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Holocaust Theology From the Hills of Judea

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, survivors of the death and slave labor camps, as well as Jewish communities in the United States and Israel spared direct contact with the atrocities, spent their energy, time and treasure on rebuilding shattered lives. They toiled and sacrificed to defend and support the fledging State of Israel, build and expand the institutions that would perpetuate Jewish life and security in future decades. The Holocaust, its details and memories, was not a central focus of American Jewish life as it would become decades later.

Memorial books and literature from the 1940’s-1950’s reflecting on the time when death reigned supreme, were written in Yiddish, the language of the murdered and the circle of survivors. They were published in small printing houses in the Jewish enclaves in Buenos Aires, Johannesburg, Tel Aviv and New York and were read in the bosom of family and community. In Jewish theological circles precious little was written in English on the searing questions of God’s love, justice, omnipotence, providence and His eternal covenant with the people of Israel in the face of the murder of one and half million Jewish children.

In the Modern-Orthodox Jewish community in the decade following World War Two, the one exception was the perspective outlined by leading rabbinic scholar and theologian, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in a seminal address in 1956 (and later republished many times) entitled The Voice of My Beloved Knocks (the title hearkening back to a verse in the fifth chapter of the biblical Song of Songs). In the first part of the address, barely ten years after the liberation, R. Soloveitchik articulates a Jewish perspective on suffering:

Judaism, with its realistic approach to man and his status within existence, understood that evil does not lend itself to being obscured and glossed over, and that every attempt to diminish the import of the contrast and cleavage in existence will not bring man to inner peace or to comprehension of the existential secret. Evil is a fact that cannot be denied…

But more far reaching he argued:

Judaism determined that man, submerged in the depths of a frozen fate, will in vain seek the solution to the problem of evil in the context of speculative thought, for he will never find it.

In short, the “I” of fate asks a speculative/metaphysical question about evil, and this question is not given to solution and has no answer.

 “There is evil, I do not deny it, and I will not conceal it with fruitless casuistry. I am, however, interested in it from a halakhic point of view; and as a person who wants to know what action to take. I ask a single question: What should the sufferer do to live with his suffering?” In this dimension, the emphasis is removed from causal and teleological considerations (which differ only as to direction) and is directed to the realm of action. The problem is now formulated in the language of a simple halakhah and revolves around a quotidian ‎‎(i.e. daily) task. The question of questions is: What does suffering obligate man to do?

How pitiful if man’s sufferings do not bring him to a spiritual crisis, and his soul remains frozen and bereft of forgiveness. How pitiful is the sufferer if his soul is not warmed by the flame of suffering, and if his wounds do not spark “the Candle of God” (Proverbs 20:27) within him.

In short, the human being must turn from the question of “why” this occurred to “what” meaningful religious response can the individual craft in the face of this reality.

By the late 1960’s and early 1970’s this response did not appear to satisfy younger thinkers and scholars. During this decade growing interest in Holocaust studies and Holocaust consciousness in general society and in the Jewish community became a reality. This phenomenon was driven by factors such as the capture and subsequent trial of Adolph Eichmann in 1961-1962 (with its searing testimony from survivors), the existential threat to the State of Israel on the eve of the Six Day War in 1967, the movement to help Soviet Jews express their religion and culture and emigrate, as well as the discussions in liberal Christian circles about the “death of God” and the analogues that emerged in liberal Jewish circles in the writings of Richard Rubinstein, as well as in the writings of Emil Fackenheim and his notion of a 614th commandment (in Jewish tradition the Torah contains 613 commandments) not to grant Hitler a posthumous victory. As he wrote:

We are commanded, first, to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. We are commanded, second, to remember our very guts and bones the martyrs of the Holocaust, lest their memory perish. We are forbidden, thirdly, to deny or despair of God, however much we may have to contend with him or with belief in him, lest Judaism perish. We are forbidden, finally, to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of God, lest we help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted.”

