Holocaust, Shoʾah

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Holocaust, Shoʾah (Heb., ‘calamity’), or Ḥurban (‘destruction’). The systematic destruction of European Jewry, 1933–45. In fact, the systematic extermination of other groups (e.g. homosexuals and gypsies) was also undertaken, but the term most often refers to the endeavour to make Europe ‘Judenrein’, free of Jews. From 1933 until war was declared in 1939, Jews were systematically eliminated from public office, intellectual and cultural life, and citizenship, and, from 1941 onwards, they were subjected to the ‘Final Solution’, systematic destruction in concentration camps (see AUSCHWITZ). It is impossible to know the exact number of Jewish victims of the Holocaust, but losses are estimated at six million. Since 1951, 27 Nisan is kept as a Holocaust Remembrance Day (Heb., Yom ha-Shoʾah) in Israel and the diaspora.

In the Holocaust, all theologians, including Jewish, are confronted with the problem of evil in its most acute form. A range of different responses has been made:

1. The third Ḥurban lies in the same providence of God which allowed the first two (the destructions of the two Temples). I. Maybaum argued that Hitler could even be regarded as God's messiah in the way that Deutero-Isaiah interpreted Cyrus as ‘God's messiah’ (i.e. instrument of God's purpose) during the Exile. For some, this is evidenced in the establishment of the State of Israel.

2. Suffering, even on so immense a scale, is a punishment for sin (a traditional Jewish understanding of suffering): in the words repeated in the liturgy, ‘Because of our sins we were exiled from our land’ (mi-pʾnei ḥata ʾeinu …). On this account, the abandonment of God by so many Jews in the galut (exile from the Holy Land) brought about a just punishment.

3. Rejecting so grotesque a view of God's character, E. Berkowits argued that God nevertheless had to allow the camps: ‘God is mighty, for he shackles his omnipotence and becomes powerless so that history may happen’ (Faith After the Holocaust). He repudiated the Christian fascination with the Holocaust which was turning it into an intellectual game, even introducing university courses on ‘The Holocaust’: ‘After Auschwitz, leave us alone.’ For Berkowits, the Jews have accepted the vocation of exile, in order to bear the pain of freedom on behalf of a world which abuses it, thereby becoming themselves a moral vocation to the world to turn and repent.

God is, but is beyond our understanding, as in the Ein-Sof and Deus absconditus traditions.

4. The presence of God in the Holocaust was affirmed also by E. Fackenheim (e.g. God's Presence in History, 1970) distinguishing between the two formative moments of Israel's origin, the Re(e)d Sea and Sinai, the saving presence and the commanding presence. God's saving presence was wholly absent from the camps, but his commanding presence was there.

This amounts to a 614th commandment (the total in Torah being 613): Thou shalt survive.

5. R. J. Rubenstein has been accused of making that posthumous surrender to Hitler because of his belief that ‘God’ as characterized in the tradition is clearly dead. Yet Rubenstein (e.g. After Auschwitz, 1966) has made a thoroughly religious and Jewish response by suggesting that Judaism is called to a far more radical understanding of its inheritance: it cannot rely on the obviously bankrupt dependence on a God who intervenes when called upon in prayer to do so: in that sense (for Rubenstein, also a cultural sense) God is dead. But the necessity for community is all the more imperative (cf. civil religion), and for that purpose, Jewish rituals, festivals, observances, etc., are vital.

6. Elie Wiesel has offered an equally radical assessment of the Jewish tradition and belief in God. His sequence of three novels, moving from Night, to Dawn to Day (Le Jour, given the Eng. title, The Accident), marks the transition from the God-infused world which Wiesel had known as a child (born in 1928 in a Hungarian shtetl), through the camps (of which Wiesel was a survivor) where the search for God continues, to the world in which that God is dead: it is the transition from a world in which messianic redemption is ‘around the next corner’, to a world in which humans are clearly ‘on their own’. Wiesel sees humanity after the Holocaust thrown into an abyss of non-meaning. Survival now means the forging of a new covenant, no longer between Israel and God, because God has proved to be too unreliable a partner, but between Israel and its memories of suffering and death—of what can happen. Overall, the presence of God to the questioning patriarchs is one of a silent and enigmatic tear. There is a comparable note at the end of A. Schwarz-Bart's novel, The Last of the Just. The Holocaust calls in question the legend that the presence of thirty-six just men will be sufficient to preserve a generation. If the covenant has been broken, it is not by God's people.

While there has been a wide variety of Christian responses, few have taken the measure of the opening words of A. L. and A. R. Eckhardt (Long Night's Journey into Day: A Revised Retrospective on the Holocaust, 1988): ‘No event has made more clear the consequences of ideas than the German Nazi “Final Solution to the Jewish Problem”. There could have been no “Jewish problem” to resolve had not almost two millennia of Christian teaching and preaching created it.’ The absence of God from systematic theology is nowhere more apparent than here.