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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This means that even for those who remained true to their belief and faith, the gap between religious expectation and reality remained unbridged, and their protested question remained unanswered, indeed as an inner deep dimension of their tortured faith. They believed in spite of and from within their conviction that there can be no satisfying answer in this world to their shocked religiosity.

Unjustified Faith

The first published responses of religious writers, poets and thinkers who survived the Holocaust were generally based on this paradox--they expressed a traumatized belief which, standing the trial of the Holocaust, was too profound to be pacified by any of the ready‑made theological "solutions." One may even put it this way the mere idea of a possible solution was anathema to their feeling of absolutely justified amazement. Precisely because they did believe in spite of what they had lived through, there could be no answer to their unjustifiable suffering, unless God Himself could be described as a victim of Radical Evil together with His chosen people.

Thus, they experienced their protest as an inner necessary dimension of belief after the Holocaust. This feeling, it seems, was the source of the varieties of "Protest Theologies" or "Revolt Theologies" which occupied the greatest part of Jewish theological literature published in the aftermath of the Holocaust (Susman, 1946; Wiesel, 1960; Greenberg, 1977; Rubenstein, 1966; Fackenheim, 1982; Maybaum, 1965; Cohen, 1981).

The Holocaust Was Not Unique

But besides these main responses there were some contradictory responses of ultra‑Orthodox and modern Orthodox theologians. These religious movements, of course, could not accept such attitudes of protest as an adequate basis for their religious education.

Striving to protect the foundations of their religious worldviews they could not admit the extraordinary uniqueness of the Holocaust in this sense; therefore, they were looking back to the traditional argumentation in spite of the felt difficulties (Wolpin, 1986; Teitlebaum, 1959; Schwartz and Goldstein, 1987). At first, the expressions were indeed reluctant, preferring a silent avoidance of direct discussion of theological topics, and proposing instead the immersion in a devoted study of the Torah and fulfillment of its commandments. But, during the last decade, the publication of traditional Orthodox responses has been multiplied and become more articulated and more assertive. They entered overtly the public theological arena and have challenged a full reflective response.

Reaffirming Traditional Models

Let us state even in the start of our discussion that we should not be too easily tempted to characterize ultra‑Orthodox and Orthodox responses to the Holocaust as a simple reconstruction of traditional theological argumentations, and in the following discussion we would try to demonstrate the essential differences. Still, at a first glance, and at least on the level of surface understanding, we have here a conscious reaffirmation of some old theological views.

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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.