Finding Meaning After the Holocaust

Responding to the challenge of faith in a post-Holocaust world.

Excerpted from Celebrate! The Complete Jewish Holiday Handbook. Reprinted with permission from Jason Aronson Inc.

[Some] ultra-Orthodox [leaders] asserted that rather than destroying it, the Holocaust actually reaffirmed the covenant. For them, the devastation in Europe clearly fit the covenant’s projected pattern of Jewish history and was a typical case of God punishing Israel for its sins–in this case, assimilation and Zionism.

Suggesting that more than one million innocent children were brutally sacrificed either because German Jews wanted to be acceptable to their non-Jewish neighbors, or because European Jews realized that modernity’s superficial tolerance of differences between supposedly equal human beings ultimately provided no protection for them, is an abhorrent explanation [which is] widely rejected […]

God’s Presence and Human Responsibility

Despite the discomfort the notion of Divine punishment for sins generates, our [biblical legacy] does [seem to] place responsibility for our situations in the world on our shoulders. At the end of his life, when the children of Israel were finally about to cross into the Promised Land, Moses prophetically warned them of what they would bring on themselves if they did not keep the conditions of the covenant: loss of their homeland, degradation, incredible suffering, dispersal to other nations, captivity, disease, idolatry, insecurity, despair, suspense, and terror (Deuteronomy 28:15-68; 32:5). In their distress, they would finally seek God and return to Him, and then they would receive the blessings the covenant promises (Deuteronomy 30:1-5).

As a people, we have experienced other traumatic turning points in our history. They required evaluation and reaffirmation of the Jewish agenda and revolutionary thinking and constructs to allow Judaism and the Jewish people to go forward. After the shocking destruction of the Temple and an entire way of life, the rabbis created new forms of worship, ritual, and structure for the Jewish community. After the Spanish Inquisition, the kabbalists (Jewish mystics) invested existing Jewish practice and new ritual with spiritual and mystical significance and taught that every act could contribute to healing the world.

God in Hiding

As Rabbi Irving Greenberg, the popular Orthodox theologian (who has contributed greatly to the examination of Judaism in the shadow of the Holocaust) notes, we were prepared to make and accept such changes because at each stage of our development as a people, we had moved further away from the manifest God–from direct revelation at Sinai to prophetic voice to rabbinic authority–and become more reliant on our own initiation of action. At each stage, God’s presence became less obvious, but it was always believed that He was with His people, wherever they were.

The best example of this is the story of Esther, the quintessential account of the Jewish exile in a non- Jewish land. God did not appear and is not mentioned, but it is understood that He acted behind the scenes, able to exert His influence once the Jews themselves had accepted responsibility for their situation and took steps to affect its outcome. As we went out into the world, we were supposed to assume more of the burden of the Israel-God partnership that had been established to improve the world.

Making Sense of Our Relationship with God

Acceptance of our role in countering evil does not necessarily militate against the view that the covenant was broken. The fact that He had told us to expect such treatment was no excuse. Whether out of sadism, indifference, shame, sorrow, or the mistaken belief that humans would rise to the potential of our responsibility, God, in letting His people so severely suffer, was seen [by some] to have canceled the contract.

In the end, [though,] walking away from God and Judaism only leaves a void. What system of belief compares? (Hermann Broder, the central character of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s postwar novel, Enemies: A Love Story, finds all sociopolitical alternatives bankrupt.) No model of social justice or rationale for longstanding hope has been devised to supplant the Jewish view of the world and Jewish destiny.

Choosing Life

In reply to the Holocaust, the overwhelming response has been to reconnect with Jewish tradition in some way, to rebel against Hitler’s attempt to destroy Jewish lives and values by asserting them, to counter his plan to eliminate witness to evil by more forcefully refusing to give up as the world’s conscience. Confronted with the power of evil in the world, we have chosen to renew our job to fight against it.

The Holocaust proved that our mission is far from finished, and if we do not fulfill it, it is unlikely the world will adopt it. Against unrelenting efforts to destroy us, we Jews have responded by embracing life, giving birth, rebuilding, and providing support for fellow Jews and Jewish causes in unprecedented volume.

At the beginning of Creation, the vessels meant to hold Divine light proved too weak and shattered. So another means of sending spirituality into the world was devised. The first set of tablets of the Ten Commandments, the tangible contract between God and His people, were smashed and had to be replaced.

The Covenant was Not Fully Destroyed

The post-Holocaust world–a world in which we know the possibilities of evil–demands no less an opportunity for repair. The covenant, along with the Jewish people, tradition, and memory–even if torn up or torn from us–like the dream it represents, was not fully destroyed. Without satisfactorily being able to answer the questions thrust on us by the Holocaust, we have, as Rabbi Greenberg explains, volunteered to pick up the crumpled, sullied agreement, proclaiming our intention to move ahead under its terms, waving it in God’s face, challenging Him to meet our commitment by fulfilling His promises.

As Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, another popular Orthodox theologian, says, we have suffered the curses, we will continue trying to mend the world, and we expect to enjoy the blessings. In the end, the response of the Jewish people to the Holocaust has been to reaffirm our expectation of fulfillment of the Exodus message, that delivery follows devastation, and to decide to heed the biblical command (Deuteronomy 30:15-19) to “choose life and good” so that the Jews and our descendants will live.

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