Holocaust, The: Jewish Theological Responses

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The Holocaust (Heb., shoʾah ), the willed destruction of European Jewry and the intended complete eradication of world Jewry by the Nazi regime, casts its shadow over all Jewish realities in the post-Holocaust era. The nature of this event, and the particularity and peculiarity of its assault against Jewish life and Jewish dignity, force a fundamental reexamination of all inherited Jewish norms, not the least of which are Judaism's traditional theological foundations. This is not to assert that these classical assumptions will necessarily change or prove inadequate to the test, but only that they must again be asked to answer age-old questions of theodicy.

To grasp the challenge of the Holocaust one must understand the unique racial/Manichaean Weltanschauung of Nazism and the role of the Jew in it. For Hitler and his Reich, anti-Semitism and the struggle against world Jewry were not only subjective sentiments of personal will but also actualizations in history of metahistorical antitheses, and as such, necessary and inevitable. Killing Jews, or more precisely eliminating "the Jews," or Judaism itself, was in this modern Gnostic myth a sacred obligation. "The Jew," the collective singular, was the generic, supranatural enemy. The Endlösung, the "final solution," was not primarily understood by its cruel initiator as a political or socioeconomic force. It was not an expression of class struggle or nationalism in any recognizable sense. It was intended as, and received its enormous power from, the fact that it aimed at nothing less than restructuring the cosmos. "Those who see in National Socialism nothing more than a political movement," Hitler unflinchingly observed, "know scarcely anthing of it. It is more even than a religion: It is the will to create mankind anew" (Hermann Rauschning, Gespräche mit Hitler, Zurich, 1940, pp. 231f.). Thus, as if it were the conclusion of an immutable tautology, Hitler felt that the Jewish people must be annihilated.

In responding to the catastrophic consequences of this racial fantasy, which claimed six million Jewish lives, Jewish thinkers have explored many theological avenuessome old, some new. As to the old, Jewish history is no stranger to national tragedy and, as a consequence, there is an abundance of traditional explanatory models that could be and have been adapted and reapplied to the Holocaust. From these, six have regularly been looked to by modern thinkers as providing maps for understanding the theological complexities raised by the Holocaust.

The ʿAqedah

The ʿAqedah, or "binding," of Isaac, the biblical narrative recounted in Genesis 22:2ff., is often appealed to as a possible paradigm for approaching the Holocaust. (See, for example, Berkovits, 1973, pp. 124125, and Neher, 1981.) Such a move is rooted in Jewish tradition, especially that of the medieval martyrologies of the Crusader and post-Crusader periods, in which the biblical event became the prism through which the horrific medieval experience became refracted and intelligible. Like Isaac of old, the Jewish children of Europe, and more generally all of slaughtered Israel, are seen as martyrs to God who willingly sacrifice themselves and their loved ones in order to prove beyond all doubt their faithfulness to the Almighty (see Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial, New York, 1967, and the medieval religious poems collected in A. M. Habermann's Sefer gezerot Ashkenaz ve-Tsarfat, Jerusalem, 1945).

The appeal of this interpretation lies in its conferring heroic status on the dead because of their sanctity and obedience to the God of Israel. Their death is not due to sin, to any imperfection on their part, or to any violation of the covenant; rather, it is the climactic evidence of their unwavering devotion to the faith of their fathersnot its abandonment. As a consequence, the traditional (and present-day) reproach, that what befell Israel is "because of our sins," is wholly inappropriate. Not sin but piety is the key factor. God makes unique demands upon those who love him and whom he loves, and, as did Abraham, so too do the Jewish people respond with a fidelity of unmatched purity and selflessness. As such, the dreadful events become a test, the occasion for the maximal religious service, the absolute existential moment of the religious life, whose benefits are enjoyed both by the martyrs in the world to come and by the world as a whole, inasmuch as it benefits from such dedication.

In evaluating the appositeness of this reading of the Holocaust one appreciates its positive elements: It does not assign sin to the victims and denies sin as the cause of the horrific events that unfolded; it praises Israel's heroism and faithfulness. Yet the analogy between biblical and modern events breaks down before other elemental features of the ʿAqedah paradigm. First, in Genesis it is God who commands the test. Are Jews likewise to impute Auschwitz to a command of God? Second, in the original it is Abraham, God's especially faithful servant, who is tested because of his special religious status: "Take now thy son, thy only son, whom thou lovest" (Gn. 22:2). One cannot transfer, as the analogy requires, Hitler and his Schutzstaffel (SS) into the pivotal role of the Abraham who would sacrifice his "beloved." Finally, in the biblical circumstance the angel of the Lord brings the matter to a conclusion with no blood being shed: "Lay not thy hand upon the lad, neither do thou anything to him" (Gn. 22:12).


