This past week I saw a remarkable documentary called Hiding and Seeking. Produced and released in 2004 it follows the story of Orthodox Jew Menachem Daum and his family. Daum’s own parents were Holocaust survivors and like many Jews after the Holocaust his family struggled with faith. Nevertheless, despite his own doubts and questions, Daum and his wife raised their sons as Orthodox Jews.
The movie is largely about Daum’s own spiritual journey and transformation. As an Orthodox Jew he was raised to distrust and even hate non-Jews. His life saw a gradual change when he was exposed to the teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who taught him a different way of thinking. Through the teaching of Rabbi Carlebach, Daum was taught, “There is one God. He created one world. We are all brothers and sisters.”
Rabbi Carlebach didn’t just speak these things, he lived these things. He even returned to Poland, sharing God’s love to the people there. For some Jews, Carlebach’s actions seemed unthinkable. Poland was the place where the worst of the Holocaust took place, and where a rich, vibrant Jewish culture was extinguished. Some Jews thought the Polish people could have done more to mitigate the Holocaust and as a result Carlebach’s visit to Poland was met with scrutiny and criticism. However, instead of hating the Poles, Carlebach saw them as not only good, but holy.
Moving forward to the present day, Daum is worried and concerned about his sons and their families. His ultra Orthodox sons are studying the Talmud at a Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Daum is worried his sons might be slipping into a kind of religious extremism that might cause them to hate everyone outside of their own world. While not wishing to dissuade his sons from their love and study of Torah, Daum’s concerned that they might be shutting themselves off from the world. He admonishes his sons, telling them, “Hate destroys the people who hate.” In essence Daum tells his sons, that if they truly wish to love God and Torah, they should expand their consciousness to care for others outside of their narrow world.
While my evangelical Christian background may seem altogether different from that of Daum, I can appreciate the lessons he was trying to share with his sons. Religious separatism and extremism is not just practiced among Orthodox Jews. In my former Southern Baptist Church, we liked to think we were much better than other churches. Although, we wanted members to bring their friends to church for the purpose of becoming Christian, we also dissuaded them from having friends outside of church. These relationships could be dangerous and risky. You did not want to get too comfortable and too close with non-Christians, because they might have an unhealthy influence on you. The natural tendency was to see everyone outside of the church, even one’s parents and extended family, as “less than” and to distrust them. Ultimately, I would suggest that it’s hard to share God’s love with someone if you don’t like them, or if you feel you’re superior to them. Almost certainly, this kind of separatism loses sight of God’s heart and compassion for each and every person.
When Daum shares his worries with his sons, they quickly dismiss them. They are focused on the study of Torah. This is the most important thing and their father’s concerns are distractions. As a way of pulling away the curtain on his sons cloistered lives, Daum takes the radical action of taking his sons on a journey to visit Poland. Daum is determined to let his sons see that while Poland was a place where over three million Jews met their deaths, Poland was also a place where ordinary Poles performed acts of extraordinary courage on behalf of Jews. Daum shares his hope that if his sons “can witness decency in Poles, they can recognize holiness in all people.”
Daum’s pilgrimage takes him and his sons to his wife’s familial home. This was the place where his father-in-law was saved through the compassion and courage of a Polish farmer. The rest of the documentary tells about their remarkable visit and how they managed to reconnect to the people who saved his wife’s family.
Part of me was overwhelmed by the subject matter of Hiding and Seeking. Although the story largely focuses on the Daum family, it’s also a story about the Holocaust. The scope and evil of the Holocaust is incomprehensible and takes your breath away. For me to even write about a topic like the Holocaust is intimidating, since the last thing I want to do is say something stupid or wrong. To make this topic approachable, Daum shares a small story about a faith journey, about a family, about a trip and about some extraordinary acts of courage and compassion. In the midst of this, Daum suggests a few lessons for our consideration.
