The Face of God: Thoughts on the Holocaust

Many Orthodox rabbis from the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) have rejected the view that the Shoah (Holocaust) was God’s judgement, including Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, Norman Lamm, Abraham Besdin, Emanuel Rackman, and Eliezer Berkovits. Their works have been collected in “Theological and Halakhic Reflections on the Holocaust” Ed. Bernhard H. Rosenberg and Fred Heuman, Ktav/RCA, 1992

CC0 Creative commons Holocaust by Elissa Capelle Vaughn


The Face of God: Thoughts on the Holocaust, Dr. Norman Lamm

In my attempt to formulate a Jewish approach to the Holocaust, it should not be expected that I will venture an answer to the ancient question of zaddik ve-ra to (“the righteous whom evil befalls”) the vexing problem of the suffering of the innocent and the prosperity of the wicked, one that puzzled such biblical giants as Samuel, David, and Jeremiah.

The problem of theodicy – “justifying” the ways of God to man, offering rational explanations for the ethical and philosophical dilemmas presented by the disjointedness and inappositeness of conduct and circumstance, the quality of one’s moral life and his fortune or misfortune — has a long and honorable history. But there is no one theodicy in Judaism. From jJb to the sages of the Talmud, from Maimonides to Luria to the Besht, there is only one constant, and that is the queshon of zaddik ve-ra lo, the righteous who is afflicted with evil. The number of answers varies with the number of interpreters. No one approach has official, authoritative, dogmatic sanction in Judaism, although each has something of value to contribute. And the question remains the Question of questions for Judaism, as it does for every thinking, believing human being.

How, then, shall we approach the problem? Let us begin by dividing it into two parts: first, the universal problem of suffering, the cry of zaddik ve-ra to, why should the innocent suffer, intensified in the Holocaust by its unprecedented magnitude and cruelty. In kind, the Holocaust mystery is a continuation of the ancient question of evil and suffering – more urgent perhaps, but essentially the same.

The second part is not universal-metaphysical but national-theological. The Holocaust is not only a human challenge to God’s justice and goodness, but a Jewish challenge to His faithfulness and promise. The absolute novelty of the Holocaust lies in its threat to the continuity of the Jewish peopte as such. It not only outrages man’s ethical sensibilities but it throws into disarray most of our notions of the philosophy of Jewish history.

In other words, the novelty, the demonic novelty, of the Holocaust lies not so much in the murder of six million Jews as in the decimation of one third of the Jewish people and the trauma to the remaining two thirds.

In trying to come to grips with the Holocaust and to probe, haltingly but inevitably, for some scrap of understanding of this cataclysm, we are confronted wirh an immediate dilemma: the very relevance of “meaning” to the Holocaust. Can we hope to find even a shred of meaning in the “black hole” in Jewish history? if we mainrain that we can, we are in effect asserting a zidduk ha-din, a justification for the death, torment, and suffering of one million children and five million adults. We shall come back to this later, but I will say now that the very idea is repugnant to me and bespeaks an insufferable insensitivity. Moreover, if the “meaning” we purport to discover does nor measure up to the magnitude of the suffering, then we have not only erred, but we have profaned the memory of the martyrs. However, if we then pursue the other alternative, and declare that the Holocaust had no meaning, we seem to rob their deaths of any redeeming dimension and furthermore, appear to deny a great and abiding principle of Judaism, that of hashgahah peratit, divine providence over all human individuals.

Apparently not everyone appreciates that a dilemma even exists. Thus, almost all of those (few) Orthodox thinkers who have ventured into this area at all offer variations of the mi-penei hata’einu (“because of our sins”) thesis, so-named from the initial words of the special Musaf section of the service for the new month and the festivals, declaring that we only recite the order of the sacrificial Temple service liturgical¶y, but do not actually make the offerings, for the reason that the Temple was destroyed and we were exiled “because of our sins.” They see the Holocaust as punishment for Israel’s sins.

