The Holocaust: Responding to Modern Suffering

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

Print this page Print this page

In response to Rubenstein, the modern orthodox thinker Eliezer Berkovits argued for a renewal of traditional Jewish faith after Auschwitz. He asserted that God's "absence" in Nazi Germany could be explained through the classical concept of hester panim, "the hiding of the divine face." Berkovits claimed that in order for God to maintain His respect and care for humanity as a whole, He necessarily had to withdraw Himself and allow human beings--even the most cruel and vicious--to exercise their free will.

The Holocaust as a Revelatory Event

Beginning in the 1940s, Emil Fackenheim emerged as a leading exponent of Jewish philosophy. A faithful admirer of Martin Buber's humanist theology, the Holocaust forced Fackenheim to rethink his basic theological positions. He was one of the last ordained liberal rabbis in Germany, and he was interned in a labor camp before escaping to Canada.

Fackenheim argued that the Holocaust was a unique event in history for two reasons: (1) The Nazis persecuted the Jews not because of their religious beliefs or practices as in former times, but strictly because of their genetic makeup. (2) The demonic will of the persecutors to exterminate the Jews superseded their aims at winning the War.

Like Weisel, Fackenheim saw a new revelation emanating from Auschwitz. It came not from the death camps themselves, but from the Jewish people's response to the Holocaust. Rather than giving up, as one might have expected, they rebuilt their lives. The Jews heard a commanding voice, Fackenheim argued, not to hand Hitler "posthumous victories."

This "614th Commandment," as he called it, required that Jews actively work for their own survival, that they always remember the victims, and that they not despair of God's existence. He also claimed that in the post-Auschwitz era, traditional differences between secular and religious Jews were insignificant. For now, they had to band together in the name of survival.

Like Rubenstein, Fackenheim also gained a new regard for the State of Israel. He saw it as the ultimate response to Auschwitz--the establishment of a strong and independent Jewish society.

Finally, Fackenheim called on non-Jews--especially the leaders of the Catholic church--to take responsibility for their role in the Holocaust.

Where Was Man?

While Weisel, Rubenstein, Berkovits, and Fackenheim all regarded the Holocaust as an event that required serious theological reconsideration, others have argued that despite the devastation, it does not require such revisions.

Theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), for example, argued that the Holocaust should move people to examine their own behavior, and not that of God: "The question about Auschwitz is not where was God, but where was man?" In a world where men and women are given free will (as the Hebrew Bible insists), we are accountable for our own moral failings. The time has come, Heschel insists, to heed God's call and work as His partner in completing the work of creation.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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.