I am thrilled that “Son of Saul” won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Picture.
And when you consider that this is the second year in a row that a European film about the Shoah won that award (last year, it was “Ida“), it would appear that Europeans are continuing to grapple with the legacy of the Shoah, and putting that spiritual struggle on celluloid.
There is, however, one tiny flaw in an otherwise flawless film.
Recall the story. Saul, a sonderkommando at Auschwitz, the Jewish prisoners charged with disposing of bodies, sees a young boy who has died after a gassing. In fact, he did not die immediately in the gas chambers, which prompts a Nazi doctor to want to perform an autopsy on him.
Saul becomes obsessed with this young boy. He thinks (imagines?) that the boy is his own son. He wants the boy to have a proper burial, and not be consigned to the ovens. And so, he looks for a rabbi to say Kaddish (the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead) for his son, and to preside over the burial.
Herein lies the flaw — and it is a common flaw.
in fact, technically, you don’t need a rabbi to say Kaddish. In truth, there are very few ritual moments for which a rabbi is absolutely necessary. You don’t need a rabbi for a brit milah (ritual circumcision) ceremony; nor for a bar or bat mitzvah ceremony; nor, in reality, for a Jewish wedding; nor to lead a Jewish worship service (any knowledgeable Jew can do so); nor, technically, for a conversion to Judaism; nor to conduct a funeral.
Unlike, say, Roman Catholicism and other Christian denominations, Judaism has no sacraments that rely on rabbis saying and performing them (though, in emergency situations, lay people can perform certain sacraments).
Unlike the ancient priests of the Temple in Jerusalem, rabbis are simply (not so simply, actually) well-educated lay people whose expertise in such matters is, by definition, greater than your “average” Jew. In fact, the Jewish master plan is for all Jews to become priests — a “kingdom of priests” — each Jew capable of bringing himself/herself and others closer to God.
I hesitate to say such things out loud, or to put them into print. The fact is: Contemporary Jewish life — certainly, synagogue life — is now centered around the rabbi — for all sorts of reasons.
But, back to “Son of Saul.” Saul could have said Kaddish for the tragic young boy on his own. And, in fact, Jews in the concentration camps and ghettos were often left bereft of rabbis, and they were often responsible for providing their own religious and spiritual needs. And when rabbis were interned with Jews (I think of the saintly Rabbi Leo Baeck in Theresienstadt), they taught and provided pastoral care in extremis.
So, why does Saul go on a feverish search for a rabbi to say Kaddish? Is it only a reference to the current, common folk assumption — that only a rabbi can say those holy words?
This past summer, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, and I had a minor theological revelation. While walking along the train tracks, and walking past the destroyed crematoria, I came to realize something.
Most people, in thinking about God, are likely to say that God is present everywhere. There was a time when I believed that.
Walking through the death camp, I came to the realization: God is not everywhere. There are entire realms and regions of the world where God simply isn’t , where God, for whatever reason, did not enter.
I know that it is heretical to say so, but God was not present at Auschwitz.
And, in fact, that was the Nazi agenda: to utterly wipe out the Presence of God from the world. That is why Nazis took such delight in destroying synagogues, and Torah scrolls. It was not only the war against the Jews, or the war against Judaism; it was the war against God.
So, why did Saul look for a rabbi?
He wanted someone — anyone — who represented the possibility of sanctity in a world that had been utterly drained of anything transcendent.
In a world where it sometimes seems that God is absent, it is the role of people of any religion to remind the world: There is a God.
For me, as a Jew, it means that I must make time holy. I must know that Shabbat and the holidays are ever-accessible sanctuaries in time. We must turn our homes into sacred places, where people speak to each other in love and in kindness. We must turn our tables into altars to God.
Whatever faith you are: make the words of your tradition come alive. Make them live in your lives.
In whatever you do.
That is the enduring lesson of “Son of Saul.”
That is why it deserved to win the Academy Award.