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Holocaust theology refers to a body of theological and philosophical debate, soul-searching, and analysis, with the subsequent related literature, that attempts to come to grips with various conflicting views about the role of God in this human world and the events of the European Holocaust that occurred during World War II (1939-1945) when around 11 million people, including 6 million Jews, were subjected to genocide by the Nazis and their cohorts. "Holocaust theology" is also referred to as "Theologie nach Auschwitz" (German for "Theology after Auschwitz"), due to the common practice of using "Auschwitz" as a shorthand for the Holocaust as a whole.
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam traditionally have taught that God is omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing) and omnibenevolent (all good). These claims seem to be in jarring contrast with the fact that there is much evil in the world. Perhaps the most difficult question that monotheists have confronted is how can we reconcile the existence of this view of God with the existence of evil? This is the problem of evil as described in the Book of Job.
Within all the monotheistic faiths many answers (theodicies) have been proposed. However, in light of the magnitude of evil seen in the Holocaust, many people have re-examined classical views on this subject. Many people have asked, "How can people still have any kind of faith after the Holocaust?" Template:The Holocaust
Jewish theological responses: Background to the diversity of views
The variety of theological responses that Jews have articulated about the Holocaust, can be related to wider traditions of thought. In order to understand their views in context, it is helpful to see the breadth and scope of traditional Jewish theodicies of evil, as well as to describe the roots of Modern and Post-Modern revisionist Jewish philosophical views.
The classic tradition of Jewish scholarship and spirituality, embodied in its historic texts, comprises many interpretations of Biblical and rabbinic Judaism. They vary from legal, imaginative and philosophical endeavours, to esoteric mystical theologies. Together they form a scholarly culture that the Jews carried and evolved, through their historic journeys. This tradition of thought developed from its own sources, and also sometimes through intellectual encounters with other traditions, giving and receiving ideas in turn. The revealed theology of Judaism, affected Western thought through its adapted forms in Christianity. Meanwhile, the other source of Western culture, arose from humanistic philosophy of Ancient Greece, based on independent thought from first principles. When the Jewish community were granted social rights after the Enlightenment, they developed their own religious and philosophical responses to Modern thought. These varied from recommitment and reinterpretation of traditional observance, through synthesising embraces of the best of both worlds, to radical or revisionist reassessments of historical Judaism. In each of these approaches, new creativity emerged, with new theological and philosophical interpretations. Hasidic Philosophy developed Jewish mysticism in new ways. Litvish Orthodoxy formed new approaches to Talmudic scholarship and Mussar (Ethical introspection). Both of these Eastern European civilizations continued the theoretical interpretation of Lurianic Kabbalah, which underpins Haredi Jewish belief until today. Modern Orthodox Judaism thinkers reinterpreted Judaism in the language of modern secular philosophy and scholarship. The Haskalah gave birth to critical, academic approaches to Judaism, beginning with the 19th Century German "Wissenschaft des Judentums" ("Science of Judaism") movement. Theologians from non-Orthodox Jewish denominations expressed a range of revisionist views of Jewish spirituality and scholarship. New schools, such as Jewish existentialism, could find new meaning in Revelation, outside of Orthodox Judaism.
Historical developments of Jewish thought could rediscover new meaning in earlier traditions. The early scholars of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment movement) rejected the mystical in Judaism, in common with the secular Western thought of their time, and their personal wish to leave behind the Shtetl. This tendency was shared with the prevalent values of the Western secular Enlightenment of their time, that sought to rationalise Revelation. The philosophical father of Haskalah, Moses Mendelssohn, could seek therefore to remove the mystical dimensions of Jewish spirituality. The birth of academic scholarship of Kabbalah under Gershom Scholem, and the search for deeper Jewish spirituality, in the 20th Century, rediscovered Jewish mysticism for Jews of all denominations today. New movements of Jewish Renewal and Neo-Hasidism, could find spiritual and philosophical insights from Jewish mysticism, outside of Orthodoxy. This likewise reflects wider currents of thought in Western society, from the non-mechanistic and neo-mystical aspects of 20th Century Science and Mathematics, to philosophical and artistic interest in the values of cultural identity.
