Tanya White

Why do bad things happen? It’s time to rethink Holocaust theology

We say 'never again' and cry tears at unimaginable horrors. But are we really moved if we are not shocked out of our theological and religious comfort zones?
My maternal grandfather, a Holocaust survivor fighting in Israel's War of Independence. (courtesy)
My maternal grandfather, a Holocaust survivor fighting in Israel's War of Independence. (courtesy)

Eighty years on and we still tend towards the paradigm of retributive justice. Six million died — there must be a reason. I’m suffering; therefore, I must have done something wrong. Like a child who waits for the parents’ punishment, we so often navigate our relationship to God through the perspective of quid pro quo. When will we grow up? Should the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust not force us out of this dated theological trope? Is there a better religious paradigm for understanding suffering?

For three years, I intensely researched and wrote on post-Holocaust theology. There were times it felt sacrilegious to treat the Holocaust as an academic subject — to subordinate it to analysis and thought dissection. But even in the midst of strict academic rigor, I could never totally detach from the subject matter. At each juncture, while I researched, thought, and wrote, I felt the hands of my ancestors on me.

The smile on the face of my grandmothers who both fled Nazi Germany on the Kinder transport to make a new life on the shores of Britain — two women who encapsulated the words “positive” and “light” and taught me what it is to live in joy. I felt the encouragement of my paternal grandfather who fled Czechoslovakia and fought in the British army against the Germans. His faith and perseverance knew no bounds. More than anything, I felt deeply the presence of my maternal grandfather, Opa, and every member of his family lost to the brutality of the Nazi regime. Despite the trauma he endured and the ghosts he lived with, he flourished and bore the legacy of a close-knit and expansive family, almost all of whom today live in Israel.

I felt that I had the privilege, the merit, and the honor of upholding my grandparents’ memory and the memory of all the survivors, of speaking words they no longer could, and of creating a space where the unspeakable trauma and events of 1939-1945 would not be forgotten. For them I write, for them I speak, for them, I continue to pursue this field of research.

And that research has led me to believe that there is one overriding message we must adopt in light of the events of the last 80 years: to change the way in which we speak theologically about evil, suffering, and tragedy. I believe that we need a paradigm shift. For centuries, the rabbinic preference for addressing suffering or evil was through the lens of Divine reward and punishment (there are many reasons for this, but primarily on account of their national existence in exile, which was framed through the prism of sin and punishment). In biblical passages, perhaps the most glaring and well-known of which, from Deuteronomy, forms the second paragraph of the Shema prayer, we hear about a God who will reward obedience and punish dissent. The Bible is indeed replete with examples of this traditional stance and, in many ways, it provided us humans with the perfect formula, we who search for the neat and complete, who need consistency and stability, who crave certainty and answers. That is, until the events of the last century.

Until we witnessed the gassing and the gasping and the torture and the muselmann. Until the piles of shoes and gold teeth and hair were worth more than the money it would cost for soap, which had to be made from the skin of corpses. Until the ordinary man became a monster and the neighbor next door turned a blind eye to the smell of burning bodies from the camp on his doorstep. Until children were shot and mutilated to the sound of Wagner and Beethoven. Until God’s “chosen people” appeared “chosen” for death rather than life, for torture rather than Torah. Must we concur with the poet Jacob Glatstein’s lament that “God gave the Torah at Sinai and took it back at Auschwitz”? Is there any way to still confront, let alone pray to the God of Auschwitz?

As a religious Jew, I believe that the only way is to shatter the easy and neat theological answers that served us until the early 20th century. The Holocaust, the modern State of Israel, and our engagement with modernity and postmodernity should be a catalyst towards a search for new paradigms. Our tradition indeed engages with other models of suffering and evil outside of the Divine reward and punishment nexus — but are we brave enough to fully engage with them? Are we courageous enough to grapple with their theological corollaries? Can we speak about a “limited God”? Can we engage with a paradigm that sets human agency above Divine Providence?

I would like to propose that in the same way that tradition retains the “baraita” — rejected sources outside the talmudic corpus, for future reference, we must seek out the “theological braitot” of the past as edifying sources for the present. Can we talk about Job and Lamentations and Elisha Ben Abuya and other more ostensibly heretical positions without squirming in our religious straitjackets?

We use soundbites like “never again” or “for the memory of the perished.” We cry tears and balk at unimaginable horrors. But have we really been moved if we are not shocked out of our theological and religious comfort zone? Can the Holocaust really speak to us from the luxury of our armchairs? If those tragic and traumatic memories do not force us to re-address accepted positions and belief systems, then have they really affected at all?

I challenge us all to reflect for a moment on the “working principle” suggested by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, which questions the credibility of speaking about the Holocaust and yet simultaneously beckons us to find the language to speak about in a religiously appropriate way:

No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.

When we think about those burning children who were thrown alive into the flames to save a few cents on gas — what religiously valid statement can we possibly make? If any at all? And yet can we dare to remain silent? Memories that are repressed, anger that is suppressed and questions that are forbidden will one day come back to haunt us, or ever more dangerously may even be forgotten. So, are we religiously courageous enough to search for new ways of talking about evil and suffering that sit outside the easy contours of cause and consequence, reward and punishment, or even Divine Providence as classically formulated?

Perhaps 80 years on it is the right time to search for authentic positions from within the Jewish tradition that can be employed as a pedagogical tool towards a significant theological paradigm shift.

May the memory of the six million be for a challenge and blessing to us all.

About the Author
Dr. Tanya White is a lecturer in Tanach and Philosophy and a Sacks Scholar. She is currently a senior lecturer at Matan, LSJS and Pardes and acts as scholar in residence for many communities in Israel and abroad. Tanya has published numerous articles in books and on social media. To contact her or read more of her ideas visit her webpage
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