The biblical Book of Job, the best-known treatment of theodicy in the Hebrew Bible, naturally presents itself as a second possible model for understanding the Holocaust. (See, for example, Maybaum, 1965, p. 70, and Greenberg, 1981.) According to such a renderingwhich is not unlike that offered by the ʿAqedahJob provides an inviting paradigm because again Job's suffering is not caused by his sinfulness but rather by his righteousness, which is perceived by Satan as a cause for jealousy. Moreover, the tale ends on a "happy" note, as Job is rewarded for his faithfulness with God's double blessing. On a deeper level, the resolution of Job's doubts is never really clear; God's reply through the whirlwind is, in important ways, no answer to Job's questions; and Job's first wife and family are still dead through no fault of their own.

Job presents details that lead away from rather than toward an analogy with the Holocaust, and hence disallow the use of Job's faithfulness as an appropriate response to Hitler's demonic assault. First, the reader of Job knows, by way of the prologue, that the pact between God and Satan over the conditions of Job's trial explicitly stipulates that Job not be killed. This, above all, renders the situation of Job and that of Auschwitz altogether different. Second, except for the few who survived them, all theological ruminations are the work of those who were not in the death camps, and hence the theologian's situation is not that of Job but, as Eliezer Berkovits has said, of Job's brother. Third, the haunting matter of those who died in order to make the test possible finds no resolution in Job. God's capriciousness appears all too manifest. Finally, the climax of Job occurs when God reveals himself. He may not provide an answer to the specific bill of complaints raised by Job, but at least Job knows there is a God and hence, at a minimum, some reason to "trust in the Lord," even if he does not understand his ways. Job receives some sort of "answer," as Martin Buber among others has emphasized, through this manifestation of God's presence: "I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye sees thee; wherefore I abhor my words and repent" (Jb. 42:56; see Martin Buber, At the Turning, New York, 1952, pp. 61ff.). By contrast, those who went to their death in the death camps received no such comforting revelation of the divine.

The Suffering Servant

One of the richest theological doctrines of biblical theodicy is that of the Suffering Servant. Given its classic presentation in the Book of Isaiah (especially chapter 53), the Suffering Servant doctrine is that of vicarious suffering and atonement in which the righteous suffer for the wicked and hence allay, in some mysterious way, God's wrath and judgment, thus making the continuation of humankind possible. According to Jewish tradition, the Suffering Servant is Israel, the people of the covenant, who suffer with and for God in the midst of the evil of creation. By suffering for others, the Jewish people make it possible for creation to endure. In this act of faithfulness the guiltless establish a unique bond with the Almighty. As they suffer for and with him, he shares their suffering and agony and comes to love them in a special way for loving him with such fortitude and depth. (For the rabbinic use of this concept see, in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 98b, Berakhot 5a, and Sotah 14a.)

In Jewish theological writings emanating from the Holocaust era itself and continuing down to the present day, this theme has been enunciated. One finds it in the writings of Hasidic rebeyim (see, for example, Kalman Kalonymus Spiro, Esh qodesh [Holy fire], Jerusalem, 1960, and the material presented in Eleh ezkerah [These will I remember], edited by Isaac Lewin, 6 vols., New York, 19561965). It is also evinced in the work of Conservative thinkers such as Abraham Joshua Heschel (1954 and 1955) and in that of Orthodox thinkers such as Eliezer Berkovits (1973) and Irving Greenberg (1981). "God's servant," writes Berkovits, "carries upon his shoulders God's dilemma with man through history. God's people share in all the fortunes of God's dilemma as man is bungling his way through toward Messianic realization" (p. 127).