The developments in 19th and 20th Century Jewish life, encompass the greatest changes and upheavals in a short space of time, to take place in Jewish history. Similar changes characterise wider history, but the individuality of the Jewish experience, makes their encounter with the events and ideas of modernity, especially turbulent. In one century, they experienced the tragedy of the Holocaust, with the end of the great centres of Jewish life, followed by the historical return to their Biblical homeland, with the parallel reestablishment of Jewish study and spirituality in Israel and America. The two watershed events of the Holocaust and the birth of Israel, affect the religious and philosophical interpretations of Jews today. The diversity of Jewish theological responses to the Holocaust, are shaped by the history of previous Jewish thought. The great texts, ideas and creative developments in Jewish thought, give the background to more recent interpretations. Both traditional and revisionist theological responses to the Holocaust, can adapt or reinterpret previous Jewish ideas, so they are best understood in the context of their wider background. Among the different theological responses, and their wider contexts, Jews have had to the Holocaust are:
The Holocaust in historical context
- No new response is needed. The Holocaust may be larger than other tragedies, or its form and intent may be unique. However, theologically it may not ultimately be different from other terrible events. Connected with this view are comparative discussions of the uniqueness of the Holocaust. Does it stand apart from other historical and international genocides? Should its Jewish victims be commemorated separately from its many non-Jewish victims? In Jewish thought, it is usually seen fundamentally as a Jewish event. This is justified by the unique nature of the Nazi attack on the Jews, in its essential aim, and metaphysical intent in Nazi philosophy. From the perspective of Jewish spirituality, it can be seen as a war against the spiritual message of Israel to humanity, a fight against the Biblical "God of Israel" and Monotheistic morality. This understanding can also incorporate its non-Jewish victims, as it sees the Jewish message and role, as a universal representation of all peoples. In the history of understanding antisemitism, some have seen the fate of the Jews as giving the first warning of wider social problems. In this view, their vulnerability and difference, can make them the first scapegoat for intolerance, a "canary in a mine" whose fate warns of danger. In Jewish history, should the Holocaust be seen as uniquely different from earlier events? One response sees it as a continuation of the long history of Antisemitism. Jewish history has known many calamitous events, some that destroyed large populations, some accompanied by great suffering. Among frequent episodes of persecution, perhaps two previous events stand out as different, and may be called national "Churban" (destruction). The destruction of Judah and Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, seemed to end the Biblical plan for Israel, destroyed the First Temple, killed many people, and exiled the survivors. The later destruction of Judea and Jerusalem under Titus, destroyed the Second Temple, and brutally put down the Jewish revolt. This suppression was completed later under Hadrian, in response to a second revolt, with further massive loss of life, and a second exile of the nation. In this view, the Holocaust is another Churban, and may not require a new theological response. It prompts us again to investigate the issue of why bad things sometimes happen to good people. The aim of theodicy is to seek to reconcile theological belief with the existence of suffering. The great religious traditions of the World, including Judaism, have formulated many different responses to this question. However, from the perspective of man, articulating this endeavour can be problematic: To offer comprehensive answers can be insensitive to the pain, to refrain from attempting to answer can be unhelpful. In the view that sees a continuity between the Holocaust and previous tragedies, the Holocaust therefore shouldn't change our theology.
The many aspects of suffering as punishment, atonement and spiritual resolution
- Rabbinic Judaism has a doctrine from the books of the prophets called mi-penei hataeinu, "because of our sins we were punished". During Biblical times when calamities befell the Jewish people, the Jewish prophets stressed that suffering is a natural result of not following God's law, and prosperity, peace and health are the natural results of following God's law. In particular, the central text of Judaism, the Torah, contains two passages called the "Tochachah" (Warnings) in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, that have been seen as fulfilled by future events of Jewish history. In traditional Jewish thought, the fundamental belief in reward and punishment (included among Maimonides` "Jewish Principles of Faith") is given wider context, and various interpretations, that bring out its different aspects. For instance, the Biblical Prophets repeatedly chastised the people, and described how God was repulsed by their actions, and silent to their cries. When the warned calamities arrived, the Prophets shared in the persecution, and were sometimes rejected by their brethren. Nonetheless, throughout, the Prophets also poetically described God's deeper, unbreakable love of them. In traditional Jewish thought, Divine punishment is the unfolding of the processes of God's attribute of strict justice, usually mitigated or delayed by God's attribute of benevolent mercy. The purposes are many faceted, and can be explained on lower and higher levels. Ethically, justice of God, like human justice, is a righteous ideal. Just as one "Mitzvah" (Commandment) forbids man's vengeance, so God's punishments involve no vengeance. Spiritually, Midrashic and mystical commentaries describe how God suffers in man's pain, and is exiled alongside man's exile. The fate of the "Shechina" (Divine Presence) is bound up to man's fate and redemption. Philosophically, the many levels of traditional Jewish explanation for the Purpose of Creation, each require sin to be resolved and atoned for, through suffering or repentance. The most esoteric of these, in Kabbalah, describes metaphysical systems that give immense cosmic significance to man's actions. Throughout the different levels of explanation for punishment, the ultimate purpose is always the eschatological aim and promise of God's love and complete Messianic redemption. From the perspective of its ultimate purpose, suffering is seen as a Divine gift of love, though also a Divine and human tragedy. God's and man's urgent prayer is for the hidden "blessings" of pain to be "sweetened" to revealed blessings of bounty, through repentance and good deeds. This view of suffering as stemming from Divine love, is articulated in different language by the different levels of traditional Jewish thought, from the "Revealed" dimensions of Torah, to its mystical "Hidden" dimensions. However, the alternative paths in Jewish spirituality, emphasise different dimensions of this. The path of Ethics(Mussar), brings God's justice and man's soul-searching to the fore. Divine awe and judgment is emphasised. The path of Mysticism(Kabbalah and Hasidism), reframes Judaism around the inner Divine soul, where pain is seen as love, and God's presence is seen in all events and creations. Drawing from the context of all these different and competing strands in traditional Jewish theology, some figures in Orthodox Judaism have given diverse and opposite theological responses to the Holocaust. Historically, the Biblical and Rabbinic response to national tragedy has been to look for theological causes in the shortcomings and sins of the people of Israel. In this tradition, some Orthodox figures have taught that the Jewish people in Europe were sinful, or their guilt had accumulated. In this view, the Holocaust is a just retribution from God. Other Orthodox theologians reject this approach, seeing the Holocaust as a unique tragedy, that could not be based on normal processes of reward and punishment.