In sharing his own story, Daum shares how the Holocaust led to a Jewish crisis of faith. Daum’s own mother shared before her death, how she would stand before her Creator and demand an answer for the Holocaust. Nevertheless, despite all of the questions and the doubts, many Jews, including Daum himself, remained faithful.
Interestingly Daum seemed almost surprised at this. He shares:
Only after a long time did it dawn on me that these survivors (who) kept the faith did not do so for any profound theological reasons, that made sense of God’s silence, they kept their faith despite the fact that their questions have no answers.
And what I eventually realized is that living with unanswerable questions is a part of every faith, that no one faith has all the answers kind of broke down the barriers that had been in place between me and people who didn’t believe the way I did.
In our own lives, we all live with the unexplainable and with the difficult to understand. We live with hurts, pain and personal tragedies great and small. Yes, you cannot compare these things to something as vast and unexplainable as the Holocaust, and yet within Daum’s story is something for all of us.
I myself have struggled with questions of God’s goodness. Where was God when this or that thing happened? Why did God allow these events to take place? Was this part of God’s will or plan? There are things about our life and human existence which seem unexplainable.
As a person of faith who follows Jesus, it can be frustrating and upsetting when I don’t have the answers. Christians often place a great emphasis on what they call “apologetics” and in defending the faith. Apologetics uses a combination of logic and scripture, to answer all questions about God. I once thought that Christian apologetics was a science, where we could combat skeptics and defeat them with our reason and intellect. Books on Christian apologetics try to answer every question of human existence. Yet, in the face of human pain and suffering, these books can often seem cold and heartless.
Within the past two years, I’ve found myself asking more and more difficult questions. I’m trying to understand why some things happen and occasionally I’m left scrambling for answers. In this respect, maybe I’m not too different from Daum. I keep having questions. I want to have a theological reason for my faith. I want to have an argument, and yet sometimes all I’m left with is silence and my still remaining questions.
In the end, like Daum, I hold onto my faith not necessarily because I’ve received satisfactory answers to all of my questions. To be sure, it can be disconcerting to finally acknowledge one’s lack of answers, nevertheless I cannot help but think that God might enter even this space of uncertainty. Living in the middle of our own questions and even doubts, we can live in humility and compassion towards others. We can assume a more gracious and understanding posture. We can recognize the way that God might speak even to people who come from very different faith traditions and we can make room for people who might not necessarily hold to any kind of religious orthodoxy.
In the last part of Hiding and Seeking, we hear the voice of Daum’s son. He shares some of his conclusions from this journey with his father. It’s at best unclear whether he has learned any lessons from his experience. As a kind of last word, Menachem Daum shares the hope that this experience and his journey with his sons might serve as a kind of Jewish ethical will or “Zevaoth.” This is where a father, before his death, offers his children important counsel and advice. Over the course of Hiding and Seeking Daum shares things with his sons, without any kind of expectation they will listen in the here and now. He is planting seeds in the hearts of his children. It can be frustrating, but as a father all you can do is to keep sharing, in the hope they will listen and someday remember.
Although this might be overly sentimental, I confess to being touched by Menachem Daum’s closing remarks. As a father of very young children, I wonder about my daughters and the extent to which I will see them grow up. Will I live to see them marry? Will I live to see my own grandchildren? Given all of the uncertainties, what do I want to teach them? Life sometimes doesn’t offer us the opportunities to say everything we would like to say. In a way, I hope this blog and the things I’ve written here will serve as a Zevaoth for my girls.
Overall, I’m not really a documentary kind of guy. I’m much more of a “things blowing up in 3D” kind of guy. Nevertheless, Hiding and Seeking was a rewarding experience. It showed me faith at its best. It’s the kind of faith that teaches me to see as God sees, to see with a love that hopes. Once upon time, I would have seen few similarities between myself and Menachem Daum. If there is something beautiful in this movie it is that it creates the possibility for a conversation between people like Daum and myself. Whether Orthodox Jew or follower of Jesus, we are able to share hopes and dreams and a desire to see God’s image in our neighbor.