Berkovits & Cohen: The Free Will Defense

The deviant use of human freedom, not God, is the source of evil and suffering.

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In the following article, Steven T. Katz explores the assertion that human free will accounts for the suffering experienced during the Holocaust--a notion most notably presented by thinkers such as Eliezer Berkovits and Arthur A. Cohen--and analyzes Cohen’s theology in detail. By posing the question of suffering, says Cohen, we have not only underestimated human free will, we have overestimated God’s abilities. Katz shows Cohen’s affinity with the “process theologians,” those who suggest that God contains the universe, and just as the universe is always changing as a result of human free will, so to God is always changing. Excerpted and reprinted with permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from The Encyclopedia of Judaism, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.

Among philosophical reflections concerning theodicy [the problem of evil], none has an older or more distinguished lineage than that known as the “Free Will Defense.”suffering evil

According to this argument, human evil is the necessary and ever‑present possibility entailed by the reality of human freedom. If human beings are to have the potential for majesty, they must, conversely, have an equal potential for corruption; if they are to be capable of acts of authentic morality, they must be capable of acts of authentic immorality. Freedom is a two‑edged sword, hence its challenge and its cost.

Applying this consideration to the events of the Nazi epoch, the Shoah [the Holocaust] becomes a case of people’s inhumanity to people, the extreme misuse of human freedom. Such a position in no way forces a reconsideration of the cosmological structure [i.e. the ultimate spiritual or metaphysical constitution of the universe] in which the anthropological [i.e. human] drama unfolds; nor does it call into question God’s goodness and solicitude, for it is people, not God, who perpetrate genocide.

God observes these events with the unique divine pathos, but in order to allow human morality to be substantively real, God refrains from intercession. At the same time, while God is long‑suffering with an evil humanity, his patience results in the suffering of others.

If God must absent himself for people to be, God must also be present in order that meaninglessness does not gain final victory. Thus, God’s presence in history must be sensed as hiddenness, and God’s anonymity must be understood as the sign of his presence. God reveals his power in history by curbing his might so that humans too might be powerful. In this scenario, the only enduring witness to God’s ultimate control over the course of things is the Jewish people.

In Israel’s experience, as Eliezer Berkovits declares in making this case, one sees both attributes of God. The continued existence of Israel despite its long record of suffering is the strongest single proof that God does exist despite his concealment. Israel is the witness to his accompaniment of happenings in space and time. Nazism, in its luciferian power, understood this fact, and its slaughter of the Jews was an attempt to slaughter the God of history. The Nazis were aware, even as Israel sometimes fails to be, that God’s manifest reality in the world is necessarily linked to the fate of the Jewish people.

a path divergingGiven its history and intellectual power, this defense, not surprisingly has been widely advocated by post‑Holocaust thinkers of all shades of theological opinion. The two most notable presentations of the theme in the general theological literature are in Eliezer Berkovits, Faith After the Holocaust and Arthur A. Cohen, The Tremendum. Berkovits employs it to defend a traditional Jewish theological position, while Cohen utilizes it to develop a Jewish “Process Theology” discussed in detail below.

Process Theology: A Redefinition of God

An important school in modern theological circles known as “Process Theology,” inspired by the work of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, has argued that the classical understanding of God has to be dramatically revised, not least in terms of our conception of God’s power and direct, causal, involvement in human affairs.

According to those who advance this thesis, God certainly exists, but the old‑new difficulties of theodicy and related metaphysical problems emanating from classical theism arise precisely because of an inadequate “description” of the divine, which misascribes to him attributes of omnipotence [perfect power] and omniscience [perfect knowledge] that God does not possess.

Arthur A. Cohen, in his The Tremendum: A Theological Interpretation of the Holocaust (New York, 1981), made a related proposal that drew on [German romantic philosopher F.W.J.] Schelling, [Jewish existentialist philosopher Franz] Rosenzweig, and Jewish mysticism, though there is no doubt that he was familiar with the work of the process theologians.

After arguing for the enormity of the Holocaust, its uniqueness, and its transcendence of any “meaning,” Cohen suggests that the way out of the dilemma posed by classical thought is to rethink whether “national catastrophes are compatible with our traditional notions of a beneficent and providential God” (p. 50).

For Cohen, the answer is “no,” at least to the degree that the activity and nature of the providential God have to be re‑conceptualized. Against the traditional view that asks, given its understanding of God’s action in history, “How could it be that God witnessed the Holocaust and remained silent?”, Cohen would pose the contrary “dipolar” thesis that, “what is taken as God’s speech is really always man’s hearing, that God is not the strategist of our particularities or of our historical condition, but rather the mystery of our futurity, always our posse, never our acts.”

That is, “if we begin to see God less as an interferer whose insertion is welcome (when it accords with our needs) and more as the immensity whose reality is our prefiguration…we shall have won a sense of God whom we may love and honor, but whom we no longer fear and from whom we no longer demand” (p. 97).

This redescription of God, coupled with a form of the “Free Will Defense,” made all the more plausible because God is now not a direct causal agent in human affairs, resolves much of the tension created by the tremendum [the inexpressible evil of the Holocaust].

The difficulty, however, lies in the price paid for this success. This deconstruction of classical theism fails to deal adequately with the problem of God’s attributes. Is “God” still God if he is no longer the providential agency in history? Is “God” still God if he lacks the power to enter history vertically to perform the miraculous? Is such a “dipolar” God [i.e. one who is both absolute and dynamic]still the God to whom one prays, the God of salvation?

Put the other way round, it certainly does not appear to be the God of the covenant, nor again the God of Exodus‑Sinai, nor yet again the God of the prophets and the destructions of the First and Second Temples.

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Dr. Steven T. Katz

Dr. Steven T. Katz is the director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University. He is the author of The Holocaust in Historical Context.