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Holocaust theology

Judaism, Christianity and Islam traditionally have taught that God is omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing) and omnibenevolent (all good). Yet, these claims are in jarring contrast with the fact that there is much evil in the world. Perhaps the most difficult question that monotheists have confronted is how can we reconcile the existence of this view of God with the existence of evil? Within all the monotheistic faiths many answers have been proposed.

  • God is a righteous judge; people get what they deserve. If someone suffers, that is because they committed a sin that merits such suffering.

  • What we see as evil is not really evil; rather, it is part of a divine design that is actually good. Our limitations prevent us from seeing the big picture.

  • Suffering is educational. It makes us better people.

  • Evil is one way that God tests humanity, to see if we are worthy of His grace.

  • Evil and pain exist in this world only. This world is only a prelude to the afterlife, where no pain will exist.

  • Evil is not real. Rather, it is only a condition of not enough goodness.

  • The existence of evil is necessary for the existence of free will. Without the possibility to choose to do good or evil acts humanity would be nothing but robots.

In light of the magnitude of evil seen in the Holocaust, many people have re-examined the classical views on this subject. How can people still have any kind of faith after the Holocaust? Here are the major responses that Jews have had in response to the Holocaust.

  • No new response is needed. The Holocaust is like all other horrific tragedies. This event merely prompts us again to investigate the issue of why bad things sometimes happen to good people. The Holocaust shouldn't change our theology.

  • Rabbinic Judaism has a doctrine from the books of the prophets called mi-penei hataeinu, "because of our sins we were punished". During biblical times when calamities befell the Jewish people, the Jewish prophets stressed that suffering is a natural result of not following God's law, and prosperity, peace and health are the natural results of following God's law. Therefore, some people in the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish community have taught that the Jewish people in Europe were deeply sinful. In this view, the Holocaust is a just retribution from God.

  • In a very rare view that has not been adopted by any element of the Jewish or Christian community (that I know of), one thinker has proposed that the Holocaust is the ultimate form of vicarious atonement. The Jewish people become in fact the "suffering servant" of Isaiah. The Jewish people collectively suffer for the sins of the world.

  • The Holocaust is an instance of the temporary "Eclipse of God". There are times when God is inexplicably absent from history.

  • If there were a God, He would surely have prevented the Holocaust. Since God did not prevent it, then God never really existed in the first place.

  • "God is dead". If there were a God, He would surely have prevented Auschwitz. Since God did not prevent it, then God has for some reason turned away from the world, and left us to ourselves forever more. God is therefore no longer relevant to humanity.

  • Terrible events such as the Holocaust are the price we have to pay for having free will. In this view, God will not and cannot interfere with history, otherwise our free will would effectively cease to exist. The Holocaust only reflects poorly on humanity, not God.

  • Perhaps the Holocaust is in some way a revelation from God: The event issues a call for Jewish affirmation for survival.

  • The Holocaust is a mystery beyond our comprehension. It may have a meaning or a purpose, but if so this meaning transcends human understanding.

  • God does exist, God is the source of morals, but God is not omnipotent. All of the above arguments are based on the assumption that God is omnipotent, and could have interfered to stop the Holocaust. What if this is not so? In this view, the Holocaust thus only reflects poorly on humanity, not God. This is a view promoted by many liberal theoligians, including Rabbi Harold Kushner.

Table of contents

Jewish theological responses

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish responses

Many within Ultra-Orthodox Judaism blames the Holocaust on Reform Jews, on Conservative Jews, or on Jews who are Zionists. (A very small number of people, statistically insignificant, reverse the issue, and suggest that God sent the Nazis to kill the Jews because the European Jews did not support Zionism enough.) In this Ultra-Orthodox theodicy, the Jews of Europe were sinners who deserved to die, and the actions of God which allowed this were righteous and just.

  • Satmar leader Rabbi Joel Moshe Teitelbaum writes: "Because of our sinfulness we have suffered greatly, suffering as bitter as wormwood, worse than any Israel has know since it became a people...In former times, whenever troubles befell Jacob, the matter was pondered and reasons sought--which sin had brought the troubles about--so that we could make amends and return to the Lord, may He be blessed...But in our generation one need not look far for the sin responsible for our calamity...The heretics have made all kinds of efforts to violate these oaths, to go up by force and to seize sovereignty and freedom by themselves, before the appointed time...[They] have lured the majority of the Jewish people into awful heresy, the like of which as not been seen since the world was created...And so it is no wonder that the Lord has lashed out in anger...And there were also righteous people who perished because of the iniquity of the sinners and corrupters, so great was the [divine] wrath. [Aviezer Ravitzky, Messianism, Zionism and Jewish Religious Radicalism (1996 by The University of Chicago), p. 124.]

