The meaning of suffering

Can there be a human answer to the mystery of divine non-intervention in the Holocaust?

April 13, 2010 04:41
3 minute read.
The meaning of suffering

auschwitz 88. (photo credit: )


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In last week’s Torah portion, Shemini, we find an enigmatic story. Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, bring an incense offering described as aish zara (strange fire) into the Tabernacle. Flames immediately descend from heaven and consume them in a description that echoes the divine consumption of a burnt offering in a preceding verse. Moses, in comforting Aaron, describes his nephews as krovai, those close to God. Aaron’s response to the event is mute silence.

The commentators wrestle with the question – what was their sin? If they were on a high spiritual level, how could they have committed such a grave sin? And if it was not so serious, why were they killed? None of the many explanations is fully satisfying, and one is ultimately left adopting Aaron’s humble posture – silent acceptance in the face of an overwhelming and bewildering expression of God’s will.

THE PROBLEM of Evil is a central theme in theology. The seeming injustice of suffering, from Abraham’s pleading for the righteous of Sodom through Job, plagued medieval and modern scholars alike. But nowhere does the problem reach its full magnitude as with the horrors of the Holocaust.

Professor Shalom Rosenberg, in his book Good and Evil in Jewish Thought, divides philosophers of the Holocaust into two camps – those who explain the Shoah, and those who feel it is beyond comprehension. The first group includes Bruno Bettelheim, who analyzed the Holocaust in psychological terms, and Hannah Arendt, who coined the phrase “the banality of evil” in regard to Adolf Eichmann, and sought sociological roots for Nazism.

The second group includes Elie Wiesel and Emil Fackenheim, for whom the Holocaust represents a “radical evil ... almost a mystical revelation ... of cosmic proportions” that cannot possibly be explained by any normal criteria. Rosenberg himself also leans towards this position, describing the Nazi machine as “demonic and satanic.”

Auschwitz survivor Rabbi David Weiss Halivni, in his book Breaking the Tablets: Jewish Theology After the Shoah, sees things differently. Orthodox analysts, he says, are generally divided between those who view the Holocaust as a form of punishment and those who radically reject such an outlook as blasphemous, but are then left with no explanation at all. The former group includes both the Satmar Rebbe, a survivor who wrote of the Holocaust as a punishment for Zionism, and Rabbi Yisachar Teichtal, who wrote his seminal book, Aim HaBanim Smachah, in the Budapest ghetto before he was murdered. The initially anti-Zionist Teichtal posited the diametrically opposite view, that the Holocaust is punishment for the Jews’ love of the Diaspora and refusal to embrace Zionism.  Basing his arguments on a variety of Jewish sources, Halivni dramatically rejects both positions, concluding that God would not destroy his people on such a massive scale merely as punishment. But what, then, is the explanation?

HERE HALIVNI allows himself to speculate. The answer, he writes, is rooted in Lurianic Kabbalah, and has to do with the cosmic balance of free will and divine intervention, and the absolute importance of free will in determining human destiny. Ultimately, however, Halivni is forced to admit that there can be no human answer to the mystery of divine non-intervention in the Holocaust.

The deepest and most prolonged meditation on the subject is that of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira of Piaseczna, who was murdered by the Nazis in 1943. In Aish Kodesh, his Warsaw Ghetto discourses, he creates a variety of theological constructs in an attempt to fathom the evil around him. After rejecting the notion of the Holocaust as punishment, he paradoxically comes to view the hiding of God’s face and the absurdity of radical suffering as an opportunity to come closer to God. The late Rebbe of Slonim writes that ultimately the Holocaust is one of the great mysteries of Creation. “A person’s heart and brain are incapable of grasping what happened here. There is no expression for this, for natural human emotions are too inconsequential to feel pain of such breadth and horrible depth. Only mute silence, as it is written, ‘and Aaron was silent.’”

The writer  is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shirat Shlomo in Efrat. He is the author of Redemptions: Contemporary Chassidic Essays on the Parsha and the Festivals.

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