“But Rudy Steiner couldn’t resist smiling. In years to come, he would be a giver of bread, not a stealer—proof again of the contradictory human being. So much good, so much evil. Just add water.”
The Book Thief
When you think about it, The Book Thief is not a Jewish book in the purest sense of the word. It is not about Jews (although there is a Jewish character, Max). It is not written by a Jewish author, nor does it address Jewish themes.
And yet, as I read the book and watched the movie, there was something profoundly, deeply Jewish about it. It surfaces in this quote.
Judaism does not assume that humans are naturally good, and that evil is an external force to be cast out. Rather, we are made up of inclinations toward both good and evil, and what determines our character, our virtue, our Godliness is how through a process of internal struggle we manage to strike a balance between the two in our deeds.
Zusak’s book is filled with such characters, and if there is a single message to us in his tale it is that we as Jews are asked once again to consider that the German people, despite the atrocities committed in their name and with their silent assent, were not innately evil. Instead, each was engaged in their own internal struggle in the face of events that often outpaced their ability to address them coherently. Zusak can be forgiven such a plea: in so doing he is attempting to honor his parents, themselves postwar refugees from the ruins of Axis countries.
There can be no forgiveness on this Earth for active or passive participation in the unprecedented spasm of hatred and bloodshed that was The Third Reich. Zusak reminds us, however, of the Jewish truism that deeds great and awful are committed by people wrestling with what Abraham Lincoln called “the Better Angels of our nature.” It does not take an evil person to commit evil deeds, any more than it takes a tzaddik to do a mitzvah. The fight against evil is a constant battle to keep the scales tipped on the balance of the good, and to watch for the portents of evil deeds rather than for the coming of evil men.