Holocaust: Lessons

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Singularity of the Holocaust
Jewish Faith after the Holocaust
Impact of the Holocaust

Singularity of the Holocaust

Look about and see
Is there any agony like mine
Which was dealt out to me
When the Lord afflicted me
(Lamentations 1:12)

The question of the uniqueness of the Holocaust has been raised by those seeking to grapple with its theological implications. For the theologian Richard Rubenstein, the event was shattering, with implications for understanding of God, Israel, and Torah. And while the philosopher Emil *Fackenheim was unwilling to share Rubenstein's conclusions, theological or otherwise, they did fully share the belief that they had lived through an epochal event with the power to shape a new national and religious reality. The event of the Holocaust was so unique that it required a new theology, new perceptions of God and humanity. So too, there were scholars as diverse as Eliezer *Berkovits, who saw the Holocaust as raising issues that only God would resolve, Arthur A. *Cohen, who saw it as the mysterium tremendum, and Irving *Greenberg, who spoke of its revelatory power. Elie *Wiesel, the chronicler of the Holocaust, spoke of Sinai and Auschwitz, the former where all of Israel encountered God and the latter where again all of Israel encountered the anti-God and anti-man and heard the anti-revelation that shatters and that leaves a void. Even the Messianists in late twentieth and early twenty-first-century Judaism, whether in the form of *Chabad or *Gush Emunim, see the destruction of the Holocaust as so extraordinary as to constitute the anguish that precedes the redemption – ḥevlei mashi'aḥ.

Others were more hesitant and sought to downplay the theological significance and deny its uniqueness. In part, they were fearful of its shattering effect, and sought to mitigate it.

The notion of singularity has been part of public discourse in the United States since 1979, when the creation of the President's Commission on the Holocaust, led by Elie Wiesel, raised the question of who the victims of the Holocaust were. Was Jewish fate singular or should the proposed memorial to the Holocaust under federal sponsorship include other groups victimized by the Nazis during World War ii and other genocides that preceded and followed it?

The debate was framed in the question of definition and of numbers. What was the Holocaust? For Wiesel, the Holocaust was the systematic murder of six million Jews – Jews and Jews alone. Simon *Wiesenthal had long been arguing that the definition must be broadened to include the five million non-Jews murdered by the Nazis, among them Soviet prisoners of war, Sinti and Roma (gypsies), German male homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses and political prisoners, and mentally retarded, physically handicapped, and emotionally disturbed Germans who were killed in the so-called euthanasia (t-4) program. The issue was further enjoined when Yehuda *Bauer challenged the definition offered by President Carter, who appointed the commission, which sought to universalize the Holocaust and by inference to dejudaize it. Bauer feared that the memorial as envisaged by the president (not the commission) would commemorate all the victims of the Nazis, Jews and non-Jews alike, and submerge the specific Jewish tragedy in the general sea of atrocities committed by the Nazi regime.

Facing pressure and division in the commission, Wiesel sought a poetic solution. He said, "While not all victims were Jews, all Jews were victims condemned to total annihilation." In the Report to the President of the President's Commission on the Holocaust, he personally made one change to the staff draft, suggesting a new definition: "The state-sponsored systematic destruction of the Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War ii; as night descended millions of others were swept up in its wake."

The definition served to affirm the primacy of Jewish victimization, its centrality in the Nazi plan of annihilation, and preserved in Wiesel's mind the uniqueness of Jewish victimization. The problem was that it was ahistorical, but Wiesel was aiming at a metaphysical understanding of what transpired. The problematic element was that the assault against other groups preceded the murder of the Jews. Concentration camps were created to incarcerate political prisoners; they were only later used in the "Final Solution to the Jewish problem." Gassing was used in the t-4 program, in which both mobile gas vans and stationary gas chambers were employed. Only when the t-4 program was formally halted did the gassing of Jews begin and the staff of the t-4 program, well trained in the art of killing, deployed to murder the Jews. Most Soviet prisoners of war (pows) were killed before the killing of Jews began in earnest. The killing of the pows was halted because of the German need for labor, just as the gassing of Jews began.

Wiesel's definition involved other problems. The number 5 million was created to give primacy to the Jews while including other victims of Nazism. If Wiesenthal intended to speak of non-Jewish civilian casualties, then the number 5 million was too small, and if he intended to refer to those who were killed in the Nazi apparatus of destruction that ensnared the Jews, then the number was too large. Clearly, he too was interested in a goal other than history; his aim was to give governments a stake in the persecution of Nazi war criminals by demonstrating that their people too were killed.

Others who wished to diminish the importance of the Holocaust in order to mitigate its most disturbing implications shared Wiesenthal's view. Thus, Ismar *Schorsch, then chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, wished to avoid the problem of uniqueness altogether. He regarded it as both historically unproductive and politically counterproductive, for it "impedes dialogue and introduces issues that alienate potential allies from among other victims of organized depravity."

Israeli Prime Minister Menahem *Begin (1977–82) wished to abolish a special Yom ha-Shoah and incorporate it into the observance of Tishah be-Av (the Ninth of Av, the traditional Jewish day of sorrow and remembrance) because he wished to de-emphasize the idea of the Jew as victim.

The Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer proposed that the uniqueness of the Holocaust resides in two central elements: the planned total annihilation of an entire community and the quasi-apocalyptic religious component, whereby the death of the Jews became an integral ingredient in the drama of German salvation. "To date," he said, "such an act has only been directed against the Jews."

The problem of how to walk the narrow path of emphasizing the singular fate of the Jews while including all of the Nazis' victims was resolved by turning toward history and away from some of the political, philosophical, and meta-physical questions.

In order to demonstrate the uniqueness of the Holocaust, all the victims of Nazism must be included; only by comparing and contrasting German policies toward each of the victim groups could one come to understand what was singular about the fate of the Jews. Within the Holocaust Memorial Museum, a simple practice is adhered to. All of the Nazis' victims are included and respected. At the center is the murder of European Jews – men, women, and children – killed not for the identity they affirmed or the religion they practiced but because of the "blood" of their grandparents. However, we cannot understand the evolution of either the concept of genocide or the technology that made it possible without addressing the victimization of people other than Jews. How the fate of each group compares and contrasts with the fate of the Jews illustrates what was singular about the Jewish fate. Gypsies were also killed in the Birkenau gas chambers in family units, men, women, and children. Yet their annihilation was not a central focus of Nazi ideology nor viewed as essential to the national salvation of the German people. Inbred, "pure-blooded" gypsies were often spared because they posed no threat to German blood, and in German-occupied territory their murder was not a priority and certainly not an obsession. Without the contrast we cannot understand the full nature of the German commitment to the Final Solution. No such Final Solution was proposed or implemented regarding the Sinti and Roma. Jehovah's Witnesses died as martyrs for their faith. Those who were willing to renounce their faith could leave the camps. Jews were victims, not martyrs. Even those who had embraced another religion, such as Sister Edith Stein, were murdered because of their Jewish blood. Homosexuals were incarcerated for reeducation or for punishment. Once their time was complete, or if they could perform with a woman, they could leave. Soviet prisoners of war who survived their first winter of 1941–42 were then exploited as useful labor rather than being sent to their deaths, or killed by the forced labor itself. For the Germans, the determination to kill all Jews meant that they were unwilling to become dependent on Jewish labor. What was unique about the Jewish fate was the depth of the German determination to kill the Jews; its relationship to German national salvation in Nazi ideology; the relentlessness with which the Germans pursued the killing, even to the detriment of the war effort; and the instrumentalities that were employed, including the death camps, where systematic murder took in a factory-like, assembly-line process.

The decision to include all victim groups while still emphasizing the singularity of the Jewish fate constituted a satisfactory policy at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, as all victim groups felt included and honored and no survivor groups felt that the Holocaust had been dejudaized. This became the norm at Holocaust museums built both in the United States and elsewhere, including Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

Coinciding with the opening of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was the philosopher Steven Katz's attempt to demonstrate the uniqueness of the Holocaust in his major work, The Holocaust in Its Historical Context. Katz placed the Holocaust in the context of the history of mass murder and what others call genocide. He compared the fate of the European Jews with the extermination of Native Americans, their death in large numbers by disease and their confinement to reservations; with the victimization by enslavement of Africans brought to America; with the Armenian genocide of 1915; as well as with the mass murder of other victim groups under Nazism. The murder of the Jews, Katz demonstrates, is unique because:

The murder was the intention of German policy, not an inadvertent outcome of it. Most Native Americans died as a result of their lack of antibodies for diseases that the Europeans brought with them; this was not the goal of those settling the New World.

The murder was total – men, women, and children, all Jewish men, women, and children, everywhere. By contrast, Armenians were killed in the eastern territories of Turkey; those in Istanbul faced persecution, not murder, while German policy toward the gypsies varied from place to place and was inconsistent in its enforcement.

It was an end in itself, the very purpose of German policy, undertaken not for economic or territorial gains.

It was the first priority of German policy.

It was sustained. The policy was implemented over several years, only ending with the defeat of the Reich and the suicide of Hitler.

