LOS ANGELES, March 10 (JTA) — The mission of a new institute at the University of Judaism is clear: “We will study death, but in the service of the Jewish future,” says Michael Berenbaum in explaining the mission of a newly created institute at the University of Judaism. The mission is also implicit in the name of the Sigi Ziering Institute for the Study of Ethics and the Holocaust, for it is Berenbaum’s belief that many of the cutting-edge ethical issues facing Jewry and society today grow out of the Holocaust. Berenbaum, one of the world’s leading Holocaust scholars, has been named director of the Ziering Institute. He says that by placing it within a university focused on the Jewish future and outreach to other disciplines, the institute can transmute the lessons of the bitter past into guideposts for present and future generations. As one example, Berenbaum cites the field of medical ethics. “The notion of informed consent by a patient, and his right to stop treatment at any time, was derived directly from the postwar trials of Nazi doctors,” he says. Turning to business ethics, Berenbaum recalls the substantial financial investments by Germany’s I.G. Farben to assure it a steady supply of slave laborers. “The Nazis perfected the use of humans as consumable raw material,” says Berenbaum, and applies the observation to such contemporary issues as child labor and sweatshops. “We must ask ourselves, what is the borderline between an appropriate investment, and a morally compromised one,” he says. Another frontier issue is rooted in Nazi experiments in eugenics. “Now that we are nearing the capacity to ‘perfect’ human beings by genetic manipulation, we must ask whether something should be done, just because we know how to do it,” he says. Questions arising from the role of laws and the judiciary during the Holocaust are now being studied at dozens of American universities and in military academies, Berenbaum says. One can argue that the Nazis committed no crimes, because their actions were legal under their own laws, he observes. However, the Nuremberg war crime trials found that blind obedience to immoral laws, or the rationalization of just following orders, is no longer a valid defense in themselves. “Without Nuremberg as a precedent,” former Yugoslav president “Slobodan Milosevic would never have been put on trial by the U.N. Tribunal in The Hague,” argues Berenbaum. At 57, Berenbaum has been studying and analyzing the Holocaust since his graduate student days and his is the author of 14 books on the tragic era. Berenbaum, who was one of the key figures in the creation of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, has served as president and CEO of Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, and held teaching posts at leading universities. He currently is adjunct professor of theology at the University of Judaism. The institute that he now directs, funded through $3 million in donations, honors the life and memory of Sigi Ziering, a Holocaust survivor, successful American industrialist and author of a searing play on the Holocaust, “The Judgment of Herbert Bierhoff.” The institute, which is to become part of a planned University of Judaism’s Center for Jewish Ethics, will sponsor a range of scholarly and popular conferences, seminars and lectures. Its initial offering was a three-part roundtable discussion among Jewish and Christian theologians, philosophers and historians on “The Vatican, the Pope and the Holocaust.”
Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.