The Uniqueness of the Holocaust

For some theologians, the evils of the Holocaust were unique; others believe they can be integrated into traditional theological discourse.

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The existence of evil and suffering has challenged religious thinkers for millennia. But is all evil and suffering equal? Since World War II, theologians have grappled with whether the theological problems raised by the Holocaust can be conflated into the general problem of evil and suffering, or whether the Holocaust poses unique challenges.  Reprinted with the permission of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs from Wrestling Until Day-Break.

The ancient problem of theodicy [justifying the existence of evil] was one of the first philosophical problems related to the Holocaust which Jewish religious think­ers felt obliged to confront even during the evolving events. 

Needing An Impossible Faith

In spite of a strong emotional difficulty to apply "cold," detached philo­sophical methods to such an intimate painful problem during the terrible trial and in its aftermath, it was too urgent to be avoided. Believers needed so desperately the support and consolation of faith, seemingly the only possible source of support and consolation against such events which, however, refuted so radically the deepest existential foundations of faith. One had at least to protest or pray his question, as a final act of faith, expecting an answer from the depth of his soul, if not in a methodical‑philosophical manner, at least in a prophetic intuition.

uniqueness of the holocaustIndeed, the emotional facticity which served as a necessary empirical foundation even for later philosophical reflections on this ultimate question, made itself manifest in a paradoxical tension between two "measurable" anthropological phenomena-‑in the majority of studied individual cases of survivors (Brenner, 1980) the Holocaust did not affect extreme changes of basic attitudes towards faith in God, both on the part of believers and of nonbelievers. Namely, the majority of those who were believers before the Holocaust remained so after the Holocaust, and the same is true of nonbelievers.

Even those few whose belief was shocked and destroyed during the Holocaust, generally recovered their former position after the end of the war, while both believers and nonbelievers became only more radical in their stances after the events. On the other hand, believers, not less than nonbelievers, admitted in their immediate responses to the events (especially in diaries, prayers and homilies) their feeling that they cannot find any adequate religious justification.

Rejecting Traditional Justifications of Evil

The belief in Divine providence had acquired such dimensions of absurdity in the darkness of the Holocaust that not even one of the old known arguments of justification could hold its claim. Or let us put it in another more accurate way-‑in the immediate response of believers to the attacks of Radical Evil in the Holocaust one intuits an emotional rejection of most traditional arguments of justification. They refuse to accept them as if there is in such arguments, dwarfed to sheer superficiality by the extraordinarily unique reality, an unsufferable insult, or a desecration of their belief in a God of mercy and justice, making their spiritual agony even more painful.

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Eliezer Schweid

Dr. Eliezer Schweid is a recipient of the Israel Prize and Professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University.