The Jewish world was shocked when a former chief rabbi of Israel said that the Holocaust took place in Germany because that was where the Reform Movement originated. It was God's punishment of the Jewish people for permitting Reform Judaism.
Prominent leaders - both religious and secular - were quick to denounce this statement and rightly so. What kind of a God would it be who would cause such suffering to millions of innocent men, women and children? Is this not a desecration of God's name? And yet we are faced with the fact that there are texts in the Torah that speak of God's punishment and that could be interpreted in such a way.
These sections, known as toheha - reproach - are found both in Leviticus 26:14-38 and in Deuteronomy 28:15-68, when Moses warns the Israelites prior to their entering their new land of the consequences of breaking the covenant made with God. Thus both the priestly book of Leviticus and the Deuteronomic code are in complete agreement that terrible consequences will follow Israel's breaking of the covenant with God. These sections are customarily read quietly as if to say, "We don't really want to hear this!" or "Heaven forefend that this should ever come to pass!"
These verses make difficult reading. They are also problematic. Are we to take them to mean that every time there is a national tragedy it is a punishment from God? We have seen that happen when "literalists" have explained terrorist attacks or other tragedies as punishment for some lack of ritual observance - faulty mezuzot or Shabbat desecration. We have also heard these charges made in regard to the Holocaust many times. If not Reform Judaism, then secularism or Zionism resulted in the Shoah.
These simplistic accusations not only defame innocent people; they also ignore the fact that while Judaism has taught that God punishes evil (as in the stories of the flood and Sodom and Gomorrah), it has also acknowledged that there are times when the righteous suffer and taught that one may not infer from a person's suffering that it was a deserved punishment because of some sin. The entire book of Job is devoted to that doctrine. In the words of Pirke Avot, "We have no way of understanding why the wicked prosper and why the righteous suffer" (4:19). Or, to quote Abraham Joshua Heschel, "History is the arena in which the will of God is defied." We dare not blame the victims and thus in any way justify the crime.
How then are we to understand those Torah portions? In the first place, they were needed exhortations at that time, reminding the people of Israel during the latter days of the First Temple, when they had strayed far from the pure faith Moses had taught, that their well-being depended upon their adherence to the laws of godly morality. The teachings of the great prophets, such as Amos and later Jeremiah, were based on this doctrine. They constantly emphasized that the punishment was not for some ritual sin or other but because of the breach of basic morality.
As Jeremiah put it: "No, if you really mend your ways and your actions; if you execute justice between one man and another; if you do not oppress the stranger, the orphan and the widow; if you do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place; if you do not follow other gods to your own hurt - then only will I let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers for all time" (7:5-7). The meaning of these exhortations for us must be that evil has consequences and that a society is only as strong as its morality.
Rabbi Louis Jacobs put it this way in his book Principles of the Jewish Faith: "Wickedness [carries] the seeds of its own destruction. We prefer to leave the details to God, who in His wisdom 'searches all hearts,' but so to conduct ourselves that all the ancient teachings on reward and punishment are still of the utmost relevance to our lives... in every possible way it is ultimately better for us to lead a good life and reject an evil life. When we pursue evil we are at variance with God's purpose and this can never succeed in any ultimate sense."
There is a place for the doctrine of reward and punishment, for the teaching that God is concerned with our actions, that ultimately good will triumph over evil, but there is no place for teaching that the Holocaust was justified in any way or for ascribing such suffering to the will of God.
The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court (Beit Din) of the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.