come to me sad and leave happy; whereas I . . . I stay with my
sadness, which is like black fire . . Woe to the generation whose
leader I am. . . I prefer a simple Jew who prays with joy to a sage who
studies with sadness."
--The Holy Sage of Lublin
"Nach Auschwitz noch ein Gedicht zu
schreiben ist barbarisch." ("Writing poetry after Auschwitz
"Perennial suffering has as much right
to expression as the tortured have to scream . . . hence it may have been
wrong to say that no poem could be written after Auschwitz."
Jewish responses to the Shaoh, to
the Holocaust, have been understandably multi-faceted:
- "God is dead." If there
were a God, he would surely have prevented the Holocaust. Since God
did not prevent it, then God as traditionally understood either does
not exist or has changed in some way. For some this means that God has
abandoned them, while for others it means God never did exist. Jews
must be in the world for themselves. This may mean a turn to
atheism or perhaps a turn to some more like pantheism. Sherman Wine
holds that no God can possibly exist, while Richard Rubenstein has
come to suggest a kind of neo-paganism as the best alternative.
- "The Eclipse of God."
There are times when God is inexplicably absent from history. Martin
Buber made this phrase famous, suggesting that the 20th century was
passing through a period where God, for reasons unknowable to us,
refused to reveal himself.
- A Distant God. The experience of
the Holocaust calls for Jews to reinterpret their belief in God. God
is obviously not a being who actually interferes with human existence
in any tangible, measurable way. Arthur A. Cohen holds that God is so
transcendent that he cannot be held responsible for the Holocaust.
- A Limited God. God is not
omnipotent. He does not have the power to bring to a halt such things
as the Holocaust. Harold Kushner made this view popular in his book, When
Bad Things Happen to Good People.
- Free Will & God. Terrible
events such as the Holocaust are the price we have to pay for having
free will. God will not and cannot interfere with history, otherwise
our free will would effectively cease to exist. Eliezer Berkovits, for
example, stresses that God is all-powerful but that he curtails his
own freedom to respect human freedom, even with such horrific
- A Suffering God. Borrowing from
Christian reflection on Christ and the passibility of God, Hans Jonas
has suggested that God is limited in power but able to suffer with the
pain of the Jewish people. Others stress the compassion and love of
God, even if not understood in the Holocaust.
- Jewish Survival. The event
issues a call for Jewish affirmation for survival. The rise of the
nation of Israel is one way of reading this revelation. Emil
Fackenheim speaks of the
614th commandment-- ""Jews are
forbidden to give Hitler posthumous victories."
He further states this as Jews are
"commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish;"
"to remember the victims of Auschwitz, lest their memory perish;"
and they are "forbidden to despair of Man, lest they co-operate
in delivering the world to the forces of Auschwitz;" nor "to
despair of the God of Israel, lest Judaism perish."
- Incomprehensible Silence. The
Shoah exceeds human comprehension. It is a so horrific as to strip
away any attempts at explanation. André Neher believes that there can
only be silence after the Holocaust--God's silence and our own.
- A Theodicy of Protest. If the
Holocaust is a mystery, it is nonetheless on the surface a clearly
unjust and wicked horror that God should have prevented. What does
this then reveal about the character of God? Perhaps God is capable of
evil. David Blumenthal has argued that an analogy can be drawn between
child abuse and the Holocaust. Children of abusing parents can learn
to eventually make their peace with such a parent but should never be
required to abstain from challenging the parent's misuse of authority.
- A Broken Covenant. The Holocaust
is proof that God has broken his covenant with the Jewish people. One
need not conclude, Irving Greenberg holds, that Jews can still not
choose to hold to Jewish law, but it is now only on a voluntary
- Providential History. Some have
suggested the Shoah had the providential outcome of overturning old
medieval Jewish structures and replacing them with modern Jewish life,
and that this is what needed to happen.
- Vicarious Suffering. In the
Holocaust, the Jewish people become the "suffering servant"
of Isaiah, collectively suffering for the sins of the world. Ignaz
Maybaum explored this shocking claim, holding that perhaps in the
Holocaust Jews even atoned for humanity's wickedness.
- Coming Messiah.
Cohen has argued that the Shoah represents the birth pangs of the
Messiah, that the Jewish people are in the final days before the
Jewish savior finally comes.
- "Because of our sins we were
punished." (mi-penei hataeinu) Some in the
Orthodox community have taught that European Jews were punished for
their sins, either for the heresy of liberal Judaism or for an
unfaithful rejection of the Holy Land. In these views, the Shoah is
God's just retribution.
- One More Tragedy. Some would
suggest that the Holocaust is not a singular event, but only
represents one more horror in human history. From this viewpoint, Jews
make too much of the Holocaust as a crisis event that changes
everything. David Weiss has taken something like this position.
- Jewish Reconstruction. The
Holocaust is better understood as a historical tragedy, singular or
otherwise, that must now be answered with Jewish commitment to the
restoration of cultural and ethnic life. Those who survive must
rebuild what has been violated and lost.
- Christian Responsibility.
Christians need to face up to the their history of anti-Semitism and
the role it played in the Holocaust. Ben Zion Bokser has suggested
that Christianity's exclusive view of itself rendered the German
people numb to the moral repugnance of Nazi racial theories. Others
argue that this culpability should put an end to any exclusive claims
on Christianity's part or to any assigning of "second-class"
status to Jewish faith. Supersessionism is no longer a credible
- Jewish Responsibility. Marc Ellis
argues that national Israel now uses the rhetoric of the Holocaust to
justify the oppression of the Palestinian people. The Holocaust should
become a reminder to care for the disadvantaged state of all colonized
groups. In a broader way, the Shoah is a reminder that to be a Jew is
to be a chosen people, one that must carry out the covenant and bring
salvation to others in daily life.
- Jewish Witness. Jews must not
allow despair to shut their testimonies forever. Memory and writing is
at the heart of what it means to be Jewish, and the Holocaust is a
temptation to hopelessness and to the secular Enlightenment, a project
wholly discredited by the Shoah. It is better to keep one's Jewish
identity and belief in the face of this. Even God cannot rob Jews of
- God's Female Face. God was not
absent in the Holocaust, rather present in the face of female Jewish
sufferers, who by covering themselves and holding to their dignity
were bringing the Jewish God into Auschwitz. Melissa Raphael has made
this position part of the current Jewish discussion.
- No Theology nach
Auschwitz. Any attempt at
theology totalizes the ultimate horror, and by doing so, it lessens
the suffering of what happened, as well as opening up humanity to
ultimately excusing it and letting it happen again. For some this is a
radical negation of any attempt to explain, while for others it is a
simple dismissal of religious attempts at an answer. Any talk of God's
justice or love makes a mockery of what happened in the Shoah.