The Inhumanity of Trying to Make God Look Good
Many years ago, while in grad school, I attended a lecture given by the philosopher Emil Fackenheim. He spoke about how moral philosophy and its adherents remained silent in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Because there was nothing to be said that would not be self-serving, excuse-making, insulting, ridiculous, or worse. The Holocaust had shown the absurdity, the outrageousness of trying to offer some moral roadmap or rational articulation of principles in the aftermath of unrelenting, overwhelming, staggering horror.
And yet, there are those who have never stopped trying to figure out what to say, how to say it, how to explain. That is especially true I think, for those whose business, as it were, is religion. On Yom HaShoah, I joined a zoom class with a prominent rabbi, who was speaking to us from Jerusalem. He described for us the solemness of the day, the stopped traffic, the reprogrammed radio and television, and so on. And then he tried to do the impossible: make the case for God in the aftermath of the Holocaust.
This rabbi, with whom I’ve taken a couple of other online classes, is someone I respect. He comes from the Orthodox (non-Haredi) world and his original teaching focus was Western Intellectual History. He has a broad and deep understanding of things, which I consider a real virtue.
I am not a Torah scholar, so I hope I am not misrepresenting anything he said, but I do want to try to capture it. He divided Jewish theology into three eras. The first was the period of God’s active hand, the period of the Exodus from Egypt. Then followed the period of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, when zealots burned food stores, forcing the Jews to fight against an overwhelming Roman force, which predictably defeated them. The rabbi characterized this phase as a kind of irrational overreaching, an unwillingness of the zealous Jews to try to compromise with Rome, to preserve Jewish life.
He then went on to characterize the period during the Holocaust as one in which God was both hidden and everywhere. The hidden part is obvious. The everywhere part lost me a bit, but I think it was meant to be found in the scattered shoots of resistance, i.e., in those places where large percentages of Jews survived–Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, vs. those places where nearly all Jews were slaughtered–Lithuania, Poland, etc. I could find in his categorization no evidence for God. Rather, it struck me that he pointed to the only thing that has ever mattered in times of human suffering and degradation, viz., the willingness and courage of those who step up and forward to help. There is no divine anything to be found here, in my humble opinion, and to suggest otherwise is to me an insult to the tiny subfraction of courageous humans who chose to help or died trying. There is nothing in their behavior that is a credit to God, or even to the idea of divinity. There is nothing in their behavior that reflects anything about a divine spark in them, or their recognition of a divine spark in others. Were some people who helped motivated by religion? Yes. But those who stepped forward in the most dangerous of circumstances did not require religious belief or fidelity. On the other hand, were there practitioners of genocide who stood in pulpits or sat in pews and sang hymns loudly in church before or after torturing and murdering Jews? Far more than the numbers who stepped forward to help.
The effort to somehow redeem God from the ashes of the Holocaust strikes me as both desperate and offensive. If God is so powerful, so important, so central to the human story, then why the need to rationalize God’s declining presence in the world? I know the rabbinic answer goes something like this: God set the world in motion and entered into a partnership with humanity, and a unique covenant with the Jewish people whereby we agreed to work toward perfecting God’s creation. In effect, God passed the buck to us. Human beings are now responsible for the whole ball of wax. We can no longer–as during the time of the Exodus–have any expectation of God’s direct hand moving through and influencing human life and behavior in any obvious way. Which makes not only the fact of the Holocaust worse for God’s image, but the whole “perfecting” business literally a bloody failure.
I sent a WhatsApp message to my eldest after the zoom session ended, sharing my frustrations. I summed them up with the following: I think the only humane response to the Holocaust is white hot rage at those who orchestrated and carried it out–including millions of non-combatant collaborators–and eternal gratitude to the tiny subfraction of humans who provided aid or tried to.
That is all.