by Rabbi Richard Jacobi
A 94-year-old former Auschwitz guard is currently standing trial in Germany. Should we still pursue former Nazis?
On the face of it, prosecuting a 94-year-old man for something he did more than 70 years ago – a Biblical lifetime – seems cruel.
Doesn’t the Torah tell us to show respect to the elderly? On the face of it, evading justice for victims of the most heinous crimes committed against them, their families and friends, seems to add insult to injury.
Doesn’t the Torah tell us not to be swayed in justice to either pity the poor or to defer to the powerful? These two mitzvot from Leviticus 19 seem to be at odds with each other when a case, such as that continuing in Germany, is brought to our attention.
The trial of Reinhold Hanning, a 94-year-old former Auschwitz concentration camp accused of being an accessory to the murders of 170,000 Holocaust victims, is not only justified, but necessary for the ongoing well-being of society.
It is clearly wrong for any civilised nation to say, in effect: “If you can avoid being caught and facing trial for this set number of years, or if you should be forth at to live until such-and-such a venerable age, then you are automatically pardoned.”
Our Jewish tradition suggests that God – Elohim – represents the divine attribute of justice, while the Eternal One – Adonai – conveys the divine attribute of mercy and compassion.
It further suggests that both are essential – if either one of these two attributes were to disappear or be marginalised, then society would self-destruct.
Any feelings of mercy for an aged defendant are quickly balanced when a similarly aged witness gives their testimony and tells of the extreme terrors he experienced.
How long has such a victim had to wait before having the chance to set out their story?
How painfully searing must such memories be if they can relate them as if they were of much more recent vintage?
Those of us who did not live through such horrors cannot reduce them to fit the levels of comfort we currently enjoy. Once the case has been heard and a judgement made, then the attribute of mercy might come to the fore in the manner of punishment.
But if the quality of mercy is misapplied too soon, justice has no opportunity to be served, and society is damaged. I, for one, want to see repair to the tears in the fabric of civilised society and this trial could be one small repair.
• Rabbi Richard Jacobi is minister at Woodford Liberal Synagogue and co-chair of Liberal Judaism’s Rabbinic Conference