Holocaust theology

CC0 Creative commons Holocaust by Elissa Capelle Vaughn

Judaism, Christianity and Islam traditionally have taught that God is omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing) and omnibenevolent (all good). Yet, these claims are in jarring contrast with the fact that there is much evil in the world. Perhaps the most difficult question that monotheists have confronted is how can we reconcile the existence of this view of God with the existence of evil? Within all the monotheistic faiths, many answers have been proposed.

  • God is a righteous judge; people get what they deserve. If someone suffers, that is because they committed a sin that merits such suffering.
  • What we see as evil is not really evil; rather, it is part of a divine design that is actually good. Our limitations prevent us from seeing the big picture.
  • Suffering is educational. It makes us better people.
  • Evil is one way that God tests humanity, to see if we are worthy of His grace.
  • Evil and pain exist in this world only. This world is only a prelude to the afterlife, where no pain will exist.
  • Evil is not real. Rather, it is only a condition of not enough goodness.
  • The existence of evil is necessary for the existence of free will. Without the possibility to choose to do good or evil acts humanity would be nothing but robots.

However, in light of the magnitude of evil seen in the Holocaust, many people have re-examined classical views on this subject. Many people ask “How can one still have faith after the Holocaust?”

Modern Orthodox Jewish views

Most Modern Orthodox Jews reject the idea that the Holocaust was God’s fault. Modern Orthodox rabbis such as Joseph Soloveitchik, Norman Lamm, Randalf Stolzman, Abraham Besdin, Emanuel Rackman, Eliezer Berkovits and others have written on this issue; many of their works have been collected in a volume published by the Rabbinical Council of America: Theological and Halakhic Reflections on the Holocaust (edited by Bernhard H. Rosenberg and Fred Heuman, Ktav/RCA, 1992). See The Face of God: Thoughts on the Holocaust.

Works of important Jewish theologians

Richard Rubenstein

Prof. Richard Rubenstein‘s original piece on this issue, “After Auschwitz”, held that the only intellectually honest response to the Holocaust is the rejection of God, and the recognition that all existence is ultimately meaninglessness. There is no divine plan or purpose, no God that reveals His will to mankind, and God does not care about the world. Man must assert and create his own value in life. This view has been rejected by Jews of all religious denominations, but his works were widely read in the Jewish community in the 1970s.

Since that time Rubinstein has begun to move away from this view; his later works affirm of form of deism in which one may believe that God may exist as the basis for reality. His later works include Kabbalistic notions of the nature of God.

Emil Fackenheim

Emil Fackenheim is known for his understanding that people must look carefully at the Holocaust, and to find within it a new revelation from God. For Fackenheim, the Holocaust was an “epoch-making event”. In contrast to Richard Rubenstein’s most well-known views, Fackenheim holds that people must still affirm their belief in God and God’s continued role in the world. Fackenheim holds that the Holocaust reveals unto us a new Biblical commandment, “We are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories”.

Ignaz Maybaum

In a rare view that has not been adopted by any sizable element of the Jewish or Christian community, Ignaz Maybaum has proposed that the Holocaust is the ultimate form of vicarious atonement. The Jewish people become in fact the “suffering servant” of Isaiah. The Jewish people suffer for the sins of the world. In his view: “In Auschwitz Jews suffered vicarious atonement for the sins of mankind.”

Eliezer Berkovits

Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits (19081992) holds that man’s free will depends on God’s decision to remain hidden. If God were to reveal himself in history and hold back the hand of tyrants, man’s free will would be rendered non-existent. Many of Berkovits’ books will be republished by the Eliezer Berkovits Institute for Jewish Thought under the auspices of the Shalem Center, Jerusalem.

Harold Kushner, William E. Kaufman and Milton Steinberg

Rabbis Harold Kushner, William E. Kaufman, Milton Steinberg believe that God is not omnipotent, and thus is not to blame for mankind’s abuse of free will. Each has a reading of classical Jewish theology inspired by process theology. In this view there is no contradiction between the existence of a good God and the existence of massive evil by part of mankind.

The idea that God is not omnipotent in every way has been expressed by some classical Jewish authorities, such as Abraham ibn Daud, Abraham ibn Ezra, and Gersonides. These latter ideas are classical Jewish theologies. See “Philosophies of Judaism” (JPS, 1964) by Julius Guttman.