One theologian, Ignaz Maybaum, a German Reform rabbi who survived the war in London, takes the paradigm outside the traditional Jewish framework and uses it to construct a more systematic, theological deconstruction of the Holocaust. First in the "servant of God" in Isaiah, then in the Jew Jesus, and now at Treblinka and Auschwitz, God uses the Jewish people to address the world and save it: "They died though innocently so that others might live" (Maybaum, 1965, p. 67). According to this reading of the Holocaust the perennial dialectic of history is God's desire that the Gentile nations come close to him while they resist this call. To foster and facilitate this relationship is the special task, the "mission," of Israel. It is they who must make God's message accessible in terms the Gentile nations will understand and respond to. But what language, what symbols, will speak to the nations? Modern Israel repeats collectively the single crucifixion of one Jew two millennia ago and by so doing reveals to humankind its weaknesses as well as the need for its turning to Heaven. In a daring parallelism Maybaum writes: "The Golgotha of modern mankind is Auschwitz. The cross, the Roman gallows, was replaced by the gas chamber. The gentiles, it seems, must first be terrified by the blood of the sacrificed scapegoat to have the mercy of God revealed to them and become converted, become baptized gentiles, become Christians" (ibid., p. 36). For Maybaum, through the Holocaust the world moves again forward and upward, from the final vestiges of medieval obscurantism and intolerance, of which the Shoʾah is a product, to a new era of spiritual maturity, human morality, and encounter between the human and the divine.

Applied to the Holocaust, the doctrine of the Servant seems worse than the problem: It means that God can act cruelly, demand terrible sacrifices, and regulate creation by "unacceptable" means. Surely the omnipotent, omniscient creator could have found a more satisfactory principle for directing and sustaining his creation. Recourse to mystery, to saying "God's ways are not our ways," is not an explanation; rather, it is a capitulation before the immensity of the Shoʾah and a cry of faith.

The more specific, elaborate, form given the doctrine by Maybaum empties Jewish life of all meaning other than that intelligible to and directed toward the gentile nations. Only the Christocentric pattern now applied to the people of Israel gives this people's history and spirituality meaning. In addition, this view is predicated on a false analogy between the Holocaust and Good Friday. Christians are able to declare that "Christ died for the sins of humankind" for (at least) two cardinal reasons. The first and most weighty is that Christ is believed to be God Incarnate, the second person of the Trinity: The crucifixion is God taking the sins of humanity on himself. He is the vicarious atonement for humankind. There is thus no terrible cruelty or unspeakable "crime" but only divine love, the presence of unlimited divine grace. Second, the human yet divine Christ, the hypostatic union of humanity and God, mounts the cross voluntarily. He willingly "dies so that others might live." How very different was the Shoʾah. How very dissimilar its victims (not martyrs) and their fate. The murdered were not divine, they were all-too-human creatures crushed in the most unspeakable brutality. If God was the cause of their suffering, how at odds from the traditional Christian picture this is. For here God purchases life for some by sacrificing others, not himself. Furthermore, the Jews were singled out "unwillingly"; they were not martyrs in the classical sensethough some may wish to transform this fate for their own needs by seeing them as such.

The disanalogy of the Holocaust and Good Friday would yet reveal something more. According to Maybaum, the symbol of the crucifixion is one of vicarious atonement. But given the circumstances of the vicarious sacrifice of the Shoʾah, is it not the case that the nature of the atonement is far more criminal and infinitely more depraved than the sins for which it atones? What sort of kohanim ("priests") were the Nazis, and what sort of sacrifice could they bring about? Can one truly envision God, the God of Israel, making such a vicarious expiation?

Hester Panim

In wrestling with human suffering, the Hebrew Bible appeals, especially in the Psalms, to the notion of hester panim, "the hiding of the face" of God. This concept has two meanings. The first, as in Deuteronomy 31:1718 and later in Micah 3:4, is the causal one that links God's absence to human sin. God turns away from the sinner. The second sense, found particularly in certain psalms (e.g., Ps. 44, 69, 88 and variants in, e.g., Ps. 9, 10, 13; see also Jb. 13:24), suggests protest, despair, and confusion over the absence of God for no clear reason, and not as a consequence of sin. Here humankind stands "abandoned" for reasons that appear unknown and unfathomable. Thus the repetitive theme of lament in the Psalms as the psalmists implore God "why" or "how long" he will be absent.

In the rabbinic sources the term hester panim is further developed in a variety of contexts, most notably in response to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 ce. Its employment is an indication (1) that the traditional, more widely used explanation for that eventthat it was brought on by sinis either not compelling or is being rejected; and (2) that the sages were profoundly perplexed by this and related events and yet could not or would not account for it through appeal to either human sinfulness or divine capriciousness. Their faith in divine providence required that they not abandon trust in God, but just how his will and presence was to be deciphered seemed increasingly uncertain; hence the appeal to hester panim.