Katz cautions that he does not wish to compare suffering, to engage in what critics have termed the "Olympics of suffering." Suffering is personal, and to say that I suffer more than you is to exclude you and demean your experience, something Katz does not wish to do: "There is no way to quantify suffering," he says. He also stresses that the case for establishing the uniqueness of the Holocaust is not intended to be either moral or metaphysical. That is, it is not the case that the Holocaust is more evil than certain other events, or that God caused the destruction in some special way or for some particular purpose. Katz's work is controversial because he seems to suggest that the Holocaust is the only genocide, defining genocide by the criteria that he has established for the Holocaust, saying that because there was no mass murder equal to the Holocaust, there was no other genocide.

Some of Katz's critics are infuriated by all arguments of uniqueness, which they regard as belittling the suffering of others, demeaning the experience of others, or perpetuating Jewish particularism. The sociologist John Murray Cuddihy sees this as a masked expression of chosenness. Jews may no longer believe in chosenness by God, but they experienced chosenness by the anti-God and anti-man at Auschwitz. For some defenders of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, the metaphysical question is fundamental. They countenance no comparisons to the Holocaust. Yet comparisons are not equivalences. To compare is also to contrast, to show how things are similar and how they differ.

Recent scholarship on comparative genocide has skirted the issue, seeking to underscore what the cases share in common and not what distinguishes them in an effort to discern what can be done to identify early warning signs of genocide and find the means of prevention. For example, Gregory Stanton has identified eight stages of genocide, each stage representing a potential or actual problem and suggesting a strategy for prevention. They are:

1. Classification (us versus them) 2. Symbolization 3. Dehumanization 4. Organization (hate groups) 5. Polarization 6. Preparation (identification, expropriation, concentration, transportation) 7. Extermination 8. Denial

1. Classification: Stanton writes: "All cultures have categories to distinguish people into 'us and them' by ethnicity, race, religion, or nationality: German and Jew, Hutu and Tutsi. Bipolar societies that lack mixed categories are the most likely to have genocide."

The main preventive measure at this early stage is to develop universalistic institutions that transcend ethnic or racial divisions and preserve the unity of all people. They can be based on ideas as simple as the notion that all are created equal or in the image of God.

2. Symbolization: "We give names or other symbols to the classifications. We name people 'Jews' or 'Gypsies,' or distinguish them by colors or dress; and apply them to members of groups." Classification is universal, not necessarily but potentially genocidal. The danger is intensified when symbolization is combined with hatred. During the Holocaust, the imposition of the yellow star was a pristine example of symbolization. "Wear It with Pride" was designed to combat the negative effects of symbolization, or at least the internalization of the negative symbols by the victim group.

3. Dehumanization: "One group denies the humanity of the other group. Members of it are equated with animals, vermin, insects or diseases." The language of the Nazi universe was a means of dehumanization; so too what Terrence Des Pres, author of The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps, called "excremental assault." When asked, Why did you dehumanize them if you were going to kill them anyway, the Commandant of Treblinka answered, "It made it easier." Dehumanization can be resisted by humanization and by the punishment of hate crimes and atrocities. One of the reasons most often given for rescue was the simple assertion that "he was a fellow human being."

4. Organization: "Genocide is always organized, usually by the state, though sometimes informally." Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg has detailed the German mastery of organization in the destruction of European Jews. Stanton advocates that membership in militias be outlawed, visas denied, and arms embargoes instituted.

5. Polarization: "Extremists drive the groups apart. Hate groups broadcast polarizing propaganda…. Extremist terrorism targets moderates, intimidating and silencing the center." What is required to combat this polarization is protection for the center and the assistance of human rights organizations.

6. Identification: "Victims are identified and separated out because of their ethnic or religious identity. Death lists are drawn up. Members of victim groups are forced to wear identifying symbols. They are often segregated into ghettos, forced into concentration camps, or confined to a famine-struck region and starved." This is a signal of potential genocide.

7. Extermination: Extermination "begins, and quickly becomes the mass killing legally called 'genocide.' It is 'extermination' to the killers because they do not believe their victims to be fully human. When it is sponsored by the state, the armed forces often work with militias to do the killing." It is at this stage that armed forces are needed to combat genocide. Anything less is to enable it to take place.

8. Denial: Denial "always follows a genocide. It is among the surest indicators of further genocidal massacres." Memory, documentation, and legal proceedings are the surest way to combat denial.

The human rights advocate Samantha Parker writes of The Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide. She sees a common thread in inaction and indifference. Others find it fruitful to make comparisons and study differences in order to understand many forms of evil. Thus, Richard Rubenstein contrasts American slavery, in which African slaves were regarded as capital investments by their masters and thus at least minimally given the basic necessities with which to live and permitted – indeed encouraged – to procreate in order to produce additional assets, to the Nazi policy of the annihilation of the Jews, who were literally worked to death and considered a consumable raw material to be expended in the process of manufacture and recycled into the war economy.

These scholars are less concerned with differences than commonality and believe that the argument regarding uniqueness is less than fruitful for the common task of prevention.


S. Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context (1994); A. Rosenbaum, Is the Holocaust Unique? Perspectives on Comparative Genocide (2001); R.L. Rubenstein, The Cunning of History: Mass Death and the American Future (1995); M. Berenbaum, After Tragedy and Triumph: Essays in Modern Jewish Thought and the American Experience (1990).

[Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]

Jewish Faith after the Holocaust


An essential dimension of the manifold experiences of the Jewish people throughout history has been that of personal and communal suffering. Martyrdom "for God's name" (kiddush ha-Shem) and martyrdom because of God's name are familiar features of Israel's enduring struggle to remain true to its faith, its destiny, and its God. As a consequence, Jews of every generation have been living witnesses to man's passionate inhumanity and to the inescapable presence of evil. Against this background and as an integral part of this somber tradition, Jews consoled themselves with many thoughtful reflections and responses, coped with the world's evil, interpreted the hostility and irrationality of their non-Jewish neighbors and, above all, vindicated the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Through these responses the Jews gave expression to their deepest commitments and, more importantly, made it possible for Jews and Judaism to survive by making Jewish history and its inherent tragedy intelligible. All that transpired was given shape and meaning within the accepted parameters of the Jewish tradition.

In the current era the whole of past Jewish tradition and the religious responses it evoked have been called into question. Two events – the Holocaust and the emergence of the state of Israel – have radically altered all that has gone before. These two events have provoked many to ask whether the traditional Jewish reactions to tragedy and evil are still viable options or whether the faith of past generations must, at least, be called into judgment. What were once accepted as authentic postures for the person of faith in the face of calamity are no longer valid – now these postures need to be defended against vigorous charges that they are insensitive, inauthentic, and fail to face facts. More generally, there is a widespread recognition that to live as if unaffected by the cataclysmic and revolutionary import of contemporary Jewish history as worked out in the death camps of Europe and in the birth of the State of Israel is to be insensitive not only to the rhythm of history and to history's martyrs and saints but also, above all, to the God of Israel, who is primarily known and identified in and through that common historical environment in which God and humans meet and that defines both His reality for Jews and Jews' reality for Him.

Everything seems to have been altered by the Holocaust and the inestimable horror that it symbolizes to the survivors – and every Jew in the concreteness of his own life knows him- or herself to be a "survivor." Yet the inescapable irony of contemporary Jewish existence is that the "survivors" of the Holocaust, the heirs of Treblinka and Auschwitz, are also the heirs of the fighters of the Warsaw ghetto and the actual builders of the State of Israel. Jews are what they are because they have inherited and been formed by a unique contemporary experience; they inform the very essence of Jewish history and consciousness, both personal and communal. For Jews to understand themselves requires coming to some understanding of these events and their relationship to them, however fragmentary, limited, or personal this understanding may be.

Those who would enquire what it means to be a Jew today must ask not only, or even primarily, vague and unformed questions about Jewish identity and the relationship of Judaism and modernity and Judaism and secularity, but must articulate the much more precise and focused question through which all other dimensions of Jewish post-Holocaust identity are refracted and defined: "What does it mean to be a Jew after Auschwitz?" Auschwitz has become an inescapable datum for all Jewish accounts of the meaning and nature of the covenantal relation and God's relation to man. Likewise, those who seek substantial answers must also give due weight to the "miracle" that is the State of Israel. They must enquire whether God is speaking to the survivors through it, and if so, how. This means that while they may be awed by the very fact of its existence, they must interrogate the State's philosophical, theological, and, perhaps, messianic, implications. Alternatively, they must also consider the possibility that despite the human and even religious meaning of the return to and rebuilding of Israel, any attempt at theodicy in the face of the full horror of the ḥurban ("destruction") is impermissible; even more, it is blasphemy!

