Jews move into the Kovno ghetto, August 1941. (George Kadish/Zvi Kadushin/US Holocaust Memorial Museum)

The Holocaust: Responding to Modern Suffering

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

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.

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.

However, there were individuals in the ultra-Orthodox world of Eastern Europe that made more immediate declarations. One such figure was Rabbi Yoel Teitlebaum (the Satmar Rebbe), the leader of a Hasidic community in Hungary.

In his book Va’Yoel Moshe, Teitlebaum states unequivocally that the Holocaust was a divine punishment for the secular Zionist efforts to create a modern Jewish state in the land of Israel. He condemned this endeavor as a blasphemous attempt at returning to the Promised Land prematurely, that is, before the Messianic age. Thus Teitelbaum understood the Holocaust in terms of traditional covenantal theology, as a punishment for Jewish sins.

Facing the Challenge

The acclaimed journalist and author, Elie Wiesel is credited with beginning the post-Holocaust theological discussion in the West. In his haunting autobiographical book Night, Wiesel shares his journey from Hasidic piety, to Auschwitz, and finally to liberation. One of the important elements of this book is Wiesel’s ability to raise key theological questions.

Was Auschwitz a unique event in Jewish history, one requiring new theological responses? Was it a new “Sinai”? If so, what was revealed? Had God died in the death camps? While Wiesel, the novelist, raised these crucial questions, he left it to theologians to piece together full theological treatments.

The Death of God

One important sociological factor contributing to the rise of post-Holocaust Jewish thought in North America was the Protestant “Death-of-God” movement. In the wake of the Second World War, several respected Protestant theologians began to reassess their core beliefs and commitments. The “Death-of-God” writers claimed that faith in a personal and providential God was absurd in light of recent events. However, these religious renegades did not abandon religious life, rather they chose to rebuild the church, “as if there was no God,” (Dietrich Bonhoffer).

Richard Rubenstein, an academic and ordained Conservative rabbi, is considered the Jewish “Death-of-God” theologian. In his controversial book, After Auschwitz, he asserted that none of the traditional forms of theodicy–belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God despite the existence of evil–are tenable after the Holocaust. Rubenstein believed that the horrors of Auschwitz should lead us to agree with the French philosopher, Albert Camus, that “we stand in a cold, silent, unfeeling cosmos, unaided by any purposeful power beyond our own resources.”

Influenced by developments in the field of psychology, he argued that Judaism must be re-envisioned as a profound system of ritual and myth that serves to aid its adherents in coping with the inevitable traumas of life. Rubenstein referred to this system as a new Jewish “paganism,” because he felt that Jews must re-establish a special relationship to the Land of Israel, where they could live in safety and freedom.

In response to Rubenstein, the Modern Orthodox thinker Eliezer Berkovits argued for a renewal of traditional Jewish faith after Auschwitz. He asserted that God’s “absence” in Nazi Germany could be explained through the classical concept of hester panim, “the hiding of the divine face.” Berkovits claimed that in order for God to maintain His respect and care for humanity as a whole, He necessarily had to withdraw Himself and allow human beings–even the most cruel and vicious–to exercise their free will.

The Holocaust as a Revelatory Event

Beginning in the 1940s, Emil Fackenheim emerged as a leading exponent of Jewish philosophy. A faithful admirer of Martin Buber‘s humanist theology, the Holocaust forced Fackenheim to rethink his basic theological positions. He was one of the last ordained liberal rabbis in Germany, and he was interned in a labor camp before escaping to Canada.

Fackenheim argued that the Holocaust was a unique event in history for two reasons:

  1. The Nazis persecuted the Jews not because of their religious beliefs or practices as in former times, but strictly because of their genetic makeup.
  2. The demonic will of the persecutors to exterminate the Jews superseded their aims at winning the war.

Like Wiesel, Fackenheim saw a new revelation emanating from Auschwitz. It came not from the death camps themselves, but from the Jewish people’s response to the Holocaust. Rather than giving up, as one might have expected, they rebuilt their lives. The Jews heard a commanding voice, Fackenheim argued, not to hand Hitler “posthumous victories.”

This “614th Commandment,” as he called it, required that Jews actively work for their own survival, that they always remember the victims, and that they not despair of God’s existence. He also claimed that in the post-Auschwitz era, traditional differences between secular and religious Jews were insignificant. For now, they had to band together in the name of survival.

Like Rubenstein, Fackenheim also gained a new regard for the State of Israel. He saw it as the ultimate response to Auschwitz–the establishment of a strong and independent Jewish society.

Finally, Fackenheim called on non-Jews–especially the leaders of the Catholic church–to take responsibility for their role in the Holocaust.

Where Was Man?

While Wiesel, Rubenstein, Berkovits, and Fackenheim all regarded the Holocaust as an event that required serious theological reconsideration, others have argued that despite the devastation, it does not require such revisions.

Theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), for example, argued that the Holocaust should move people to examine their own behavior, and not that of God: “The question about Auschwitz is not where was God, but where was man?” In a world where men and women are given free will (as the Hebrew Bible insists), we are accountable for our own moral failings. The time has come, Heschel insists, to heed God’s call and work as His partner in completing the work of creation.

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