The late Satmarer Rebbe, Rabbi Yoel Moshe Teitelbaum, is clear and unambiguous. In his two hooks, “Va-Yoel Mosheh” and “Al ha Ge’ulah ve-al ha-Temurah”, he decides that the Zionists were responsible for the tragedy of the six million. The arrogance of nationalistic self-determination in trying to build a Jewish state caused the great destruction. The fact that so many Zionists were secularists, nonbelievers, only made matters worse. They violated the injunction to remain passive, refrain from interfering in the divinely preordained plans of redemption, and to await the miraculous coming of the Messiah. Hence, the Zionists are guilty, and all the Jewish people suffered because of their sins. This theme is interwoven with another, and both recur throughout the Satmarer’s writings: the power of Samael, the archdemnon, to test and seduce Israel into sin. These cruel tests with which Samael accosts us, often with the help of miracles, are characteristic of our pre-messianic tribulations. Of course, it does not occur to the Satmarer or his followers, in their anti-Zionist demonological interpretation of history, that the reverse might be true: that the Holocuast was the bitter test, and the “miracles” of statehood and military triumph and national survival were and are the reward for our sufferings and anguish.

A less well known figure (Rabbi Emanuet Hartom, writing in the Israeli journal De’ot a few years ago), takes the opposite view of the Satmarer: The Holocaust is the punishment for our neglect of Eretz Israel. Our failure to participate en masse in the Return to Zion indicated a tragic defection from Judaism, a betrayal of the Promise to Abraham, and hence the unprecedented punishment we call the Shoah. That at least a portion of our people was spared is in itself a tribute to divine compassion for, having chosen to remain in exile, we implied our readiness to assimilate and thus turn our backs on God. One wonders what this particular rabbi would answer to the criticism, leveled at him in a later issue of the same journal, that it certainly is odd that the Holocaust struck first and hardest at those very centers of Jewish life that were most intensively Jewish, pro-Eretz Israel, and anti-assimilationist.

There is a third variation of the mi-penei hata’einu thesis, this time by an American (Rabbi Avigdor Miller) a mashgiah, or spiritual supervisor, at a Brooklyn yeshiva. Let me quote a few of his precious lines:

“Because of the upsurge of the greatest defection from Torah in history, which was expressed in Poland by materialism, virulent anti-nationalism, and Bundism (radical anti-religious socialism, God’s plan finally relieved them of all freewill and sent Hitler’s demons  to end the existence of the communities.”
(“Rejoice, 0 Youth”, pp. 278—289)

One wonders at the statement that Polish Jewry experienced the greatest defection from Torah in history: more than in the days of the prophet Elijah? Isaiah? Worse than German Jewry? American Jewry?

But let us not quibble about such trivial matters as facts. Is there any validity to the mi-penei hata’einu, the Holocaust as punishment explanation on which the various responses we have mentioned are based? Of course there is. The thesis is a corollary of the whole principle of sakhar ve-onesh, reward and punishment. It is a theme found throughout the Prophets and the Talmud.

And yet — I reject the cavalier invocation of this theme as a way of “explaining” the Holocaust. Indeed, in these special circumsstances of such unprecedented butchery and unequaled suffering and unimaginable danger to our survival, recourse to mi-penei hata’einu is massively irrelevant, impudent, and insensitive.

Why so? First, there are many approaches to suffering, as I indicated at the outset, and sin is not the only one. Indeed, the whole brunt of the Book of Job is to reject the simplistic recourse to mi-penei hata’einu in any and all circumstances: Job was not guilty of any sin — that is the premise of the whole book — and yet he suffered. It was the friends of Job, who insisted he must be guilty of some hidden sin, who were rebuked by God.

Hence, for us who live in comfort and security years after the event to point an accusing finger at European Jewry — probably one of the greatest and most creative and most beautiful in all Jewish history — and castigate them for shortcomings of one kind or another ostensibly deserving of such horrendous suffering, is an unparalleled instance of criminal arrogance and brutal insensitivity. How dare anyone even suggest that any “sin” committed by any significant faction of European Jewry was worthy of all the pain and anguish and death visited upon them by Hitler’s sadistic butchers? How dare anyone, skiing in the American or British or Israeli Paradise, indict the martyrs who were consumed in the European Hell?

