Redeeming God: Faith after the Shoah (Untimely Meditations)

My grandmother, Priva Hershkowitz, z”l, was freed from Auschwitz by the Red Army. Not much remained of her body, but her great soul illuminated faith in God and man and rebuilt a Jewish home in Israel.

Like Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, I would have liked to believe that the Shoah is the problem of the German nation, but it is my problem, being a third-generation Shoah survivor.

The Shoah had a great impact upon Jewish identity, but not on religious life. It is not manifested in our collective liturgy, and it is hardly incorporated into Jewish theology. Does this silence result from it being too big a question for the believer or from religious life being petrified by it? Out of this silence there are those who have attempted to pierce its veils.


One cannot judge the survivors. There are survivors who believe that the Shoah was God’s judgment. But as God himself rebukes the friends of Job, we understand that God’s vindicators cannot accept the reality of Job’s existence. Therefore, I cannot stand God’s vindicators who are not Shoah survivors.

The Atheists

“If there is Auschwitz, there is no God,” ruled former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Haim Cohen. If Auschwitz is a place on earth and not on another planet, then there is no place for God on Earth. The atheist is unwilling to accept a God who is not all-powerful, all-seeing, and all-good; rather they prefer His abolition. This kind of Jewish atheist is a “forced apostate,” precisely because of their belief.

The Inexplicable

“Repeating the question, ‘Why did the Holocaust occur,’ pains the victims. The very question reduces the innocence of the victims and the guilt of the murderers. The question should remain unasked,” writes Rabbi Dr. David Weiss Halivni. Is silence healthier for the victims? If not, we mustn’t remain silent. It is our duty to question, for the sake of their dignity.

The Moral Postmodernist

“Jews lost faith in God a long time ago and claimed that man created God in his image,” said Rabbi Dr. Eugene Borowitz. After the Shoah, Jews ceased to believe in the perfect human being, in enlightenment, and in modernism. The moral person, therefore, has no choice but to reach out again to God—the only anchor of absolute good outside the world of human beings.

The Humble Believer

“No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.” This, according to Rabbi Dr. Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, leads to the realization that complete faith in any ideology or God, is lost forever. The Shoah taught us humility and to oppose evil, and not remain idle. Sometimes, in this world, God slips through. The question is, are we willing to settle for these few moments and what happens the rest of the time in this chaotic world?

The Rebellious Believer

“The extermination of European Jewry was a sign of God’s betrayal of his people, and Holocaust Remembrance Day is a day dedicated to expressing wrath at God,” wrote Prof. David Roskies. The permission to protest defines faith. The rebel is not willing to give up either God or their realistic view of history. But how is it possible to return to God and His Covenant?

God’s Savior

Russian poet Abraham Sutzkever in his 1945 poem, “Resurrection,” describes a dialogue between a survivor’s soul and God, who is buried under the grass:

Redeem me, destined one —
— Who are you, that your command should be heard?
And grass language answered me: God.
I once lived in your word.

(—Translated from Yiddish by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav)

The Shoah reversed the traditional roles. God is buried under the ashes, already covered by grass. The human must redeem themselves and their God. If they desire life, they must resurrect God, an ingrained idea in human consciousness, who is charged with all His joys and sorrows—living in His believers’ sayings. However, this is a grotesque Lord.

The 614th Commandment

For Rabbi Dr. Emil Fackenheim, the loss of faith implicates surrender. If the Jewish people lose their uniqueness, it would be as if they had completed the Nazis’ plan themselves. They must carry on Jewish existence by clinging to their faith and their God, and by standing by the oppressed. This 614th commandment is the most difficult of all.

Yet is there not too much of a contradiction between this commandment and the preceding 613? Has the new revelation in Auschwitz burned out its predecessors?

Praying Grandmother

“Do you know why I say the Shema each night in my bed? To keep the nightmares from there away,” Grandma Priva said to me. Her chilling tradeoff: “God, I’ll forgive you the Shoah if you’ll keep my memories away.”

I said to her, “Grandma, I would also say the Shema each night in my bed if only I could wipe out the Shoah from my memory.”

Maybe the post-Shoah believer has ten tons of pain, but four cubits of halakhah, as was said after the destruction of the Second Temple. All of these believers—and many others too numerous to mention—create the possibility of living a life of faith after the Shoah, although a faith inconsolable, torn, and full of question marks. May these disturbed believers continue their quest until they “see children [born] to their children, [and see] peace upon Israel” (Psalms 128:6).

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shraga Bar-On is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and the director of the institute's David Hartman Center for Intellectual Excellence. He co-heads the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis and a faculty member at Shalem College in Jerusalem, Israel.