Richard Gordon
Richard Gordon

Post-Holocaust Philosophy?

Post-Holocaust Philosophy – a brief essay!


These are some thoughts after attending a brief course on “Philosophy after the Holocaust” at London School of Jewish Studies (LSJS) a while ago which quickly explored the works of a handful of philosophers.  The course[1] was marketed as addressing “….some of the perennially challenging issues raised by the Shoah” such as:

Has the Holocaust fundamentally altered our understanding of God’s nature?

In what way has the Holocaust affected the covenant between God and the Jewish people?

How has the Holocaust influenced our Jewish faith?


The families of my father, father-in-law and mother-in-law were largely destroyed by the Nazis.  Those on my father’s side who survived the Holocaust were identifiably Jewish but not observant and, because of war-induced social upheavals, some have now probably abandoned any future Jewishness by marrying out.  My wife’s parents were intensely orthodox and stayed that way after the Holocaust.  They emigrated to Israel soon after the creation of the state but many of their surviving relatives were not orthodox.  To me this implied that the Shoah itself did not modify any of their specific attitudes to faith and religion.  I noted that when holocaust survivor members of my father’s family first met those of my wife’s family, the question they asked of each other was: “What was your luck?”

We Jews have suffered many holocausts in our history.  The psalmist’s cry “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”[2]  has been truly relevant on too many occasions.  Our prayers are suffused with statements attributing infinite power, greatness, understanding, kindness, love to our God, the King, Redeemer, Rock.  Daily, three times, we state that “God protects all who love Him but all the wicked He will destroy”.[3]   For those who suffered and perished in the name of their religion, this is evidently untrue.  The simple answer is that there is no God or at most a non-interventionist God.  The Holocaust proves it – unless, God-forbid, it was truly the hand of God!  “For those with faith there are no questions, and for those without faith there are no answers.”[4]

For those who have faith and want to justify and maintain their faith, explanations are needed.  My interest in this course was not to understand the failure of humanity, the fragility of so-called civilisation, the impotence of righteous authorities (the Church!), but, in relation to God, to see how great philosophical minds defend the indefensible.

The Philosophers

It took around 13 years following the end of WWII for Holocaust literature both philosophical and narrative to appear.[5]  Not surprising really; those involved and surviving had more immediate problems and tasks whilst those able to observe more dispassionately needed time to absorb and understand the enormity, origins and implications of the disaster.

Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1998): Deeply religious (mitzva-observant) Jew, scientist and philosopher.  He viewed historical events as having no religious significance.  It is unclear to me how he viewed the exodus from Egypt and the events at Mt. Sinai.  For the professor, a Jew’s relationship to God is just to perform mitzvot.  Specifically in relation to the Holocaust, he felt that these things happen and that it had no bearing on the relationship between Man and his Creator.  So Professor Leibowitz’s attitude was the opposite of the revered Rabbi Akiva – who was cheerful when he saw prophesies of God’s punishments for the Jewish people coming true as a portent that prophesies of His, bringing success and triumph, would also come true.  Professor Leibovitz’s faith was unaffected by the Holocaust which, presumably, caused him no religious philosophical problems.  I wonder if Rabbi Akiva would have been cheerful in 1945.

Rav Meir Simcha Ha-Kohen of Dvinsk (1843-1926):  Orthodox leader in Eastern Europe.  He pre-dates the Holocaust but in his writings he expounded that Judaism had no future outside of Eretz Yisroel.  This is because in exile, the Jews’ instinct will initially ensure that they return to Torah study and observance and reach the highest possible level.  Subsequent generations, unable to surpass in Judaism what’s already been achieved, will assimilate and outperform non-Jews and so inevitably lead to anti-Semitism and disaster.  Prophetically, he wrote: “They will think that Berlin is Jerusalem [and] a storm of destruction follows.”[6]  Thus anti-Semitism exists to make Jews return to Judaism implying that anti-Semites are doing God’s will.

