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Memory and identity after the Holocaust

INTERVIEW: Claudia Welz, winner of the Danish elite researcher prize, wants to set up a new research centre. The University Post asked her why

Claudia Welz is the first theologian to win the Danish Ministry of Education’s DKK 1.2 million EliteForsk research award.

While she is going to use the prize money to finish some larger research projects, she is also preparing a research application for a new interdisciplinary centre in Copenhagen: The so-called Centre for Modern Jewish Thought and Post-Holocaust Theology, Philosophy and Literature.

The University Post caught up with Claudia Welz to ask her specifically about the Jewish tradition in her research, and about these plans.

Her answers touch on Jewish philosophy of religion, the learning technique of ‘Chavruta’, the problem of evil, and a huge and unmined, unresearched, collection of German-Jewish authors.

Complex ‘Abrahamic’ religions

You say that you became interested in Jewish philosophy of religion, and Jewish literature when studying in Jerusalem. What specifically triggered your interest and made you want to study this?

“Well, the lessons in history, literature and religion that I received at school in Germany had already awakened my interest. But I grew up in a little Southern German village that was populated basically by Catholics, Lutheran Protestants and atheists – and that’s why my knowledge about other religions and cultures was still a bit abstract.”

“A theological study year at the Dormition Abbey with contact to the Hebrew University in multi-religious Jerusalem offered fabulous opportunities to meet people belonging to different Jewish movements (more or less liberal, conservative, or (ultra)orthodox). We had a discussion group with Muslims, and we came into contact with representatives of other Christian confessions (e.g. Copts, Armenian, Russian, Greek and Syrian Christians. Suddenly, certain beliefs, practices and attempts of meaning-making got linked up with the faces of new friends and acquaintances.”

“We discovered the internal plurality and complexity of each of the three ‘Abrahamic’ religions.”

“Moreover, our study program provided connections to archaeologists, philosophers, musicians, poets, politicians, pastors and rabbis in the country. We traveled around (both on the Israeli and the Palestinian territories), learned a lot on excursions, listened to great lectures, and received rich intellectual stimuli. In my current research, I am still engaged in some of the major themes of that study year 1999/2000: questions of personal identity and moral responsibility, memory and testimony, vicious circles of trauma, shame, guilt, and victimization…”

“Now, one of our courses was concerned with Franz Rosenzweig’s Stern der Erlösung (The Star of Redemption). We read parts of this classic, but complicated book by applying one of the traditional methods of Jewish learning: chavruta. The word is derived from chaver (i.e. the friend, fellow student) and designates a form of learning, in which one person reads loudly and the other person interrupts whenever the text is not immediately understandable. One takes the other’s questions as points of departure for one’s own commentary.”

“Accordingly, Jewish tradition transmits especially the disagreements and controversial points of a dialogue, which involves an openness of meaning that at any time remains to be reconsidered. The chavruta-experiment was one of the most inspiring experiences and left me with a bunch of open questions – to some of which I returned in my Ph.D.-project.”

Problem of evil

Your award-winning Ph.D. dissertation is called ‘Love’s Transcendence and the Problem of Theodicy’, could you describe in short what your work on this was about, and if there was a main ‘point’ to it?

“The central theme of my dissertation is the problem of theodicy. The term ‘theodicy’ goes back to Leibniz’ Essais de Théodicée sur la bonté de Dieu, la liberté de l’homme et l’origine du mal (1710).”

“It is a coinage combining the Greek words theós (God) and dikē (justice). ‘Theodicy’ stands for a procedure, in which God, the creator of the world, who is accused for the imperfection of the world, is justified before the tribunal of human reason. Already after the Lisbon earthquake in 1755 and all the more after Auschwitz, the optimism of theodicies that try to harmonize even the most horrendous evils with God’s goodness and omnipotence has become suspect.”

“Theodicies argue for the intelligibility of evil in general, but they can neither show that God has actually been good to a particular person in a specific situation, nor can they prove that he has overcome evil on the global scale or is able and willing to do so. I tried to show that the problem of theodicy cannot be solved theoretically, explored reasons for having no reason to defend God, and indicated ways of coping with the ‘wound of negativity.’”

“The methodology of my work was twofold: First, instead of inquiring into the origin and purpose, sense or non-sense, of evil and suffering, the investigation focused on God’s (non)phenomenality, i.e. the dialectics of his givenness to and hiddenness from human experience. Is God’s transcendence to be interpreted as absence, distance, or as a hidden presence of divine love in human life? ”

“Second, instead of searching for the answer to the problem of theodicy, exemplary answers are discussed and questioned again – by describing their conditions and consequences, by clarifying their normative implications and their prospect of orientation. Given that no idea of God can be compared with God himself, what could serve as a discriminatory criterion to judge whether a particular idea of God is more or less appropriate than another idea? I investigated the effects that certain ideas of God can have on the self-understanding and the deeds of the person(s) relating to it.”

God’s presence

“In the main body of the book, I compare the work of two existentialist thinkers, a Christian and a Jew, namely Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929).”