 In Modern-Orthodox circles leading thinkers such as Irving Greenberg and Michael Wyschogrod fought pitched battles on the pages of various journals as to the centrality that Holocaust should play in modern Jewish philosophy and life and whether the Holocaust should be seen as a revelational event that rewrote the script on the covenantal bond between God and the Jewish people. At the same moment, Eliezer Berkovits published his Faith After the Holocaust (1973) in which he developed an extended argument about the nature of the “hidden or concealed” face of God spoken of in Deuteronomy 29 and 31 and God’s allowance for human freedom and the existence of evil. (Norman Lamm, the late President of Yeshiva University, the intellectual bastion of Modern-Orthodox, would later expand on the theme of God’s eclipse in some of his writings.)

In the decades that followed little was added to the discussion in the precincts of Modern-Orthodoxy. However, in the last twenty years a number of new ideas have been injected into the intellectual scene by two leading pillars of Modern-Orthodoxy, Rabbi Yehuda Amital (1924-2010) and Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (1933-2015). Rabbis Amital and Lichtenstein were co-heads of Yeshivat Har Etzion, a religious-Zionist yeshiva, whose students also serve in the Israeli army and upon completion often pursue secular and professional degrees (in contrast to their Haredi co-religionists who generally do not serve in the Israel Defense Forces nor engage in undergraduate or graduate secular study.)

  1. R. Amital, a Hungarian survivor of a Nazi slave labor camp, who lost his entire family in the Holocaust, later made his way to Israel, and became a prominent Jewish educator. In 1968, in he was asked to head up a new yeshiva in the Gush Etzion region in the hills of Judea, 12 miles south of Jerusalem in the area where religious kibbutizm had existed prior to the 1948 War of Independence before being destroyed by the Jordanian army that captured that region and held it till the Six Day War. In 1971, the thirty-nine year old, R. Lichtenstein, who had arrived in America as a seven year old refugee from France with his family, was the son in law of R. Soloveitchik, and himself already an established rabbinic scholar, accepted R. Amital’s offer to join him in Israel and co-lead the growing yeshiva. This partnership lasted for over forty years and both became leading voices of the moderate religious-Zionist world, Torah scholars of note, and spiritual leaders to tens of thousands throughout the world.

Over the course of his tenure, R. Amital would often speak of his experiences during World War Two and his reflections on the meaning for those in the present. Some of those discourses were later collected and published in Hebrew and English in the volume A World Built, Destroyed and Rebuilt (2005) sharing with the public some of his most intimate thoughts.

2. R. Amital did not attempt to offer any “explanation” for the horrors of the Shoah,  and rejected the various philosophical paradigms offered to fathom God’s          ultimate plans. And yet he rejected any notion of the absence or “death” of God that some adopted:

I clearly experienced the hand of God during the Holocaust – only I did not understand its meaning. It was so clear – so abnormal, so unnatural, so illogical. I was not in Auschwitz, but I saw Jews being taken there. I saw regiments of Germans who were not going to the Russian front, but rather guarding the trainloads of Jews headed to the death camps. It went against all military logic and interests. Can one possibly begin to understand such madness? I saw the hand of God in everything. It was not natural; it was not human. I saw the hand of God, but I did not understand its significance.

What the Holocaust did change, was how the human being could now approach God. In classical medieval Jewish thought, one of the pillars of worship of the Lord was a sense of gratitude to the Almighty for all the blessings in life. Yet, could that continue in the face of the Shoah?

On my first Yom Kippur after being liberated from a Nazi labor camp, I prayed with other survivors in a cramped cellar. I cannot fully describe the storm of emotion that I felt then, but I will try to reconstruct some of that feeling.

I was young then. I had no children. My parents had been murdered, along with most of the population of our town. Among the survivors in that small room, there were people who had lost their children, parents, spouses, and siblings. They prayed, and I with them. Was their worship of God based on gratitude? Can a Jew who has lost his wife and children possibly serve God on the basis of recognition of His kindness? Can a Jew whose job was the removal of the charred remains of corpses from the crematoria of Auschwitz be capable of serving God on the basis of gratitude? No, not in any way, shape, or form! But where, then, does that leave us?

The Talmud, in a famous comment notes that in the wake of the destruction of the first Temple Jeremiah and Daniel could no longer address God as “awesome and mighty”:

Since they knew God is truthful, they would not fawningly flatter him.

Thus, writes R. Amital:

Within the era that saw the greatest destruction in the history of the Jewish people, it is impossible to base our divine worship on the foundation of gratitude alone…Of course, we must always remain aware of God’s daily acts of kindness, and must sincerely pray, “We are grateful to You”…. But, while gratitude should certainly constitute one component of our divine service, it cannot serve as the entire foundation of our worship.

