Holocaust theology

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Holocaust theology (from the Greek ὁλόκαυστος holókaustos: hólos, "whole" and kaustós, "burnt"),[1] refers to a body of theological and philosophical debate concerning the role of God in the universe in light of the Holocaust of the late 1930s and 1940s. It is primarily found in Judaism; Jews were drastically affected by the Holocaust, in which approximately 11 million people, including 6 million Jews, were subjected to genocide by the Nazi regime and its allies.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have traditionally taught that God is omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omnibenevolent (all-good) in nature. However, these views are in contrast with the fact that there is evil and suffering in the world. Monotheists seek to reconcile this view of God with the existence of evil and suffering. In so doing, they are confronting what is known as the problem of evil.

Within all of the monotheistic faiths many answers (theodicies) have been proposed. In light of the magnitude of depravity seen in the Holocaust, many people have also re-examined classical views on this subject. A common question raised in Holocaust theology is, "How can people still have any kind of faith after the Holocaust?"

Jewish theological responses: Background to the diversity of views[edit]

The variety of theological responses that the Jews have articulated about the Holocaust can be related to wider traditions of thought. In order to understand their views in context, it is helpful to see the breadth of traditional Jewish theodicies of evil, as well as describing the roots of Modern and Post-Modern revisionist Jewish philosophical views.

The classic tradition of Jewish scholarship and spirituality form a scholarly culture that the Jews carried and evolved through their historic journeys. This tradition of thought developed from its own sources, and also through intellectual encounters with other traditions, giving and receiving ideas in turn. The revealed theology of Judaism affected Western thought through its adapted forms in Christianity. Meanwhile, the other major source of Western culture arose from the humanistic philosophy of Ancient Greece. When the Jewish community was granted social rights after the Enlightenment, they developed their own religious and philosophical responses to Modern thought.[citation needed] These varied from re-commitment and reinterpretation of traditional observance, synthesizing the best of both worlds, to revisionist reassessments of historical Judaism.[citation needed] In each of these approaches new theological and philosophical interpretations emerged. Hasidic Philosophy developed Jewish mysticism in new ways. Litvish Orthodoxy formed new approaches to Talmudic scholarship and Mussar (ethical introspection). Both of these eastern European cultures continued the theoretical interpretation of Lurianic Kabbalah, which underpins Haredi Jewish belief until today.[citation needed] Modern Orthodox thinkers reinterpreted Judaism in the language of modern secular philosophy and scholarship. The Haskalah gave birth to critical, academic approaches to Judaism, beginning with the 19th century German "Wissenschaft des Judentums" ("Science of Judaism") movement. Theologians from non-Orthodox Jewish denominations expressed a range of revisionist views of Jewish spirituality and scholarship. New schools, such as Jewish existentialism, could find new meaning in revelation, outside of Orthodox Judaism.

Historical developments of Jewish thought could rediscover new meaning in earlier traditions. The early scholars of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment movement) rejected the mystical in Judaism,[citation needed] in common with the secular Western thought of their time.[citation needed] This tendency was shared with the prevalent values of the Western secular enlightenment of their time, which sought to rationalise revelation. The philosophical father of Haskalah, Moses Mendelssohn, sought to remove the mystical dimensions of Jewish spirituality. The birth of Kabbalah under Gershom Scholem, and the search for deeper Jewish spirituality in the 20th century, rediscovered Jewish mysticism for Jews of all denominations. New movements of Jewish Renewal and Neo-Hasidism, could find spiritual and philosophical insights from Jewish mysticism, outside of Orthodoxy. This reflected wider currents of thought in western society, from the non-mechanistic and neo-mystical aspects of 20th century science and mathematics, to philosophical and artistic interest in the values of cultural identity.

The developments in 19th and 20th century Jewish life, encompass the greatest changes and upheavals over a short period to take place in Jewish history.[citation needed] Similar changes characterize wider history, but the individuality of the Jewish experience makes their encounter with the events and ideas of this period especially turbulent. In one century, they experienced the tragedy of the Holocaust, with the end of great centres of Jewish life, followed by the historical return to their Biblical homeland, and the reestablishment of Jewish study and spirituality in Israel and America. The diversity of Jewish theological responses to the Holocaust, are shaped by the history of previous Jewish thought. Both traditional and revisionist theological responses to the Holocaust, can adapt or reinterpret previous Jewish ideas, so they are best understood in the context of their wider background.

The Holocaust in historical context[edit]