Hans Jonas

Hans Jonas (1903-1993) was a German-born American Jewish philosopher. He looks at this subject through the lens of process theology. See his essay The Concept of God after Auschwitz (1987).

In his essay The Concept of God after Auschwitz (1987), Jonas radically transformed the question of theodicy into the question of the justification of man and rejected the notion of God’s power in history; stimulated by ideas of Lurianic Kabbalah, he employed a speculative myth to unfold a process of theogony and cosmology in which God, in the course of evolution, withdraws completely back into Himself, relinquishes His omnipotence, and makes the world subject to human responsibility. (Jewish Virtual Library)

Also see the article Hans Jonas and the Concept of God after the Holocaust“, by Lawrence Troster, Conservative Judaism 55(4) · January 2003.

Irving Greenberg

Rabbi Irving Greenberg is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who has written extensively on how the Holocaust should affect Jewish theology. Greenberg has an Orthodox understanding of God. Like many other Orthodox Jews, he does not believe that God forces people to follow Jewish law; rather he believes that Jewish law is God’s will for the Jewish people, and that Jews should follow Jewish law as normative.

Greenberg’s break with Orthodox theology comes with his analysis of the implications of the Holocaust. He writes that the worst thing that God could do to the Jewish people for failing to follow the law is Holocaust-level devastation, yet this has already occurred. Greenberg is not claiming that God did use the Holocaust to punish Jews; he is just saying that if God chose to do so, that would be the worst possible thing. There really isn’t much worse that one could do. Therefore, since God can’t punish us any worse than what actually has happened, and since God doesn’t force Jews to follow Jewish law, then we can’t claim that these laws are enforceable on us. Therefore he argues that the covenant between God and the Jewish people is effectively broken and unenforceable.

“The Holocaust confronts us with unanswerable questions. But let us agree to one principle: no statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.”

– “Judaism, Christianity, and Partnership After the Twentieth Century,” by Irving Greenberg, Christianity in Jewish Terms, Ed. Tivka Frymer-Kensky

Greenberg notes that there have been several terrible destructions of the Jewish community, each with the effect of distancing the Jewish people further from God. According to rabbinic literature, after the destruction of the first Temple in Jerusalem and the mass-killing of Jerusalem’s Jews, the Jews received no more direct prophecy. After the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem and the mass-killing of Jerusalem’s Jews, the Jews no longer could present sacrifices at the Temple. This way of reaching God was at an end. After the Holocaust, Greenberg concludes that God isn’t responding to the prayers of Jews anymore.

Thus, God has unilaterally broken his covenant with the Jewish people. In this view, God no longer has the moral authority to command people to follow his will. Greenberg does not conclude that Jews and God should part way; rather he holds that we should heal the covenant between Jews and God, and that the Jewish people should accept Jewish law on a voluntary basis.

His views on this subject have made him the subject of much criticism within the Orthodox community.

The text above comes from an early version (2006) of the Wikipedia article on ‘Holocaust Theology’, much of which was written or edited by Robert Kaiser. Later versions were subject to editing wars between religious fundamentalists, and well-intentioned but not well-trained students. As such, the organization and focus of the article became lost amidst endless edit wars and censorship. What is presented here has been edited with an eye towards academic honesty and linguistic clarity.

Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) responses

Orthodox and Haredi Jewish responses

Many within Haredi Judaism blame the Holocaust on the abandonment of many European Jews of traditional Judaism, and their embrace of other ideologies such as Socialism, Zionism, or various non-Orthodox Jewish movements. Others suggest that God sent the Nazis to kill the Jews because Orthodox European Jews did not do enough to fight these trends, or did not support Zionism. In this Haredi theodicy, the Jews of Europe were sinners who deserved to die, and the actions of God which allowed this were righteous and just.

