The Uniqueness of the Holocaust

For some theologians, the evils of the Holocaust were unique; others believe they can be integrated into traditional theological discourse.

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Already in the Holocaust itself the responses were oscillating between an amazed silence of passive compliance to the nonunderstandable Divine verdict, or an active readiness to sanctify the Holy Name in public, again without asking any questions or offering any explanations, on the part of the majority of Orthodox Jews, and, on the part of an ultra‑Orthodox minority. There was a certain kind of fanatic ideological justification of the Holocaust as a due Divine punishment for the sins of atheism, assimilationism and defiance of the Torah and its commandments by post‑emancipationist modernist Jewish movements, especially secular Zionism, Jewish materialistic socialism and reform.

Even those who remained piously faithful must suffer now, this ideology explains, because the majority of the Jewish people sinned. But the righteous will, of course, be fully compensated in their life to come in heaven and in the glory of the messianic era which surely will soon arrive.

On the other hand, this fundamentalist religious ideology emphasized the argument that Nazism, that diabolic Radical Evil, is the unavoidable result of atheism and revolt against God and His Law. This means that atheism had been exposed in its utter degradation and wickedness, and thus had been unrecoverably refuted. There remained only one escape from disaster, and hope of redemption for humanity-‑repentance and return to God and His Law.

This is a quite obvious continuation of traditional theological stances, and they were based, indeed, directly on the ancient sources, trying even to demonstrate a claim that what had happened in the Holocaust had been already foreseen and minutely proclaimed by the biblical prophets, especially by Moses. Yet, what is most important in this Orthodox response is the stubborn refusal to admit that the Holocaust was unique among the many destructions and hardships which are replete in Jewish history. It may have been bigger in quantity of murders and much more cruel, but it is not qualitatively, or essentially, different.

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Eliezer Schweid

Dr. Eliezer Schweid is a recipient of the Israel Prize and Professor of Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University.