Berkovits & Cohen: The Free Will Defense

The deviant use of human freedom, not God, is the source of evil and suffering.

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In Israel’s experience, as Eliezer Berkovits declares in making this case, one sees both attributes of God. The continued existence of Israel despite its long record of suffering is the strongest single proof that God does exist despite his concealment. Israel is the witness to his accompaniment of happenings in space and time. Nazism, in its luciferian power, understood this fact, and its slaughter of the Jews was an attempt to slaughter the God of history. The Nazis were aware, even as Israel sometimes fails to be, that God’s manifest reality in the world is necessarily linked to the fate of the Jewish people.

a path divergingGiven its history and intellectual power, this defense, not surprisingly has been widely advocated by post‑Holocaust thinkers of all shades of theological opinion. The two most notable presentations of the theme in the general theological literature are in Eliezer Berkovits, Faith After the Holocaust and Arthur A. Cohen, The Tremendum. Berkovits employs it to defend a traditional Jewish theological position, while Cohen utilizes it to develop a Jewish “Process Theology” discussed in detail below.

Process Theology: A Redefinition of God

An important school in modern theological circles known as “Process Theology,” inspired by the work of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, has argued that the classical understanding of God has to be dramatically revised, not least in terms of our conception of God’s power and direct, causal, involvement in human affairs.

According to those who advance this thesis, God certainly exists, but the old‑new difficulties of theodicy and related metaphysical problems emanating from classical theism arise precisely because of an inadequate “description” of the divine, which misascribes to him attributes of omnipotence [perfect power] and omniscience [perfect knowledge] that God does not possess.

Arthur A. Cohen, in his The Tremendum: A Theological Interpretation of the Holocaust (New York, 1981), made a related proposal that drew on [German romantic philosopher F.W.J.] Schelling, [Jewish existentialist philosopher Franz] Rosenzweig, and Jewish mysticism, though there is no doubt that he was familiar with the work of the process theologians.

After arguing for the enormity of the Holocaust, its uniqueness, and its transcendence of any “meaning,” Cohen suggests that the way out of the dilemma posed by classical thought is to rethink whether “national catastrophes are compatible with our traditional notions of a beneficent and providential God” (p. 50).

For Cohen, the answer is “no,” at least to the degree that the activity and nature of the providential God have to be re‑conceptualized. Against the traditional view that asks, given its understanding of God’s action in history, “How could it be that God witnessed the Holocaust and remained silent?”, Cohen would pose the contrary “dipolar” thesis that, “what is taken as God’s speech is really always man’s hearing, that God is not the strategist of our particularities or of our historical condition, but rather the mystery of our futurity, always our posse, never our acts.”

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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.