In applying the doctrine of hester panim to the Holocaust, modern theologians are attempting to vindicate Israel, to remove God as the direct cause of the evil by suggesting that evil is something humans do to other humans, and to affirm the reality and even the saving nature of the divine despite empirical evidence to the contrary. Hester panim is not merely or only the absence of God; rather, it entails a more complex exegesis of divine providence stemming from an analysis of the ontological nature of the divine. God's absence, hester panim, is a necessary, active, condition of his saving mercy; that is, his "hiddenness" is the obverse of his "long-suffering" patience with sinners. In other words, being patient with sinners means allowing sin. "One may call it the divine dilemma that God's Erekh Apayim, his patiently waiting countenance to some is, of necessity, identical with his hester panim, his hiding of the countenance, to others" (Berkovits, 1973, p. 107). Hester panim also is dialectically related to the fundamental character of human freedom without which human would not be human. It should also be recognized that this notion is an affirmation of faith. The lament addressed to God is a sign that God exists and that his manifest presence is still possible. Even more, it proclaims that God in his absence is still, paradoxically, present. It is a sign that one believes that ultimately evil will not triumph, for God will not always "hide his face." For some contemporary Jewish theologians, like Emil L. Fackenheim, Eliezer Berkovits, Irving Greenberg, and Martin Buber, the state of Israel is proof of the vindication of the forces of good over evil, light over darkness.

Martin Buber, in his contemporary idiom, modernized the biblical phrase and spoke of the era, during and after the Holocaust, as a time of "the eclipse of God" (as he titled his book, 1952). This felicitious description represents Buber's wish to continue to affirm the existence of God despite the counterevidence of Auschwitz. Yet this again is an appeal to faith and mystery despite strong evidence to the contrary. Also, this gambit still fails to answer the pressing question: Where was God in the death camps? Given the moral attributes, the qualities of love and concern, that are integral to God's nature, how can one rest in the assertion of his self-willed absence, that is, in passivity, in the face of the murder of a million Jewish children. The solution only produces a larger conundrum.

Mippenei ataʾeinu

In biblical and later Jewish sources the principal though not unique "explanation" for human suffering was sin, as has been seen. There was a balance in the universal order that was inescapable: Good brought forth blessing and sin retribution. Both on the individual and collective level the law of cause and effect, of sin and grief, operated. In the present time it is not surprising that some theologiansparticularly traditional onesand certain rabbinical sages have responded to the tragedy of European Jewry with this classical "answer." Harsh as it is, the argument advanced is that Israel sinned grievously and God, after much patience and hope of return, finally "cut off" the generation of the wicked. The reasoning is expressed in the phrase mippenei ataʾeinu ("because of our sins" are Jews punished). Though the majority of those who have wrestled with the theological implications of the Shoʾah have rejected this line of analysis, an important, if small, segment of the religious community have consistently advanced it.

Two questions immediately arise in pursuing the application of the age-old doctrine to the contemporary tragedy of the Holocaust. The first is: "What kind of God would exact such retribution?" Christian thinkers who "explain" Auschwitz as one of many punishments of a rebellious Israel for the crime of deicide, and Jewish thinkers who pronounce Israel's sinfulness are both obligated to reflect, to be self-conscious, about the implications of their idea of God. Could a God of love, the God of Israel, use a Hitler to annihilate the Jewish people?

Second, what sin could Israel be guilty of to warrant such retribution? Here the explanations vary depending on one's perspective. For some, such as the Satmar rebe Yoʾel Teitelbaum (18881982) and his small circle of Hasidic and extreme right-wing, anti-Zionist followers, the sin that precipitated the Holocaust was Zionism. For in Zionism the Jewish people broke their covenant with God, which demanded that they not try to end their exile and thereby hasten the coming of the Messiah through their own means. In return "we have witnessed the immense manifestation of God's anger [the Holocaust]" (Sefer va-Yoʾel Mosheh, Brooklyn, New York, 5721/1961, p. 5). For others on the right of the religious spectrum the primary crime was not Zionism but Reform Judaism. In this equation the centrality of Germany as the land that gave birth simultaneously to Reform Judaism and Nazism is undeniable proof of their causal connection. (See, for the presentation of this position, Elanan Wasserman, ʿIqvata de-meshihaʾ [In the footsteps of the Messiah], Tel Aviv, 5702/1942, p. 6; ayyim ʿOzer Qanyevsqi, ayyei ʿOlam [Eternal Life], Rishon Le-Zion, 5733/1972.) In a similar, if broader vein, others of this theological predisposition identified Jewish assimilation as the root issue. Again the key role played by Germany is "proof" of the mechanism of cause and effect. Alternatively, in these same very traditional Orthodox circles, Issachar Teichthal saw the negative catalyst not in the Jewish people's Zionist activity but just the reverse, in their passionate commitment to life in exile and their failure to support willingly and freely the sanctified activity of Zionist upbuilding and thereby bring the exile to a close. In his book Em ha-banim semeah (The mother of children is happy), written in Hungary in 1943, Teichthal, writing in the belief that the twin events of the Holocaust and the growth of the Zionist movement marked the beginning of the messianic era, declaimed: "And these [anti-Zionist leaders] have caused even more lamentation; [and because of their opposition] we have arrived at the situation we are in today this abomination in the house of Israelendless trouble and sorrow upon sorrowall because we despised our precious land" (Em ha-banim semeah, Budapest, 5703/1943, p. 17).

