directs the environment to fulfill its responsibility. This is true of biblical stories as well as Holocaust fictional stories.

Moreover, another divergence to rightly addressing Holocaust works is treating them as a kind of realism or surrealism. This too is a mistake; for Holocaust works do not encourage the reader to be silenced in the midst of great horror. Rather, Holocaust literature demands a kind of wisdom which encourages one to become infinitely responsible for his/her brother, acting as the stranger’s substitute.  

Suzanna Ozsvath and James Hatley have argued, concerning Holocaust literature that beyond all plots, Holocaust literature is the literature of ethics, philosophical ethics.  So what kind of ethic are assumed, and to what ethical theorist should Holocaust readers use? To answer this question, I will compare Holocaust fictional works to specific biblical works, pointing to absence and ethical responsibility as primary concerns for the Holocaust writer. Moreover, I will explain how Emmanuel Levinas is the appropriate ethical interlocutor to mine some important, and universal themes within Holocaust literature.