  • Satmar leader Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum writes:
Because of our sinfulness we have suffered greatly, suffering as bitter as wormwood, worse than any Israel has known since it became a people…In former times, whenever troubles befell Jacob, the matter was pondered and reasons sought–which sin had brought the troubles about–so that we could make amends and return to the Lord, may He be blessed…But in our generation one need not look far for the sin responsible for our calamity…The heretics have made all kinds of efforts to violate these oaths, to go up by force and to seize sovereignty and freedom by themselves, before the appointed time…[They] have lured the majority of the Jewish people into awful heresy, the like of which as not been seen since the world was created…And so it is no wonder that the Lord has lashed out in anger…And there were also righteous people who perished because of the iniquity of the sinners and corrupters, so great was the [divine] wrath.
– Aviezer Ravitzky, Messianism, Zionism and Jewish Religious Radicalism (1996, The University of Chicago), p. 124.
  • There were redemptionist Zionists, at the other end of the spectrum, who also saw the Holocaust as a collective punishment for a collective sin: ongoing Jewish unfaithfulness to the Land of Israel. Rabbi Mordecai Atiyah was a leading advocate of this idea. Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook and his disciples, for their part, avoided this harsh position, but they too theologically related the Holocaust to the Jewish recognition of Zion. Kook writes “When the end comes and Israel fails to recognize it, there comes a cruel divine operation that removes [the Jewish people] from its exile.
    – Aviezer Ravitzky, ibid.
  • Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, in 1939, stated that the Nazi persecution of the Jews was the fault of non-Orthodox Jews (Achiezer, volume III, Vilna 1939), in the introduction.
    – “Piety & Power: The World of Jewish Fundamentalism” by Orthodox author David Landau (1993, Hill & Wang).
  • Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler had similar views, also discussed in Landau’s book.
  • Many Haredi rabbis today warn that a failure to follow ultra-Orthodox interpretations of religious law will cause God to send another Holocaust. Rabbi Elazar Shach, a leader of the Lithuanian yeshiva Orthodoxy in Israel until his death in 2001 made this claim on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War. He stated that there would be a new Holocaust in punishment for the abandonment of religion and “desecration” of Shabbat in Israel.
  • In Chabad Lubavitch Judaism, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, taught that God killed six million Jews on purpose, and said that this was a necessary and good “surgery”. Yehuda Bauer wrote a revelatory article on this subject:…On the subject of the Holocaust, the Rebbe wrote as follows: “It is clear that ‘no evil descends from Above,’ and buried within torment and suffering is a core of exalted spiritual good. Not all human beings are able to perceive it, but it is very much there. So it is not impossible for the physical destruction of the Holocaust to be spiritually beneficial. On the contrary, it is quite possible that physical affliction is good for the spirit” (“Mada Ve’emuna,” Machon Lubavitch, 1980, Kfar Chabad).Schneerson goes on to compare God to a surgeon who amputates a patient’s limb in order to save his life. The limb “is incurably diseased … The Holy One Blessed Be He, like the professor-surgeon…seeks the good of Israel, and indeed, all He does is done for the good…. In the spiritual sense, no harm was done, because the everlasting spirit of the Jewish people was not destroyed.”The Rebbe’s stance, therefore, is clear: The Holocaust was a good thing because it lopped off a disease-ravaged limb of the Jewish people – in other words, the millions who perished in the Holocaust – in order to cleanse the Jewish people of its sins.There is logic in this theology: If God is indeed omnipotent, knows everything and controls the world (“God presides over the trials of 4 billion people all day long, every day without a moment’s rest”), which implies divine supervision on an individual and collective basis, then the Holocaust took place not only with his knowledge, but also with his approval.Schneerson does not accept the idea of “hester panim,” or God’s face being turned away, to explain why He was not present when 1.5 million Jewish children were murdered. According to some religious Jews, this hester panim was a consequence of man’s sins, and, above all, the sins of the Jewish people. Schneerson says that God was there, and that he wanted the Holocaust to happen. But because it is inconceivable, in his view, for God to commit evil, he portrays the Holocaust as a positive event, all the more so for the Jews.After this text was published in the summer of 1980, kicking up a storm, Chabad claimed it was based on an inaccurate Hebrew translation of talks that the Rebbe delivered in Yiddish. The Rebbe, they said, had no idea his remarks were being published. It seems hard to believe Schneerson would not go over every word published in his name, let alone a text put out in Hebrew by Machon Lubavitch in Kfar Chabad.In fact, there is a document written by the Rebbe himself, in Hebrew, which bears his statements about the Holocaust. The late Chaika Grossman, a leader of the underground in the Bialystok ghetto, who survived the war and served as a Knesset member for several terms, published an article in Hamishmar newspaper on August 22, 1980, quoting Schneerson and expressing her profound shock at his words. On August 28, 1980, the Rebbe sent her a reply on his personal stationary. The letter, apparently typewritten, contains a number of corrections in his own handwriting, and is signed by him. In it, the Rebbe confirms everything in the published text.