The full depravity of the Holocaust, once exposed in its tragic immensity, left Jewish thinkers numb, at least at first. Moreover, what energies they and world Jewry could marshal were more urgently needed to help the survivors, and in particular, to create a refuge in the State of Israel. The cry of the living demanded precedence over the sacred duty of remembering the dead. Jewish existence, not explanation, was the prerequisite obligation. It was just as well, for the horror and immediacy of it all had been too great to understand, too unbelievable to fashion into any coherent form, too seemingly impossible to allow of any meaning. Still more, who could speak with authority on Auschwitz? Of those who were there, few remained who were able to speak, and then even the survivors knew not what to say. Of those who were not there, could any speak without sacrilege and with justification? Could any even understand the issues involved? And yet, if not to explain but only to remember and to make others remember, Jewish thinkers had to begin to talk about the Holocaust. Once the conversation began it was clear that it could not stop, nor could the issues it forced into prominence be avoided, for what was being called into question was nothing less than the three historic coefficients of traditional Judaism: God, Torah and the people of Israel.

Out of the still nascent and still uncertain conversation on the Holocaust several general responses have emerged. They can be enumerated as follows:

(1) The Holocaust is like all other tragedies and merely raises again the question of theodicy and the problem of evil, but it does not significantly alter the problem or contribute anything new to it.

(2) The classical Jewish theological doctrine of mipenei ḥata'einu ("because of our sins we were punished"), which was evolved in the face of earlier national calamities, can also be applied to the Holocaust. According to this account, Israel was sinful and Auschwitz is her just retribution. This "explanation" has been advanced especially by rabbinic sages and theologians of a more traditional bent. The Ḥasidic (Satmar) Rebbe, Joel Teitlebaum, for example, puts this claim forward clearly and with certitude: "Sin is the cause of all suffering."

(3) The Holocaust is the ultimate in vicarious atonement. Israel is the "suffering servant" of Isaiah (ch. 53ff.) – it suffers and atones for the sins of others. Some die so that others might be cleansed and live.

(4) The Holocaust is a modern Akedah (sacrifice of Isaac) – it is a test of faith.

(5) The Holocaust is an instance of the temporary "eclipse of God" – there are times when God is inexplicably absent from history or unaccountably chooses to turn His face away.

(6) The Holocaust is proof that "God is dead" – if there were a God, He would surely have prevented Auschwitz; if He did not, then He does not exist.

(7) The Holocaust is the maximization of human evil, the price mankind has to pay for human freedom. The Nazis were human beings, not gods; Auschwitz reflects ignominiously on humanity; it does not touch God's existence or perfection.

(8) The Holocaust is revelation: it issues a call for Jewish affirmation. From Auschwitz comes the command: Jews survive!

(9) The Holocaust is an inscrutable mystery; like all of God's ways it transcends human understanding and demands faith and silence.

These nine responses are usually used in various interrelated and interdependent combinations and explanatory accounts by those who try to grapple with the philosophical and theological issues raised by the Holocaust. These complex explanatory models recognize that no single response seems adequate for the variety of challenges and questions raised. Furthermore, it is clear that no one method of dealing with the issues, nor any specific response – no matter how perspicuous and authentic – has become the norm. Out of the ongoing debate, however, a number of thinkers have emerged as of particular importance. Each has his own perspective, arguments and aims, and each uses a provocative configuration of the above outlined responses.

richard rubenstein (1924– )

Richard Rubenstein reflects the times. Coming to the Hebrew Union College (Reform) seminary in 1942 and sharing its optimistic vision of man and its liberal ideal of human progress, he has been converted by the Holocaust to a Jewish "death of God" theology. His sensitivity to the reality of evil embodied by the death camps has forced him to call into question the very foundations of Judaism. "The one preeminent measure of the adequacy of all contemporary Jewish theology," Rubenstein writes, "is the seriousness with which it deals with this supreme problem (the Holocaust) of Jewish history." No one has taken the problem more seriously and no Jewish theologian has drawn more radical conclusions from it.

The theological problem raised by the Nazi extermination of Jews can be simply described: if God is the God of history and Israel is His chosen people, what responsibility does God bear for Auschwitz? Did God use the Nazis, as He used Assyria of old, as "the rod of His anger?" (Isaiah 10:5) If He did not, how could such a thing happen in the face of the living God? It is the ancient problem of evil to which men of faith have responded with countless theodicies; now it is raised with maximum vigor, clarity, and urgency. In Germany, in August 1961, Rubenstein was confronted by a well-meaning anti-Nazi Protestant clergyman, Dean Heinrich Grueber, with the declaration that God had indeed used the Nazis as the instrument of His will. This assertion shocked Rubenstein. It was, he tells us, "a theological point of no return." The consequences seemed clear and Rubenstein felt compelled to reject the presence of God at Auschwitz rather than believe that Hitler was God's instrument: "If I believed in God as the omnipotent author of the historical drama and Israel as His Chosen People, I had to accept Dean Grueber's conclusion that it was God's will that Hitler committed six million Jews to slaughter. I could not possibly believe in such a God nor could I believe in Israel as the chosen people of God after Auschwitz."

Rubenstein was thus driven to the same conclusion as that of the talmudic heretic Elisha ben Avuyah, "Let din ve-let dayyan" (There is neither Judgment nor Judge).

In Rubenstein's view the only honest response to the death camps is the rejection of God and the open recognition of the meaninglessness of existence. Life is neither planned nor purposeful, there is no divine will nor does the world reflect divine concern. The world is indifferent to men. People must now reject their illusions and recognize the existential truth that life is not intrinsically valuable, that the human condition reflects no transcendental purpose, that history reveals no providence. The theological account of Auschwitz that sees it as retribution, that re-echoes one side of the ancient theology of Judaism that Israel's suffering is "because of our sins," is to blaspheme against both God and man. What crime could Israel have committed, what sin could have been so great, as to justify such retribution? What God could have meted out such justice on His chosen ones? All such "rationalizations" of Auschwitz pale before its enormity, and for Rubenstein the only response that is worthy is the rejection of the entire Jewish theological framework: there is no God and no covenant with Israel.

People must turn away from illusions and face their actual existential situation. Drawing heavily upon the atheistic existentialists, Rubenstein interprets this to mean that in the face of the world's nihilism people must assert value; in response to history's meaninglessness people must create and project meaning; against the objective fact that human life has no purpose people must subjectively, yet meaningfully, act as if there were purpose. All that people have are themselves and one another: Auschwitz has taught that life itself is the great value, there is no need to see it as valuable only because of its reflection of transcendental values or metahistorical meanings. What worth there will be, will be of our own creation. This radical thesis is not new, but it is new in a Jewish theological context.

Had Rubenstein merely asserted the denial of God his would not be a Jewish theology. What makes it Jewish are the implications he draws from his radical negation with respect to the people of Israel. It might be expected that the denial of God's covenantal relationship with Israel would entail the end of Judaism and so the end of the Jewish people. From the perspective of traditional Jewish theology, this would certainly be the case. Rubenstein, however, again inverts traditional logic and argues that with the death of God the existence of "peoplehood," of the community of Israel is all the more important. Now that there is nowhere else to turn for meaning, men 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." Though Judaism has to be "demythologized," i.e., it has to renounce its defining historic claim to a unique "chosen" status, at the same time it paradoxically gains heightened importance in the process. Now that God is dead, religious community is all the more important.

It is precisely the ultimate hopelessness and gratuity of our human situation which calls forth our strongest need for religious community. If all we have is one another, then assuredly we need one another more than ever.

The Jew after Auschwitz, despite his having now transcended the mythic structure of historic Jewish experience, is still a Jew and as such carries within him the "shared vicissitudes of history, culture and psychological perspective" that define a Jew. Like all people, Jews are rooted in concrete life situations. For the Jew, Rubenstein argues, only Jewish experience can be authentic. It is in the traditional forms of life that Jews best express all our aspirations and ideals, and participate in a "community of shared predicament and ultimate concern."

Rubenstein sees the renewal of Zion, and the rebuilding of the land with its return to the soil by the Jew, as a harbinger of this return to nature on the part of the Jew who has been removed from the soil (symbolic of nature) by theology and necessity for almost two thousand years. The return to the earth points towards the final escape of the Jew from the negativity of history to the vitality and promise of self-liberation through nature.

Rubenstein puts forward a program for Jewish renewal and spiritual re-integration. Among the aims of this program is the eradication of those elements that create the explosive mix that produces a Holocaust. One of the most significant lessons, to be drawn from the demythologization of Jewish history and its rejection of history in favor of nature, is its overcoming of the root cause of antisemitism. Rubenstein argues that antisemitism is a product of the mythic structures of Jewish and Christian theology. The contributing Jewish myth is its claim to be a "chosen people." This created a "specialness" about Jews, which has been disastrous. The contributing Christian myth was predicated on its acceptance of the antecedent Jewish one – the church accepted the "chosenness of Israel" and was therefore able to see it only in theological terms; paradoxically it saw Israel as providing "both the incarnate Deity and His murderers." The most potent of all Christian myths – the Crucifixion – is indissolubly linked to the deicidal activity of the "chosen people" – the Jews. Wherever the Christian story is retold, a powerful antisemitic seed is planted. In order, therefore, to put an end to antisemitism once and for all, it is necessary for the Jew to renounce his mythic self-image as a "chosen people" so that his relation to his Christian neighbors may be normalized and the Christians will be able to see him in the same light as he sees others. This process needs to be paralleled in Christianity; it too has to correspondingly "demythologize" its image of the Jews. Yet to do this is to its rupture historic incarnational theology and its claims of Jesus as the promised Christ coming out of the body of historic Israel. This is to ask a great deal of Christianity but, Rubenstein argues, unless it occurs there will be future tragedy.

