Jewish Views of the Holocaust: Theology nach Auschwitz

"Strange--people 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 is barbaric.") --Theodore Adorno

"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." --Theodore Adorno

David's Star

Jewish Thoughts after the Holocaust

Jewish responses to the Shaoh, to the Holocaust, have been understandably multi-faceted: 

  1. "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. 
  2. "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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 consequences.
  6. 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.
  7. 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."
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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 basis. 
  11. 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. 
  12. 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.
  13. Coming Messiah. Sha’ar Yashuv 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.
  14. "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. 
  15. 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.
  16. 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. 
  17. 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 theology.
  18. 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.
  19. 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 this loyalty.
  20. 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.
  21. 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.