The immortality of the soul
- The traditional view of reward and punishment also takes in the connected Jewish belief in an afterlife and the immortality of the soul. This other idea can give a framework to many different theological responses to the Holocaust, by allowing it to be reconciled with Divine love. Belief in the resolution and compensation of good and evil in this world, by the eternal elevation of the soul in the next world, can resolve apparent injustices in the full metaphysical equation. This does not itself offer a direct explanation for the tragedy of the Holocaust, if direct explanations are possible, but it can resolve the bigger picture, and can sit alongside other theological responses.
The hiding of God's countenance
- The Holocaust is an instance of the temporary "Eclipse of God". There are times when God is inexplicably absent from history. There is a Biblical source for this idea in Deuteronomy(31:18), where God says that "I will surely hide My face on that day" ("Hester Panim" in Hebrew). This warning is given in response to the rebelliousness of the people, where man abandons God, so God abandons man. However, here the outcome is different from other Divine responses. Instead of punishment that comes openly, the hiding of the Divine countenance abandons the people to natural laws and historical processes. The ways of God become hidden, and the cries of the people unanswered. There have been times in Jewish history, when the suffering has not appeared to have a direct connection to spiritual failure of the people. The concept of Hester Panim has a history in traditional Jewish thought to refer to suffering that has no regular explanation. In such cases, the possible connection of the suffering to sin, is itself concealed, a double concealment of the Divine. Non-traditional theological views, that question the equations of reward and punishment, may seek other reasons for the Eclipse of the Divine Presence and providential protection. Revisionist theologies may limit the overall character and interaction of God with man. The ultimate view of a non-interventionist God is depicted in Deism, where God is a philosophical abstraction, far removed from the traditional Hebrew "God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob". Both traditional Jewish thought, and revisionist views, may look to different conceptions of the Eclipse of God, from temporary removal of the Divine countenance, to inherent limitations to God. Nonetheless, even traditional theologians can give theological prominence to the failure of man in the Holocaust. In this view the Holocaust can show that the Nazi rejection of God and Monotheistic ethics, led to their constructing an evil philosophy of morality. In this man centred theology, God was present in Aushwitz in the Divine command "Thou shalt not murder".
Jewish views of reincarnation
- The doctrine of "Gilgul" (Reincarnation) has a history in traditional Jewish thought, of debate and explanation. The Rabbinic World of Talmudic times saw the many faceted layers of Scriptural interpretation, from the literal to the imaginative, and the providential events of Jewish history, as verification of Jewish belief. The Rabbinic Sages of the Talmud, for instance, saw no need to philosophically prove the existence of God through independent logic from first principles, like philosophers stemming from the Greek tradition did. In the Middle Ages, when Jewish thought met Greek thought, "Hakira" (Jewish Philosophy) developed to reconcile the two systems, as well as formulate creeds of belief, inherent within traditional Jewish thought. Some Jewish Philosophers, like Sadia Gaon rejected reincarnation as a Pagan doctrine. After the dominance of Hakira in Jewish theology, Kabbalah replaced it as the mainstream theology. In the 16th Century Isaac Luria taught the new doctrines of Lurianic Kabbalah, that became almost universally accepted in traditional Jewish thought. They still underpin Haredi and some Modern Orthodox Jewish theology. The main dimensions of Lurianic Kabbalah deal with the relationship between the Infinite God, who is the only true existence, and the perceived Creation, that takes place within, and emanated from, the Divine unity. New explanations of universal esoteric redemption by man, fix the inherent flaws within the original source of Creation. Among the other teachings, Luria explained a Jewish system of reincarnation, that differs from some Eastern Religion versions, in that it is not fatalistic, or about punishment. Rather, reincarnation, in Jewish thought, is a personal form of the cosmic Lurianic doctrine of "Tikun" (Fixing). In Lurianic mysticism, which explains cosmic metaphysical processes in all actions of man, reincarnation takes place to achieve a metaphysical elevation. What may appear as punishments are only incidentally so. For instance, Luria said that the Medieval Jewish victims of the centuries of Pogroms in the Christian World, were reincarnations of souls from the time of the Biblical first Temple, who had also followed idolatry. Their Medieval martyrdom rectified and perfected their souls, and he said this process was now all completed in his time. While the time of open prophecy, as in the Hebrew Bible, is now over, traditional Jewish thought believes that a minor form of prophecy called "Ruach HaKodesh" (Holy Spirit), as well as some other forms of mystical instruction of the soul, are still accessible to unique, saintly individuals. Isaac Luria's teachings became accepted in his time, as a fulfillment of this. While Ruach Hakodesh, and any possible interpretation of the Holocaust involving reincarnation, may be concealed from every saintly figure today, nonetheless, the general belief in such processes can leave room to reconcile the suffering of the Holocaust with traditional Jewish belief. Any explanation would be unknown, but believers could hold that God had His own hidden reasons. This type of process need not be detrimental to the high moral regard in which the Holocaust victims are seen, as the Jewish view of reincarnation is essentially about Tikkun, rather than punishment, and their martyrdom raises them to a high spiritual level.