    His remarks, Schneerson explained, were based on the Torah. Hitler was a messenger of God in the same sense that Nebuchadnezzar is called “God’s servant” in the Book of Jeremiah (chapter 25). The “surgery” he spoke of was such a massive corrective procedure that the suffering (i.e., the murder of the Jews) was minor compared to its curative effect.

    – From the article “God as surgeon”,  Yehuda Bauer, [Israeli newspaper] Haaretz, Jun. 1, 2007

    also see


  • His father, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Joseph Isaac Schneersohn,
    also believe that the Holocaust was God’s will, to punish Reform Jews. Bryan Mark Rigg, author of “Rescued from the Reich: How One of Hitler’s Soldiers Saved the Lubavitcher Rebbe” offers this information:…[T]he Rebbe [Joseph Isaac Schneersohn] of course wanted to escape Europe and had his movement employ every means, even approaching the Secretary of State, to get him out, but when he was here in the US, he did not approach those very same people to help rescue those who had to remain in Europe.However, he did approach those people in the government to rescue his library, which he did get out in 1941. Are books more important than people? Some of the books were secular like Dante’s Inferno and books on Communism. This is a sad part of the history of the Rebbe. Also he started [publicly] condemning people who were organizing amazing rescue efforts like rabbis Kotler and Kalmanowitz of the Vad-Haatzala.He claimed they and Reform and Kofrim Jews were causing the Holocaust with their non-Kosher ways. Yet, we see that Kotler and Kalmanowitz helped rescue up to 100,000 people with the War Refugee Board. The Rebbe felt they were unnecessarily compromising their religious integrity by meeting with politicians on the Sabbath and secular and reform leaders.So the Rebbe made mistakes and according to Chancellor of Yeshiva University, [Modern Orthodox leader] Norman Lamm, he committed blasphemy by claiming God was punishing the Jews for their sins with the Holocaust. [Lamm] claims this is a desecration of God’s name (Menachem Mendel Schneerson also said that saying such a thing is a desecration of God’s name without mentioning his father-in-law).These facts and many more show how much Chabad does to ignore unpleasant facts about their history. They just claim that when people write such things, they are jealous of their movement, do not understand their people or on a political campaign to smear them. Very weak arguments and signs of inferiority complexes. So basically this story shows that instead of pointing fingers, we need to act and make a difference. Small minds blame others; big ones blame themselves and then seek out action to make the situation better.What people wanted was a hero of the Jewish people fighting for their rights. Instead, the Rebbe just thought of himself and his movement and condemned others. He was not helping the problem, but creating more. He should have worked with Kotler and Kalmanowitz, or at least have tried to, instead of [publicly] condemning them and a host of others.


  • Survivors Outraged Over Holocaust Remarks Made By Chabad’s Rabbi Manis Friedman
    Rabbi Manis Friedman sitting in front of books“Who in fact died and who remained alive had nothing to do with the Nazis,” Rabbi Manis Friedman stated in a speech delivered in Melbourne in the 1980s. “Not a single Jewish child died because of the Nazis … they died in their relationship with God.…Bad things did not happen to our grandparents … No evil befell them.”
    The issue stirred the memories of Shoah survivors and educators, who contacted The AJN to discuss the rabbi’s track record. Survivor and JHC guide Moshe Fiszman, still enraged by Rabbi Friedman’s remarks about the Holocaust, said the comments were “immoral”.“For someone who witnessed all that hell, who went through as many camps as I went through … to read and hear that is just … I don’t know. I cannot explain to you how I feel, there is no way,” the 91-year-old said.At the time, survivors lodged complaints against the rabbi with Chabad authorities and Rabbi Friedman has not been invited back to Melbourne.Holocaust survivor and guide at the JHC Abe Goldberg said Rabbi Friedman’s implication that the Holocaust was part of a Divine plan is “blasphemy”.


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