Under this view, no new response is needed. The Holocaust may be larger than other tragedies, or its form and intent may be unique, however, theologically it may not be different from other terrible events. Connected with this view are comparative discussions of the uniqueness of the Holocaust. Does it stand apart from other historical and international genocides? Should its Jewish victims be commemorated separately from its many non-Jewish victims? In Jewish thought it is usually seen fundamentally as a Jewish event. This is justified by the unique nature of the Nazi attack on the Jews, in its essential aim, and metaphysical intent in Nazi philosophy. From the perspective of Jewish spirituality, it can be seen as a war against the spiritual message of Israel to humanity, a fight against the Biblical "God of Israel" and monotheistic morality. This understanding can also incorporate its non-Jewish victims, as it sees the Jewish message and role as a universal representation of all peoples. In the history of understanding antisemitism, some have seen the fate of the Jews as giving the first warning of wider social problems. In this view, their vulnerability and difference, can make them the first scapegoat for intolerance, a "canary in a mine" whose fate warns of danger. One response sees the Holocaust as a continuation of the long history of antisemitism. Jewish history has known many calamitous events, some that destroyed large populations, some accompanied by great suffering. Among frequent episodes of persecution, perhaps two previous events stand out as different, and may be called national "churban" (destruction). The destruction of Judah and Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, seemed to end the Biblical plan for Israel, destroyed the First Temple, killed many people, and exiled the survivors. The later destruction of Judea and Jerusalem by Titus, destroyed the Second Temple, and brutally put down the Jewish revolt. This suppression was completed later under Hadrian, in response to a second revolt, with further massive loss of life, and a second exile of the nation. In this view, the Holocaust is another churban, and may not require a new theological response. It prompts us again to investigate the issue of why bad things sometimes happen to good people. The aim of theodicy is to seek to reconcile theological belief with the existence of suffering.[2] The great religious traditions of the world, including Judaism, have formulated many different responses to this question. However, from the perspective of man, articulating this endeavour can be problematic: to offer comprehensive answers can be insensitive to the pain, to refrain from attempting to answer can be unhelpful. In the view that sees a continuity between the Holocaust and previous tragedies, the Holocaust therefore shouldn't change our theology.

The many aspects of suffering as punishment, atonement and spiritual resolution[edit]

Rabbinic Judaism has a doctrine from the books of the prophets called mi-penei hataeinu, "because of our sins we were punished". During Biblical times, Jewish prophets stressed that suffering was a natural result of not following God's law, and prosperity, peace and health are the natural results of following God's law. This view was particularly stressed when calamities befell the Jewish people. The central text of Judaism, the Torah, contains two passages called the "Tochachah" (Warnings), in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, that have been seen as fulfilled by future events of Jewish history.

In traditional Jewish thought, the fundamental belief in reward and punishment (included among Maimonides' Jewish Principles of Faith) is given wider context and various interpretations, which bring out its different aspects. For instance, the Biblical Prophets repeatedly chastised the people, describing how God was repulsed by their actions, and silent to their cries. When the calamities warned of arrived, the Prophets shared in the persecution, and were sometimes rejected by their brethren. Throughout, the Prophets also poetically described God's deeper, unbreakable love of them. In traditional Jewish thought, divine punishment is the unfolding of the processes of God's attribute of strict justice, usually mitigated or delayed by God's attribute of benevolent mercy. The purposes are many faceted, and can be explained on lower and higher levels.

Ethically, justice of God, like human justice, is a righteous ideal. Just as one "Mitzvah" (Commandment) forbids man's vengeance, so God's punishments involve no vengeance. Spiritually, Midrashic and mystical commentaries describe how God suffers in man's pain, and is exiled alongside man's exile. The fate of the "Shekhinah" (Divine Presence) is bound up to man's fate and redemption. Philosophically, the many levels of traditional Jewish explanation for the purpose of creation, each require sin to be resolved and atoned for, through suffering or repentance. The most esoteric of these, in Kabbalah, describes metaphysical systems that give immense cosmic significance to man's actions.

Throughout the different explanations for punishment, the ultimate purpose is always the eschatological aim and promise of God's love and complete Messianic redemption. From the perspective of its ultimate purpose, suffering is seen as a divine gift of love, though also a divine and human tragedy. God's and man's urgent prayer is for the hidden blessings of pain to be sweetened to reveal blessings of bounty, through repentance and good deeds. This view of suffering as stemming from Divine love, is articulated in different language by the different levels of traditional Jewish thought, from the revealed dimensions of Torah, to its mystical hidden dimensions.

However, the alternative paths in Jewish spirituality, emphasize different dimensions of this. The path of Mussar, brings God's justice and man's soul-searching to the fore. Divine awe and judgment are emphasised. The path of Mysticism (Kabbalah and Hasidism), reframes Judaism around the inner divine soul, where pain is seen as love, and God's presence is seen in all events and creations. Drawing from the context of all these different and competing strands in traditional Jewish theology, some figures in Orthodox Judaism have given diverse and opposite theological responses to the Holocaust.

Historically, the Biblical and rabbinic response to national tragedy has been to look for theological causes in the shortcomings and sins of the people of Israel. In this tradition, some Orthodox figures have taught that the Jewish people in Europe were sinful, or their guilt had accumulated. In this view, the Holocaust is a just retribution from God. Other Orthodox theologians reject this approach, seeing the Holocaust as a unique tragedy, that could not be based on normal processes of reward and punishment.

The immortality of the soul[edit]

The traditional view of reward and punishment also takes in the connected Jewish belief in an afterlife and the immortality of the soul. This other idea can give a framework to many different theological responses to the Holocaust, by allowing it to be reconciled with Divine love. Belief in the resolution and compensation of good and evil in this world, by the eternal elevation of the soul in the next world, can resolve apparent injustices in the full metaphysical equation. This does not itself offer a direct explanation for the tragedy of the Holocaust, if direct explanations are possible, but it can resolve the bigger picture, and can sit alongside other theological responses.

