God and the ShoahBy Jonathan Wittenberg (excerpted from his book The Eternal Journey)
Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way . . .
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.
- Primo Levi1
Like many children of refugee or survivor families, who grew up in a house full of memories and often with as much German spoken as English, there are times when I read compulsively about the Holocaust. I read about people. I read countless books of how people died and how people survived, of love and tenderness, final messages, courage, tenacity, and horror. My heart aches, and sometimes I wonder if this is not in some sense my very own life, as if I had inherited the soul of someone who had suffered thus. And yet I know that all these things are beyond the bounds of my imagination. I cannot know what it was really like.
I read about people, not about God. I spend my time thinking about those who suffered in the Shoah. But in the end the question can’t be avoided: what about God?
I do not believe that we can explain the ways of God. On the contrary, the brief words from the Talmud come to mind: ’Agra devei tamia shetikuta' — The reward of the house of bones is silence.2 And though there have been several theological answers to the question — “Why did God let it happen?” — I am satisfied by none of them. In the end, I believe that certain questions can never be answered.
Some say, “The Holocaust happened because of our sins.” There is a place and a purpose to a theology which puts the responsibility for disaster not on God, but on us. It is intended, paradoxically, as a comfort: God has not abandoned us, but rather punished us for our sins and will reward us when we mend our ways. But this theology cannot be applied here. What sin could be so monstrous as to account for the Holocaust? To suggest it is the failure to practice our religion, or the emergence of Reform Judaism, or the rise of secular Zionism or anything else like it, is, in the word attributed to Claude Lanzmann in response to a questioner who dared to suggest such a theory following a showing of his film Shoah, “obscene.” Neither the gas chambers, nor the shootings, burnings, and tortures, were anyone’s just dessert.
Some say, “The Holocaust happened because of the sins of the world, which were visited upon the body of the Jewish people.” I do not believe God creates scapegoats. Certainly it is not a Jewish idea that one person, or one nation, should suffer and perish by the will of God to redeem the sins of others — neither the Jews, nor the Armenians, nor the Cambodians, nor the people of Rwanda. That horrors are brought about because of the sins of the world is doubtless true, but it cannot be right to impute this to the intentions of the divine will. Those who suffer because of the sins of the world suffer because of the way human beings behave, because of the way we behave. We visit our depravity upon one another, and there is no atonement in such degradation.
Some even say that the Holocaust happened so that the State of Israel could be established, but the smoke clouds of this tragedy are too immense to be justified by the notion of any kind of silver lining. Nor should European anti-Semitism be retroactively rehabilitated as a justification for a homeland for the Jewish people. To impute such an argument to experience of those who were there and did maintain, or even find, their faith in the ghettos and concentration camps. They fail to honor the spiritual triumph of those who discovered God in the midst of terror and who died with prayers on their lips.
Some say that the Holocaust happened because God hid the Divine face. Perhaps; but what does this actually mean? God appears to “hide his face” rather often. How frequently can this happen before the explanation loses any meaning? To be considered to have hidden one’s face, one has sometimes to show it. I find it hard to believe in a God who, in our day, sometimes steps into history and sometimes, for reasons beyond reason, deliberately refrains from so doing. The Bible does testify that God was “hands-on” and did enter directly into history. But perhaps those really were other times, or perhaps — a more radical explanation — people had reason then to project a different image onto God. For whatever anyone says of God is ultimately only a product of their own perception.
I believe that we have to live without answers. Sometimes what the desire for a clear answer to an unfathomable question actually expresses is the need to evade the pain that lies in the fact that some things simply cannot be explained. God remains inscrutable. But we can draw a distinction between faith and theodicy. The problem of theodicy, the issue of God’s justice, is not co-extensive with the question of faith, the issue of God’s existence. One can believe in God without being able to understand or justify what happens in the world.
Nevertheless, I do believe that there is a relationship between God and the Holocaust, and future holocausts, to whomever they may happen. This is because that relationship has a middle term — us, every human being. The issue, therefore, is not only the relationship between God and history, but also, especially, the relationship between us and God.
Do we mean it when we say that all life is sacred? Or are some lives more sacred than others? Do we really believe that we are accountable for our actions, and, if so, before whom? Does it strengthen our sense of accountability to believe in God? Or do we make God the ultimate guardian of injustice, always, in our minds, on our side whatever we do? And if God should turn to us, not from the top of some mountain but from inside our own heart, and say, “Where is Abel your brother?” what will we reply? Will we, too, turn like Cain and answer, “I don’t know and I don’t care”? These are the real questions; all theology that avoids them is evasion. The future will depend on how we answer, and our response will be measured by our actions, not only our beliefs.
In the meantime genocide continues; our vow, “Never again!” has so far proved insufficient to prevent it.