Holocaust theology

Holocaust theology

Holocaust theology refers to a body of theological and philosophical debate, soul-searching, and analysis, with the subsequent related literature, that attempts to come to grips with various conflicting views about the role of God in this human world and the events of the European Holocaust that occurred during World War II (1939-1945) when around 11 million people, including 6 million Jews were subjected to genocide by the Nazis and their cohorts. "Holocaust theology" is also referred to as "Theologie nach Auschwitz" ("Theology after Auschwitz" in German), due to the common practice of using "Auschwitz" as a shorthand for the Holocaust as a whole.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam traditionally have taught that God is omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing) and omnibenevolent (all good). These claims seem to be 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? This is the problem of evil.

Within all the monotheistic faiths many answers (theodicies) have been proposed. However, in light of the magnitude of evil seen in the Holocaust, many people have re-examined classical views on this subject. Many people have asked, "How can people still have any kind of faith after the Holocaust?"

Jewish theological responses

Here are some of the major responses that Jews have had in response to the Holocaust:
* No new response is needed. The Holocaust is like all other horrific tragedies. This event merely prompts us again to investigate the issue of why bad things sometimes happen to good people. The Holocaust shouldn't change our theology.
* Rabbinic Judaism has a doctrine from the books of the prophets called "mi-penei hataeinu", "because of our sins we were punished". During Biblical times when calamities befell the Jewish people, the Jewish prophets stressed that suffering is a natural result of not following God's law, and prosperity, peace and health are the natural results of following God's law. Therefore, some people in the Orthodox community have taught that the Jewish people in Europe were deeply sinful. In this view, the Holocaust is a just retribution from God.
* The Holocaust is an instance of the temporary "Eclipse of God". There are times when God is inexplicably absent from history.
* "God is dead". If there were a God, He would surely have prevented the Holocaust. Since God did not prevent it, then God has for some reason turned away from the world, and left us to ourselves forever more. God is therefore no longer relevant to humanity.
* Terrible events such as the Holocaust are the price we have to pay for having free will. In this view, God will not and cannot interfere with history, otherwise our free will would effectively cease to exist. The Holocaust only reflects poorly on humanity, not God.
* Perhaps the Holocaust is in some way a revelation from God: The event issues a call for Jewish affirmation for survival.
* The Holocaust is a mystery beyond our comprehension. God has reason for what He does, but human understanding can't begin to understand His reason.
* The Jewish people become in fact the "suffering servant" of Isaiah. The Jewish people collectively suffer for the sins of the world. (Also mentioned by Reform Rabbi Ignaz Maybaum proposed that the Holocaust is the ultimate form of vicarious atonement."The Face of God After Auschwitz", pages 35 and 36.)
* God does exist, but God is not omnipotent. This view is similar to Process theology and Open Theism. All of the above arguments are based on the assumption that God is omnipotent and, consequently, could have interfered to stop the Holocaust. What if this is not so? In this view, the Holocaust only reflects poorly on humanity, not on God. This is a view promoted by many liberal theologians, including Rabbi Harold Kushner.
* God or any other supernatural deity does not exist.

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 no longer protected by the Torah and faith, and the actions of God which allowed this were righteous and just.
* Satmar leader and Holocaust survivor 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 by 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. This is discussed in "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.
* A few Haredi rabbis today warn that a failure to follow 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.

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).

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 a form of deism in which one may believe that God may exist as the basis for reality and some also 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 (1908-1992) 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 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. Thus, there is no contradiction between the existence of a good God and the existence of massive evil by part of mankind. It is claimed that this is also the view expressed by some classical Jewish authorities, such as Abraham ibn Daud, Abraham ibn Ezra, and Gersonides.

David Weiss Halivni

Rabbi David Weiss Halivni is himself a Holocaust survivor from Hungary. He says that the effort to associate the Shoah and sin is morally outrageous. He holds that it is unwarranted on a strict reading of the Tanakh. He claims that it reinforces an alarming tendency among ultra-Orthodox leaders to exploit such arguments on behalf of their own authority. In "Prayer in the Shoah" he gives his response to the idea that the Holocaust was a punishment from God:

"What happened in the Shoah is above and beyond measure (l'miskpat): above and beyond suffering, above and beyond any punishment. There is no transgression that merits such punishment... and it cannot be attributed to sin." [Prayer in the Shoah. From: Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought]

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.

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.

Menachem Mendel Schneerson

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last leader of the Chabad Hasidic movement, rejected all theological explanations of the Holocaust stating: :"What greater conceit and what greater heartlessness, can there be than to give a "reason" for the death and torture of millions of innocent men, women and children? Can we presume to assume that an explanation small enough to fit inside the finite bounds of human reason can explain a horror of such magnitude? We can only concede that there are things that lie beyond the finite ken of the human mind. It is not my task to justify God on this. Only God Himself can answer for what He allowed to happen. And the only answer we will accept, is the immediate and complete Redemption that will forever banish evil from the face of the earth and bring to light the intrinsic goodness and perfection of God's creation." [http://www.chabad.org/library/article.asp?AID=102705]

