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Abraham to Auschwitz: A theology from the fiery furnace

After the crematoria, the God who saves His faithful at the last minute was no more, yet the Jews still believed, finding the Divine with them in the flames
Crematoria at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz I. Their construction was a prelude to much larger crematoria complexes later constructed at Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, in Poland, October 2017. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
Crematoria at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz I. Their construction was a prelude to much larger crematoria complexes later constructed at Birkenau, or Auschwitz II, in Poland, October 2017. (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Based upon scant textual evidence in Genesis 15, the rabbinic tradition imagined a wild backstory to the life of Abraham our founder, in which he was forced to undergo an ordeal of fire because of his belief in God:

Terah took his son Abraham and handed him over to Nimrod, the king of the land, for Abraham had opposed Nimrod’s belief in idols. Nimrod said to him: “Let us worship fire!…We should bow to none other than the fire, but you refuse to do so. I shall therefore cast you in it and let your God to whom you bow come and save you from it!”…Abraham went into the furnace and survived with God’s miraculous  assistance…” (Based upon Genesis Rabbah  38:11)

Abraham’s legendary fire ordeal echoes a classic genre of miracle story found throughout the ancient Near East, particularly in the biblical book of Daniel, chapter 3. Jewish stories of miraculous redemptions of righteous people from fiery furnaces hold firmly, if rather fantastically, to the belief that God protects and saves individuals from evil, often just in the nick of time.

The horrors of the killing machines of Nazi Germany, specifically the crematoria at Auschwitz and other camps, make obscenities of these Jewish legends. Consider the grisly imagery of the protagonist, Ernie Levy’s last moments of life in Andre Schwarz-Bart’s renowned novel, Last of The Just:

With dying arms, Ernie embraced Golda’s body in an already unconscious gesture of loving protection, and they were found that way half an hour later by the team of Sonderkommando responsible for burning the Jews in the crematory ovens. And so it was for millions…This story will not finish with some tomb to be visited in memoriam.  For the smoke that rises from crematoriums obeys physical laws like any other…The only pilgrimage, estimable reader, would be to look with sadness at a stormy sky now and then. ( p. 422.)

When we reflect upon the all-too-real fate of millions of our brothers and sisters under the Nazis, we become painfully aware of how grossly inappropriate it would be to perpetuate legends like this one about Abraham. As the late theologian, Rabbi Richard Rubenstein, taught us, after Auschwitz, belief in the God Who redeemed Abraham from Nimrod’s burning clutches is dead, as dead as the innocent human beings murdered and incinerated by the Nazis during the Shoah. Legends about Abraham, other Jews, and other good people saved from evildoers by God long ago went up in smoke, along with our literal faith in God’s redemptive power.

Yet despite its profound moral and theological deficiencies in the aftermath of the Shoah, this faith refuses to die. It persists as a mainstay of Jewish theology, liturgy, and deep religious motivation. I thus feel compelled to ask whether our experience of radical evil must forever bury this aspect of Jewish faith. Let me suggest that — even and especially in the shadow of the Shoah — we Jews need not and should not discard it. What we must do is thoroughly reinterpret it. This is made possible not by any radical or foreign ideas about Jewish faith, such as “the death of God,” but by looking to another ancient Jewish tradition about Abraham and God:

The parable is told of a man who was wandering from place to place when he came upon a palace in flames. He asked, “Is it possible that this palace has no one supervising it (as it burns)?” The owner of the building looked out from it upon the man and said, “I am the master of this palace.” So too, Abraham asked, “Is it possible that this world has no one to supervise it?”  The Holy One, Blessed be God, answered him, “I am the Master of this world.”

The Hebrew text and literary structure of this laconic rabbinic parable are ambiguous enough that I suggest we can understand it in the following way. Like the wandering man, Abraham went into the world and saw that, similar to the palace in our legend, it was beautiful, but also engulfed in flames. When Abraham called out in anguish and protest, demanding to know who was responsible for this fiery furnace of evil, suffering, and chaos, God did not remain silent. God called back out to Abraham from within the fire and told him, “I am the Master of all creation, but I too am trapped in its burning wreckage. Come liberate Me from this fire and wander with Me. Together, we can extinguish it and rebuild what has been destroyed.”

This parable quite possibly follows from an earlier Jewish idea that God suffers when we suffer, wandering particularly with us Jews as a divine Exile through the world. We and God are, as it were, trapped and suffering in the burning palace. Jewish — and by extension, human — redemption comes about not because God saves us miraculously from evildoing (the fire), but because God walks steadfastly with us through the fire. The strength, hope, and clarity of moral purpose given to us by God walking at our side are what carry the Jewish people through history’s literal and symbolic flames. Abraham surviving Nimrod’s fiery furnace is a striking metaphor for the awesome truth of Jewish existence, which has baffled, enraged and inspired the rest of humanity: however many times we Jews have been destroyed physically, the Jewish people continues to survive. This remains the case, despite the greatest of evils inflicted upon us in modernity: the furnaces of genocide into which we were forced, and from which millions of our people never returned. Abraham made the choice to walk with God through the flames of this world, ignited by evildoing. God wounded, exiled, but unfazed, has never ceased to walk with us through those same flames, including those very real ones in the Nazi concentration camps.

From Abraham to Auschwitz and beyond, we continue unceasingly, wanderers with a wandering God.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. https://jps.org/books/cain-vs-abel/)
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