The mystical celebration of negativity as ultimate elevation
- Another, connected idea from Kabbalah, provides further support for its positive view of reincarnation, as well as a further demonstration of the mystical scheme of finding the inner Divine love, within apparently negative phenomena. This gives the Jewish belief in punishment for sin, or the harsh events of history in general, new spirituality. Kabbalistic texts say that every sin (a spiritual descent), is for the ultimate purpose of raising the person to a new, even higher level (a greater spiritual ascent). This is achieved through the deeper process of Teshuvah ("Return", imprecisely translated as "repentance"). This parallels the rabbinic teaching from the Talmud, that Teshuva from fear erases the sin, while Teshuva from love transforms sin into virtue. The Lurianic scheme of cosmic Tikkun, involves the separation and elevation of "Sparks of Holiness" by man, that are trapped in, and give life to, mundane or negative phenomena. This metaphysical process elucidates the Kabbalistic view that every descent is for the purpose of higher ascent. Where the sin of man exiled a spark of the Divine into the forces of impurity, its rectification redeems the spark, and withdraws the existence of wider impurity. The Hasidic Masters, who sought to relate the esoteric ideas of Kabbalah to the emotional fervour of the common man, give a new interpretation of particular Divine Providence, that sees every event as spiritually significant. The conduct of each individual is arranged to achieve their esoteric life tasks. Man's freewill can accelerate or delay the process, but its fulfillment is guaranteed. In this way, they say, while a sin is against the Will of God, its inner purpose is the higher Will of the ultimate elevation. In a concealed way, the sin becomes the beginning of the ascent. Through the abstract Kabbalistic notion of reincarnation, while not dwelled on in Hasidism, if the individual did not yet complete the process, then it would be perfected in the long run. Many Holocaust theologians understandably reject applying traditional Jewish explanations for suffering, that look for sins of the people, to explain or contribute to explaining the events. For those who seek some contribution in explanations of atonement for sin, or for those who look to other hidden meanings from reincarnation, then the positive reinterpretations by Jewish mysticism of negativity can help reconcile the Holocaust with a loving God. This approach is also found in the "Revealed" dimensions of Jewish thought, such as the statement in the Talmud that one should bless God for the bad as well as the good. In more emotional and vivid forms, the Midrash imaginatively anthropomorphises the relationship between God and man. During the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, for example, the Midrash describes the two angelic carvings atop the Ark of the Covenant as embraced together in love, representing God's love at that time of Israel. The highly developed systems of the Kabbalists give such ideas metaphysical systems of explanation. The later Hasidic Philosophy brings this abstraction into psychological feeling. The power of mystical interpretation to sweeten traditional Jewish notions of Divine judgement was vividly demonstrated by Hasidim in the concentration camps, who often retained their faith and fervour. In another archetypical example, related by Habad Hasidim, their founder Schneur Zalman of Liadi would read out the weekly Torah portion in the Sabbath synagogue. One week, he was away, and this role was replaced by a regular congregant. The portion that week was the section of "Tochachah" (Warnings) in Deuteronomy that foretell calamity for Divine disobedience. The son and future second Rebbe Dovber Schneuri, in the audience, became so distressed and ill to hear the dire warnings, that a few weeks later it was unsure if he could fast on Yom Kippur. He explained that when his father read it, all he heard were blessings.
The contributions of Kabbalah to various Jewish philosophical views
- The esoteric tradition of Jewish mysticism in general, can offer new perspectives on all of Judaism, that can also contribute to a Jewish theology after the Holocaust. With the rise of Modernity, various philosophical positions emerged on the meaning of Judaism, and the traditional belief in its revealed origins. These range from the literal, through the national, to the secular. Jewish mysticism, likewise, has also spoken to these different philosophical positions today, in different ways. Traditional Kabbalists see it as the inner, metaphysical interpretations, hidden within the Divine Scripture and voice from Sinai, while non-Orthodox seekers of mysticism have seen it as a profound and insightful attempt by man, to probe the Jewish mysteries of the Divine. Their non-literal approach to the mystical tradition in Judaism, means that they can select, reject, or adapt from amongst its teachings. 20th Century academic scholarship on the Jewish tradition of mysticism, has delineated its different epochs. Early mystical schools stemmed from the worlds of the Bible and Talmudic times, offering paths of personal encounter with spirituality. With the public teaching of Kabbalah, from the Middle Ages, the Jewish mystical dimensions of Torah, took on fuller conceptual forms, that could be applied to reinterpret each verse of Scripture. This reached its complete fundamental form with the new doctrines of Isaac Luria in the 16th Century. While the concern of the Kabbalists was to describe an elaborate system of spiritual Worlds that emanated from, and connected, the unknowable Infinite Godhead, with our lowest physical existence, the concern of the later Hasidic movement was different. It left aside the abstract philosophical focus of Kabbalah on the Heavenly realms, to relate the relevance of the Kabbalistic tradition to man. This inner, interiorisation of Kabbalah, saw the Divine imminent in all Creation, and so could be expressed beyond the advanced, esoteric limitations of Kabbalah. This was the first time that the Jewish mystical dimensions could be articulated to the whole Jewish community, and its soulful teachings invigorated the masses, as well as involved the great scholars.
- "God is dead". If there were a God, He would surely have prevented the Holocaust. Since God did not prevent it, then God has for some reason turned away from the world, and left us to ourselves forever more. God is therefore no longer relevant to humanity.
