One week, when my brothers and I attended the “mishmar” afterschool study program at the reputable Talmudical Yeshiva of Philadelphia, my mother got a call from the head of the program, saying he wanted to come visit us at home. After wondering what my brother could have possibly done to get himself into trouble, my mother was relieved to find out upon their arrival that the head of the program and his “chevruta” (study partner) had in fact come to present my brother with a gift.
My brother had begun shaving with a straight razor blade not long beforehand, and the matter had prompted a discussion with his chevruta about the prohibitions in the Torah against shaving the corner of one's beard, the “peah.” According to the strict interpretation of keeping “peah,” Jews cannot use straight blades to shave. However, electric razors, which for Jewish legal purposes are considered like scissors, are not against the prohibition. So, as a reward for my brother’s good study, the head of the program had come to present him with his very own, expensive, Braun electric razor.
After politely saying thank you and waving goodbye to our generous guests, my family had a good laugh. The yeshiva students may have been well versed in the halakha of shaving, but we had all grown up thoroughly raised on the halakha of “wergild,” blood money. German companies had made money off of Jews during the Holocaust, and, for us, this was an equally, if not more, important competing value. Despite the good intentions of the yeshiva, we knew my father would never allow a German product into our house.
In the end, my brother was allowed to keep his razor. It was an expensive gift, and the yeshiva students’ intentions were clearly pure. Yet, that incident taught me that even with our common religious thread, Jews are still a people who wrestle with competing values; The yeshiva students believed that the German razor represented observance of Jewish law, whilst my dad felt it represented direct support of families of Holocaust perpetrators. Back then I couldn’t believe Jews could have such polarized views on one issue, with both sides believing so strongly that they were doing what was best for our people.
I continued believing this until just recently, when I read about the German Jewish Museum in Berlin’s “Jew in a Box” – as it has come to be known - exhibit. Since going on display, the exhibit has come to signify a struggle over what halakha or value is best for the Jewish people.
The museum intended to cause controversy with this exhibit. From the outset, its goal was to provide German visitors with “the opportunity to confront their confused feelings about Jews," as a press release by the museum put it. And I can understand why: During a visit to Berlin on a rabbinic mission in 2011, I noticed that there were many important monuments dedicated to marking the Holocaust, but that none of them created a dialogue about the life of contemporary Jews in Germany. The Jew in a Box exhibit fills that gap, by presenting a very direct, hands on, and unexpected learning opportunity.
Furthermore, the concept of the exhibit is powerfully symbolic, as it stands in direct contrast to the plans of Adolf Hitler (may his name be erased) to open a museum on the extinct race of the Jewish People in city of Prague, which he had planned to be the cultural capital of his new world order. Today, I can think of no greater victory over Hitler than the fact that in the very heart of Berlin there remain Jews who are educating, breathing, and living as a part of the cultural landscape.
Yet, there is a competing value at play here: Against the backdrop of the Holocaust and Yom Hashoa, the Jew in the Box exhibit can be construed as incredibly demeaning. As the Associated Press noted, the glass box seems reminiscent of those sitting in justice at the Eichmann trial, while others from the Jewish community in Berlin, refusing to participate in the exhibit, compared it to a zoo.
During my rabbinic mission, I also learned that there are currently many wonderful exchange programs taking place that create German-Jewish or German-Israeli partnerships and dialogue without being as wildly demeaning toward Jews as this exhibition. Many thousands of Germans even study on exchange programs and visit Israel as tourists. Instead of putting a Jew in a box, the Berlin museum could have built a Jewish information desk, sponsored lectures by Jews, or done any of a million other things to achieve the same goal of addressing what it calls "confused feelings."
Unlike the yeshiva students who came to our home, the curators of the Jew in the Box certainly anticipated the conflict of values that is now taking place. Going forward, I believe that only time and further dialogue will tell us whether they got it right.
Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey. You can follow him on twitter @danieldorsch.