God and the HolocaustPosted on June 26th, 2012 No comments
The Holocaust poses particular challenges when it comes to theology. For this week’s guest author, Rabbi Phil Cohen, these questions have been on his mind for a long time. – editor Ruth Abusch-Magder
Back in my days in the New York school I gave a presentation on the subject of post-Holocaust theology in Eugene Borowitz’s Jewish thought class. It was 1980, and the subject had been on the table for perhaps a bit more than a decade and a half, with many serious voices weighing in on the subject of God and the Six Million.
My study of the topic brought me to the provisional conclusion that the Shoah was caused by people, that the evil perpetrated by the Nazis and their many fellow travelers in both East and West Europe was just that, evil perpetrated by human beings. My theology, I thought, did not include the question of God’s failure to intervene in the violence, because my image of God did not allow for God to intervene into our affairs at all. God “does” other things, but not that.
But in a low level way the subject persisted to enter my thinking from time to time. Then I read an essay by Michael Wyschogrod in which he said, “There has crept into our consciousness a profound anger at God, and this anger is shared by all Jews even those who will not permit this anger to become conscious.” (Contemporary Jewish Theology: a reader, p.247) I took this anger as being related to the Shoah. So I called Prof. Wyschogrod and inquired of him if a) the statement was directed at the Holocaust, and b) if he still held to the statement. The answer to both was “yes”. “How could a Jew think about the Holocaust and not wonder why the Kodosh Baruch hu didn’t do something?”
His statement and our brief conversation prodded me to think anew about what is at stake with the dilemma of God and the Shoah. If we are to deny God’s ability to redeem in Auschwitz, then the liberation paradigm of the rescue at the Sea, which informs so much of our Jewish religious culture, loses meaning. We lose the dynamism of covenant, which, however interpreted, always entails a mutuality of relationship between God and the Jewish people. We lose chosenness, a idea partnered with covenant, the belief that, somehow, the Jews and God have historically had, one might say, a privileged relationship. But perhaps most was encased in the sentiment voiced by Michael Wyschogrod, that asks how God could have not stopped the brutality.
Now, this is not to say that these historic features of Jewish belief about God ought to be maintained at all costs simply because they have a role in Jewish thought. Indeed, Richard Rubenstein, who is to be credited with bringing this topic to public discussion in 1966 with his famous work After Auschwitz, loudly declared the death of the God of history. On the other hand, the continuity of Jewish theology could be maintained by Yoel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, who blamed Liberal Judaism and Zionism for bringing God’s wrath upon the Jewish People. Similarly, the English Reform Rabbi, Ignaz Maybaum, saw in the Shoah God’s hand bringing the entire world into a new and better phase of human existence through the suffering of the Jews.
I find myself caught on the horns of this dilemma. I cannot for various reasons accept Rubenstein’s blanket declaration, nor can I see a divine purpose, punitive (Teitelbaum) or otherwise (Maybaum), in the Shoah. However, I do like Irving Greenberg’s dialectical thinking that post-Holocaust Jewry’s consciousness sways between two poles. On the one pole rests absolute evil and through it we viscerally experience the absence of the divine. On the other side lies the state of Israel, no compensation for the events of 1933-45, nonetheless an experience of deep meaning for Jewish existence, in which religious people see God’s presence. Negativity and positivity with the Jewish people swinging back and forth between them, occasionally perilously.
And then there’s Wyschogrod’s statement that all Jews bear an anger toward God. I’m less interested in whether the statement is true than that is carries in it some truth: many people knowingly or unknowingly bear an animus toward God. That’s important and interesting enough.
I have no satisfactory conclusion here except to say that just as the Shoah hangs over us in so many other ways, the predicament of God and Auschwitz, for me, will likely never be resolved.
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