The most dangerous and offensive of all religious ideas is that innocent people
suffer because of their sins. This notion, so easily abused, makes victims into
criminals, denying them divine sympathy or human compassion.
it all before.
Why was there a Holocaust? Because German Jewry
assimilated and abandoned their faith. They desecrated the Sabbath. They adopted
Germanic names. They married out. They wanted to be more German than the
In the words of one of the greatest Jewish sages of prewar
Poland, Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, who was executed by a Nazi firing squad, “The
fire which will burn our bodies will be the fire that restores the Jewish
Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, felt that the Holocaust
was a punishment for secular Zionism; Jews can only return to Israel when God
himself redeems them. Rabbi Menachem Hartom said the exact opposite.
were punished by God for being too comfortable in Germany and abandoning their
attachment to Israel, their ancient homeland.
One rabbi who lectured in
my community not long ago said, before a crowd of hundreds of modern Orthodox
Jews who barely found his words objectionable, that one can see how lax Jews
were in their observance in Germany from the women who were about to be gassed
in Auschwitz. Pictures have them standing naked, after the SS removed their
clothing, and they are not even trying to cover up in front of the German
soldiers. Here was a rabbi finding fault with Jewish women who were about to be
murdered along with their children, which just goes to show that the belief that
suffering results from sin can lead to shocking anti-Semitism.
these are not only repulsive, they are factually inaccurate.
of Germany’s Jews, who supposedly incurred the divine wrath through sin,
survived the Holocaust.
They knew who Hitler was and had a few years to
try and get out. The people who did not know that Hitler was coming for them
were the hassidic Jews of Poland, with long sidecurls and beards, who had no
idea that Hitler planned to invade Poland on September 1, 1939.
devout in the extreme. So what was their sin? And what of the 1.5 million dead
children? What were they guilty of? Regardless, are these rabbis seriously
suggesting that because of assimilation, God decided to ghettoize, wrack with
disease, gas and ultimately cremate six million Jews? And if that’s true, is He
a God worthy of prayer? And do we have any right to condemn six million people
whom we did not know on the assumption that they were so horrendously sinful
that they and their children warranted extermination? No.
is an abomination. It rejects the very name of the Jewish people, “He who
wrestles with God.”
A Jew must struggle with God in the face of seeming
divine miscarriages of justice.
What does Abraham do when God threatens
to destroy Sodom and Gomorra, even though God had said, “Their sin so grievous.”
Abraham thunders at the heavens: “Will the Judge of all the earth not Himself
practice justice?” (Genesis 18:25).
The same is true of the prophet
Moses. How does the great redeemer react when God threatens to destroy the
children of Israel after the sin of the golden calf? Does he bow his head in
submission before God’s declaration that the people are sinful and deserving of
Moses, in one of the most haunting passages of the Bible
and eloquent defenses of human life ever recorded, says to God, “Now, forgive
their sin – but if not, blot me out, I pray you, of the Torah you have written”
The Bible is clear: “The secret things belong to the Lord
our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever”
(Deuteronomy 29:29). God is in charge of the hidden things. Why does He allow
humans to suffer unjustifiably? What goes on in secret behind the partition of
Well, that is of no human concern. But the revealed things, this is our
area of focus. A parent is mourning the death of a child. A woman is crying over
the loss of her husband. Why did they die? As far as we are concerned, for no
reason at all. In the revealed here and now, their suffering served no higher
SUFFERING IS not redemptive, it is not ennobling, it is not a
blessing, and it teaches us nothing that we could not have learned by gentler
means. It’s Christianity, rather than Judaism, that says that someone has to die
in order for sin to be forgiven. We Jews reject any idea of human
Some cite the Talmud (Shabbat 55a): “No death without sin; no
suffering without iniquity.” Or again: “If a man sees that he is afflicted with
suffering, he should examine his deeds, as it is said, “Let us search and try
our ways, and return unto the Lord” (Lamentations 3:40). The Talmud adds:
“Suffering is due to evil deeds or neglect of Torah study.”
But all these
pronouncements apply to our own suffering.
If something bad happens to us
we have the right to examine our actions. But our assumption of everyone else
must be that they are righteous and their suffering is undeserved.
attempts to infuse suffering with rich meaning shows callous indifference to the
heartache of fellow humans. Suffering does not leave us ennobled, empathic, or
wiser. Rather, it leave us broken, morose and bitter. And if I’m wrong and
suffering is such a great teacher than why is it that any responsible parent
would exert every effort to spare their child from suffering?
As for the rabbis
who say that Jews are sinful and deserve to die, they make me miss the
Lubavitcher Rebbe ever more. I can still close my eyes and see him, ever so
clearly and well into his late 80’s, pounding the table in public with all his
might: “How long?” he would cry, “How long?” How long will Israeli soldiers die
in defense of their homeland? How many more Jews will be dismembered by
murderous bombs? Why has the Messiah not yet come? And how can anyone calling
himself a rabbi have the chutzpah to ever justify the death of innocents?
Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom The Washington Post calls “the most
famous rabbi in America,” has just published his newest best-seller, The Fed-up
Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and
Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.