Rubenstein, in After Auschwitz, has given us a powerful image of what it means to draw the extreme conclusion from Auschwitz: "God is dead."

emil fackenheim (1916–2003)

No philosopher or theologian wrote as extensively or as with as much feeling about the Holocaust as did Emil Fackenheim. Having experienced life in a camp – albeit before World War ii, before the Final Solution – Fackenheim, seemingly out of a sense of compulsion, tried to grapple with the overwhelming events of the death camps in order to draw some meaning for post-Holocaust Jewry. In a series of essays, and especially and most clearly in his God's Presence in History (1970), Fackenheim tried to find a way to avoid both the absolute faith of the pious who do not see any special problem in the Holocaust and those like Rubenstein who argue that the only reasonable conclusion to be drawn from Auschwitz is the death of God and the ultimate absurdity of history. If the former alternative blasphemes against Hitler's victims, the latter blasphemes against the God of the victims. Both victims and God have to be held together in dialectical tension after Auschwitz; neither can be devalued without resulting distortion and loss of truth.

To keep God and Israel together is the demand of Jewish theology and it is still an imperative after the Holocaust: the problem is how it is to be effected. If Rubenstein's solution of Jewish communal existence without the God of historic Judaism is no answer, then what is the answer? Fackenheim is adamant in his refusal to allow any theological explanation of the Holocaust. In no sense, he argues, can any particular theodicy be propounded in which God's goodness can be vindicated and Auschwitz seen as part of a rational cosmic pattern whose interpretation can be understood by man. In this sense the Holocaust is devoid of explanation and meaning. Thus, like Rubenstein, he totally rejects any account that interprets Auschwitz in terms of mipenei ḥata'einu – "because of our sins." For Fackenheim, the enormity of the tragedy transcends all the classical explanations of suffering and evil. In his staunch rejection of explanations Fackenheim resembles Rubenstein, and like him he realizes that that which is called into question is nothing less than the God of history Himself.

Yet despite the implications, despite the absolute failure of theodicy, despite the seeming absurdity, Fackenheim calls on Jews to believe. Rubenstein becomes an atheist because he cannot and will not accept God as in any sense the author of Auschwitz. Fackenheim insists that this is what we must do. It is the presence of God in contemporary Jewish history, even at Auschwitz, that Fackenheim would have us find. Fackenheim insists that we do not and cannot understand what God was doing at Auschwitz, nor why He allowed Auschwitz, but we must and do insist that He was there. For Fackenheim, unlike Rubenstein, the Holocaust does not prove that God is dead. Boldly he claims that from Auschwitz as from Sinai God addresses Israel.

How does this voice address Israel and what does it say? In order to fully understand Fackenheim's views, one has to turn away from his direct writings on the Holocaust and come to an understanding of his theological position in general. In his own biographical odyssey he moved slowly but perceptibly from a liberal to a neo-orthodox understanding of Judaism. Caught in and affected by the Nazi onslaught, Fackenheim, like most of his generation, felt the need to reappraise the nature and status of Judaism. In this re-appraisal, the generally held liberal position, with its belief in the perfectability of man, and the translation of the commanding God of the Bible into a moral Ideal, was seen to be untrue to Judaism's deepest insights and superficial in its analysis of the human situation.

Judaism is not Deism or moral Idealism; it has its foundation and its continuance in the meeting with the Living God of the Bible, who is continually present in history. For Fackenheim, Judaism can be understood only as the dynamic response to the present address of the Divine. Fackenheim's espousal of this existential supernaturalism, with its central emphasis on the reality of God and His incursion into history, which calls man to deeds, is deeply indebted to the influence of Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. It was they who had "sought nothing less than a modern presence of the ancient God." In working out the implications of this rediscovered supernaturalism, Fackenheim has been especially influenced by Buber's dialogical philosophy of "I and Thou." Fackenheim accepts the Buberian doctrine of the I-Thou encounter as the proper model for Jewish openness to the reality of the living God. He begins with the presumption that God exists. God cannot be proven but He can (and must) be met. Only from within the circle of faith can one "hear" the Divine and respond. Like Buber, Fackenheim insists that God reveals Himself in history through personal encounters with Jews and Israel. Revelation, understood as the encounter of God and man, happens everywhere and at all times. Yet the experience cannot be verified by any objective criteria, it cannot show itself decisively to those who would not hear the voice. The I-Thou encounter has its own rhythm, and any attempt to force it into improper ("I-It," to use Buber's terminology) categories destroys its character and silences its message. The Fackenheim who hears a "commanding voice from Auschwitz" is the Fackenheim who stands within the covenantal affirmation.

Buber applies his concept of revelation to Israel's history and sees God's address in the overwhelming events of Israel's life. Building upon Buber's view, Fackenheim develops his own account of Jewish history. For him, Jewish history is a series of overwhelming events, but not all the events are of the same character. The most powerful events, such as those connected with the Exodus from Egypt and the giving of the Torah at Sinai, actually created the religious identity of the Jewish people. These creative extraordinary historical happenings Fackenheim calls "root experiences." Root experiences are historical events of such a formative character that they continue to influence all future "presents" of the people and they are of such power that these past events legislate for every future era. In addition, root experiences are public, historical events. They belong to the history of the people and continue to claim the allegiance of the people. Thus, for example, the miracle at the Red Sea is a historical event that is reenacted at every Passover seder and whose power affects each subsequent generation; it continually reveals the saving activity of God to each age. Lastly, and most importantly, root experiences provide the accessibility of divine presence in the here and now; past events are lived through as present reality and thus the Jew is "assured that the saving God of the past saves still."

Not all the great events in Israel's history, however, meet these criteria. There is a second category of events whose function is different. Fackenheim calls these events "epoch-making events." These are events that are not formative; they do not create the essentials of Jewish faith, but rather they are historical experiences that challenge the root experiences through new situations, that test the resiliency and generality of root experiences to answer to new and unprecedented historical conditions and realities. For example, the destruction of the First and Second Temples severely tested whether or not the commanding and saving presence of God could be maintained. The sages of the talmudic era, who lived through the destruction of the Second Temple, and the prophets who lived through the first, were able to respond to these crisis situations with both realism and faith in the root experiences of Israel. Jeremiah sees Nebuchadnezzar as the instrument of God's purpose (Jer. 43:10) and the talmudic sages saw the Second Temple's destruction and subsequent Exile as nothing less than God's own exile with His people, thus allowing for the dispersion and yet holding fast to God's presence in all history at all times and places. And such a God, present in all history, would redeem Israel in the future as He had in the past. This faith was severely tested by experience, but a way – admittedly fragmentary and contradictory – was found to hold both together.

In other times and other places the root experiences have again and again been tested. Indeed the history of Israel in the diaspora from one culture to another, from one era to another, is a series of epochmaking events that try again and again the foundations of Jewish faith in the God of history. Yet, through it all, the midrashic framework has held fast: God and history are not divorced; Israel and God are not torn asunder. Each trial brings new strength and new affirmation of the saving and commanding God first revealed at the Red Sea and Sinai. But what of Auschwitz? Can it, too, be assimilated to the traditional pattern of midrashic response? Is Auschwitz another testing, another epochal event; or more drastically, is it perhaps a root experience that is formative for Jewish faith but in an ultimately negative and destructive sense? Fackenheim argues that Auschwitz is an epochmaking event in Jewish history that calls into question the historical presence of God in a uniquely powerful way. And yet he argues that the Jew must still affirm the continued existence of God in Jewish history – even at Auschwitz – and must reaffirm the present reality of the people's root experience of a commanding God (of Sinai), now commanding Israel from within the Holocaust itself. This radical reply to the unprecedented crisis of faith is Fackenheim's response to Auschwitz. The Jew cannot, dare not, must not, reject God: Auschwitz is revelation. In the gas chambers and crematoria Jews must, do, experience God. Fackenheim dares to make a religious affirmation of what drives others to atheism or silence. Like Job, he gives expression to a great faith: "Though he slay me, yet shall I trust in Him" (Job 13:15).

The commanding Word that Fackenheim hears from Auschwitz is: "Jews are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories"; Jews are under a sacred obligation to survive. After Auschwitz 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 man, for to submit to cynicism is to abdicate responsibility for the world and to deliver the world into the hands of the forces of Auschwitz. And above all, Jews are "forbidden to despair of the God of Israel, lest Judaism perish." Hitler's demonic passion was to eradicate Jews and Judaism from history; for the Jew to despair of the God of Israel as a result of Hitler's monstrous actions would be, ironically, to do Hitler's work and to aid in the accomplishment of his goal. The voice that speaks from Auschwitz above all demands that Hitler win no posthumous victories, that no Jew do what Hitler could not do. The Jewish will for survival is natural enough, but Fackenheim invests it with transcendental significance. Precisely because others would eradicate Jews from the earth, Jews are commanded to resist annihilation. Paradoxically, Hitler makes Judaism after Auschwitz a necessity. To say "no" to Hitler is to say "yes" to the commanding voice of the God of Sinai; to say "no" to the God of Sinai is to say "yes" to Hitler.