The Free Will Defense

Among philosophical reflections concerning theodicy, none has an older or more distinguished lineage than that known as the free will defense. According to this argument human evil is the necessary and ever-present possibility entailed by the reality of human freedom. If human beings are to be capable of acts of authentic morality they must be capable of acts of authentic immorality. Applying this consideration to the events of the Nazi epoch, the Shoʾah becomes a case of the extreme misuse of human freedom. At the same time such a position in no way forces a reconsideration of the cosmological structure in which the anthropological drama unfolds, nor does it call into question God's goodness and solicitude, for it is humanity and not God who perpetrates genocide. God observes these events with his unique divine pathos, but refrains from intercession in order to allow human morality to be substantively real. At the same time that he is long-suffering with evil elements of humanity, his patience results in the suffering of others.

This situation, however, is not ultimate or final in the Jewish context, for there is also the deeply held contention that God must absent himself for humankind to be but must also be present in order that meaninglessness does not ultimately gain final victory. Thus God's presence in history must be sensed as hiddenness, and his anonymity must be understood as the sign of his presence. God reveals his power in history by curbing his might so that humankind too might be powerful. In Israel's experience, as Berkovits declares in making this case, one sees both attributes of God. The continued existence of the Jewish people despite its long record of suffering is the strongest single proof that God does exist despite his concealment. Israel is the witness to God's presence in space and time. Nazism understood this fact, and its slaughter of 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.

This defense has beennot surprisingly, given its historical tenacity and intellectual powerwidely advocated by post-Holocaust thinkers of all shades of theological opinion. The two most notable developments of the theme in the general theological literature are in Berkovits's Faith after the Holocaust and Arthur A. Cohen's The Tremendum.

In trying to estimate the power of the free will argument in the face of Auschwitz, two counterarguments are salient. First, could not God, possessed of omniscience, omnipotence, and absolute goodness, have created a world in which there was human freedom but less evilor even none at all? The sheer gratuitous evil manifest during the Holocaust goes beyond anything that appears logically or metaphysically necessary for the existence of freedom and beyond the bounds of toleration for a just, all-powerful God. Secondly, it might be argued that it would be morally preferable to have a world in which evil did not exist, at least not in the magnitude witnessed during the Shoʾah, even if this meant doing without certain heroic moral attributes or accomplishments. That is to say, for example, though feeding and caring for the sick or hungry is a great virtue it would be far better if there were no sickness or hunger and hence no need for such care. Here it is important to recognize that free will is not, despite a widespread tendency so to understand it, all of one piece. Free will can be limited to apply only in certain, specific circumstances, just as action can be constrained in certain ways. Consider, too, that God could have created a humankind that, while possessing free will, nonetheless also had a proportionately stronger inclination for the good and a correspondingly weaker inclination to evil.

