The Holocaust: Responding to Modern Suffering

The events of the Holocaust put the problem of suffering at the fore of Jewish theological discourse.

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However, there were individuals in the ultra-Orthodox world of Eastern Europe that made more immediate declarations. One such figure was Rabbi Yoel Teitlebaum (the Satmar Rebbe), the leader of a Hasidic community in Hungary.

In his book Va'Yoel Moshe, Teitlebaum states unequivocally that the Holocaust was a divine punishment for the secular Zionist efforts to create a modern Jewish state in the land of Israel. He condemned this endeavor as a blasphemous attempt at returning to the Promised Land prematurely, that is, before the Messianic age. Thus Teitelbaum understood the Holocaust in terms of traditional covenantal theology, as a punishment for Jewish sins.

Facing the Challenge

The acclaimed journalist and author, Elie Weisel is credited with beginning the post-Holocaust theological discussion in the West. In his haunting autobiographical book Night, Wiesel shares his journey from Hasidic piety, to Auschwitz, and finally to liberation. One of the important elements of this book is Weisel's ability to raise key theological questions.

Was Auschwitz a unique event in Jewish history, one requiring new theological responses? Was it a new "Sinai"? If so, what was revealed? Had God died in the death camps? While Weisel, the novelist, raised these crucial questions, he left it to theologians to piece together full theological treatments.

The Death of God

One important sociological factor contributing to the rise of post-Holocaust Jewish thought in North America was the Protestant "Death-of-God" movement. In the wake of the Second World War, several respected Protestant theologians began to reassess their core beliefs and commitments. The "Death-of-God" writers claimed that faith in a personal and providential God was absurd in light of recent events. However, these religious renegades did not abandon religious life, rather they chose to rebuild the church, "as if there was no God," (Dietrich Bonhoffer).

Richard Rubenstein, an academic and ordained Conservative rabbi, is considered the Jewish "Death-of-God" theologian. In his controversial book, After Auschwitz, he asserted that none of the traditional forms of theodicy--belief in an omnipotent and benevolent God despite the existence of evil--are tenable after the Holocaust. Rubenstein believed that the horrors of Auschwitz should lead us to agree with the French philosopher, Albert Camus, that "we stand in a cold, silent, unfeeling cosmos, unaided by any purposeful power beyond our own resources."

Influenced by developments in the field of psychology, he argued that Judaism must be re-envisioned as a profound system of ritual and myth that serves to aid its adherents in coping with the inevitable traumas of life. Rubenstein referred to this system as a new Jewish "paganism," because he felt that Jews must re-establish a special relationship to the Land of Israel, where they could live in safety and freedom.

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Rabbi Or N. Rose

Rabbi Or N. Rose is Associate Dean of the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton, MA. He is the co-editor of Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice and God in All Moments: Spiritual and Practical Wisdom from the Hasidic Masters. He is currently completing a doctorate in Jewish thought at Brandeis University.