Jewish views of reincarnation[edit]

The doctrine of "gilgul" (reincarnation) has a history of debate and explanation in traditional Jewish thought. The rabbinic world of Talmudic times saw the many faceted layers of scriptural interpretation, from the literal to the imaginative, and the providential events of Jewish history, as verification of Jewish belief. The rabbinic sages of the Talmud, for instance, saw no need to philosophically prove the existence of God through independent logic, like philosophers stemming from the Greek tradition did. In the Middle Ages, when Jewish thought met Greek thought, Hakira (Jewish philosophy) developed to reconcile the two systems, as well as formulate creeds of belief inherent within traditional Jewish thought. Some Jewish philosophers, like Sadia Gaon rejected reincarnation as a pagan doctrine. After the dominance of Hakira in Jewish theology, Kabbalah replaced it as the mainstream theology. In the 16th Century Isaac Luria taught the new doctrines of Lurianic Kabbalah, that became almost universally accepted in traditional Jewish thought. They still underpin Haredi and some Modern Orthodox Jewish theology. The main dimensions of Lurianic Kabbalah deal with the relationship between the infinite God, who is the only true existence, and the perceived creation, that takes place within, and emanates from, the divine unity. New explanations of universal esoteric redemption by man fix the inherent flaws within the original source of creation. Among other teachings, Luria explained a Jewish system of reincarnation that differs from some Eastern Religion versions, in that it is neither fatalistic, nor about punishment. Rather, reincarnation, in Jewish thought, is a personal form of the cosmic Lurianic doctrine of "Tikun" (fixing). In Lurianic mysticism, which explains cosmic metaphysical processes in all actions of man, reincarnation takes place to achieve a metaphysical elevation. What may appear as punishments are only incidentally so. For instance, Luria said that the Medieval Jewish victims of the centuries of pogroms in the Christian world, were reincarnations of souls from the time of the Biblical First Temple, who had also followed idolatry. Their medieval martyrdom rectified and perfected their souls, and he said this process was now all completed in his time. While the time of open prophecy, as in the Hebrew Bible, is now over, traditional Jewish thought believes that a minor form of prophecy called "Ruach HaKodesh" (Holy Spirit), as well as some other forms of mystical instruction of the soul, are still accessible to unique, saintly individuals. Isaac Luria's teachings became accepted in his time, as a fulfillment of this. While Ruach Hakodesh, and any possible interpretation of the Holocaust involving reincarnation, may be concealed from every saintly figure today, nonetheless, the general belief in such processes can leave room to reconcile the suffering of the Holocaust with traditional Jewish belief. Any explanation would be unknown, but believers could hold that God had His own hidden reasons. This type of process need not be detrimental to the high moral regard in which the Holocaust victims are seen, as the Jewish view of reincarnation is essentially about Tikkun, rather than punishment, and their martyrdom raises them to a high spiritual level.

The mystical celebration of negativity as ultimate elevation[edit]

Another, connected idea from Kabbalah, provides further support for its positive view of reincarnation, as well as further demonstrating the mystical scheme of finding the inner divine love, within apparently negative phenomena. This gives the Jewish belief in punishment for sin, or the harsh events of history in general, new spirituality. Kabbalistic texts say that every sin (a spiritual descent), is for the ultimate purpose of raising the person to a new, even higher level (a greater spiritual ascent). This is achieved through the deeper process of teshuvah (return, imprecisely translated as repentance). This parallels the rabbinic teaching from the Talmud, that Teshuva from fear erases the sin, while teshuva from love transforms sin into virtue. The Lurianic scheme of cosmic Tikkun, involves the separation and elevation of sparks of holiness by man, that are trapped in, and give life to, mundane or negative phenomena. This metaphysical process elucidates the Kabbalistic view that every descent is for the purpose of higher ascent. Where the sin of man exiled a spark of the divine into the forces of impurity, its rectification redeems the spark, and withdraws the existence of wider impurity. The Hasidic masters, who sought to relate the esoteric ideas of Kabbalah to the emotional fervour of the common man, give a new interpretation of particular divine providence, that sees every event as spiritually significant. The conduct of each individual is arranged to achieve their esoteric life tasks. Man's freewill can accelerate or delay the process, but its fulfillment is guaranteed. In this way, they say, while a sin is against the will of God, its inner purpose is the higher will of the ultimate elevation. In a concealed way, the sin becomes the beginning of the ascent. Through the abstract Kabbalistic notion of reincarnation, while not dwelled on in Hasidism, if the individual did not yet complete the process, then it would be perfected in the long run. Many Holocaust theologians understandably reject applying traditional Jewish explanations for suffering, that look for sins of the people, to explain or contribute to explaining the events. For those who seek some contribution in explanations for atonement for sin, or for those who look to other hidden meanings from reincarnation, the positive reinterpretations by Jewish mysticism of negativity can help reconcile the Holocaust with a loving God. This approach is also found in the revealed dimensions of Jewish thought, such as the statement in the Talmud that one should bless God for the good as well as the bad.[3] In more emotional forms, the Midrash anthropomorphises the relationship between God and man. During the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, for example, the Midrash describes the two angelic carvings atop the Ark of the Covenant as embraced together in love, representing God's love at that time for Israel. The highly developed systems of the Kabbalists give such ideas metaphysical systems of explanation. The later Hasidic Philosophy brings this abstraction into psychological feeling. The power of mystical interpretation to sweeten traditional Jewish notions of Divine judgement was vividly demonstrated by Hasidim in the concentration camps, who often retained their faith and fervour. In another archetypical example, related by Habad Hasidim, their founder Schneur Zalman of Liadi would read out the weekly Torah portion in the Sabbath synagogue. One week, he was away, and this role was replaced by a regular congregant. The portion that week was the section of tochachah (warnings) in Deuteronomy that foretell calamity for divine disobedience. The son and future second Rebbe Dovber Schneuri, in the audience, became so distressed and ill to hear the dire warnings, that a few weeks later it was unsure if he could fast on Yom Kippur. He explained that when his father read it, all he heard were blessings.