To those who argued that the Holocaust disproves the existence of God or His providence over our lives, Schneerson wrote: :"On the contrary -- the Holocaust has decisively disproven any possible faith in a human-based morality. In pre-war Europe, it was the German people who epitomized culture, scientific advance and philosophic morality. And these very same people perpetrated the most vile atrocities known to human history! If nothing else, the Holocaust has taught us that a moral and civilized existence is possible only through the belief in and the acceptance of the Divine authority. Our outrage, our incessant challenge to God over what has occurred -- this itself is a most powerful attestation to our belief in Him and our faith in His goodness. Because if we did not, underneath it all, possess this faith, what is it that we are outraged at? The blind workings of fate? The random arrangement of quarks that make up the universe? It is only because we believe in God, because we are convinced that there is right and there is wrong and that right must, and ultimately will, triumph, that we cry out, as Moses did: "Why, my God, have you done evil to Your people?!"" [http://www.chabad.org/library/article.asp?AID=102705]

He rejected that the Holocaust was a punishment for the sins of that generation saying::"The destruction of six million Jews in such a horrific manner that surpassed the cruelty of all previous generations, could not possibly be because of a punishment for sins. Even the Satan himself could not possibly find a sufficient number of sins that would warrant such genocide! There is absolutely no rationalistic explanation for the Holocaust except for the fact that it was a Divine decree … why it happened is above human comprehension – but it is definitely not because of punishment for sin. On the contrary: All those who were murdered in the Holocaust are called “Kedoshim” – holy ones – since they were murdered in sanctification of G–d’s name....It is inconceivable that the Holocaust be regarded as an example of punishment for sin, in particular when addressing this generation, which as mentioned before is “a firebrand plucked from the fire” of the Holocaust." [http://www.chabad.org/library/article.asp?AID=108398]

Works of important Christian theologians

Jürgen Moltmann

In “The Crucified God” Jürgen Moltmann speaks of how in a “theology after Auschwitz” the traditional notion of God needed to be completely revised. "Shattered and broken, the survivors of my generation were then returning from camps and hospitals to the lecture room. A theology which did not speak of God in the sight of the one who was abandoned and crucified would have had nothing to say to us then." [Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (Augsburg Fortress:Minneapolis, 1993) p. 1]

The traditional notion of an impassible “unmoved mover” had died in those camps and was no longer tenable. Moltmann proposes instead a “crucified God” who is both a “suffering” and “protesting” God. That is, God is not detached from suffering but willingly enters into human suffering in compassion.

:"“God in Auschwitz and Auschwitz in the crucified God - that is the basis for real hope that both embraces and overcomes the world”" [Ibid. p. 278] .

This is in contrast both with the move of theism to justify God's actions and the move of atheism to accuse God. Moltmann's “Trinitarian theology of the cross” instead says that God is a protesting God who opposes the 'Gods of this world' of power and domination by entering into human pain and suffering on the cross and on the gallows of Auschwitz. Moltmann's “theology of the cross” was later developed into "Liberation Theologies" from suffering people under Stalinism in Eastern Europe and military dictatorships in South America and South Korea.

Pope Benedict XVI

In the address given on the occasion of his visit to the extermination camp of Auschwitz, Pope Benedict XVI suggested a reading of the events of the Holocaust as motivated by a hatred of God Himself. The address begins by acknowledging the impossibility of an adequate theological response:

:"In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can only be a dread silence - a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this? In silence, then, we bow our heads before the endless line of those who suffered and were put to death here; yet our silence becomes in turn a plea for forgiveness and reconciliation, a plea to the living God never to let this happen again." [ [http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2006/may/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20060528_auschwitz-birkenau_en.html "Pastoral Visit of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI in Poland: Address by the Holy Father - Visit to the Auschwitz Camp, 28 May 2006"] ]

Nonetheless, he proposes that the actions of the Nazis can be seen as having been motivated by a hatred of God and a desire to exalt human power, with the Holocaust serving as a means by which to erase witness to God and His Law:

:"The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the earth. Thus the words of the Psalm: “We are being killed, accounted as sheep for the slaughter” were fulfilled in a terrifying way. Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid. If this people, by its very existence, was a witness to the God who spoke to humanity and took us to himself, then that God finally had to die and power had to belong to man alone - to those men, who thought that by force they had made themselves masters of the world. By destroying Israel, by the Shoah, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful." [Ibid.]

Most coverage of the address was positive, with praise from Italian and Polish rabbis. The Simon Wiesenthal Center called the visit "historic", and the address and prayers "a repudiation of antisemitism and a repudiation of those... who refer to the Holocaust as a myth" [http://www.wiesenthal.com/site/apps/nl/content2.asp?c=fwLYKnN8LzH&b=245494&ct=2509601] . A few Jewish commentators (such as, e.g., Daniel Goldhagen in [http://www.pjvoice.com/v13/13103holocaust.html "The Holocaust Was Not Christian"] ) objected to what they perceived as a desire to "Christianize" the Holocaust.


Notable contributors

*Dietrich Bonhoeffer
*Norman Finkelstein
*J.B. Metz
*Jürgen Moltmann
*Dorothee Sölle
*Franz Mussner
* [http://www.experiencefestival.com/a/Holocaust_theology_-_Works_of_important_Jewish_theologians/id/1868737 Holocaust theology site, "Works of important Jewish theologians"]

ee also

*World War II
*The Holocaust
*Eclipse of God

External links

* [http://www.krusch.com/bethisrael/ Audio: Dr. Walter Ziffer, Holocaust survivor and theology professor, discusses this article] Hear Dr. Walter Ziffer (the last Holocaust survivor in Asheville, North Carolina as of April 11, 2004) discuss this article.

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