A New Revelation

To this point the first six positions analyzed have all been predicated upon classical Jewish responses to national tragedy. In the last two decades, however, a number of innovative, more radical, responses have been evoked from contemporary post-Holocaust thinkers. The remainder of this article will concentrate on the most important of these explorations, beginning with the contention argued by Emil L. Fackenheim, that the Holocaust represents a new revelation. Rejecting any account that analyzes Auschwitz as a mippenei aaʾeinu event, or, in fact, any notion of an "explanation" for the Holocaust, Fackenheim, employing a Buberian model of dialogical revelation, revelation as the personal encounter of an I with the eternal Thou (God), urges Israel to continue to believe despite the moral outrage of the Shoʾah. God, in this view, is always present in Jewish history, even at Auschwitz. One does not, and cannot, understand what he was doing at Auschwitz, or why he allowed it, but one must insist that he was there. Still more, from the death camps as from Sinai, God commands Israel. The nature of this commanding voice, what Fackenheim has called the "614th Commandment" (there are 613 commandments in traditional Judaism) is: "Jews are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories" (1970, p. 84); that is, Jews are under a sacred obligation to survive; after the death camps Jewish existence itself is a holy act; Jews are under a sacred obligation to remember the martyrs; Jews are, as Jews, forbidden to despair of redemption or to become cynical about the world and humanity, for to submit to cynicism is to abdicate responsibility for the world and to deliver the world into the hands of Nazism and similar potentially evil forces. And above all, Jews are "forbidden to despair of the God of Israel, lest Judaism perish" (ibid.). The voice that speaks from Auschwitz above all demands that Hitler win no posthumous victories, that no Jew do what Hitler could not do. Fackenheim invests the Jewish will for survival with transcendental significance. Precisely because others would eradicate Jews from the earth, Jews are commanded to resist annihila-tion. Paradoxically, Hitler makes Judaism after Auschwitz a necessity.

This interesting, highly influential response to the Shoʾah requires detailed analysis. How do historical events become "revelatory"? And what exactly does Fackenheim mean by the term commandment? In the older, traditional theological vocabulary of Judaism, it meant something God actually "spoke" to the people of Israel. Fackenheim, however, would reject this literal meaning in line with his dialogical premises. It would seem that for him the word has only analogical or metaphorical sense in this case; if so, what urgency and compelling power does it retain? Secondly, should Hitler gain such prominence in Jewish theology, to the extent that Judaism survives primarily in order to spite his dark memory? Raising these two issues only begins to do justice to the richness and ingenuity of Fackenheim's position.

The Covenant Broken: A New Age

A second modern thinker who has urged continued belief in the God of Israel, though on new terms, is Irving Greenberg. For Greenberg all the old truths and certainties have been destroyed by the Holocaust. Any simple faith is now impossible. Greenberg explicates this radical notion in this way. There are three major periods in the covenantal history of Israel. The first is the biblical era. What characterizes this first covenantal stage is the asymmetry of the relationship between God and Israel. The biblical encounter may be a covenant, but it is clearly a covenant in which "God is the initiator, the senior partner, who punishes, rewards and enforces the punishment if the Jews slacken" (Greenberg, 1981, p. 6). This type of relationship culminated in the crisis engendered by the destruction of the First Temple in 587/6 bce. To this tragedy Israel, through the prophets, in keeping with the logic of this position, responded primarily through the doctrine of self-chastisement: The destruction was divine punishment rather than rejection or proof of God's nonexistence.

The second, rabbinic phase in the transformation of the convenant idea is marked by the destruction of the Second Temple. The reaction of the rabbis was to argue that now Jews must take a more equal role in the covenant, becoming true partners with the Almighty. "The manifest divine presence and activity was being reduced but the covenant was actually being renewed" (ibid., p. 7). For the destruction signaled the initiation of an age in which God would be less manifest though still present.

Greenberg believes that a "third great cycle in Jewish history" has come about as a consequence of the Holocaust. The Shoʾah marks a new era in which the Sinaitic covenantal relationship was shattered and thus an unprecedented form of convenantal relationship, if there is to be any covenantal relationship at all, must come into being to take its place. "In retrospect, it is now clear that the divine assignment to the Jews was untenable. After the Holocaust, it is obvious that this role opened the Jews to a total murderous fury from which there was no escape. Morally speaking, then, God can have no claims on the Jews by dint of the Covenant." What this means, Greenberg argues, is that the covenant

can no longer be commanded and subject to a serious external enforcement. It cannot be commanded because morally speakingcovenantally speakingone cannot order another to step forward to die. One can give an order like this to an enemy, but in a moral relationship, I cannot demand giving up one's life. I can ask for it or plead for itbut I cannot order it. (ibid., p. 23)

Out of this complex of considerations, Greenberg pronounces the fateful judgment: The Jewish covenant with God is now voluntary. Jews have, quite miraculously, chosen to continue to retain their Jewish identity and to build a collective Jewish state, the ultimate symbol of Jewish continuity. But these acts are, after Auschwitz, the result of the free choice of the Jewish people. The consequence of this voluntary action transforms the existing covenantal order. First Israel was a junior partner, then an equal partner, and finally, after Auschwitz, it becomes the senior partner, "so in love with the dream of redemption that it volunteered to carry on with its mission" (ibid., p. 25).