- Terrible events such as the Holocaust are the price we have to pay for having free will. In this view, God will not and cannot interfere with history, otherwise our free will would effectively cease to exist. The Holocaust only reflects poorly on humanity, not God.
- Perhaps the Holocaust is in some way a revelation from God: The event issues a call for Jewish affirmation for survival.
- The Holocaust is a mystery beyond our comprehension. God has reason for what He does, but human understanding can't begin to understand His reason.
- The Jewish people become in fact the "suffering servant" of Isaiah. The Jewish people collectively suffer for the sins of the world. (Also mentioned by Reform Rabbi Ignaz Maybaum proposed that the Holocaust is the ultimate form of vicarious atonement.The Face of God After Auschwitz, pages 35 and 36.)
- God does exist, but God is not omnipotent. This view is similar to process theology. All of the above arguments are based on the assumption that God is omnipotent and, consequently, could have interfered to stop the Holocaust. What if this is not so? In this view, the Holocaust only reflects poorly on humanity, not on God. This is a view promoted by many liberal theologians, including Rabbi Harold Kushner.
- God or any other supernatural deity does not exist.
- Classical Rabbinical literature teaches that before something magnificent or great occurs, there must be a great tragedy. In this case, the Holocaust had to occur in order for the State of Israel to be founded. This theory supports the actual events, as many historians believe that without the Holocaust, Israel would never have existed.
Orthodox Jewish responses
The Haredi Jewish world may seem more monolithic to outsiders than its diversity and historical roots actually entail. The Haredi world today is a product of different Eastern European Jewish traditions, as they accommodated, or reacted against, their encounter with modern thought and society. Broadly, there are two different sources to traditional Eastern European Jewish civilisation: Firstly, the continuation of Talmudic centred scholarship, augmented by Kabbalah for an reserved elite, known as Lithuanian Orthodoxy, saw itself as continuing and protecting the traditional forms of Jewish worship through advanced study. Secondly, the populist, mystical Jewish revival of Hasidism, that began in 18th century Ukraine, and later spread across other areas, celebrated sincerity above learning as a path to God, and embraced the common folk. As Hasidism developed, its leaders synthesised it with traditional learning, while the Lithuanian world came to be called Mitnagdim(Opponents), for their pious opposition to the Hasidic restructuring of Jewish thought and society. As both traditions encountered the secularising forces of Haskalah(Enlightenment), and political Socialism and Zionism, they reacted with a diversity of views, that today influence their different forms of Jewish thought and life.
This influential range of historical traditions, in forming the diversity of Haredi Judaism today, has given rise to a range of theological responses to the Holocaust. At heart lies the issue of whether the tragedy of the Holocaust, is different in nature to the preceding millennia of Jewish persecution. Traditional Biblical, Rabbinic and Kabbalistic thought has offered theological explanations for previous tragedies, from the reaction of the Prophets to Nebuchadnezzar's destruction of Jerusalem and exile of the nation, to the Medieval Pogroms of Christendom. Because Haredi Judaism accords unique status to traditional Jewish thought, while downplaying the need to look to secular disciplines, it seeks theological answers from faithful reinterpretations of Judaism alone. In general, most views in the Haredi world tends to see the Holocaust in line with previous Rabbinic approaches, though there are notable and important exceptions. For those who take the traditional approach, they suggest theological explanations that might give a reason for the calamity, or a contributory reason, in accordance with the traditional Jewish worldview. In an age without open prophecy, it is questionable whether speculative interpretations like this are valid, if not obscene in view of the enormity of the Holocaust, though their proponents have sometimes been great figures in traditional Judaism. In traditional thought, the sufferings of the people of Israel, have deeper ethical and mystical causes, and require collective soul searching and return to God. It should be emphasised, to contextualise this idea, that in traditional thought, even the harsh decrees of God are hidden blessings, rather than merely punishments, a theme especially emphasised in Jewish mysticism. Those who see traditional types of explanation, would point to previous tragedies in Jewish history, that in their time had enormous destruction and hardship, such as the massive loss of life in Judea under Titus and Hadrian. They would also refer to the dire warnings in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, called the sections of "Tochecha" (Warnings) for rebelliousness, alongside blessings for faithfulness, that are only chanted in an undertone, when read aloud in the annual cycle of reading.
For those within Haredi Judaism, who favour ascribing causes, some blame the Holocaust on the abandonment of many European Jews of traditional Judaism, and their embrace of other ideologies such as Socialism, Zionism, or various non-Orthodox Jewish movements. Others suggest that God allowed the Nazis to persecute the Jews because Orthodox European Jews did not do enough to fight these trends, or did not support Zionism. In this Haredi theodicy, the Jews of Europe were no longer protected by the Torah and faith, and the actions of God which allowed this were righteous and just. Those who propose views like this, would see their suggested causes as contributory triggers, while in a time of judgement all the community suffers, whether innocent or guilty. Ideas such as this, that can seem alien to non-Orthodox thought, have a context that softens their harshness. The Talmud has a legal discussion of the nature of innocence and guilt. The rare "Apikorus" (Heretic), is contrasted with the "Tinnuk Shenishba" (Innocent captive brought up without knowledge of Judaism). Many Halachic authorities have decided that secular Jews today are figuratively in the second category, and should be encouraged with love to discover Judaism. If indeed, earlier generations were guilty of rejecting Jewish observance, this argument would apply to generations from the 19th century onwards. Those who see the Holocaust as the unfolding of God's attribute of Judgement, might say that the guilt accumulated for a few generations. More hidden Kabbalistic doctrines, involved in the "Mysteries of Creation", such as "Gilgulim" (Reincarnation), would also contribute processes. For Haredi proponents of causes, nonetheless, it should be emphasised that such views usually fit within an appreciation of the fundamental and essential processes of Divine love.