The contributions of Kabbalah to various Jewish philosophical views[edit]

The esoteric tradition of Jewish mysticism in general can offer new perspectives on all of Judaism, that can also contribute to a Jewish theology after the Holocaust. With the rise of Modernity, various philosophical positions emerged on the meaning of Judaism and the traditional belief in its revealed origins. These range from the literal, through the national, to the secular. Jewish mysticism, likewise, has also spoken to these different philosophical positions today, in different ways. Traditional Kabbalists see it as the inner, metaphysical interpretations, hidden within the divine scripture and voice from Sinai, while non-Orthodox seekers of mysticism have seen it as a profound and insightful attempt by man, to probe the Jewish mysteries of the divine. Their non-literal approach to the mystical tradition in Judaism means that they can select, reject, or adapt from amongst its teachings. 20th century academic scholarship on the Jewish tradition of mysticism has delineated its different epochs. Early mystical schools stemmed from the worlds of the Bible and Talmudic times, offering paths of personal encounter with spirituality. With the public teaching of Kabbalah, from the Middle Ages, the Jewish mystical dimensions of Torah took on fuller conceptual forms that could be applied to reinterpret each verse of scripture. This development reached its complete fundamental form with the new doctrines of Isaac Luria in the 16th Century. While the Kabbalists were concerned with describing an elaborate system of spiritual worlds that emanated from, and connected, the unknowable infinite Godhead with our lowest physical existence, the concern of the later Hasidic movement was different. It left aside the abstract philosophical focus of Kabbalah on the heavenly realms, to relate the relevance of the Kabbalistic tradition to man. This inner, interiorisation of Kabbalah, saw the divine imminent in all creation, and so could be expressed beyond the advanced, esoteric limitations of Kabbalah. This was the first time that the Jewish mystical dimensions could be articulated to the whole Jewish community, and its teachings invigorated the masses.

Other ideas[edit]

  • The Holocaust is a literal fulfillment of the curses described in the Sinai Covenant in Deut. 28:15-68.
  • Terrible events such as the Holocaust are the price we have to pay for having free will. In this view, God will not and cannot interfere with history, otherwise our free will would effectively cease to exist. The Holocaust only reflects poorly on humanity, not God.
  • The Holocaust is in some way a revelation from God: the event issues a call for Jewish affirmation for survival.
  • The Holocaust is a mystery beyond our comprehension. God has reason for what He does, but humans can't begin to understand His reason.
  • The Jewish people become in fact the "suffering servant" of Isaiah. The Jewish people collectively suffer for the sins of the world. This was also mentioned by Reform Rabbi Ignaz Maybaum, who proposed in The Face of God After Auschwitz (pp. 35 & 36) that the Holocaust is the ultimate form of vicarious atonement.
  • Classical Rabbinical literature teaches that before something magnificent or great occurs, there must be a great tragedy. In this case, the Holocaust had to occur in order for the State of Israel to be founded. This theory supports the actual events, as many historians believe that without the Holocaust, Israel would never have come into existence.
  • God does exist, but God is not omnipotent. This view is similar to process theology. All of the above arguments are based on the assumption that God is omnipotent and, consequently, could have interfered to stop the Holocaust. What if this is not so? In this view, the Holocaust only reflects poorly on humanity, not on God. This is a view promoted by many liberal theologians, including Rabbi Harold Kushner.
  • God, or any other supernatural deity, might not exist. One argument is that a blind spot exists in the human eye, but that an all-powerful being would not make this mistake.

Orthodox Jewish responses[edit]

Haredi views[edit]

The Haredi Jewish world may seem more monolithic to outsiders than its diversity and historical roots actually entail. The Haredi world today is a product of different Eastern European Jewish traditions, as they accommodated, or reacted against, modern thought and society. Broadly, there are two different sources to traditional Eastern European Jewish civilisation: first, the continuation of Talmudic centred scholarship, augmented by Kabbalah for a reserved elite, known as Lithuanian Orthodoxy; and second, the populist, mystical Jewish revival of Hasidism, that began in 18th century Ukraine, and later spread across other areas. The first saw itself as continuing and protecting the traditional forms of Jewish worship through advanced study, while the second celebrated sincerity above learning as a path to God, and embraced the common people. As Hasidism developed, its leaders synthesised it with traditional learning, while the Lithuanian world came to be called mitnagdim (opponents), for their pious opposition to the Hasidic restructuring of Jewish thought and society. As both traditions encountered the secularising forces of Haskalah (Enlightenment), and political socialism and Zionism, they reacted with a diversity of views that today influence their different forms of Jewish thought and life.