In turn, Israel's voluntary acceptance of the covenant and its continued will to survive suggest three corollaries. First, these factors point, if obliquely, to the continued existence of the God of Israel. By creating the state of Israel, by raising Jewish children, Israel shows that "covenantal hope is not in vain" (ibid., pp. 3738). Second, in an age of voluntarism rather than coercion, living as a Jew under the covenant can no longer be interpreted monolithically, that is, only in strict halakhic (traditional rabbinic) fashion. Third, any aspects of religious behavior that demean the image of the divine or of humanity, such as racial prejudice, sexism, and oppression of all sorts, must be purged.

Interpretation of Greenberg's view must turn on the following issues: the correctness of his theological reading of Jewish history, an open and difficult question; the theological meaning and status of key categories such as "covenant," "revelation," "commandment," and the likethat is, on the one hand, whether Greenberg has done justice to the classical meaning of these terms, and, on the other, whether his revised rendering is justifiable and functional; and whether Jews should allow Hitler and the Holocaust such decisive power in determining the inner, authentic nature of Jewish 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 quite dramatically revised, especially in terms of Jewish 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 and the more recent difficulties of theodicy and related metaphysical problems emanating from classical theism arise precisely because of an inadequate description of the Divine, a description that incorrectly ascribes to God attributes of omnipotence and omniscience.

Arthur A. Cohen, in his The Tremendum: A Theological Interpretation of the Holocaust (1981), made a related proposal. Although he draws on the writing of F. W. J. Schelling (17751854) and Franz Rosenzweig (18861929) and on Qabbalah (Jewish mysticism) as his sources, he is no doubt also 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 suggested 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 extent that the activity and nature of the providential God must be reconceptualized. Against the traditional view that asks, given its understanding of God's action in history, how it could 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" (p. 97). That is, "if we begin to see God less as an interferer whose insertion is welcome (when it accords with our needs) and more as the immensity whose reality is our prefiguration we shall have won a sense of God whom we may love and honor, but whom we no longer fear and from whom we no longer demand" (ibid.).

This redescription of God, coupled with a form of the free will defense, made all the more plausible because God is now not a direct causal agent in human affairs, resolves much of the tension created by the tremendum.

This deconstruction of classical theism and its substitution by theological dipolarity fails to deal adequately with the problem of God's attributes. Is God still God if no longer the providential agency in history? Is God still God who lacks the power to enter history vertically to perform the miraculous? Is such a "dipolar" God still the God to whom one prays, the God of salvation? Put the other way round, it certainly does not appear to be the God of the covenant, nor the God of exodus and Sinai, nor yet the God of the prophets and the urban bayit riʾshon ("destruction of the First Temple") and the urban bayit sheni ("destruction of the Second Temple"). These counterevidences suggest that Cohen's God is not the God of the Bible and rabbinic tradition. Hence it is legitimate to ask whether, if Cohen is rightindeed, particularly if Cohen is rightthere is any meaning left in Judaism, in the idea of God in Jewish tradition, or any covenantal role or meaning left to the Jewish people? Cohen's revisionism in this particular area is so radical that it sweeps away the biblical ground of Jewish faith and tradition and allows the biblical evidence to count not at all against his own speculative metaphysical hypotheses.

Secondly, is the dipolar, noninterfering God "whom we no longer fear and from whom we no longer demand" yet worthy of "love and honor?" This God seems closer, say, to Plato's Demiurge or perhaps better still to the God of the deists. What difference in Jewish lives is there between this God and no God at all? What sense is there, given his noninterference, in calling him a God of love and salvation?

Nevertheless, The Tremendum is an important work of Jewish theology that forces scholars to engage in theology as few recent books by Jewish authors have and that is saturated with an intense concern with the people of Israel; it is the product of a deep and broadly educated mind.

God Is Dead

It is natural that many should have responded to the horror of the Holocaust with unbelief. Such skepticism usually takes a nonsystematic, almost intuitive, form: "I can no longer believe." However, one contemporary Jewish theologian, Richard L. Rubenstein, has provided a formally structured "death of God" theology as a response to the Shoʾah.