From Fackenheim's perspective, every Jew who has remained a Jew since 1945 has responded affirmatively to the commanding voice of Auschwitz.

But the God of biblical faith is not only a commanding God; he is also a saving God. The crossing of the Red Sea is as much a part of Jewish history as is the revelation at Sinai: both are root experiences. Fackenheim is sensitive to this. He has made much of the commanding voice of Auschwitz, but where is the saving God of the Exodus? Without the crossing of the Red Sea there can be no Sinai. Fackenheim knows this. He also knows that to talk of a saving God, no matter how softly, no matter how tentatively, after the Holocaust is problematical when God did not work His salvation there and then. Even to whisper about salvation after Auschwitz is already to speak as a man of faith, not as a seeker, and even then one can only whisper. The continued existence of the people of Israel however, and most specifically, the establishment and maintenance of the State of Israel, forces and encourages Fackenheim to risk speaking of hope and the possibility of redemption. Auschwitz and the State of Israel are inseparably tied together; what the former seems to deny, the latter, at least tentatively, affirms. For Fackenheim, the State of Israel is living testimony to God's continued saving presence in history, and through it the modern Jew witnesses a reaffirmation of the root experience of salvation essential to the survival of Jewish faith.

irving (yitz) greenberg (1933– )

Another contemporary thinker who has urged continued belief in the God of Israel, though on new terms, is Irving (Yitz) Greenberg. For Greenberg, all the old truths and certainties, all the old commitments and obligations, have been destroyed by the Holocaust. Moreover, any simple faith is now impossible. The Holocaust ends the old era of Jewish covenantal existence and ushers in a new and different one. Greenberg explains his radical view in this way. There are three major periods in the covenantal history of Israel. The first is the biblical era. What characterizes this first 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." This type of understanding of the relationship between God and Israel is evidenced in the crisis engendered by the destruction of Solomon's Temple in 586 b.c.e. To this tragedy Israel, through the biblical prophets, and in keeping with the "logic" of this position, responded primarily by falling back on the doctrine of self-chastisement: the destruction of the Temple and the consequent exile of the nation were divine punishments for Israel's sinful ways.

The second phase in the transformation of the covenant idea is marked by the destruction of the Second Temple by Rome in 70 c.e. The meaning adduced from this event by the rabbinical sages of the era was that now Jews must take a more equal role in the covenant and become true partners with the Almighty. "The manifest divine presence and activity was being reduced, but the covenant was actually being renewed." The destruction of 70 c.e. signaled the initiation of an age in which God would be less manifest though still present.

This brings us to what is decisive and radical in Greenberg's ruminations, what he has termed (in his book of the same title) the "Third Great Cycle in Jewish History," which has come about as a consequence of the Holocaust. The Shoah marks a new era in which the Sinaitic covenantal relationship has been shattered and thus a new and unprecedented form of covenantal relationship – if there is to be any covenantal relationship at all – must now 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 speaking – covenantally speaking – one 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 the giving up of one's life. I can ask for it or plead for it – but I cannot order it."

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 live Jewish lives and collectively to build a Jewish state, the ultimate symbol of Jewish continuity, but these acts are, after Auschwitz, the result of the free choice of the Jewish people. "I submit," writes Greenberg, "that the covenant was broken. God was in no position to command anymore, but the Jewish people was so in love with the dream of redemption that it volunteered to carry on with its mission." The consequence of this voluntary action transforms the existing covenantal order. First Israel was a junior partner, then an equal partner. Finally, after Auschwitz, it becomes "the senior partner in action."

In turn, Israel's voluntary acceptance of the covenant and continued will to survive suggest three corollaries. First, it points, if obliquely, to the continued existence of the God of Israel. By creating the State of Israel, by having Jewish children, the Jewish people show that "covenantal hope is not in vain." Second, and very important, in an age of voluntarism rather than coercion, living Jewishly under the covenant can no longer be interpreted monolithically, i.e., only in strict halachic (traditional rabbinic) fashion. Third, any aspect of religious behavior that demeans the image of the divine or of people, for example prejudice, sexism, and oppression of all sorts, must be purged.

arthur a. cohen (1928–1986), hans jonas (1903–1993), and melissa raphael

An influential school known as "process theology" in modern theological circles, inspired by the work of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, has argued that the classical understanding of God has to be dramatically revised – not least in terms of our conception of His power and direct, causal, involvement in human affairs – if we are to construct a coherent theological position. According to those who advance this thesis, including a number of contemporary Jewish theologians, God certainly exists but the old-new difficulties raised by the problem of theodicy for classical theistic positions arise precisely because of an inadequate "description" of the Divine, i.e., one that misascribes to Him attributes of omnipotence and omniscience that He does not possess.

The best known Jewish theologian to adopt this positionis Arthur A. Cohen, who, in his The Tremendum: A Theological Interpretation of the Holocaust, has advanced the fullest, most detailed version of this redefinitional strategy as the appropriate way to respond to the theological challenges posed by the Holocaust. After arguing for the enormity of the Shoah, i.e., its uniqueness and its transcendence of any "meaning," Cohen suggested that the way out of the theological dilemma posed by the death camps for classical Jewish thought is to rethink whether "national catastrophes are compatible with our traditional notions of a beneficent and providential God."

For Cohen the answer is that they are not. Against the traditional view that asks, given its understanding of God's action in history, "How could it 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." This means that, "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." This new description of God, which denies that God is a direct causal agent in human affairs, coupled with a form of the "free will defense," appears to resolve much of the theological tension created by the Tremendum (though it also creates new theological problems in place of older ones).

A second Jewish thinker of prominence to advocate a theological redefinition of the concept of God is Hans Jonas. In contradistinction to classical theological claims that the Divine is perfect and unchanging, Jonas emphasizes both that God suffers along with humankind and that through His relation with men and women He "becomes." That is, "The relation of God to the world from the moment of creation, and certainly from the creation of human beings onward, involves suffering on the part of God." And, at the same time, "God emerges in time instead of possessing a completed being that remains identical with itself throughout eternity." God has been altered by – "temporalized" by – His relationship with others and, in the process, has become open to human suffering that causes Him to suffer and to care. Moreover, insofar as God is not omnipotent, Jonas contends in The Concept of God after Auschwitz that human action is required to perfect the world. "God has no more to give: It is man's now to give to him." A third redefinition of God has been advanced by Melissa Raphael. In an intriguing argument, Raphael suggests that during and after the Holocaust the correct way to decipher the action of the Divine is through the model of "God as Mother" rather than through the inherited traditional idea of "God as Father." The patriarchal notion of God as almighty and omniscient is simply incompatible with what happened in the death camps. Yet, faced with this jarring fact one need not give up belief in God altogether. Rather, one should refashion one's understanding of God in the image of a caring, suffering, loving – but not omnipotent – mother. Calling into use the traditional rabbinic notion of God's presence in the world as being associated with feminine attributes – known among the rabbis and Jewish mystics as the Shekhinah – Raphael advances the proposal that we should continue to believe in a God who "all the while secretly sustains the world by Her care," as she states in The Female Face of God in Auschwitz.

ignaz maybaum (1897–1976)

Ignaz Maybaum, a distinguished Reform rabbi of German origin, long resident in England, seeks the meaning of the Holocaust from within the traditional Jewish responses to suffering. For him, unlike Rubenstein or Fackenheim, Auschwitz is not a unique event in Jewish history but a reappearance of a classic and sanctified event. A disciple of Franz *Rosenzweig, Maybaum affirms the dynamic relationship of God and Israel. He believes in the reality of the transcendent God of the Bible and the movement of this God into covenantal relation with Israel. Israel is unique among the nations and its history bears witness to its uniqueness. Its historical experience bears witness to its God and His purpose and reveals a pattern into which the Holocaust fits.

The pattern of Jewish history is one in which Israel's role is to be a nation among other nations and in which it is non-Jews who are the prime movers of events. Israel's destiny is not isolated from its historical interdependence with the nations of the world and its covenantal purpose is only revealed in and through this intercourse. From its very beginnings in the Exodus-Sinai events, Israel's history is played out in relation to other peoples, first Egypt, then later Assyria, Babylonia, Rome, the empires of Christendom, and Islam. Therefore the categories of Jewish history have to be categories intelligible to non-Jews. Emil Fackenheim introduces two categories to explain the structure of Jewish historic experience, "root experiences" and "epochmaking events," in the latter of which he places such events as the destruction of the First and Second Temples. Maybaum, conscious of Israel's relation to the gentiles, goes one step further in his analysis of Jewish history. He subdivides what Fackenheim calls "epochmaking events" into two classes, that of ḥurban and that of gezerah. Ḥurban ("destruction") are events, like the destruction of the First and Second Temples, which "make an end to an old era and create a new era." Gezerah ("evil decree"; plural gezerot) are those events, such as the expulsion from Spain in 1492 and the Chmielnicki massacres in seventeenth-century Poland, which, although cataclysmic, do not usher in a new era. According to this classification, Maybaum sees the Holocaust as a ḥurban, i.e., an event that signals the end of one era and the beginning of another in Jewish and world history. Moreover a gezerah can be averted. As has been said for generations on the Day of Atonement: Teshuvah u-Tefillah u-Ẓedakah ma'avirin et ro'a ha-gezerah ("penitence, prayer, and charity avert the evil decree"). A ḥurban, however, cannot be averted; its meaning goes beyond the parameters of Israel's own history, affects world history, and most importantly, is an intervention of God in history, which is irreversible.