This influential range of historical traditions, in forming the diversity of Haredi Judaism today, has given rise to a range of theological responses to the Holocaust. At heart lies the issue of whether the tragedy of the Holocaust, is different in nature to the preceding millennia of Jewish persecution. Traditional Biblical, rabbinic and Kabbalistic thought has offered theological explanations for previous tragedies, from the reaction of the Prophets to Nebuchadnezzar's destruction of Jerusalem and exile of the nation, to the medieval pogroms of Christendom. Because Haredi Judaism accords unique status to traditional Jewish thought, while downplaying the need to look to secular disciplines, it seeks theological answers from faithful reinterpretations of Judaism alone. In general, most views in the Haredi world tend to see the Holocaust in line with previous rabbinic approaches, though there are notable and important exceptions. For those who take the traditional approach, they suggest theological explanations that might give a reason for the calamity, or a contributory reason, in accordance with the traditional Jewish worldview. In an age without open prophecy, it is questionable whether speculative interpretations like this are valid, in view of the enormity of the Holocaust, though their proponents have sometimes been great figures in traditional Judaism. In traditional thought, the sufferings of the people of Israel, have deeper ethical and mystical causes, and require collective soul searching and a return to God. It should be emphasised, to contextualise this idea, that in traditional thought, even the harsh decrees of God are hidden blessings, rather than merely punishments, a theme especially emphasised in Jewish mysticism. Those who see traditional types of explanation, would point to previous tragedies in Jewish history, that in their time had enormous destruction and hardship, such as the massive loss of life in Judea under Titus and Hadrian. They would also refer to the dire warnings in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, called the sections of tochecha for rebelliousness, alongside blessings for faithfulness, that are only chanted in an undertone, when read aloud in the annual cycle of reading.

For those within Haredi Judaism who favour ascribing causes, some blame the Holocaust on the abandonment of many European Jews of traditional Judaism, and their embrace of other ideologies such as socialism, or various non-Orthodox Jewish movements. Others suggest that God allowed the Nazis to persecute the Jews because Orthodox European Jews did not do enough to fight these trends. In this Haredi theodicy, the Jews of Europe were no longer protected by the Torah and faith, and the actions of God which allowed this were righteous and just. Those who propose views like this, would see their suggested causes as contributory triggers, while in a time of judgement all the community suffers, whether innocent or guilty. Ideas such as this, that can seem alien to non-Orthodox thought, have a context that softens their harshness. The Talmud has a legal discussion of the nature of innocence and guilt. The rare apikorus (heretic), is contrasted with the tinnuk shenishba (innocent captive brought up without knowledge of Judaism). Many Halachic authorities have decided that secular Jews today are figuratively in the second category, and should be encouraged with love to discover Judaism. If indeed, earlier generations were guilty of rejecting Jewish observance, this argument would apply to generations from the 19th century onwards. Those who see the Holocaust as the unfolding of God's attribute of judgement, might say that the guilt accumulated for a few generations. More hidden Kabbalistic doctrines, involved in the mysteries of creation, such as gilgulim (reincarnation), would also contribute processes. For Haredi proponents of causes, nonetheless, it should be emphasised that such views usually fit within an appreciation of the fundamental and essential processes of divine love.

Menachem Mendel Schneerson[edit]

Most prominent among other Haredi figures who reject explaining the Holocaust as an act of divine punishment is the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who described it as blasphemous to depict God in this way. The roots of this view lie in the Hasidic, mystical love of every Jew, even potentially unworthy people. Basing himself on many sources in classic texts of Judaism, from the revealed to the mystical, the Rebbe articulated the view that the Holocaust was a decree from God that is beyond human understanding in this world. He stated:[4]

"What greater conceit and what greater heartlessness, can there be than to give a 'reason' for the death and torture of millions of innocent men, women and children? Can we presume to assume that an explanation small enough to fit inside the finite bounds of human reason can explain a horror of such magnitude? We can only concede that there are things that lie beyond the finite ken of the human mind. It is not my task to justify God on this. Only God Himself can answer for what He allowed to happen. And the only answer we will accept, is the immediate and complete Redemption that will forever banish evil from the face of the earth and bring to light the intrinsic goodness and perfection of God's creation."

To those who argued that the Holocaust disproves the existence of God or His providence over our lives, Schneerson wrote:

"On the contrary—the Holocaust has decisively disproven any possible faith in a human-based morality. In pre-war Europe, it was the German people who epitomized culture, scientific advance and philosophic morality. And these very same people perpetrated the most vile atrocities known to human history! If nothing else, the Holocaust has taught us that a moral and civilized existence is possible only through the belief in and the acceptance of the Divine authority. Our outrage, our incessant challenge to God over what has occurred—this itself is a most powerful attestation to our belief in Him and our faith in His goodness. Because if we did not, underneath it all, possess this faith, what is it that we are outraged at? The blind workings of fate? The random arrangement of quarks that make up the universe?"

He rejected the suggestion that the Holocaust was a punishment for the sins of that generation saying:

'The destruction of six million Jews in such a horrific manner that surpassed the cruelty of all previous generations, could not possibly be because of a punishment for sins. Even the Satan himself could not possibly find a sufficient number of sins that would warrant such genocide! There is absolutely no rationalistic explanation for the Holocaust except for the fact that it was a Divine decree... why it happened is above human comprehension – but it is definitely not because of punishment for sin. On the contrary: All those who were murdered in the Holocaust are called “Kedoshim” – holy ones – since they were murdered in sanctification of G–d’s name..."

