The Shoah – whom should we blame?

There is a long Jewish tradition of asking God where He was when things went so horribly wrong.

August 13, 2016 21:05
4 minute read.

Auschwitz-Birkenau. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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Tisha Be’av inevitably turns our minds to the Holocaust. Was the Shoah unique, or one more (albeit massive) example of the destruction of Jews and Jewish life? It’s true that this was not the first in a chain of destructions and is part of an accumulating process of tragedy. It’s true that Jews are used to being attacked and targeted. But no other event in Jewish history was so fiendishly planned, so ideologically based, so universal in scope, so deep a wound in the psyche and soul of mankind as a whole. The scale and outcome of the catastrophe were unique even though the theological issues were not new.

There is a long Jewish tradition of asking God where He was when things went so horribly wrong. Abraham asked God, “Shall the Judge of all the earth not act justly?” Moses asked, “Why do You deal evilly with this people?” Job wanted to take God to court. The rabbinic sages asked, “Is this religion and this its ‘reward’?” The confrontations with God reverberate throughout history.

The problem is succinctly put in Elie Wiesel’s title God the Accused.

Yes, it’s a global issue, since the whole of mankind was involved, not only Jews but millions of non-Jews.

Some (but not all) non-Jews condoned Jewish suffering; some (but not all) protested. Inhumanity knows no boundaries.

But it’s mostly a Jewish issue. Jews were the only ones ideologically targeted for total destruction.

Whom shall we blame – the perpetrators? The nations? Ourselves? God? Why should we blame anyone? Michael Zylberberg says in his Warsaw Diary, “The echo reverberates...

There is no answer.” Richard Rubenstein says that life is absurd; the world is a “cold, silent, unfeeling cosmos.”

Should we blame the world at large, and say we were being punished for the sins of the generation, the wretched being punished for the wicked? Should we blame ourselves? Judaism insists there is reward and punishment (look at the second paragraph of the Shema; look at the Tochachah). But the reward and punishment are not evenly distributed: there is no evidence of proportionality, to use that dangerous modern word; no evidence, as Emanuel Levinas says, of “tit for tat.” The wicked sometimes prosper, the righteous sometimes suffer... but not always. So what is reward and punishment – an exhortation, and not a prediction? We often blame ourselves for our suffering, but to overdo the self-blame is obscene, as Eliezer Berkovits insists. If others deserve punishment, why should I have to suffer because of them? Shall we blame God? Is He morally blameworthy for not creating a perfect world? Though we acclaim His goodness, is there something wrong with Him? Can He prevent evil but be unwilling or powerless to stop it? If so, how can He be God? Does He really suffer with us, as many biblical passages declare, notably Psalm 91? Does this mean that He is really a victim? Does He merely sit on the floor with us and hold our hands, as Howard Kushner says in When Bad Things Happen to Good People, sitting shiva for a tragedy which He could or did not prevent? Is it sacrilegious or blasphemous to accuse God – or, as a military chaplaincy colleague asked me in Australia, “Is it allowed to shout at God?” My answer, which I believe spoke out of the depth of Judaism, was that not only may one shout at God but sometimes one must.

Since God gives us the power to reason, how can we not use it? Since He gives us the power of speech, how can we not speak up and speak out when we need to? Not that we are likely to find the definitive answers.

Not just because we are too close to the events, but maybe suffering is a decree which we must accept.

Maybe it is a mystery which we are too small to fathom.

It might partly depend on who is asking the question.

Berkovits wants to know who may ask: Job, the one who was there in the agony, or his brother, who was not physically there but was affected by the pain? It might also depend on what is the question – suffering or courage, abandonment or retention of faith? Is it a question for philosophers who indulge in academic analyses, or for “real” people, the ones torn by the pain and hurt? Joseph B. Soloveitchik warns us against being mere philosophers.

Where do we go from here? Do we seek explanations, or responses? This distinction is made by Emil Fackenheim and Soloveitchik among others. Elie Wiesel says, “The essence of the question is to be without an answer.” Not that we have to abdicate and say that nothing can be said. We can and must be like Dante leaving the Inferno, able despite everything to look up and seek the stars.

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