Divine Retribution? A Short Thought Concerning the Holocaust
For some years now there has been a major debate among religious thinkers over whether the Holocaust should be seen as divine punishment. Pointing to the Torah’s warnings (Vayikra 26, Devarim 28) that divine curses would come true if widespread violations of the laws of the Torah occurred, some thinkers maintain that the Holocaust is clearly the result of the Jewish people transgressing the laws of the Torah.
Looking into these verses and reading their midrashic comments, it would indeed be difficult to deny the marked similarity between what happened in the Holocaust and the predictions of the Torah.
Nevertheless, this position could be challenged and is in fact dangerous.
Rabbi Yeshaya Karelitz, z.l., one of the greatest halachic authorities of our generation (known for his multi-volume Talmudic halachic works called “Chazon Ish”), discusses the problem of heresy and deliberate violation of Jewish law and its halachic consequences in today’s society. In the olden days, heretical views or deliberate violations of Torah law were penalized, and people guilty of such views or deeds were not permitted to join some of the community’s religious ceremonies or fulfill certain religious functions. Today, however, according to Rabbi Karelitz, z.l., such halachic rulings can no longer be applied without great hesitation.
“(Such laws) only applied at times when the divine presence was clearly revealed such as in the days when there were open miracles, and a heavenly voice was heard and when the righteous would operate under direct divine intervention which could be observed by anybody. Then the heretics were of a special deviousness, bending their evil inclination towards immoral desires and licentiousness. In such days there was (the need) to remove this kind of wickedness from the world, since everybody knew that it would bring divine retribution to the world (including) drought, pestilence and famine. But at the time of “divine hiding,” in which faith has become weak in people, there is no purpose in taking such action (harsh measurements against heretics and violators), in fact it has the reverse effect and will only increase their lawlessness and be viewed as the coercion and violence (of religious fanatics.) And therefore we have an obligation to try to bring them back with ‘cords of love’ (Hoshea 11:4)” (Chazon Ish, Yoreh Deah, Hilchot Shechitah 2:16)
This unprecedented statement by a major ultra-orthodox authority, is, we believe, of major importance. Chazon Ish maintains that we cannot compare earlier periods, and certainly not the biblical periods, with our own days. In these earlier days, faith was strong and people did not doubt its foundations. Divine intervention was clear and consequently there was no reason why one should doubt God’s existence and the truth of His will as stated in the Torah. Heresy and the violation of the Torah’s precepts could, therefore, only be the result of deliberate rebellion against better knowledge. One knew that one was violating the words of the living God, since no doubt existed concerning His existence and will. As such, there were proper reasons to take action against those who broke the covenant and spoke heresy. They knew that they were falsifying the truth. It was purely their mundane desires which made them travel this road.
This, however, is no longer the case. God’s presence is no longer as exposed as it was, and much of what happens to man and mankind seems to be random, without any indication that it is the work of the Lord of the Universe. Therefore, one can no longer call heretical views the result of deliberate viciousness. These views may, in fact, be the honest consequence of careful deliberation which is clouded by the confusion of not knowing how to see and understand the workings of history and matters such as personal tragedy.
For several centuries, so-called “academic studies” of the Torah have undermined the authenticity of the Torah, convincing a great number of well-meaning people to believe that there was proof that the Torah did not reflect the will of God. As such, there was no longer a reason to live by its precepts.
This is no longer deliberate heresy. One could call it intellectual confusion.
As such, it is difficult to argue that the Holocaust was caused by divine anger for the violations of Torah precepts and deliberate heresy. The curses in the Torah are meant to come down on those who against better knowledge and with the full understanding that they were violating the will of God decided to do so — not on those who are somehow confused or the victims of others’ misunderstandings. This, we believe, is the implication of the words of Rabbi Yeshaya Karelitz, z.l., in relation to the question of whetherif the Holocaust should be seen as divine retribution.
Whatever the religious meaning of the Holocaust may or may not be, it is clear that it can’t be seen in terms of divine retribution.