‘Look,” said my friend. “If there is a God and He is the God of the Jewish people – all-knowing, all-powerful and able to intervene in history – then either He stood by and let the Holocaust happen, or He wanted it to happen.
“I refuse to believe in such a God.”
He is passionate in his denial, which he repeats often, and I feel his pain. He would like to believe, is my strong impression, but an immense obstacle stands in his way and he cannot see a way over it or around it.
God brought the Children of Israel safely out of Egypt; why, then, did He not show them the way around Hitler’s ovens?
If nothing happens without God’s intention, he reasons, then the Shoah must have been part of that intention; and believing Jews, who consider God righteous and just, in order to comprehend the deaths of six million of their people, somehow have to blame the victims – otherwise why would they have suffered this horrible punishment?
IT SEEMS to me that there are, broadly, three ways in which we Jews confront the enigma of God and the Holocaust.
One way is my friend’s, seeking logic and understanding of God’s plan, and, in the absence of even the beginnings of understanding, coming away angry, frustrated, bitterly disappointed and dismissive of a so-called benevolent deity who did nothing while His people were slaughtered.
These feelings cannot be lightly discounted, even by those whose belief in God remains unshaken after the unspeakable toll of the Shoah. For it is hardly easy to reconcile the concept of a just and righteous God with the murder of a million and a half Jewish children – not to speak of their parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins.
Of course the Holocaust was just the latest in a long chain of Jewish suffering and death resulting from persecutions stretching back through the centuries in so many places where Jews have tried to live their lives in peace.
One book that brought this grim reality home to me appeared just seven years after the end of WWII and was called The Foot of Pride
. In it, English clergyman Malcolm V. Hay chronicles 1,900 years of almost unrelenting Christian demonization of Jews. It’s heartbreaking to read about this careful tending of the toxic soil in which the seeds of genocide developed.
Where was God during any of these persecutions? my friend asks.
THE SECOND way of grappling with God and the Shoah is to force a correlation between an omnipotent, active and ultimately caring deity and the abomination of the Final Solution.
“Too often,” wrote Rabbi Reuven Hammer in a May 2000 op-ed in this newspaper, “we hear people… make a causative connection between the Shoah and the establishment of the State of Israel.” They say the Shoah “is the price we had to pay for our national rebirth. The implication of this for religious people is that the Shoah was part of God’s plan for bringing His people back to its land.
“It is difficult for me to believe,” Hammer said, “that the Creator of the universe had to resort to the murder of 6,000,000 people in order to bring us to Israel.” This, he says, is as much a defamation of God as the assertion from some ultra-religious sources – “who check mezuzot in schools after tragic accidents” – that God brought about the Shoah in order to punish Jews for failing to live a proper religious life.
“Personally,” Hammer commented, “ I would rather have no concept of God than one that makes Him such a monster.”
THIS CONCEPT of “no concept” is, I think, the third and only real way for a believing Jew to relate to the defining catastrophe of the Jewish people in our time. Simply put, we feel there is a divine plan, but at the same time we recognize that there are some things we just cannot comprehend. And we go on believing.
“I’m an observant Jew,” Yehuda Avner told The Jerusalem Post
’s David Horovitz in a wide-ranging interview earlier this month coinciding with the publication of his book The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership
“…I believe in Elokei Yisrael
(the God of Israel ), but after the Holocaust I never delve into theology... the truth of our history is that our enemies try to destroy us in every generation, and… every time it is they who are destroyed.”
RECOGNIZING that there are things we cannot comprehend, however, does not necessarily imply accepting them with equanimity. And going on believing can be a real struggle.
“In a Munich synagogue last year,” wrote Rabbi Shlomo Riskin in May 2005, “there were about 100 people in shul; but only the cantor and I were praying. Everyone else was talking – not in the hushed tones in which neighbors generally speak during a prayer service, but loudly, even walking from place to place as they spoke, seemingly unaware of the prayer and Torah reading going on...
“My host explained: ‘These Jews are all Holocaust survivors or children of Holocaust survivors. They’re angry at God, so they can’t, or won’t, speak to Him. They can’t live with God after the Holocaust, but neither can they live without Him. They do, however, speak to each other.’”
Young American writer Shalom Auslander, raised in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Monsey, New York, says he was taught to respect – but above all to fear – “the Man Upstairs.” When we obey the Man, he says, “He likes us,” but when we don’t, “He hates us. Sometimes He tries to kill us.”
In the short but affective “The Foreskin’s Lament” (watch it on YouTube), Auslander paints a furious, vengeful God who gets others – Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, Nazis – to kill the Jews; or kills us Himself in terrifying ways.
He is convinced that his newly pregnant wife will miscarry; or that if the baby is allowed to be born, it – or both the baby and his wife – will be killed in some other way. “I know this God,” he says. “I know how He works.”
Nowhere is there any hint of a deity of love, kindness or mercy.
Yet Auslander ends his Lament
with: “I believe in God. It’s been a real pro blem for me.”
Then there’s the story – poignant even if apocryphal – about Jews in a concentration camp who decided to put God on trial because he had failed to keep his promise to the Jewish people. They argued back and forth, and reached a decision: God was guilty.
Then one participant said, “Now it’s time to daven Ma’ariv
I’VE TRIED to explain to my troubled friend that religious belief
doesn’t insulate the believer from struggle and questioning; and that
one can be tormented by the enormity and devastation of the Holocaust
and have no answers about God’s role in it – and yet still believe in
God. We can even be angry at Him, like Shalom Auslander, and continue
But you can’t argue someone into belief. Belief doesn’t depend on logic
or proof, rather on a “leap of faith” which either happens, or doesn’t.
My friend respects my religious belief, and I respect his honesty and painful unbelief.
We’re both in the same boat, really.