Mnachem Risikoff[edit]

Another early voice who ultimately rejected the idea that the Holocaust was divine punishment, with Hitler as an instrument in a greater plan, was Rabbi Mnachem HaKohen Risikoff. When Rav Kook died in 1935, Risikoff—with "a presentiment of the catastrophe" yet to come[5]—published a eulogy in which he put forth his belief that Kook might have been taken early to spare him from even worse times to come.[6] His writings reveal his struggle to accept the idea that the Holocaust was punishment for sin, and a call to repentance—and early on considered that Hitler might be part of a divine plan.[6] But he ultimately wrote that it was not possible to accept this idea, because such extreme suffering could never come from God, for God acted according to Torah[7]

Risikoff may have been unique in terms of Holocaust theology regarding the role of the levitical tribe. In his writings, especially in his book, HaKohanim vHaLeviim, The Priests and the Levites (New York:1940),[citation needed] he stressed that members of these groups exist in the realm between history (below) and redemption (above), and were called upon to take leading roles in a call to prayer, repentance, and action that would help bring an end to suffering. His writings reflected a combination of what has been called meta-history (ultimate redemption) and history, including the idea that part of the problem on earth was dishonesty not only among individuals, but also among nations. For example, he wrote that governments of a number of nations had promised Austria and Czechoslovakia that they would come to their defense if the need arose, but they ultimately broke their promises.[8] He "distilled metahistory into history with his program for priestly action to mediate redemption."[9]

Haredi theological "tendencies"[edit]

The various historic traditions behind the diversity of Haredi approaches, have given rise to different theological tendencies.

Satmar leader and Holocaust survivor Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum writes:

"Because of our sinfulness we have suffered greatly, suffering as bitter as wormwood, worse than any Israel has known since it became a people.... In former times, whenever troubles befell Jacob, the matter was pondered and reasons sought--which sin had brought the troubles about--so that we could make amends and return to the Lord, may He be blessed...But in our generation one need not look far for the sin responsible for our calamity.... The heretics have made all kinds of efforts to violate these oaths, to go up by force and to seize sovereignty and freedom by themselves, before the appointed time.... [They] have lured the majority of the Jewish people into awful heresy, the like of which as not been seen since the world was created.... And so it is no wonder that the Lord has lashed out in anger.... And there were also righteous people who perished because of the iniquity of the sinners and corrupters, so great was the [divine] wrath."[citation needed]

There were redemptionist Zionists, at the other end of the spectrum, who also saw the Holocaust as a collective punishment for a collective sin: ongoing Jewish unfaithfulness to the land of Israel. Rabbi Mordecai Atiyah was a leading advocate of this idea. Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook and his disciples, for their part, avoided this harsh position, but they too theologically related the Holocaust to the Jewish recognition of Zion. Kook writes "When the end comes and Israel fails to recognize it, there comes a cruel divine operation that removes [the Jewish people] from its exile.[citation needed]

Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, in 1939, stated that the Nazi persecution of the Jews was the fault of non-Orthodox Jews[citation needed], in the introduction. This is discussed in "Piety & Power: The World of Jewish Fundamentalism" by Orthodox author David Landau.[citation needed]

Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler had similar views, also discussed in Landau's book. A few Haredi rabbis today warn that failure to follow religious law will cause God to send another Holocaust. Rabbi Elazar Shach, a leader of the Lithuanian yeshiva Orthodoxy in Israel until his death in 2001 made this claim on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War. He stated that there would be a new Holocaust in punishment for the abandonment of religion and "desecration" of Shabbat in Israel.

Modern Orthodox Jewish views[edit]

Most Modern Orthodox Jews reject the idea that the Holocaust was God's fault. Modern Orthodox rabbis such as Joseph Soloveitchik, Norman Lamm, Randalf Stolzman, Abraham Besdin, Emanuel Rackman, Eliezer Berkovits and others have written on this issue; many of their works have been collected in a volume published by the Rabbinical Council of America in a volume entitled: Theological and Halakhic Reflections on the Holocaust.[citation needed]

Works of important Jewish theologians[edit]

Richard Rubenstein[edit]

Prof. Richard Rubenstein's original piece on this issue, After Auschwitz, held that the only intellectually honest response to the Holocaust is to reject God, and to recognize that all existence is ultimately meaningless. There is no divine plan or purpose, no God that reveals His will to mankind, and God does not care about the world. Man must assert and create his own value in life. This view has been rejected by Jews of all religious denominations, but his works were widely read in the Jewish community in the 1970s. Since that time Rubenstein has begun to move away from this view; his later works affirm a form of deism in which one may believe that God may exist as the basis for reality and some also include Kabbalistic notions of the nature of God.

Emil Fackenheim[edit]

Emil Fackenheim is known for his understanding that people must look carefully at the Holocaust, and to find within it a new revelation from God. For Fackenheim, the Holocaust was an "epoch-making event". In contrast to Richard Rubenstein's views, Fackenheim holds that people must still affirm their belief in God and God's continued role in the world. Fackenheim holds that the Holocaust reveals unto us a new Biblical commandment: we are forbidden to hand Hitler yet another, posthumous victory. He said that rejecting God because of the Holocaust was like giving in to Hitler.

