The Holocaust: Responding to Modern Suffering

The events of the Holocaust put the problem of suffering at the fore of Jewish theological discourse.

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Awareness of the realities of evil and suffering is as old as human consciousness itself. In every age people have wrestled with these issues, trying desperately to make sense of the painful, cruel, and unjust dimensions of life. For many contemporary Jews, however, the tragic events of the Holocaust represent the most troubling examples of evil and suffering in all of human history. 

Some Pre-Holocaust Responses to Evil and Suffering

Modern thinkers confronted the problem of evil and suffering long before the Holocaust. As with the post-Holocaust theologians who followed, thinkers such as Abraham Isaac Kook and Mordecai Kaplan mediated traditional Jewish theology with the specific challenges of the modern world.suffering quiz

Kook (1865-1935), the great mystical thinker and first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel, understood life to include two cosmic forces: good and evil, both emanating directly from the divine. Kook rejected the medieval philosophical assertion that evil is mere privation--the absence of good--or an accidental force in an otherwise hospitable universe. However, this did not lead him to utter despair. Like his kabbalistic and Hasidic forbears, Kook saw all of life as striving for perfection, a perfection that would eventually include the transformation of evil (not its destruction) and its elevation to the holy.

At roughly the same time, Kaplan (1881-1983), founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, was beginning to formulate his naturalistic religious vision. Kaplan interpreted the term "God" to mean "the power for salvation" in the universe--the drive within nature, and within the human heart, to reach its full potential (a concept not entirely different from Kook's).

Kaplan averred with great optimism that humanity was, in fact, progressing forward, as increasing numbers of people embraced the modern values of democracy and rationality. In dealing with the subject of evil, Kaplan insisted that the events that we commonly refer to as "natural evils" or "natural disasters" bear no moral weight. They are simply organic processes at work in the world, as it evolves and strives for fulfillment.

On the human level, Kaplan argued tenaciously for the adoption of an "ethics of immanence": a moral stance in which human beings throw off the shackles of theistic (belief in a transcendent and personal god) religion, and use their rational minds to create a just civilization.

As Kook and Kaplan demonstrate, the pre-Holocaust period was marked by a strong sense of theological optimism. This hopefulness eroded quickly with the rise of Nazism.

Two Decades of Silence: 1945-1965

One noteworthy fact about North American, post-Holocaust theology is that its leading exponents did not begin addressing the key issues raised by the Holocaust for twenty years after its conclusion. During the years immediately following the Shoah, much of the attention of the Jewish world was focussed on reporting the atrocities and creating accurate records of victims, survivors, and perpetrators. It was not until the mid-1960s that theologians began to discuss the religious implications of the Holocaust in earnest.

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Rabbi Or N. Rose

Rabbi Or N. Rose is Associate Dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton, MA. He is the co-editor of Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice and God in All Moments: Spiritual and Practical Wisdom from the Hasidic Masters. He is currently completing a doctorate in Jewish thought at Brandeis University.