Maybaum goes further still in explicating the meaning of ḥurbanḥurban implies progress. There is positive value in destruction. Auschwitz as ḥurban has world historical significance in humanity's striving for advancement. In Jewish history the term ḥurban has been applied twice previously, the first time to the destruction of Solomon's Temple (586 b.c.e.) and then again to the destruction of the Second Temple (70 c.e.). In each case Maybaum sees the advancement of humanity as a result of the catastrophe. The first destruction created the Jewish diaspora, and through the diaspora Judaism went out among the other nations to spread God's word and do God's work: this was progress. The destruction of the Second Temple saw the establishment of the synagogue, and in the synagogue the world saw a form of religious piety in which no sacrifices were performed, no blood was shed, and religious life was "elevated" to a higher spiritual level than hitherto. The Holocaust is the third ḥurban and, like the earlier two, Maybaum sees it as helping in human advancement: it is the medium of spiritual development.

To understand Maybaum's view, one added feature of his perspective needs sharper focus. The historical inter-relation of Israel among the nations, in which the prime movers of the historical order are the non-Jews, requires that Judaism conform to non-Jewish motifs in order to make its presence felt as God's agent among the gentiles. With a profound insight into the relative worldviews of Judaism and Christianity, Maybaum argues that for Judaism the central motif is the Akedah (the sacrifice of Isaac [Gen. 22]), whereas for Christianity the central motif is the enormously powerful image of the Crucifixion. The Akedah is a sacrifice that never happened. Isaac can grow to maturity, marry, have children, die normally. According to Maybaum there is no heroic tragedy in the Akedah; its message is that there can be progress without martyrdom and without death. Alternatively, the Crucifixion is a sacrifice that did happen. Jesus' life is foreshortened, he cannot marry, have children, die normally. Here is the stuff of heroic tragedy. Its message is that martyrdom is required that others may live, vicarious death is needed so that the world may go forward. "The cross contradicts the Akedah: Isaac is sacrificed." As Maybaum understands it, the message of the Crucifixion is: "somebody had to die that others may live." With the Crucifixion as its model of divine activity in history the Christian world is unable to grasp the higher religious meaning of the Akedah. Tragic as this may be, for Judaism to speak to Christians it must speak in a language they understand – the language of the cross. Thus the modern Jew collectively, as the single Jew of two millennia ago, must mount the cross (undergo persecution, suffering and death) in order to arouse the conscience of the gentile world.

So powerful is the hold of the image of the Crucifixion on Western consciousness that progress can be made only when framed in terms that can be assimilated to this pattern. The third ḥurban (the Holocaust), like the earlier two, is a divine event that is meant to bring about humanity's advancement. It is framed in the shape of Auschwitz, an overwhelming reliving by the entire Jewish people of the Crucifixion of one Jew, in order that it might be able to address the deepest sensitivities of modern Christian civilization: "In Auschwitz Jews suffered vicarious atonement for the sins of mankind." Pushing this interpretation of Jewish history to the utmost, 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.

Crucially important to Maybaum's entire schemata is his contention that ḥurban means both destruction and progress. What progress then comes through Auschwitz? Since Nazism, has civilization not seen the Congo, Biafra, Vietnam, Cambodia, Rwanda and other such slaughters? Has the state of Israel not been involved in wars? Maybaum's conception of progress very much reflects his perspective as a Reform Jew. He is aware that Hitler's defeat was not the defeat of all evil, but he does see the destruction of Nazism as the final destruction of the remnants of the medieval period in human history. Though the medieval period seems to have been long transcended as an historical epoch, Maybaum sees Nazism as the final manifestation of the medieval world view, and the cataclysmic event of the Holocaust – ḥurban – as the means whereby the world moved with finality from medievalism to modernity. This movement from past to present is symbolized in the destruction of East European Jewry, for it was they who still lived according to the pattern of medieval Jewry, i.e., centered in ghettos, cut off from their neighbors, focusing all activity within a strict halakhic framework. Their destruction in the Holocaust represents the passing of the medieval historic time that generated this pattern of Jewish existence. As a Reform Jew who still shares the optimistic vision of classical Reform, and its unflattering opinion of traditional Jewish observance, Maybaum is able to interpret the end of the shtetl and the destruction of East European Jewry, even if by means of a Hitler, as progress. After Auschwitz, world Jewry lives almost exclusively in modern Western cultures – America, Israel, Western Europe, and Russia – to Maybaum, this is progress. In these cultures the Jew is free from the halakhah, and free to engage the possibilities open to him through Enlightenment and political emancipation. Repeating the humanistic version of messianism espoused by classical Reform, with its belief in progress and humanity's perfectibility, Maybaum invests the post-Holocaust era with at least the veneer of messianic redemption: "The Jewish people is, here and now, mankind at its goal. We have arrived. We are the first fruits of God's harvest." One cannot but hear in Maybaum's enthusiasm for the post-Holocaust era an echo of the hope that nineteenth-century Reform Jews expressed as the original promise of emancipation – despite what separates him from them.

In the Christian world, the transcendence of medievalism is manifested in the new ecumenicism of the Catholic Church, most clearly expressed in the spirit of Vatican ii, which recognized the spiritual legitimacy of other religious traditions and removed from its liturgy and teaching such "medieval" elements as the "perfidiis Judaeis" ("perfidious Jew") phrase from its Easter rite. As the playwright Rolf Hochhuth, in his play The Deputy, noted: "The ss were the Dominicans of the technical age," and the Fuehrer principle was a Nazi version of papal infallibility; indeed, the entire tragedy of the Holocaust was the medieval Inquisition repeated in modern dress. All these are elements of a best-forgotten Middle Ages. After Auschwitz, both Jew and Christian can go beyond the historic postures of their medieval period through progressive reform more suitable to a post-Holocaust future. Auschwitz makes possible the transcendence of the medieval church and the medieval ghetto.

Maybaum, like Rubenstein and Fackenheim, is sensitive to the essential issue of God's presence in history as raised by the Holocaust. Like Fackenheim, Maybaum is a man of faith, but more than Fackenheim and more than almost all other Jewish thinkers, he is willing to draw the conclusion that others will not: Hitler is God's agent. Maybaum follows the logic of his commitment to God's presence in history further and more radically than do the others. Outrageous as this entailment appears, to credit God with being the all-powerful God of history seems logically to require seeing God as the agent behind Auschwitz, who works His will through Auschwitz. Though others who would find God in history, even at Auschwitz, recoil from this final attribution, Maybaum does not. As the prophet Jeremiah saw Nebuchadnezzar, the destroyer of Jerusalem, as the "servant of God," so Maybaum consciously parallels Jeremiah's phrase and gives expression to the awful paradox: "Hitler, My servant!" Maybaum does not shy away from the full meaning of this expression: "Hitler was an instrument… God used this instrument to cleanse, to purify, to punish a sinful world; the six million Jews, they died an innocent death; they died because of the sins of others."

Calling upon Isaiah's image of "the remnant, which will return," the she'ar yashuv, Maybaum affirms that though one third of world Jewry was destroyed in the death camps, two thirds survived, and this salvation is a miracle no less great than that at the Red Sea; it too is redemption. Maybaum here sees the picture in a more traditional way and calls for us to do the same. We should look at the salvation of the majority, not the death of a large and sacred minority, and we should see in and through the Nazi Holocaust the saving face of God and none other, he declares in The Face of God after Auschwitz.

eliezer berkovits (1908–1992)

Eliezer Berkovits, a keen student of contemporary Jewish philosophy, made a special contribution to the creative discussion of the nature and purpose of the halakhah in modern Orthodox Judaism. In his work Faith after the Holocaust (1973) he gives a more traditional response to the Holocaust than any of the other thinkers discussed previously and highlights important elements in any response to Auschwitz.

Berkovits begins by calling attention to the history of Christian antisemitism, which cannot be forgotten or undervalued in any account of Nazi antisemitism. He sees this as perhaps the most difficult issue to face after the Holocaust. Berkovits does not avoid or deflect this issue; he makes clear his belief that it must be faced if Jews and Christians are to understand the past and prevent repetitions of disastrous episodes like the Holocaust.