“Both of them follow Kant’s practical turn of the problem, and oppose Hegel’s theodicy through history, in developing an ethics of love. They are not just recipients and critics of German idealism; they have also anticipated thoughts prominent in French phenomenology. Therefore, their thought can give remarkable contributions to the current debates on ‘metaphysics of presence,’ ‘the (im)possible gift’ and ‘onto-theology.’ How, if at all, can God’s eternal love be taken as a gift that is effective within time and become (a) present in our times too?”

“In dialogue with Emmanuel Levinas, the presence of God’s love is in question, in dialogue with Jacques Derrida, God’s presence as a gift, and in dialogue with Jean-Luc Marion, the gift of God’s presence as a ‘saturated’ self-giving phenomenon. In conclusion to these discussions, I outline how theology can be developed as ‘semiotic phenomenology of the Invisible.’”

Vibrant, abundance of ideas

With the money you are rewarded you plan to prepare a research application for a new interdisciplinary ‘Center for Modern Jewish Thought and Post-Holocaust Theology, Philosophy and Literature’.

“Exactly. To my knowledge, there is no research center covering all the fields of the planned new center anywhere in Scandinavia. The only exception might be Paideia – The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, which was established in 2000 with funding from the Swedish government and is dedicated to the revival of Jewish culture in Europe. What I am planning is, however, a more specialized research institution that is to advance the scholarly debate on few, but crucial problem areas that are of cross-disciplinary relevance and require the interaction of a team of experts.”

“There are several reasons why I’d like to build up such a center with an international research environment. Firstly, Jewish culture has created an amazing universe of thought that deserves to be studied for its own sake. Western civilization cannot be understood without the biblical tradition and Jewish heritage.

“And yet, a kind of illiteracy as to these sources seems to prevail. Klezmer music, Chagall’s paintings, or Martin Buber’s letters, to name just a few examples, express universal human experiences in matchless, astonishing, beautiful ways. Many of the brightest minds – Mendelssohn, Einstein, Primo Levi, Hannah Arendt, etc. – belong to Judaism. Having the possibility to explore the vibrant life and abundance of ideas in these sources is a privilege.”

Unfinished work of recollection

“Secondly, what we need on a societal level is more information and better, ‘enlightened’ education on the humanity of religion, on the inhumanity of its misunderstood fanatic forms, and an academic public forum where basic convictions can be discussed critically and self-critically. The task of a future research center would be to find out how parallel problems are tackled in different contexts and to make an interdisciplinary effort to combine the most fruitful approaches.”

“The other day I saw the film Kaddish for a Friend, which fleshes out an enmity turning into an unlikely friendship, when an elderly Russian-Jewish World War II veteran and a 14-year old Palestinian refugee find themselves in the same Berlin neighborhood. Genocide, exile, and the ensuing complications conglobate into a problem that cannot be solved by one of the parties alone. In a sense, we still live in the aftermath of the Holocaust…”

“There is, thirdly, a personal obligation. I feel particularly grateful for the friendship with the aphorist Elazar Benyoëtz whom I got to know in Jerusalem 13 years ago. His father died in Auschwitz, his mother and sister fled with him to Tel Aviv where he grew up. In the 1960s he contacted survivors in German-speaking countries and inaugurated the Bibliographia Judaica, which registers information on the life and work of all German-Jewish authors – an enormous, still unfinished work of recollection. He showed me letters he received from, e.g., Nelly Sachs, Marie Luise Kaschnitz, Adorno. Although his own work is known only by insiders, he is a key person. For a time, he lived in the same house as Wittgenstein’s friend Paul Engelmann. He has a huge private library with rare copies, some of them signed, some of them rescued from the catastrophe as the only property of Holocaust survivors.”

“If I succeed in building up a Centre for Modern Jewish Thought and Post-Holocaust Theology, Philosophy and Literature, Elazar will donate the books and the letters to the University of Copenhagen. This is a treasure not valuable in money – bearing the histories and destinies of human beings. Elazar is now in his late 70s. I do hope that I can be fast enough to delight in still having his companionship when exploring what otherwise will be left to oblivion…”

Limits of human rationality

Such a prestigious prize could bring awareness to the field of study you are so passionate about?

“Let’s wait and see!”

“In any case, I’ve got a unique chance, and of course, I keep my fingers crossed for the new research adventures.”

What is it about theology that is of such interest to you?

“Theology deals with exciting, unsettling, age-old questions that sooner or later affect any human being. Existential questions that concern the meaning, the origin and destination of life; faith and doubt; normativity: What is it that really matters despite the fact that we are going to die?”

“For me, theology’s internal interdisciplinarity is especially attractive, which involves working philologically and hermeneutically, historically and systematically with texts and traditions, discussing alternative interpretations philosophically, and investigating their ethical ramifications and practical applicability.”

“Theology probes the limits of human rationality by employing it as astutely as possible. Further, as critical reflection on the speech of, about, and to, God, theology analyzes the underlying assumptions in lived religiosity of the past and the present and puts them to the test.”

“If you want to fight fundamentalism, you should support Theology at the University and ensure that all religions are represented in academia.”

Video interview with Claudia Welz here (in Danish):

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