Other Haredi figures entirely reject explaining the Holocaust as an act of divine punishment. Most prominent among them is the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who described it as blasphemous to depict God in this way. The roots of this view lie in the Hasidic, mystical love of every Jew, even potentially unworthy people. Basing himself on many sources in classic texts of Judaism, from the "Revealed" to the "Mystical", the Rebbe articulated the view that the Holocaust was a decree from God that beyond human understanding in this world. He stated:
- What greater conceit and what greater heartlessness, can there be than to give a "reason" for the death and torture of millions of innocent men, women and children? Can we presume to assume that an explanation small enough to fit inside the finite bounds of human reason can explain a horror of such magnitude? We can only concede that there are things that lie beyond the finite ken of the human mind. It is not my task to justify God on this. Only God Himself can answer for what He allowed to happen. And the only answer we will accept, is the immediate and complete Redemption that will forever banish evil from the face of the earth and bring to light the intrinsic goodness and perfection of God's creation.
- To those who argued that the Holocaust disproves the existence of God or His providence over our lives, Schneerson wrote:
- On the contrary—the Holocaust has decisively disproven any possible faith in a human-based morality. In pre-war Europe, it was the German people who epitomized culture, scientific advance and philosophic morality. And these very same people perpetrated the most vile atrocities known to human history! If nothing else, the Holocaust has taught us that a moral and civilized existence is possible only through the belief in and the acceptance of the Divine authority. Our outrage, our incessant challenge to God over what has occurred—this itself is a most powerful attestation to our belief in Him and our faith in His goodness. Because if we did not, underneath it all, possess this faith, what is it that we are outraged at? The blind workings of fate? The random arrangement of quarks that make up the universe? It is only because we believe in God, because we are convinced that there is right and there is wrong and that right must, and ultimately will, triumph, that we cry out, as Moses did: "Why, my God, have you done evil to Your people?!"
- He rejected that the Holocaust was a punishment for the sins of that generation saying:
- The destruction of six million Jews in such a horrific manner that surpassed the cruelty of all previous generations, could not possibly be because of a punishment for sins. Even the Satan himself could not possibly find a sufficient number of sins that would warrant such genocide! There is absolutely no rationalistic explanation for the Holocaust except for the fact that it was a Divine decree … why it happened is above human comprehension – but it is definitely not because of punishment for sin. On the contrary: All those who were murdered in the Holocaust are called “Kedoshim” – holy ones – since they were murdered in sanctification of G–d’s name....It is inconceivable that the Holocaust be regarded as an example of punishment for sin, in particular when addressing this generation, which as mentioned before is “a firebrand plucked from the fire” of the Holocaust.
The various historic traditions behind the diversity of Haredi approaches, have given rise to different theological tendencies.
- Satmar leader and Holocaust survivor Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum writes:
- Because of our sinfulness we have suffered greatly, suffering as bitter as wormwood, worse than any Israel has known since it became a people...In former times, whenever troubles befell Jacob, the matter was pondered and reasons sought--which sin had brought the troubles about--so that we could make amends and return to the Lord, may He be blessed...But in our generation one need not look far for the sin responsible for our calamity...The heretics have made all kinds of efforts to violate these oaths, to go up by force and to seize sovereignty and freedom by themselves, before the appointed time...[They] have lured the majority of the Jewish people into awful heresy, the like of which as not been seen since the world was created...And so it is no wonder that the Lord has lashed out in anger...And there were also righteous people who perished because of the iniquity of the sinners and corrupters, so great was the [divine] wrath. [Aviezer Ravitzky, Messianism, Zionism and Jewish Religious Radicalism (1996 by The University of Chicago), p. 124.]
- There were redemptionist Zionists, at the other end of the spectrum, who also saw the Holocaust as a collective punishment for a collective sin: ongoing Jewish unfaithfulness to the Land of Israel. Rabbi Mordecai Atiyah was a leading advocate of this idea. Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook and his disciples, for their part, avoided this harsh position, but they too theologically related the Holocaust to the Jewish recognition of Zion. Kook writes "When the end comes and Israel fails to recognize it, there comes a cruel divine operation that removes [the Jewish people] from its exile. [Aviezer Ravitzky, ibid.]
- Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, in 1939, stated that the Nazi persecution of the Jews was the fault of non-Orthodox Jews (Achiezer, volume III, Vilna 1939), in the introduction. This is discussed in "Piety & Power: The World of Jewish Fundamentalism" by Orthodox author David Landau (1993, Hill & Wang).
- Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler had similar views, also discussed in Landau's book.
- A few Haredi rabbis today warn that failure to follow religious law will cause God to send another Holocaust. Rabbi Elazar Shach, a leader of the Lithuanian yeshiva Orthodoxy in Israel until his death in 2001 made this claim on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War. He stated that there would be a new Holocaust in punishment for the abandonment of religion and "desecration" of Shabbat in Israel.