In Rubenstein's view the only honest response to the death camps is the rejection of God, the statement "God is dead," and the open recognition of the meaninglessness of existence. One's life is neither planned nor purposeful, there is no divine will, and the world does not reflect divine concern. Humankind must now reject its illusions and recognize the existential truth that life is not intrinsically valuable, that the human condition reflects no transcendental purpose, and that history reveals no providence. All theological "rationalizations" of Auschwitz pall before its enormity and, for Rubenstein, the only worthy reaction is the rejection of the entire Jewish theological framework: There is no God and no covenant with Israel. Drawing heavily upon the atheistic existentialists such as Camus, Sartre, and earlier Nietzsche, Rubenstein interprets this to mean that in the face of history's meaninglessness human beings must create and project meaning.

What makes Rubenstein's theology a Jewish theology are the implications he draws from his radical negation with respect to the people of Israel. Rubenstein inverts the ordinary perception and argues that with the death of God, the existence of the community of Israel is all the more important. Now that there is nowhere else to turn for meaning, Jews need each other all the more to create meaning: "It is precisely because human existence is tragic, ultimately hopeless, and without meaning that we treasure our religious community" (1966, p. 68). Though Judaism has to be "demythologized," that is, it has to renounce all normative claims to a unique "chosen" status, at the same time it paradoxically gains heightened importance in the process.

Coupled to this psychoanalytic revisionism in Rubenstein's ontology is a mystical paganism in which the Jew is urged to forgo history and return to the cosmic rhythms of natural existence. The modern Jew is exhorted to recognize the priorities of nature. So, for example, he or she must come to understand that the real meaning of messianism is "the proclamation of the end of history and return to nature and nature's cyclical repetitiveness" (ibid., p. 135). The future and final redemption is not to be the conquest of nature by history, as traditionally conceived in the Jewish tradition, but rather the conquest of history by nature and the return of all things to their primal origins. Humanity has to rediscover the sanctity of its bodily life and reject forever the delusion of overcoming it; humans must submit to and enjoy their physicalitynot try to transform or transcend it. Rubenstein sees the renewal of Zion and the rebuilding of the land with its return to the soil as a harbinger of this return to nature on the part of the Jew who has been removed from the earth (symbolically, from nature) by theology and necessity for almost two thousand years. The return to the land points toward the final escape of the Jew from the negativity of history to the vitality and promise of self-liberation through nature.

Rubenstein's challenging position raises two especially difficult issues. The first has to do with how one evaluates Jewish history as "evidence" for and against the existence of God. It may well be that the radical theologian sees Jewish history too narrowly. He takes the decisive event of Jewish history to be the death camps. Logic and conceptual adequacy require that if one gives negative theological weight to Auschwitz one must give positive theological weight to the re-creation of the Jewish state, an event of equal or greater import in Jewish history. Another issue raised by the question of "evidence" is the adoption by Rubenstein of an empiricist theory of meaning as the measure by which to judge the status of God's existence. History, in its totality, provides evidence both for and against the nonexistence of God on empirical or verificationist groundsthat is, there is both good and bad in history.

Mystery and Silence

In the face of the Holocaust, recourse to the God of mystery and human silence are not unworthy options. However, there are two kinds of silence, two kinds of employment of the idea of a God of mystery. The first is closer to the attitude of the agnostic: "I cannot know." Hence all profound existential and intellectual wrestling with the enormous problems raised by the Shoʾah and with God after the Shoʾah are avoided. The second is the silence and mystery that Job and many of the prophets manifest, to which the Bible points in its recognition of God's elemental otherness. This is the silence that comes after struggling with and reproaching God, after feeling his closeness or his painful absence. This silence, this mystery, is the silence and mystery of seriousness, of that authenticity that will not diminish the tragedy with a too quick answer, yet that, having forced reason to its limits, recognizes the limits of reason. Had Abraham accepted God's judgment at Sodom too quickly, or Job his suffering in a too easy silence, they would have betrayed the majesty and morality of the God in whom they trusted. In the literary responses to Auschwitz by survivors one finds this attitude more commonly than in works of overt theology. It is preeminent, for example, in the novels of Elie Wiesel, André Schwarz-Bart, and Primo Levi and in the poetry of Nelly Sachs. Assuredly, there is great difficulty in ascertaining when thought has reached its limit and silence and mystery become proper, but, at the same time, there is the need to know when to speak in silence.

See Also

Jewish Thought and Philosophy, article on Modern Thought.


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