What does the word "holocaust" mean? And does the meaning change when that first letter is capitalized and it becomes "Holocaust"? The answer, of course, is "yes." With a large "H," we are not talking about really large fires that cause a lot of destruction. We're talking about The Holocaust, and the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Commission on the Holocaust, the Holocaust television miniseries and untold education programs, documentaries and liturgies of remembrance.
Which brings us to a solid feature story last weekend in the Palm Beach Post by reporter Charles Passy (who is not the religion-beat specialist), which details the efforts of some Jewish and non-Jewish clergy and scholars to begin using the Hebrew word "Shoah" -- which means "destruction" -- as the official term to describe the Nazi genocide of the World War II era.
After all, notes Passy, Steven Spielberg chose it as the name for the foundation he has created to tell the story of the survivors. The Vatican named a major report on the subject, "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah."
But there are many other layers to this complex story. After decades of urging the public to "never forget" the Holocaust, how do religious leaders and educators switch the very name of the event? In some cases, the word is on the cornerstones of buildings and in the titles of legal documents. But there are serious problems with this familiar name, notes Passy.
The knock against "Holocaust" is twofold. Many object to the word, derived from ancient Greek, because it translates as "burnt offering" -- in the sacrificial religious sense, according to select scholars. And that leads to a horrific connotation when speaking of the atrocities committed against the Jews, who were often driven to the gas chambers, then cremated. How could their fiery end be considered a sacrifice?
"If it's a burnt offering to God, then I don't want to know the God at the other end," says Michael Berenbaum, a leading scholar based at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.
And what about that ordinary word -- "holocaust"? Can it be used by those who oppose abortion? Or who want to debate handguns? Or protest the deaths of Palestinian civilians? The list goes on and on. Again, Passy notes:
As "Holocaust" seeps into the vernacular, the term has become attached not only to other genocides and mass slaughters -- in Armenia, Cambodia and elsewhere -- but also to a range of other events and movements. In an article for a Jewish publication, Diana Cole cited such examples as a People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals' "Holocaust on Your Plate" exhibit and SiliconeHolocaust.org, a Web site for "breast implant victims."
Perhaps it would be better to substitute a Hebrew word, thus creating as strong a linguistic link as possible between the historic event and the Jewish people.
But is that practical? Is it too late? What would happen if this issue was raised with, let's say, the committee that handles revisions in the Associated Press Stylebook? What if reporters started making the substitution on their own?
It's a cliche, but in this case it's true: Stay tuned. This is a story worth watching.