Modern Orthodox Jewish views
Most Modern Orthodox Jews reject the idea that the Holocaust was God's fault. Modern Orthodox rabbis such as Joseph Soloveitchik, Norman Lamm, Randalf Stolzman, Abraham Besdin, Emanuel Rackman, Eliezer Berkovits and others have written on this issue; many of their works have been collected in a volume published by the Rabbinical Council of America: Theological and Halakhic Reflections on the Holocaust (edited by Bernhard H. Rosenberg and Fred Heuman, Ktav/RCA, 1992).
Works of important Jewish theologians
Prof. Richard Rubenstein's original piece on this issue, "After Auschwitz", held that the only intellectually honest response to the Holocaust is the rejection of God, and the recognition that all existence is ultimately meaninglessness. There is no divine plan or purpose, no God that reveals His will to mankind, and God does not care about the world. Man must assert and create his own value in life. This view has been rejected by Jews of all religious denominations, but his works were widely read in the Jewish community in the 1970s.
Since that time Rubinstein has begun to move away from this view; his later works affirm a form of deism in which one may believe that God may exist as the basis for reality and some also include Kabbalistic notions of the nature of God.
Emil Fackenheim is known for his understanding that people must look carefully at the Holocaust, and to find within it a new revelation from God. For Fackenheim, the Holocaust was an "epoch-making event". In contrast to Richard Rubenstein's most well-known views, Fackenheim holds that people must still affirm their belief in God and God's continued role in the world. Fackenheim holds that the Holocaust reveals unto us a new Biblical commandment, "We are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories". He said that rejecting God because of the Holocaust was like giving in to Hitler.
In a rare view that has not been adopted by any sizable element of the Jewish or Christian community, Ignaz Maybaum has proposed that the Holocaust is the ultimate form of vicarious atonement. The Jewish people become in fact the "suffering servant" of Isaiah. The Jewish people suffer for the sins of the world. In his view: "In Auschwitz Jews suffered vicarious atonement for the sins of mankind."
Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992) holds that man's free will depends on God's decision to remain hidden. If God were to reveal himself in history and hold back the hand of tyrants, man's free will would be rendered non-existent. Many of Berkovits' books will be republished by the Eliezer Berkovits Institute for Jewish Thought under the auspices of Shalem Center, Jerusalem.
Harold Kushner, William Kaufman and Milton Steinberg
Rabbis Harold Kushner, William E. Kaufman, Milton Steinberg believe that God is not omnipotent, and thus is not to blame for mankind's abuse of free will. Thus, there is no contradiction between the existence of a good God and the existence of massive evil by part of mankind. It is claimed that this is also the view expressed by some classical Jewish authorities, such as Abraham ibn Daud, Abraham ibn Ezra, and Gersonides.
David Weiss Halivni
Rabbi David Weiss Halivni is himself a Holocaust survivor from Hungary. He says that the effort to associate the Shoah and sin is morally outrageous. He holds that it is unwarranted on a strict reading of the Tanakh. He claims that it reinforces an alarming tendency among ultra-Orthodox leaders to exploit such arguments on behalf of their own authority. In "Prayer in the Shoah" he gives his response to the idea that the Holocaust was a punishment from God:
What happened in the Shoah is above and beyond measure (l'miskpat): above and beyond suffering, above and beyond any punishment. There is no transgression that merits such punishment... and it cannot be attributed to sin. 
Rabbi Irving Greenberg is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who has written extensively on how the Holocaust should affect Jewish theology. Greenberg has an Orthodox understanding of God. Like many other Orthodox Jews, he does not believe that God forces people to follow Jewish law; rather he believes that Jewish law is God's will for the Jewish people, and that Jews should follow Jewish law as normative.
Greenberg's break with Orthodox theology comes with his analysis of the implications of the Holocaust. He writes that the worst thing that God could do to the Jewish people for failing to follow the law is Holocaust-level devastation, yet this has already occurred. Greenberg is not claiming that God did use the Holocaust to punish Jews; he is just saying that if God chose to do so, that would be the worst possible thing. There really is not anything worse that one could do. Therefore, since God cannot punish us any worse than what actually has happened, and since God does not force Jews to follow Jewish law, then we cannot claim that these laws are enforceable on us. Therefore, he argues that the covenant between God and the Jewish people is effectively broken and unenforceable.
Greenberg notes that there have been several terrible destructions of the Jewish community, each with the effect of distancing the Jewish people further from God. According to rabbinic literature, after the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem and the mass-killing of Jerusalem's Jews, the Jews received no more direct prophecy. After the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem and the mass-killing of Jerusalem's Jews, the Jews no longer could present sacrifices at the Temple. This way of reaching God was at an end. After the Holocaust, Greenberg concludes that God does not respond to the prayers of Jews anymore.
Thus, God has unilaterally broken his covenant with the Jewish people. In this view, God no longer has the moral authority to command people to follow his will. Greenberg does not conclude that Jews and God should part way; rather he holds that we should heal the covenant between Jews and God, and that the Jewish people should accept Jewish law on a voluntary basis.
His views on this subject have made him the subject of much criticism within the Orthodox community.
Works of important Christian theologians
In “The Crucified God” Jürgen Moltmann speaks of how in a “theology after Auschwitz” the traditional notion of God needed to be completely revised. "Shattered and broken, the survivors of my generation were then returning from camps and hospitals to the lecture room. A theology which did not speak of God in the sight of the one who was abandoned and crucified would have had nothing to say to us then."