Ignaz Maybaum[edit]

In a rare view that has not been adopted by any sizable element of the Jewish or Christian community, Ignaz Maybaum has proposed that the Holocaust is the ultimate form of vicarious atonement. The Jewish people become in fact the "suffering servant" of Isaiah. The Jewish people suffer for the sins of the world. In his view: "In Auschwitz Jews suffered vicarious atonement for the sins of mankind."

Eliezer Berkovits[edit]

Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits held that man's free will depends on God's decision to remain hidden. If God were to reveal himself in history and hold back the hand of tyrants, man's free will would be rendered non-existent. This is a view that is loosely based on the kabbalistic concept of nahama d'kissufa (bread of shame)- the idea that greater satisfaction is achieved when one becomes deserving of a blessing rather than when it is given as a gift. Kabbala teaches that this is one of the reasons God created man with free will and with obligations, and that in order to maintain that free will, God reduces the extent to which he manifests himself in the world (tzimtzum).

Harold Kushner, William Kaufman and Milton Steinberg[edit]

Rabbis Harold Kushner, William E. Kaufman, Milton Steinberg believe that God is not omnipotent, and thus is not to blame for mankind's abuse of free will. Thus, there is no contradiction between the existence of a good God and the existence of massive evil by part of mankind. It is claimed that this is also the view expressed by some classical Jewish authorities, such as Abraham ibn Daud, Abraham ibn Ezra, and Gersonides.

David Weiss Halivni[edit]

Rabbi David Weiss Halivni, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, says that the effort to associate the Shoah and sin is morally outrageous. He holds that it is unwarranted on a strict reading of the Tanakh. He claims that it reinforces an alarming tendency among ultra-Orthodox leaders to exploit such arguments on behalf of their own authority. In "Prayer in the Shoah" he gives his response to the idea that the Holocaust was a punishment from God:

"What happened in the Shoah is above and beyond measure (l'miskpat): above and beyond suffering, above and beyond any punishment. There is no transgression that merits such punishment... and it cannot be attributed to sin." [10]

Irving Greenberg[edit]

Rabbi Irving Greenberg is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who has written extensively on how the Holocaust should affect Jewish theology. Greenberg has an Orthodox understanding of God, he does not believe that God forces people to follow Jewish law; rather he believes that Jewish law is God's will for the Jewish people, and that Jews should follow Jewish law as normative.

Greenberg's break with Orthodox theology comes with his analysis of the implications of the Holocaust. He writes that the worst thing that God could do to the Jewish people for failing to follow the law is Holocaust-level devastation, yet this has already occurred. Greenberg is not claiming that God did use the Holocaust to punish Jews; he is just saying that if God chose to do so, that would be the worst possible thing. There really is nothing worse that God could do. Therefore, since God cannot punish us any worse than what actually has happened, and since God does not force Jews to follow Jewish law, then we cannot claim that these laws are enforceable on us. Therefore he argues that the covenant between God and the Jewish people is effectively broken and unenforceable.

Greenberg notes that there have been several terrible destructions of the Jewish community, each with the effect of distancing the Jewish people further from God. According to rabbinic literature, after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem and the mass-killing of Jerusalem's Jews, the Jews received no more direct prophecy. After the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem and the mass-killing of Jerusalem's Jews, the Jews no longer could present sacrifices at the Temple. This way of reaching God was at an end. After the Holocaust, Greenberg concludes that God does not respond to the prayers of Jews anymore.

Thus, God has unilaterally broken his covenant with the Jewish people. In this view, God no longer has the moral authority to command people to follow his will. Greenberg does not conclude that Jews and God should part ways; rather he holds that we should heal the covenant between Jews and God, and that the Jewish people should accept Jewish law on a voluntary basis.

His views on this subject have made him the subject of much criticism within the Orthodox community.[citation needed]

Elie Wiesel[edit]

A Hungarian-born Jewish-American writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Laureate, and Holocaust survivor, he is the author of 57 books, including Night, a work based on his experiences as a prisoner in the Auschwitz, Buna, and Buchenwald concentration camps. Wiesel's 1979 play The Trial of God is about a trial in which God is the defendant, and is reportedly based on events that Wiesel himself witnessed as a teenager in Auschwitz. Over the course of the trial, a number of arguments are made, both for and against God's guilt. Wiesel's theological stance, illustrated through the intuitive possibilities of literature, is a theology of existentialist protest, which neither denies God, nor accepts theodicies.[11] In one of his books, Norman Lamm treats Wiesel's theological novel, The Town Beyond the Wall, to literary, theological and Judaic commentary.[12] The novel's protagonists symbolically proceed through a range of theological views, which Wiesel's Midrashic style literature can explore where theodicy fails. The ending sees the hope of renewed mystical reconciliation with God.

Post-Holocaust and child abuse theology[edit]

David R. Blumenthal, in his book Facing the Abusing God (1993), has drawn on data from the field of child abuse and has proposed "worship of God through protest" as a legitimate response of survivors of both the Holocaust and child abuse.[13]

Another writer addressing survivors of the Holocaust and child abuse is John K. Roth, whose essay "A Theodicy of Protest" is included in Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy (1982).[14]

Works of important Christian theologians[edit]

Jürgen Moltmann[edit]

In The Crucified God Jürgen Moltmann speaks of how in a theology after Auschwitz the traditional notion of God needed to be revised:

Shattered and broken, the survivors of my generation were then returning from camps and hospitals to the lecture room. A theology which did not speak of God in the sight of the one who was abandoned and crucified would have had nothing to say to us then.[15]

The traditional notion of an impassible unmoved mover had died in those camps and was no longer tenable. Moltmann proposes instead a crucified God who is both a suffering and protesting God.[citation needed] That is, God is not detached from suffering but willingly enters into human suffering in compassion.

