Thursday, December 27, 2007

Vulgate Verse: victima holocausti

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Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I have the pleasure of getting to comment on some of these verses here, focusing on the verses that seem to me to have a special significance for religious literacy and topics of general interest, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

I recently finished watching the very long but surprisingly thought-provoking television mini-series from 1988, War and Remembrance, a 27-hour follow-up to the highly successful 15-hour miniseries, Winds of War from 1983. Over the past several months, I watched the entire series, and in the midst of those 40 hours of television melodrama I was amazed to see the most graphic footage of German death camps that I've seen anywhere outside of a traditional documentary. I was not a television-watcher when these miniseries came out, but I am indeed sorry to have missed them when they first came out; kudos indeed to the director and producer who did not shy away from including incredible graphic historical photographs and film footage, along with absolutely heart-rending dramatic recreations, including the death of one of the main characters in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, up to and including the thrusting of his body into the crematorium oven.

Having just finished the last episode of the series, and thinking much about the Holocaust, I was prompted to comment on this particular Vulgate verse today, where you can see the word "holocaust" used in Latin. The passage is a very sad one indeed, where Isaac, like the Jews of Auschwitz, is being led without knowing it to his own death. He has noticed, however, that while they have fire and wood with which to build the sacrificial fire, his father has not brought a sacrificial animal for the "holocaust," the burnt offering they will make:

Genesis 22:7. Ecce, ignis et ligna; ubi est victima holocausti?

(Greek: ἰδοὺ τὸ πῦρ καὶ τὰ ξύλα ποῦ ἐστιν τὸ πρόβατον τὸ εἰς ὁλοκάρπωσιν)

The Latin word holocaustum is a word formed from Greek roots, holo- (meaning "whole, entire") and caust- (meaning "burnt"). The word is used in Biblical Latin to refer to offerings which are burned in their entirety at the altar.

The Greek word, ὁλοκάρπωσις (holokarposis), is rather different, and means "whole fruiting," without anything about burning, the idea being that the fruit (symbolic, in this case) of the sacrifice is offered whole. The Greek word ὁλοκαυτῶσις (holokautosis) is found in other Bible passages, but it is not the word spoken by Isaac in this passage. The Hebrew word is simply "olah" (עולה), from a root meaning "going up, ascending steps," with the idea being that the burnt offering sends up smoke.

In the King James version of this passage, the Latin holocaustum is not adopted as "holocaust," but is instead interpreted into familiar English words: "Behold the fire and the wood: but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?"

The word "holocaust" was used in English religious vocabulary as early as the thirteenth century, however, and also included extended metaphorical meanings, as I learned from consulting the Oxford English Dictionary. For example, in 1648 Beaumont in his Psyche could refer to "the perfect holocaust of generous love." It could even refer to destruction by fire in even a trivial sense, i.e. B. M. Croker's Pretty Miss Neville in 1883: "Major Percival has made a holocaust of your letters."

In the twentieth century, however, the word "holocaust" acquired a definitive new meaning in English, referring specifically to the systematic extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis. It is less clear whether people who refer to this holocaust also have in mind the five million more people - Slavs, Gypsies, communists, religious minorities, the handicapped, and others - who were also executed by the Nazis. The Oxford English Dictionary documents that the word "holocaust" was already being used in this way during World War II, and such usage became even more widespread after the war.

There is also a tendency now to spell the word with a capital H, Holocaust, when referring to the Nazi slaughter of the Jews. In Hebrew, the standard term of reference is "Shoah," meaning a disaster or catastrophe.

What has always surprised and disturbed me about the use of the word holocaust in this regard is both its staggering literalness, invoking the burning of whole bodies and the rising smoke from the crematoria. The use of the crematoria is one of the most shocking and unprecedented elements of "efficiency" in the Nazi's so-called "Final Solution" (German Endlösung). If you have any knowledge of the etymology of the word "holocaust," you are forced - rightly, I think - to think of the staggering physical fact of what happened.

At the same time, there is something disconcerting about the use of "holocaust" here, which is that in the religious tradition, the burnt offering, the "holocaust," was something good given to God, a positive manifestation of religious practice in ancient Judaism. When Isaac unwittingly asks about the "victim of the holocaust," he has nothing grim in mind (unless you have in mind the rights of the animals themselves, a very modern issue not relevant to Isaac's thoughts at that moment). The Bible is filled with references to "holocausts" which are indeed, in Beaumont's words, "perfect holocausts of generous love," affirming the relationship between God and his followers. What happened, it seems, is that English vocabulary of the Bible, profoundly affected by the Christian rejection of this kind of animal sacrifice, came to use the term "holocaust" in a negative sense, even though it began as a positive term in the Hebrew Bible tradition.

You can find more information about the use of the word "holocaust" in the detailed Wikipedia article on this subject, which provides a comprehensive and thoughtful discussion of this shocking moment in human history. It is a topic that I think we all need to study, and to study in detail - which brings me back again to the films Winds of War and War and Remembrance. There is a lot of Hollywood schlock in those 40 hours of film, but there is also a brutally honest depiction of the Nazi death camps, something almost unbearable to watch and therefore something which must be watched. You will not find anything like it in Schindler's List.

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