Having made clear the historical antisemitic background to Auschwitz, Berkovits, a learned rabbinic scholar, explores, as did Fackenheim in his God's Presence in History, the various traditional historical responses to suffering in the Jewish tradition to see what, if anything, can be usefully applied to the problem of the death camps. The first response, and the most important in historical terms, is that known as kiddush ha-Shem – death for "the sanctification of the Divine Name," i.e., death that honors rather than dishonors God and bears witness to His truth. In religious circles, this has always been the most frequently given answer to Jewish martyrdom: martyrdom is the ultimate act of resignation and trust in God, a testing and a response of faithfulness, the climactic act of religious heroism. During the Holocaust there were many who were unable to face the horror of their existence and their end with faith, yet there were many others who, like Rabbi Akiva of old, went to their deaths in joy that they could give their life for God. One example: the Ostrovzer Rebbe, Rabbi Yehezkiel ha-Levi Hastuk, went out to meet his Nazi executioners wearing his tallit and kittel, and before he was shot, he announced: "For some time now I have anticipated this zekhut ("special merit") (of kiddush ha-Shem). I am prepared." Berkovits knows that such acts do not prove anything conclusive about the ultimate questions of Auschwitz, but he asks that in all discussions of the Holocaust this too be considered. Berkovits pointedly asks the valid question: If Nazi barbarism speaks for the absence of God, what is to be said about the piety, moral grandeur, and saintliness of many of the victims?

Berkovits' account proceeds from this point as if he, at least, is satisfied that there is more to the issue of faith after the Holocaust than Richard Rubenstein is aware of. He argues that what is required above all else is to provide an adequate Jewish understanding of Jewish history and religion so that the events of contemporary history can be properly appraised. Only against such a background can one even begin to argue about the theological relevance of the Holocaust. Critical of many other recent attempts to deal with the "data" of the Holocaust, Berkovits argues that these other attempts "suffer from one serious shortcoming: they deal with the Holocaust in isolation, as if there had been nothing else in Jewish history but this Holocaust." This theme re-appears throughout Berkovits' treatment, not only as critique but as grounds for positive affirmation.

On the basis of this, Berkovits makes the important declaration, which in one sense at least puts him close to Maybaum, that in the framework of world Jewish history the Holocaust is unique in the magnitude of its horror but not in the problem it presents to religious faith. "From the point of view of the problem, we have had innumerable Auschwitzes." With this declaration Berkovits states the basic presupposition of his entire response to the Holocaust, for in declaring that it is not unique as a problem for faith he radically dissociates himself from both Fackenheim and Rubenstein, who rest their entire positions on the Holocaust's uniqueness, thereby forcing Judaism into new and unprecedented responses. If Auschwitz is only the repetition of an ancient pattern then the entire nature of the problem of response to the Holocaust takes on a different dimension. The theological problem, as Berkovits sees it, is the same whether one Jew is slaughtered or six million. Each raises the question: How could God let it happen? How does this square with God's providential presence and moral perfection?

If, then, the problem is not unique, what have other generations of Jews, after previous Holocausts, made of Jewish martyrdom? Berkovits rejects outright, as do all the other major Jewish thinkers who deal with the Holocaust, the simplistic response that the death camps are mi-penei ḥata'einu ("because of our sins"). He acknowledges that the Holocaust was "an injustice absolute." Moreover, with great honesty he adds, "It was an injustice countenanced by God." Yet Berkovits' concern is to make room for Auschwitz in the Divine scheme despite the fact that it is an unmitigated moral outrage. He calls attention to a more significant and sophisticated response to evil already stated in the Bible, the notion of hester panim ("the hiding face of God"). Hester panim is the view that at times God, mysteriously and inexplicably and without any obvious human cause such as sin, turns His face away from man. In response to martyrdom, previous generations have had those who answered the problem of evil with nonbelief. Judaism as a whole, however, has rejected the skeptical response and formulated the doctrine of hester panim in order to hold onto God's presence despite His hiddenness. In some mysterious way, God's hiddenness and God's redemptiveness are both seen as necessary features of His unfathomable being.

Moreover, Berkovits argues that God's hiddenness is actually required for man to be a moral creature. God's hiddenness creates the possibility for human action. God allows man freedom by "absenting" Himself from history. Thus man can exercise his moral will, he can become good or evil. For good and evil to be real possibilities God has to respect man's decisions and be bound by them. God has to abstain from reacting to human moral evil if human action is to possess value. Moral humanity requires freedom, and freedom is always open to abuse. Berkovits here applies the classic view of the necessity of free will to morality. God is long-suffering with an evil humanity, even though this results in suffering for some, while God waits for the sinners. Thus "while He shows forbearance with the wicked, he must turn a deaf ear to the anguished cries of the violated." The paradoxical implication of this situation is this: humanity is impossible if God is strictly just; if God is loving beyond the requirements of strict justice there must be human suffering and evil. For Berkovits this is the correct way to view the problem of theodicy in order to be able to continue to believe despite Auschwitz.

The only enduring witness to God's ultimate power over history is the history and fate of the Jewish people where, according to Berkovits, one sees both attributes of God. The continued existence of Israel despite its long history of suffering is the greatest single proof that God is present in history despite His hiddenness. The Jewish people is the witness to God's presence in history. Nazism, in its satanic power, understood this fact of Jewish history and its slaughter of Jews was an attempt to slaughter the God of history. The Nazis understood, even as Jews sometimes fail to understand, that God's presence in history is necessarily linked to the fate of the Jewish people. The nature of Jewish existence stands as prophetic testimony against the moral degeneracy of men and nations; it is a mocking proclamation in the face of all human idolatry, and it witnesses to the final judgment and redemption of history by a moral God.

Berkovits forces his readers to consider whether the Holocaust is a sign of the "death of God" or whether it is a sign of God's too great mercy and long suffering with sinners. Berkovits' argument requires that we take another studied look at Jewish history and see the Holocaust in, and as part of, the long context of Jewish historical experience. Jews are forbidden to treat Auschwitz as if it were all they knew of God's relationship to Israel. Auschwitz is not the only, or even the ultimate Jewish experience. The Jew who today witnesses the absence of God is the descendant of those who at Sinai and the Red Sea directly encountered the Divine. More important still, the Jew who today talks of Auschwitz also knows the joy of a rebuilt Zion and an "ingathering of the exiles" in their ancient homeland. Jewish survival after Auschwitz proclaims that Auschwitz is not absolute. The final element in Berkovits' analysis of contemporary Jewish faith after the Holocaust is his passionate Zionism. Of all the thinkers discussed, Berkovits is the one most committed to Zionism and who draws most heavily on the theological implications of the "rebirth" of the State of Israel. Rubenstein, Fackenheim, and Maybaum certainly value it, and indeed Fackenheim had before his death become increasingly ardent in his attitude towards Zionism, yet it is Berkovits above all others who gives it a theological significance and pride of place in the possibility of the renewal of Jewish faith after Auschwitz. The rebirth of the State of Israel is contemporary revelation; it is the voice of God speaking forth from history. The events of 1967 especially have an "inescapable revelation quality." The return to the land must be understood in both historical and eschatological terms. "The return is the counterpart in history to the resolution in faith that this world is to be established as the Kingdom of God." The return to Zion is the ultimate vindication of God's presence in history and His providential governance of man and the world. If at Auschwitz and all previous Auschwitzes we have witnessed "the hiding face of God," in the rebirth of the State of Israel and its success "we have seen a smile on the face of God. It is enough."

emmanuel levinas (1906–1995) and amos funkenstein (1937–1995)

Two additional thinkers of note, Emmanuel Levinas and Amos Funkenstein, both reject, in different ways and for different metaphysical reasons, the classical theologies and theodicies that would defend God and His justice despite the gas chambers and crematoria. And both urge that rather than upholding theological doctrines that have been rendered "indefensible" by the Holocaust – that is, in the presence of what Levinas, in a telling phrase, describes as "useless suffering" – the primary, absolute, need of the post-Holocaust era is the defense of the ethical obligation that human beings owe to one another. As Levinas explains in The Levinas Reader, edited by Sean Hand (1989):

The suffering for the useless suffering of the other person, the just suffering in me for the unjustifiable suffering of the Other, opens upon the suffering the ethical perspective of the interhuman…. It is this attention to the Other which, across the cruelties of our century – despite these cruelties, because of these cruelties – can be affirmed as the very bond of human subjectivity, even to the point of being raised to a supreme ethical principle – the only one which it is not possible to contest – a principle which can go so far as to command the hopes and practical discipline of vast human groups.

While not denying the existence of God, Levinas stresses the obligations that one human being has a priori to another, simply by virtue of being human. Whether one is a theist or not, the fundamental human requirement after Auschwitz is caring for the Other.