Rav Isaac Hutner (1906-1980):  Orthodox Polish “Chassidic Litvak” rabbi and eventually American Rosh Yeshiva.  According to Michael Pollack, Rav Hutner believed that the Holocaust was divine punishment for enlightenment[7], assimilation and Zionism!  Rav Hutner described the Shoah as part of a 2500 year Churban that would ultimately lead to the redemption of the Jewish people.  He explained the persecution of orthodox communities in Eastern and Central Europe by stating that since all Jews are mutually responsible, orthodox communities had to be punished for lack of observance elsewhere.  If so, how come the orthodox communities outside of Europe were untouched by the Shoah?  He also maintained that the Jewish people were viewed as completely righteous people (V’amekh kulam tzadikim) and so were to be judged strictly according to halachah (midat ha’din) rather than with mercy (midat ha’chesed).  I understand neither this nor Rav Hutner’s objection to Zionism!

Rav Joel Teitelbaum (Satmarer Rebbe) 1887-1979:  Vigorous anti-Zionist leader of Satmar chassidim (and Neturei Karta).  He held that Zionism and the State of Israel violated Halacha and consequently were delaying the coming of the Messiah and complete redemption and had resulted in the troubles affecting the Jewish people in the 20th century and particularly the Holocaust.[8]  Although the State of Israel did not actually exist until after the Holocaust had ended.

Elie Wiesel (1928):  Holocaust survivor, author, journalist.   Though not officially classed as a philosopher, Elie Wiesel, in his written dramatic and harrowing descriptions of existence in concentration camps, asks questions that are not truly answered by philosophers.  He refuses to allow God’s apparent injustice to make him abandon his belief in Him.  Being marched with his father toward what he thought was his certain death, he recited the Jewish prayer for the dead, Kaddish, but this time for his own death.  Just a few steps from the burning pit, the procession turned left and they were marched into a barracks.[9]  No doubt there were many elsewhere who said their Kaddish but were then killed.

Richard Rubenstein (1924):   Reform Rabbi and noted American writer on Holocaust Theology.  Rabbi Rubenstein, in his controversial book “After Auschwitz” (1966), stated that the pre-holocaust vision of God as a force for good had died in the Shoah: “How can Jews believe in an omnipotent, beneficent God after Auschwitz?”.  In later years he explained that he was not denying the existence of God, rather he felt that the view of God as specifically related to the Jewish people was no longer tenable.  Presumably he was holding man rather than God responsible for the Holocaust.

Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992):  Orthodox theologian.  He did not consider the Holocaust to be unique in Jewish history.  It was yet another example of God, metaphorically, hiding his face (hester panim) because of sins committed.  Presumably, in this theology, rather than exacting punishment, God removes His protection.  “[We do not have] the thought that what happened to European Jewry in our generation was divine punishment for sins committed by them.  It was injustice absolute; injustice countenanced by God”[10] and, presumably, allowing the existence of free will.

Emmanuel Levinas  (1906-1995): Lithuanian born French Jewish philosopher and talmudic commentator.  His massive use of abstract nouns and obscure ethereal concepts means (at the moment) I do not really understand Levinas.  We were lectured that he was against Theodicy (the justification for God’s beneficence and powerful attributes despite the existence of evil).  It’s unclear to me what Levinas, one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, was really for.  His response to the Holocaust (during which he was relatively safe as a French prisoner-of-war but his wife’s mother, his father and brothers perished) is gleaned from his few essays on the subject and a survey of the rest of his major writings.  He sees the suffering caused by the Holocaust as a failure of mankind’s morality rather than the responsibility of God.  He also maintains his faith via a love of God’s Torah not a love of God.

Rabbi Irving Greenberg (1933):  Orthodox American educator, scholar and writer.    