The traditional notion of an impassible “unmoved mover” had died in those camps and was no longer tenable. Moltmann proposes instead a “crucified God” who is both a “suffering” and “protesting” God. That is, God is not detached from suffering but willingly enters into human suffering in compassion.
- “God in Auschwitz and Auschwitz in the crucified God - that is the basis for real hope that both embraces and overcomes the world”.
This is in contrast both with the move of theism to justify God's actions and the move of atheism to accuse God. Moltmann's “Trinitarian theology of the cross” instead says that God is a protesting God who opposes the 'Gods of this world' of power and domination by entering into human pain and suffering on the cross and on the gallows of Auschwitz. Moltmann's “theology of the cross” was later developed into "Liberation Theologies" from suffering people under Stalinism in Eastern Europe and military dictatorships in South America and South Korea.
Pope Benedict XVI
In the address given on the occasion of his visit to the extermination camp of Auschwitz, Pope Benedict XVI suggested a reading of the events of the Holocaust as motivated by a hatred of God Himself. The address begins by acknowledging the impossibility of an adequate theological response:
- In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can only be a dread silence - a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this? In silence, then, we bow our heads before the endless line of those who suffered and were put to death here; yet our silence becomes in turn a plea for forgiveness and reconciliation, a plea to the living God never to let this happen again.
Nonetheless, he proposes that the actions of the Nazis can be seen as having been motivated by a hatred of God and a desire to exalt human power, with the Holocaust serving as a means by which to erase witness to God and His Law:
- The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the earth. Thus the words of the Psalm: “We are being killed, accounted as sheep for the slaughter” were fulfilled in a terrifying way. Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid. If this people, by its very existence, was a witness to the God who spoke to humanity and took us to himself, then that God finally had to die and power had to belong to man alone - to those men, who thought that by force they had made themselves masters of the world. By destroying Israel, by the Shoah, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful.
Most coverage of the address was positive, with praise from Italian and Polish rabbis. The Simon Wiesenthal Center called the visit "historic", and the address and prayers "a repudiation of antisemitism and a repudiation of those... who refer to the Holocaust as a myth".
Edith Stein's (a Dutch nun who converted from Judaism in 1922 and was killed in Auschwitz) status as a martyr has been somewhat controversial due to the question of whether she was killed for her faith or ethnicity. Many Jews view the claim of conferring of martyrdom on Stein as an act of appropriation of the Holocaust, holding that Stein was targeted by the Nazis for her Jewish ethnicity, not for her conversion to Catholicism. This concern of "appropriation" is not unique, with similar criticisms having been raised about Catholic narratives regarding other convert victims of the Holocaust—"making it seem that the Church, not the Jewish people, was the primary victim of Nazi genocide".
The conflict over the Auschwitz cross near Auschwitz I typifies these controversies, as Auschwitz is also the site of the martyrdom (according to the Catholic Church) of saints such as Maximilian Kolbe.
Certain Christian theologians have also criticized a tendency to "historicize" and "dogmatize" certain political or secular events such as the Shoah which are not part of theology as traditionally understood, that is, theology as a hermeneutic of the deposit of faith and of divine revelation, and not theology as sociology, philosophy, history or politics.
For instance, during the Williamson affair, Monsignor Robert Wister publicly declared that the negationist comments made by the controversial SSPX bishop might be "offensive and erroneous" but "not a heresy" and "not an excommunicable offense", calling Williamson "not a heretic, but ... a liar".
This view notably appears in the CDF's Dominus Iesus, which stresses the “fullness and definitiveness of the revelation of Jesus Christ”, as opposed to alternative notions on progressive revelation.
- Seidner, Stanley S. (June 10, 2009) "A Trojan Horse: Logotherapeutic Transcendence and its Secular Implications for Theology". Mater Dei Institute. 8.
- See talks dated Yud Shevat 5741 (January, 1981) and Asarah B’teves 5752 (December, 1991).
- Prayer in the Shoah. From: Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
- Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (Augsburg Fortress:Minneapolis, 1993) p. 1
- Ibid. p. 278
- "Pastoral Visit of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI in Poland: Address by the Holy Father - Visit to the Auschwitz Camp, 28 May 2006"
- Simon Wiesenthal Center
- e.g. Daniel Goldhagen in "The Holocaust Was Not Christian"
- Goldhagen, 2002, p. 240.
- Waltraud Herbstrith. 1998. Never forget: Christian and Jewish perspectives on Edith Stein.
- María Ruiz Scaperlanda. Edith Stein: St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross. 2001. pp. 175-176.
- Nicole Winfield, "
- Dominus Iesus
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer
- Norman Finkelstein
- J.B. Metz
- Jürgen Moltmann
- Dorothee Sölle
- Franz Mussner
- Elie Wiesel
- Holocaust theology site, "Works of important Jewish theologians"
- Audio: Dr. Walter Ziffer, Holocaust survivor and theology professor, discusses this article Hear Dr. Walter Ziffer (the last Holocaust survivor in Asheville, North Carolina as of April 11, 2004) discuss this article.
- The theological view of the Lubavitcher Rebbe to the Holocaust, and other Jewish responses
- The Center for Theological Reflection on the Holocaust