Likewise Amos Funkenstein, in his essay "Theological Interpretation of the Holocaust," advances the primacy of the ethical as the appropriate response to the Shoah, while arguing for a more negative theological position that denies the existence of God. He writes: "I argue that the focus on the religious-theological implications of the Holocaust is intrinsically the wrong focus. The question of what [the Holocaust] teaches us about God or any other higher norm and values is insignificant besides the question of what it teaches us about man, his limits, his possibilities, his cruelty, his creativity, and his nobility."

elie wiesel (1928– )

Finally, it needs to be recognized that in the face of the abyss, the devouring of the Jewish people by the dark forces of evil incarnate, some notable thinkers have argued for a theological agnosticism and the endorsement of human silence. There are, however, two kinds of silence, two kinds of employment of the "God of mystery." The first is closer to the attitude of the agnostic: "I cannot know" and hence all profound existential and intellectual wrestling with the enormous problems raised by the Shoah is avoided. The second is the silence and mystery that the Bible points to in its recognition of God's elemental otherness. This is the silence that comes after struggling with God, after reproaching God, after feeling His closeness or His painful absence. This silence, this mystery, does not attempt to diminish the tragedy of Auschwitz or Treblinka by a too-quick, too-gauche, answer, yet, having followed reason to its limits, it recognizes the limits of reason. One finds this attitude more commonly expressed in the literary and personal responses to the death camps by survivors rather than in works of formal theology. For example, it is preeminent in the work of Elie Wiesel (Night, 1960; All Rivers Run to the Sea, 1995, among others). Assuredly there is great difficulty in ascertaining when thought has reached its limit and silence and mystery become the proper position to adopt, but at one and the same time, many would contend that there is the need to know when to speak in silence.


Each of these responses to the Holocaust has seen the relevant events from a different perspective, with different presuppositions and faith commitments. Among the many lessons, two call for a concluding comment. First, there is no simple set of facts that can be easily seized upon and manipulated in order to get a result that is both meaningful and possesses integrity. The "facts" are in large part determined by the presuppositions and methodology one uses: different preconceptions and different beginnings produce very different conclusions. Second, and as a necessary corollary, each response, considered at some length, and others all represent, at best, fragmentary accounts, partial descriptions, and limited and imperfect solutions to the major and most pressing questions raised by the murder of European Jewry. Given the nature of the Holocaust, this is not surprising. Each response, even optimally, can be seen to be only partial and fragmentary in the face of the reality, the quality and the magnitude of evil – evil absolute and unimaginable – in our time.

Therefore, while there may not be a definitive, or even agreed upon, analysis or conclusions, it should not be thought that the investigation of responses to the Holocaust is devoid of importance. By bringing the major elements into sharp focus, and giving shape to these elements, the material has the virtue of guiding and warning future thinkers that the Holocaust – whatever its precise parameters and whatever its meaning is seen to be – will not yield to any conceptual oversimplification. Auschwitz raises the most fundamental and at the same time the most difficult intellectual, phenomenological and existential issues.


R.L. Rubenstein, After Auschwitz (1966); E. Fackenheim, God's Presence in History (1970); I. Greenberg, The Third Great Cycle of Jewish History (1981); E. Wiesel, Night (1960); idem, All Rivers Run to the Sea (1995); A.A. Cohen, The Tremendum (1981); H. Jonas, "Concept of God After Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice," in: A. Rosenberg and G.E. Myers (eds.), Echoes from the Holocaust: Reflections on a Dark Time (1988), 292–305; M. Raphael, The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Feminist Theology of the Holocaust (2003); I. Maybaum, The Face of God after Auschwitz (1965). S. Katz, Post-Holocaust Dialogues: Critical Studies in Modern Jewish Thought (1983); R. Berlasconi and D. Woods, eds., The Provocation of Levinas (1988); A. Funkenstein "Theological Interpretation of the Holocaust," in: Francois Furet (ed.), Unanswered Questions: Nazi Germany and the Genocide of the Jews (1989); E. Berkovits, Faith after the Holocaust (1973).

[Steven T. Katz]

Impact of the Holocaust

The defeat of Nazi Germany left a bitter legacy for Germany. Crimes had been committed by the state in the name of the German people. Much of the German population and all of the German elites – political, cultural, intellectual, social, and religious – had been involved or complicit in Nazi crimes or had been ineffective in opposition to them. In an effort to rehabilitate the good name of the German people, West Germany firmly established a democracy that protected the human rights of all its citizens and made financial reparations to the Jewish people in an agreement passed by the Bundestag (parliament) in 1953. West German political leaders made special efforts to achieve friendly relations with Israel.

In East Germany, the Communist leaders attempted to insulate their population from responsibility for the crimes, portraying themselves as the victims of the Nazis, and Nazism as a manifestation of capitalism. The first gesture of the post-Communist Volkskammer (parliament) of East Germany, however, was an apology to the Jewish people. In its first meeting in the newly renovated Reichstag building in Berlin in 1999, ten years after the country was reunited, the unified German Bundestag voted to erect a Holocaust memorial in Berlin. The first state visitor to the renewed capital was Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Even though the Germans killed many, the Holocaust is primarily associated with the murder of the Jews. Only the Jews were targeted for total annihilation, their elimination central to Hitler's vision of the New Germany. The intensity of the Nazi war against the Jews continued unabated to the very end and even at times took priority over Germany's military efforts.

As for the Christian Churches, the role of the Vatican is contested. The archives of the Vatican for the World War ii period have not been opened to all scholars, so information remains under wraps. Pope Pius xi died before issuing an Encyclical that would have condemned antisemitism forthrightly and would have placed the church against Nazism on religious grounds. It was not issued by his successor, Pius xii, once he assumed the papacy in 1939. The record of Pius xii is ambiguous, and he has both apologists and accusers. The church had officials on the ground throughout Europe so it had information as to the fate of the Jews, but was at best elliptical in its condemnations. Local churches behaved differently. Some local leaders helped Jews, courageously and creatively; most did not. Some were quiescent; others collaborated with the killers. However, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, two popes – John xxiii and John Paul ii – effectuated a dramatic change in Roman Catholic teaching that can be seen as a response to the Holocaust and an attempt to alter the religious teachings that gave rise to antisemitism. The proclamation of the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate, changed Church teaching on the death of Jesus, stressing universal human responsibility rather than the responsibility of Jews. As a result of Vatican ii, convened by John xxiii, Catholic liturgy and even scriptural readings and prayers for Good Friday were changed. Pope John Paul ii, who as a young man in Poland had lived through the Holocaust, apologized for the antisemitism of Christians – but, as his critics are quick to emphasize, not of Christianity – in Jerusalem, at Yad Vashem and the Western Wall. In a world where public gesture and the spoken word go in tandem, his actions were bold and transformative. In the Protestant Churches there have also been significant changes, though clearly less centralized.

The United Nations established the Convention against Genocide in 1948; it defined the crime in the shadow of the Holocaust and outlawed it. At the same time it issued a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Promising steps in the early years of the United Nations have been overshadowed, if not forgotten, in the many wars, occupations, and massive violations of human rights committed by so many countries in the years since then.

In the United States, the record of American indifference and inaction has been used to spur action on behalf of other Jews, Soviet Jews and Ethiopian Jews. The refusal to accept refugees in significant number was instrumental in the rescue of the "boat people" in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It led to a specific exemption in immigration restrictions for Jews and other persecuted religious minorities, to the general restrictions on Iranians entering the United States after the fall of the Shah of Iran. The failure to bomb Auschwitz led to the bombing of Kosovo. It has not spurred action against other genocides, but it has led to reluctance on the part of diplomats worldwide to invoke the word "genocide," because it is assumed that one should act against genocide. But such action is a matter of political will.

The record of the American Jewish community on behalf of Soviet Jewry and Ethiopian Jewry and in support of Israel occurs in the shadow of the Holocaust. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein has said, "The Final Solution may have been unstoppable by American Jewry, but it should have been unbearable for them and it wasn't. That is important, not alone for our understanding of the past, but for our sense of responsibility in the future."

Jewish political activism in the United States, especially from 1967 through the 1990s, can only be understood in the shadow of the Holocaust. "Sacred survival" was the term that the sociologist Jonathan Woocher used to describe the "civil religion" of American Jewry, and Emil Fackenheim wrote of the 614th commandment: "Jews may not grant Hitler a posthumous victory."

As to Israel, the Holocaust goes to the core of national identity. It is reflected in the efforts to rescue Jews before there was a state, in the Declaration of Independence that opened the doors to homeless Jewish refugees, in the Law of Return, in the discourse of soldiers before, during, and after the 1967 Six-Day War, in the pride in Jewish power and the ongoing sense of Jewish vulnerability, in the efforts to commemorate the Shoah and to teach its lessons to the Jewish people.

The Holocaust has come to be viewed as the emblematic manifestation of absolute evil. Its ramifications reaching into the depths of human nature and the power of malevolent social and governmental structures have made it an essential topic of ethical discourse in fields as diverse as law, medicine, religion, government, and the military.

Survivors report they heard a final plea from those who were murdered: "Remember! Do not let the world forget." To this responsibility to those they left behind, survivors have added a plea of their own, "Never again." Never for the Jewish people. Never for any people. Their hope is that remembrance of the Holocaust can prevent its recurrence. In part because of their efforts, interest in the event has increased rather than diminished with the passage of time. More than half a century after the Holocaust, institutions, memorials, and museums continue to be built, and films and educational curricula created to document and teach the Holocaust to future generations.

More than three score years later, the Jewish people has not replenished its numbers and an entire civilization – the Jewish communities of Europe, Ashkenazi and Sephardi – are gone forever. Jewish life has been rebuilt. Jewish learning and living has endured. Jewish creativity has flourished, the state of Israel has been created and with it power, independence, opportunity, and a haven for Jews in need. But the final word of the Holocaust must be loss – absence where presence had been.

[Michael Berenbaum (2nd ed.)]