God in Auschwitz and Auschwitz in the crucified God – that is the basis for real hope that both embraces and overcomes the world.[16]

This is in contrast both with the move of theism to justify God's actions and the move of atheism to accuse God.[citation needed] Moltmann's trinitarian theology of the cross instead says that God is a protesting God who opposes the gods of this world of power and domination by entering into human pain and suffering on the cross and on the gallows of Auschwitz. Moltmann's theology of the cross was later developed into liberation theologies from suffering people under Stalinism in Eastern Europe and military dictatorships in South America and South Korea.

Pope Benedict XVI[edit]

In the address given on the occasion of his visit to the extermination camp of Auschwitz, Pope Benedict XVI suggested a reading of the events of the Holocaust as motivated by a hatred of God Himself.[citation needed] The address begins by acknowledging the impossibility of an adequate theological response:

In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can only be a dread silence – a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this? In silence, then, we bow our heads before the endless line of those who suffered and were put to death here; yet our silence becomes in turn a plea for forgiveness and reconciliation, a plea to the living God never to let this happen again.[17]

Nonetheless, he proposes that the actions of the Nazis can be seen as having been motivated by a hatred of God and a desire to exalt human power, with the Holocaust serving as a means by which to erase witness to God and His Law:

The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the earth. Thus the words of the Psalm: “We are being killed, accounted as sheep for the slaughter” were fulfilled in a terrifying way. Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid. If this people, by its very existence, was a witness to the God who spoke to humanity and took us to himself, then that God finally had to die and power had to belong to man alone – to those men, who thought that by force they had made themselves masters of the world. By destroying Israel, by the Shoah, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful.[18]

Most coverage of the address was positive, with praise from Italian and Polish rabbis. The Simon Wiesenthal Center called the visit historic, and the address and prayers "a repudiation of antisemitism and a repudiation of those... who refer to the Holocaust as a myth".[19]

Criticisms[edit]

A few Jewish commentators have objected to what they perceived as a desire to Christianize the Holocaust.[20][21] Certain Christian theologians have also criticized a tendency to historicize and dogmatize certain political or secular events such as the Shoah which are not part of theology as traditionally understood.

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ The word is only marginally found in Greek [Classical] literature referring in general to an offering. The adjective ὁλόκαυστος "holókaustos", "wholly burned", more common in the parallel form ὁλόκαυτος [holókautos], is in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible used in Leviticus 6,21–22 in the following context: "[...] the baked pieces of the grain offering you shall offer for a sweet aroma to the Lord. / The priest [...] shall offer it. It is a statute for ever to the Lord. It shall be wholly burned)."
  2. ^ Seidner, Stanley S. (June 10, 2009) "A Trojan Horse: Logotherapeutic Transcendence and its Secular Implications for Theology". Mater Dei Institute. 8.
  3. ^ Tractate Berakhoth. pp. 54a. 
  4. ^ See talks dated Yud Shevat 5741 (January, 1981) and Asarah B’teves 5752 (December, 1991).
  5. ^ Gershon Greenberg, Kristallnacht: The American Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Theology of Response, in Maria Mazzenga (editor), American Religious Responses to Kristallnacht, Palgrave MacMillan:209, pages 158-172.
  6. ^ a b Based on the Biblical verse, Isaiah 57:1, "The righteous is taken away from the evil to come."
  7. ^ Risikoff, Hakohanim vHaLeviim, 12, based on a section of the Talmud: Avodah Zarah, 4b.
  8. ^ Risikoff, Palgei Shemen, 106-108.
  9. ^ Greenberg, op. cit., 172.
  10. ^ "Prayer in the Shoah". From: Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.
  11. ^ All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs vol 1, Elie Wiesel, Schocken 1996. Chapter "God's Suffering: A Commentary" p 101-106 and other references in the book
  12. ^ Faith and Doubt: Studies in Traditional Jewish Thought, Norman Lamm, Ktav Publishers, Chapter XII: Suffering and Literature
  13. ^ Blumenthal, D (1993): Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest. Despite the term "abuse" being new in Jewish theology, as shown on page 261 of the book, the arguments connected to it have a long tradition in Jewish theology.
  14. ^ Roth et al. (1982) - Extracted from a review of Roth's essay, in which the author comments that "Roth is painting a picture of God as the ultimate example of a bad and abusive parent!"
  15. ^ Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (Augsburg Fortress:Minneapolis, 1993) p. 1
  16. ^ Ibid. p. 278
  17. ^ "Pastoral Visit of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI in Poland: Address by the Holy Father - Visit to the Auschwitz Camp, 28 May 2006"
  18. ^ Ibid.
  19. ^ Simon Wiesenthal Center
  20. ^ e.g. Daniel Goldhagen in "The Holocaust Was Not Christian"
  21. ^ Goldhagen, 2002, p. 240.

External links[edit]