I am in Poland. I come here often for work. And I typically make time to connect with the local Jewish Community. I have also visited my share of concentration camps and burial sites. It is a responsibility that compels me.
I find it difficult to visit Poland with an open mind without contemplating the nagging unanswerable question: How could it happen?
Not at the historical level – we can all read books and watch movies and visit museums and understand the socioeconomic background, the geopolitics, the sectarian rivalries, the operational logistics, the technology of murder, etc.
But how could it happen? Where was God?
I am of course by far neither the first nor the last to contemplate the unanswerable. But I am me: These are my questions, as the son of a Holocaust survivor, as a descendant of victims massacred and buried in mass graves. How could it happen?
Growing up, the answers offered never satisfied me. I once asked my father how he could be observant (and become a rabbi) after surviving the Holocaust. My father said that he “had emunah”, he had faith. To this day, nearly three years since his death, and many years since that conversation, I do not know what he meant, beyond sharing his own personal coping mechanism.
Some of course suggest that “the Jews committed evil and were therefore punished”. This thinking — rooted in Biblical and medieval explanations for exile and massacre — is occasionally put forth by people with fundamentalist views. It echoes the “Tochecha”, the dire Biblical warnings of God “turning His face” from Israel. (The “evil” that some of these characters refer to is the establishment of the Reform Movement.) But I refuse to accept such an absurdist notion of a God who consciously sent men, women and children into factories of death because some Jews stopped following traditionalist Halacha. To my mind, the only “evil” in this interpretation is God. And I do not believe that God is evil.
Others have suggested that the European chapter of Jewish history had to come to an end in order for the State of Israel to be born. Such ideas emerge out of a different form of fundamentalist thinking, eschatological messianism. And again, I find a God who consciously destroyed half of My Nation in order to bring about the End Of Days to be evil. And I do not believe that God is evil.
Suffice it to say, if I am not satisfied by Jewish eschatological reasoning, I am also not satisfied by eschatological reasoning of other faiths. I do not accept an extremist Christian notion of punishment for deicide, for example. I cannot believe in a conscious Creator of All who actively destroys His creations.
In other words – I walk the streets of Poland, I visit the living, I visit the dead, and I ultimately cannot accept the notion of God consciously engaging in the genocide of My Nation, of His Chosen.
And so I am forced, as a person of faith, to contemplate alternatives to the all powerful, all knowing omnipotent God. At a theological level, I am forced to “play with matches”, because Emunah Peshutah, simple faith, does not satisfy me. Blaming the Jews at a theological level for their own destruction does not satisfy me. And messianic eschatology does not satisfy me.
At some point, I became enamored of some of the notions in Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, that contemplate the realm of the Divine. In some readings, in some interpretations, God is composed of various elements, the Sefirot, that combine to create the “Divine Godhead”. These elements interact, and when out of balance, result in evil in the universe. In other mystical interpretations, God has self-limited His power, has “withdrawn into Himself” in order to create room for worldly existence. In other words, the evil wrought upon our People, and any others, for that matter, is separate from the Divine. God is all around us, yet not engaged in our reality in any anthropomorphic sense.
Finally, there is the rationalist Maimonidian interpretation, where the RAMBAM defines God not by what He is, but by what He is not, where the very notion of an anthropomorphic God engaged in worldly affairs is completely anathema.
Some of course have rejected the very notion of God, citing the Holocaust, the scientific fact of evolution, Biblical Criticism, and other reasons as proof for God’s nonexistence. But I am as dissatisfied with atheism as I am with the notion of an evil God.
For me, reality has “purpose”. The universe has “purpose”. Mankind has “purpose”.
And so, I am left with many questions, but very few answers. I retain my faith and my practice because they are an expression of my own purpose.
So as I walk the streets of Poland, attend synagogue with a community in the midst of a modest revival, visit the concentration camps and the graveyards and the memorials of those lost, contemplating the “how” and the “why” also give me purpose.
Perhaps I have come to the realization that we, as human beings, cannot know the “how” and the “why”. It is beyond our comprehension, not unlike the nature of the Divine Itself.
Perhaps this is my own “Emunah Peshutah”, not the faith of my father in the omnipotent, anthropomorphic God, but the belief in a complex universe that is part of a Divine equation that will forever be beyond my grasp.