Second, whoever undertakes to expound the thesis of mi-penei hata’einu for any specific event, in the gory detail we mentioned earlier, risks violating a most heinous sin of his own — that of zidduk ha-din, justifying the punishment and travail of the people of Israel. The sages did not take to this too kindly.

According to the rabbis, Moses himself was punished for making offensive statements about his people. Moses told the Israelites: “Listen, ye rebels” (Numbers 20:10). His punishment: “…you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them” (ibid v.12). Elijah complained to God that “the children of Israel have forsaken Thy convenant” (I Kings 19:10).

Shortly thereafter, we read of God’s command to appoint a successor, Elisha, in his place. Isaiah, too, used offensive language. In the course of a prophetic revelation, he confessed his feeling of worthlessness by saying “Woe is me, for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips.” But he erred by adding the significant words: “and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). Soon afterwards we read of how one of the angels of God, “with a glowing coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar,” touched the mouth of the prophet and said: “Lo, this hath touched thy lips and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin expiated” (Isaiah 6:7).

According to a Midrash, this was in atonement for the sin of criticizing his fellow Jews as “people of unclean lips” (Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah chap. 6). The Talmud tells us that King Manasseh killed Isaiah, who died when the sword reached his mouth — which had uttered the defamation of Israel (Yevamot 49b).

The sages’ aversion to condemning one’s fellow Jews and justifying their suffering, no matter how terrible their behavior, is taught in a famous tale of two great amoraim (Midrash Shir ha-Shirim 1): R. Abbahu and R. Simeon ben Lakish entered the city of Caesarea. R. Abbahu said to R. Simeon: “Why did we come here, into this country of abusers and blasphemers?” Whereupon R. Simeon dismounted from his donkey, took some sand in his hand, and pushed it into R. Abbahu’s mouth. “What is this?” asked R. Abba-hu. R. Simeon replied: “The Holy One does not approve of one who slanders Israel.” (I am indebted to Prof. Eliezer Berkovits for this reference.)

So let all those who are quick to interpret the Holocaust as punishment for Jewish sins be warned that they risk running afoul of the sages’ anger at whoever undertakes the sordid task of blaming his fellow Jews — and especially if such accusations are unjust.

Third, I am also troubled by a certain moral deficiency in those who seek to apply the mi-penei hata’einu philosophy to the Holocaust, and that is their sense of utter self-confidence, their dogmatic infallibility. They *know* that six million Jews were killed because there were Zionists among them, or because there were non-Zionists among them, or because there were assimilationists or apikorsim or whatever among them. While the rest of us poor benighted souls cannot begin to fathom, today, some forty years after the event, that it happened, how humankind could have degenerated so as to permit it, what all this pain and torture did to the martyrs and to their survivors — all this while, these smug interpreters of the Holocaust have no questions, no doubts, no problems, no uncertainties. They just know everything about the Sho’ah, especially why it happened. The enormity of this callousness, the outrageousness of such insensitive arrogance in elaborating this zidduk ha-din is mind-boggling. It is to my mind, unforgivable.

One last comment about the advocates of applying mi-penei hata’einu to the Holocaust: this is the first time in Jewish history, to my knowledge, that supposedly pious and learned Jews — a rebbe, a rav, a mashgiach — have made so colossal an error in elementary grammar. They use the words u-mi-penei hata’einu “because of *our* sins,” when they really mean to say u-mi-penei hatae’ihem, “because of *their* sins”! In the past every case of interpreting a disaster as the result of sin was one in which the interpreter included himself in the group that was guiity; it was “our sins,” not anyone else’s, that caused us to be exiled from our land. Today, in trying to explain the greatest of all disasters ever to befall us, small-minded people blame others, not themselves. The anti-Zionists blame the Zionists, the Zionists blame the anti-Zionists, the secularists blame the Orthodox rabbis who did not encourage emigration, and the Orthodox blame the assimilationists and the socialists and everyone else not in our camp. This last point alone is enough to disqualify the whole line of reasoning from being applicable to the Shoah.

In sum, if we ask, if we may resort to the mi-penei hata’einu rationale for the Holocaust, my answer is a resounding no — indeed, six million times no!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s