Theological Responses to Kristallnacht and the Pittsburgh Shooting

Last Shabbat, when I dedicated my sermon to the horrific shooting in Pittsburgh, I neglected to address something that I thought was simply beyond the pale and not even worth discussing.  Namely, there were some Rabbis who claimed that the eleven people were murdered in the Tree of Life synagogue as a punishment for sinful behavior because this was a conservative shul and apparently a gay couple was celebrating the brit milah of a child at that time.  Apparently, these remarks were broadcast and distributed on social media and caused such a stir that the Rabbinical Council of America had to issue what, in my mind, was an obvious public release that “RCA Condemns Presumptuous Theological Justifications of Pittsburgh Massacre.”  The remarks that the fringe Rabbis made were offensive, insensitive and not based on Torah values.  After all, how do you reconcile this massacre as being a punishment for sinful behavior such as prayer in a conservative synagogue when there was a Har Nof massacre in an orthodox synagogue four years ago?  Does that mean we should all start praying in Reconstructionist synagogues?  To play God and presume that we know why certain tragedies occurred is, in my mind, foolish and insensitive.  As far as I know, the Rabbis who publicized these statements do not represent mainstream orthodoxy.

But what do we do when Torah giants try to find reasons for tragedies?  I recently came across an article by Gershon Greenberg, a Philosophy and Religion Professor at American University, entitled, “Kristallnacht:  The American Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Theological Response,” where he analyzes the Charedi response to Kristallnacht, which took place eighty years ago.  He surveyed the responses of different leaders in Eastern Europe, Israel and America.  As an example, one of the leading Torah giants in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust, Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, believed that Kristallnacht belonged to a metahistorical transition, one which carried the eschatological, apocalyptic dimension of passing from exile to redemption.  He believed that assimilation was the catalyst for persecution and he argued for the necessity of repentance.   Since Kristallnacht was not a natural but a Divine act, he asserted that the people could not bring about change through natural means, but they could bring change through their relationship with the Divine, through repentance, prayer and charity. He based himself on the verses in Parshat Devarim that we respond to calamity with repentance.

Why would we say that Kristallnacht was the punishment for sin?  I think that we may be inclined to do so because we are crying for an answer.  We want to be comforted and we want to understand why God does things.  Especially when what is happening is so unnatural, we assume that it must be an act of God and if it is an act of God, then there must be a reason.  There is a natural human desire to try to understand God’s ways, and certain Rabbis and Rabbinic leaders may try to fit world events into a fulfillment of the Biblical narrative.

The truth is that the religious Zionist community does it too when we interpret the events of Sefer Devarim as referencing the return to Israel.  For example, we interpret the verses in Parshat Netzavim which describe the ingathering of the exiles before God “circumcises our hearts” as describing the current situation of the return of Jews to Israel even though we have not fully repented as of yet. Religious Jews across the theological spectrum interpret events with an eye to our prophetic books.

It seems to me that on an individual level, we just can’t know why things happen to some people and not to other people. The philosophical dilemma of צדיק ורע לו רשע וטוב לו – why do bad things happen to good people and vice versa – is well documented in our tradition.  We cannot state for certain that we understand spiritual cause and effect with respect to individuals.  As such, it seems foolish to assign any spiritual blame to a victim of a crime.  In this instance, we can only express solidarity and empathy to the victim and assign blame to the perpetrator.

However, when it comes to the Jewish nation and we sense that something is so unexpected, so unnatural and so illogical, like Kristallnacht, the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel, then we cannot help but see the hand of God shaping and moving history in a certain direction. We do not know for certain that this is the case, but we are encouraged to seek out Godliness in this world and there is nothing wrong with sensing that a certain event is so unnatural that God, as it were, is calling out to us.

Additionally, we also cannot escape the reality that the Torah is full of warnings to our nation that we as a nation shall suffer if we fail to follow God’s ways.  Therefore, ascribing a theological reason, a sin, for a certain unnatural historical event like Kristallnacht can actually be comforting for some people because then the event fits into their religious worldview.  However, for many of us, myself included, the tragedy of the Holocaust is too enormous to ascribe to any sin, even if it may fit nicely into a Biblical warning.

Furthermore, the Torah tells us that when calamity strikes we should repent and the Gemara says that if יסורין באין עליך, if we experience suffering, then יפשפש במעשיו, we should examine our ways.  If our nation suffers a calamity then we have to ask ourselves what are we not doing right and how can we better ourselves, but we should not point fingers at others and say it is their fault – because they assimilated or because they aren’t observant enough.

I understand why people try to find reasons for unnatural events.  They want to connect to God in their everyday lives.  They want to feel, as Rav Soloveitchik remarked, “the warm hand of God resting on my shoulder.”  They want to find some meaning in that which seems meaningless and maybe some Torah giants after Kristallnacht tried to give our people hope and comfort that everything will be okay as long as we repent and they based their arguments on Biblical and Rabbinic sources… and yet, as we know, Kristallnacht was only the beginning of something much worse.

I also want to remain connected to God. I also want to sense God in my everyday life.  I don’t want to detach myself from God. However, trying to understand Kristallnacht and the Pittsburgh shootings from a sin and punishment perspective doesn’t resonate with me and I have unfortunately seen this perspective communicated in an insensitive manner which can lead to hatred and blaming others instead of introspection. So how do I connect to God?  My connection to God, borrowing from an essay by Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, entitled “Bitachon:  Trust in God,” is not to have faith in God, but to remain faithful to God. My connection to God is not having faith that everything will be all right when, at times, what we hope for doesn’t come to pass.  My connection to God is not understanding why God does everything that He does in this world.  Rather, my connection is knowing that my time here on Earth is a blessing and it should be wholly dedicated to spreading Godliness in the world. It’s not primarily about having faith.  It’s primarily about being faithful.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.