Rabbi Greenberg sees the Holocaust as a further step in God distancing Himself from the covenant with the Jewish people.  At Sinai, man and God were in direct contact.  After the destruction of the 1st temple in Jerusalem, there was no more direct prophesy to the Jews.  After the destruction of the 2nd temple there has been no more temple sacrifices.  The Holocaust implies that God no longer listens too much to the prayers of the Jews.  Rabbi Greenberg interprets this as God expecting His people (and all mankind?) to take increasing responsibility for their actions.  So the Holocaust is Man’s responsibility.

Prof. Avi Sagi  (1953):  Israeli academic writer and philosopher.  Professor Sagi discusses Theodicy (how a belief in the existence of God can be substantiated in view of the existence of evil) in relation to the Holocaust.[11]  In analysing various arguments about: modifying the concept of “good” to somehow permit “evil”; the cause of “evil” somehow leading eventually to “good”; just not understanding the ways of God; and finally evil as a consequence of freedom of will, he concludes that the Holocaust does not specifically affect any of these arguments.  At least that’s how I currently understand Prof. Sagi!

Hans Jonas (1903-1993): German-born, non-orthodox, American  professor of philosophy.  Professor Jonas argues that the existence of evil stops us from accepting that God can be simultaneously all-knowing, all-powerful, and understandable.  Any two of these attributes exclude the third.  He concludes that the Holocaust leaves us Jews with an omniscient, understandable but not omnipotent God.[12]

Jonathan Sacks (1948):  Former Chief Rabbi of United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, previously Principal of Jews’ College, London.  As a professor at Jews’ College, he argued that Galut for the Jews removed them from the mercy of God (although they had not been so well looked after whilst in the ancient land of Israel!).  “Understood in this way, the Holocaust does not tell us about God but about man.”[13]


Oh well – pay your money and choose your philosopher.  Trust in the Almighty can do no harm but don’t rely on Him; “Put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry!”[14]

Defeating some types of divine retribution has always been possible as mankind was increasingly able to understand nature and nature’s laws.  Plagues and famines can be neutered by better healthcare, environmental controls and prudent organisation (as Joseph demonstrated in Egypt).  Even avoidance of the Holocaust was possible if you were able to move to the right country early enough.

Leibowitz’ non-interventionist God, requiring only that doing mitzvot is good for us, appeals to me and corresponds to my religious attitude.  He makes no attempt to defend the indefensible!

[1]  The 7-lecture course was given by Dr. Simon Cooper (4), Dr. Tamra Wright (1), Rabbi Dr. Michael Pollack (1), Dr. Elliott Malamet (1).

[2]  Psalm 22 v2

[3]  Psalm 145 v20

[4]  Hafetz Hayyim (Israel Meir Ha-Kohen 1838-1933)

[5]  Primo Levi’s “Se questo è un uomo” (“If this is a man”) was published in 1958.

[6]  “Or Sameach” – Parshat Bechukotai

[7]  Although he ran an orthodox yeshivah that allowed its students to attend university in the evenings!

[8]  Encyclopaedia Judaica  (Teitelbaum entry).

[9]  Elie Wiesel “Night”

[10]  Eliezer Berkovits “Faith After the Holocaust”

[11]  Avi Sagi “Chapter 6 The Holocaust: A Theological or Religious-Existentialist Problem” in “The Holocaust in Jewish History…….” Ed. Dan Michman

[12]  Hans Jonas “The Concept of God after Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice.” Journal of Religion 67, no. 1 (1987): 1–13

[13]  Jonathan Sacks “Tradition in an Untraditional Age” (1990)

[14]  Oliver Cromwell’s advice to his troops in Ireland about to cross a river (allegedly) – 1834 poem “Oliver’s Advice” by Col. Valentine Blacker

About the Author
Richard Gordon, retired computer consultant and business man with a degree in physics and a post-graduate diploma in Jewish Studies from KCL; interested in Jewish affairs, history of Zionism, and Israel (married to an Israeli and his son and daughter have followed his example)
Related Topics
Related Posts