Author Archives: Dr. Steven T. Katz

Dr. Steven T. Katz

About Dr. Steven T. Katz

Dr. Steven T. Katz is the director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University. He is the author of The Holocaust in Historical Context.

Berkovits & Cohen: The Free Will Defense

In the following article, Steven T. Katz explores the assertion that human free will accounts for the suffering experienced during the Holocaust–a notion most notably presented by thinkers such as Eliezer Berkovits and Arthur A. Cohen–and analyzes Cohen’s theology in detail. By posing the question of suffering, says Cohen, we have not only underestimated human free will, we have overestimated God’s abilities. Katz shows Cohen’s affinity with the “process theologians,” those who suggest that God contains the universe, and just as the universe is always changing as a result of human free will, so to God is always changing. Excerpted and reprinted with permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from
The Encyclopedia of Judaism
, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.

Among philosophical reflections concerning theodicy [the problem of evil], none has an older or more distinguished lineage than that known as the “Free Will Defense.”suffering evil

According to this argument, human evil is the necessary and ever‑present possibility entailed by the reality of human freedom. If human beings are to have the potential for majesty, they must, conversely, have an equal potential for corruption; if they are to be capable of acts of authentic morality, they must be capable of acts of authentic immorality. Freedom is a two‑edged sword, hence its challenge and its cost.

Applying this consideration to the events of the Nazi epoch, the Shoah [the Holocaust] becomes a case of people’s inhumanity to people, the extreme misuse of human freedom. Such a position in no way forces a reconsideration of the cosmological structure [i.e. the ultimate spiritual or metaphysical constitution of the universe] in which the anthropological [i.e. human] drama unfolds; nor does it call into question God’s goodness and solicitude, for it is people, not God, who perpetrate genocide.

God observes these events with the unique divine pathos, but in order to allow human morality to be substantively real, God refrains from intercession. At the same time, while God is long‑suffering with an evil humanity, his patience results in the suffering of others.

The Holocaust as Revelation: Fackenheim & Greenberg

In the following article, the author mentions “a Buberian-type model of dialogic revelation.” He is referring to the thought of the religious philosopher Martin Buber, who suggested that religious experience is rooted in dialogue with the world and with other people. Encountering the world with one’s whole self, one can understand the events of life as communications from God, as revelations. Reprinted with the permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from
The Encyclopedia of Judaism
, in 4 volumes, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.

Auschwitz‑‑A New Revelation

Emil Fackenheim contends that the Holocaust represents a new revelation. Rejecting any account that analyzes Auschwitz as the result of Jews’ sin, as well as repudiating the literal notion of “explanation” as regards the Holocaust, Fackenheim employs a Buberian‑type model of dialogical revelation, of revelation as the personal encounter of an I with the Eternal Thou (God). Thus Fackenheim urges Israel to continue to believe despite the moral outrage of the Shoah. God, on this view, is always present in Jewish history, even at Auschwitz. We do not, and cannot understand what he was doing at Auschwitz, or why he allowed it, but we must insist that he was there. 

Still more, from the death camps, as from Sinai, God commands Israel. The nature of this commanding voice, what Fackenheim has called the “614th commandment” (there are 613 commandments in traditional Judaism) is that “Jews are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories;” Jews are, that is, under a sacred obligation to survive. After the death camps, Jewish existence itself is a holy act: Jews are under a sacred obligation to remember their martyrs: Jews are, as Jews, forbidden to despair of redemption, or to become cynical about the world and humanity, for to submit to cynicism is to abdicate responsibility for the world and to deliver the world  into the hands of the luciferian forces of Nazism. And, above all, Jews are “forbidden to despair of the God of Israel, lest Judaism perish.”