  • There were redemptionist Zionists, at the other end of the spectrum, who also saw the Holocaust as a collective punishment for a collective sin: ongoing Jewish unfaithfulness to the Land of Israel. Rabbi Mordecai Atiyah was a leading advocate of this idea. Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook and his disciples, for their part, avoided this harsh position, but they too theologically related the Holocaust to the Jewish recognition of Zion. Kook writes "When the end comes and Israel fails to recognize it, there comes a cruel divine operation that removes [the Jewish people] from its exile. [Aviezer Ravitzky, ibid.]

  • Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, in 1939, stated that the Nazi persecution of the Jews was the the fault of non-Orthodox Jews (Achiezer, volume III, Vilna 1939, in the introduction. This is discussed in "Piety & Power: The World of Jewish Fundamentalism" by Orthodox author David Landau (1993, Hill & Wang).

  • Rabbi Eliahu Dessler had similar views, also discussed in Landau's book.

  • A few Ultra-Orthodox rabbis today warn that a failure to to follow Orthodox interpretations of religious law will cause God to send another Holocaust. Rabbi Eliezer Menahem Schach, a leader of the Lithuanian Yeshivish Orthodoxy in Israel made this claim on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War. He stated that there would be a new Holocaust in punishment for the abandonment of religion and "desecration" of Shabbat in Israel. Those who are loyal to Rabbi Schach gave a reaction to this in Yeted Ne'eman, 18 Tevet 5751 (1 April 1991).

Modern Orthodox Jewish views

Most Modern Orthodox Jews reject the idea that the Holocaust was God's fault. Modern Orthodox rabbis such as Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Norman Lamm, Abraham Besdin, Emanuel Rackman[?], Eliezer Berkovits[?] and others have done writing on this issue; many of their works have been collected in a volume published by the Rabbinical Council of America: "Theological and Halakhic Reflections on the Holocaust" edited by Bernhard H. Rosenberg and Fred Heuman, Ktav/RCA, 1992.

Works of important Jewish theologians

Michael Berenbaum

(to be written.)

Richard Rubinstein

Prof. Rubenstein's original piece on this issue, "After Auschwitz", held that the only intellectually honest response to the Holocaust is the rejection of God, and the recognition that all existence is ultimately meaninglessness. There is no divine plan or purpose, no God that reveals His will to mankind, and God does not care about the world. Man must assert and create his own value in life. This view has been rejected by Jews of all religious denominations, but his works were widely read in the Jewish community in the 1970s.

Since that time Rubinstein has begun to move away from this view; his later works affirm of form of deism in which one may believe that God may exist as the basis for reality. His later works include Kabbalistic notions of then nature of God.

Emil Fackenheim

Fackenheim is known for his understanding that people must look carefully at the Holocaust, and to find within it a new revelation from God. For Fackenheim, the Holocaust was an "epoch-making event". In contrast to Richard Rubenstein's most well-known views, Fackenheim holds that people must still affirm their belief in God and God's continued role in the world. Fackenheim holds that the Holocaust reveals unto us a new Biblical commandment, "We are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories".

Ignaz Maybaum

In a rare view that has not been adopted by any element of the Jewish or Christian community (that I know of), Ignaz Maybaum has proposed that the Holocaust is the ultimate form of vicarious atonement. The Jewish people become in fact the "suffering servant" of Isaiah. The Jewish people suffer for the sins of the world. In his view "In Auschwitz Jews suffered vicarious atonement for the sins of mankind."

Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits

Rabbi Berkovits holds that man's free will depends on God's decision to remain hidden. If God were to reveal himself in history and hold back the hand of tyrants, man's free will would be rendered non-existent.

Rabbis Harold Kushner, Williams Kaufman and Milton Steiberg

Harold Kushner is the author of many books, including the best-selling work on liberal theology, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People"). Rabbi William E. Kaufman[?] is the author of "A Question of Faith" and "The Case for God"; Rabbi Milton Steinberg[?] is the author of "Basic Judaism").

These theologians believe that God is not omnipotent, and thus is not to blame for mankind's abuse of free will. Thus, there is no contradiction between the existence of a good God and the existence of massive evil by part of mankind. This is also the view expressed by some classical Jewish authorities, such as Abraham ibn Daud, Abraham ibn Ezra, and Gersonides in his "The Wars of the Lord,".

Rabbi David Weiss Halivni[?]

(to be written)

Rabbi Irving Greenberg

(to be written)

Works of important Christian theologians (to be written.)

External links

Ultra-Orthodoxy and the Holocaust (http://www.shamash.org/listarchives/mail.liberal-judaism/digests/Volume11/v11n48.archive)

See also: Judaism, Theology, Theodicy



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