In place of that model, R. Amital turns to a different one, also rooted in classical Jewish texts and teachings:

 “Even if He kills me, I will still trust in Him” (Job 13:15),[26] and in the talmudic passage, “‘A bundle of myrrh (tzeror hamor) is my beloved to me, and he will sleep between my breasts’ (Song. 1:13) – our sages said, by way of derivation: Though He constricts and embitters me He will sleep between my breasts… “In the wake of the Shoah “to whom can we still flee? To where can we flee? The answer is clear: ‘We have fled from You to You.’” …The verse “Were Your Torah not my delight, I would have perished in my misery” (Ps. 119:92) has a broader meaning. The Jewish people wonders, “How could I ever have persevered without God?” How can anyone survive without God? Without God, one simply could not cope with all the problems besetting him. It is not in spite of undergoing a test of this magnitude, but rather because of it, that we need our faith in order to survive.

 R. Lichtenstein concurs with R. Amital that we should eschew attempts to give theological rationales for the suffering of the Holocaust for moral, ethical and religious reasons.

For those of us who are believers, it is preferable to live with the question and the faith surrounding it than to try to grasp at explanations of one kind or the other.

But in a daring move, R. Lichtenstein does see the impact of the Holocaust on our perception of God and the classic tension between the transcendence and immanence of God. Building on the language of a number of passages in the Midrash Aggada (the rabbinic corpus encompassing Jewish lore and non- legal exegesis, theology, stories and moral exhortations), he notes that national tragedies of the Jewish people are seen “no less a divine as a human calamity”.

In some passages, the Midrash building on the verse in Psalms “I am with him in his distress” speaks of the Shekhinah, the rabbinic term for God’s immanent presence, speaks of Shekhinta begaluta- the divine presence having gone into exile with the people of Israel. Moreover, in even more daring language God is not only portrayed as Our Father in heaven but often as a brother in need- salve reverentia- a fellow sufferer.

God himself mourns together with the people, weeping and wailing over the destruction seeks comfort from his fellow mourners.  Moreover, in recognizing this reality, the mourner receives a measure of support in knowing that God “shares” in the experience of our suffering.

Sharing an anecdote that he would often repeat R. Lichtenstein writes:

A neighbor of ours, Leib Rochman, who had lived through the Holocaust and written about it was once asked by a pseudo-philosopher where the Master of the Universe had been at the time. Looking her straight in the eye, he responded calmly : “Er is geven mit unz” (He was with us!)

 R. Lichtenstein goes on to tease out the implications of his writing and notes the potential theological line that may be crossed:

I write these lines (cited above) with anxious trepidation. The anthropomorphic note is clear, and associative analogues with Christian and even pagan motifs are unquestionably troubling. While the analogy, of course, is limited-there is nothing faintly resembling expiatory sacrifice, and both the reality and the experience of presumed suffering are conceived within a wholly different context and in radically different categories-a growing malaise persists-I ask myself, timorously, how would Maimonides have responded to these speculations?

However, despite these concerns he does not retreat from his formulation citing further midrashic evidence, though caveated by some language, and candidly notes that:

“The chasm between these caveats and the doctrine of negative attributes is wide and deep… and we must choose between the graphic vividness of Midrashic theology and the rarified purity of Maimonides”

And concludes the back and forth with a clear direction in our perception of the immanence of the Divine presence:

We are charged to transcend crudity and purify religious sensibility and Heaven forfend that we relax our efforts. But the mandate has its limits-not because at the personal level these might prove counterproductive, but inasmuch as purported purification might falsify reality.

At stake is not just the prospect of desiccated reality or truncated imagination. From the perspective of the Midrashic or Kabbalistic authors, the exaggeration of transcendence distorts objective truth with respect to the divine revelation and engagement. In perceiving and defining what we understand by immanent Shekhinah (God’s presence), we can err on either side.  

Nathaniel Helfgot is rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom and chair of the Department of Rabbinics at SAR High School in New York City.

About the Author
Nathaniel Helfgot is rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Teaneck, NJ and a faculty member at the SAR High School in NYC.
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