Holocaust theology

From Academic Kids

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 dark events of the European Holocaust that occurred during World War II (1939-1945) when around 11 million people, including six million Jews were subjected to genocide by the Nazis and their cohorts.

Judaism and Christianity 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? 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. 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.
  • If there were a God, He would surely have prevented the Holocaust. Since God did not prevent it, then God never really existed in the first place.
  • "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. It may have a meaning or a purpose, but if so this meaning transcends human understanding.
  • 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. All of the above arguments are based on the assumption that God is omnipotent, and could have interfered to stop the Holocaust. What if this is not so? In this view, the Holocaust thus only reflects poorly on humanity, not God. This is a view promoted by many liberal theologians, including Rabbi Harold Kushner.

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.

Because of our sinfulness we have suffered greatly, suffering as bitter as wormwood, worse than any Israel has know 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 Grodzinsky, 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 Eliezer Man Schach, a leader of the Lithuanian yeshiva Orthodoxy in Israel until his death in 2002 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, 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

Michael Berenbaum

(To be written.)

Richard Rubinstein

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 then 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 element of the Jewish or Christian community (that I know of), 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, Williams Kaufman and Milton Steiberg

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 calimed 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. (Rest to be written)

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.

Christian view

The Catholic Church has some of the Holocaust victims as declared saints and martyrs. An example is the priest Maximilian Kolbe.

Open Theism holds that the holocaust was the result of too little faith in God, rather than too much; and that it is non-sequitur to blame God for humanity's steadfast refusal to obey God's command to "Love our neighbors as ourselves."

Others, such as a small segment within evangelical Christianity, explain the Holocaust as part of the curse of Deuteronomy 28:15-68 ( That passage says that if the Jews were not faithful to God, He would abandon them to judgment. Within this evangelical camp, there are differences of opinion as to what would happen next. In keeping with regular Supersessionism many of them (especially the Reformed theology camp) believe that God is essentially done with Israel as a nation, and that the Church of true believers has taken Israel's place as the covenant people of God. Others believe that the curse of judgment on Israel would only be temporary. According to this view, the Holocaust brought to a conclusion God's wrath upon the nation of Israel. The Holocaust victims are not seen as personally deserving of such suffering, but as "sacrificial lambs" (so to speak) on whom the final measure of the curse was poured out. This view considers them as heroes, not as criminals. This view then holds that, at some time subsequent to the Holocaust, God ceased to "give them up" (Micah 5:3) ( While this evangelical view does not consider the people of Israel as being fully restored to the place of full blessing, it does assert that they are no longer in the place of cursing. The founding of the State of Israel in 1948, the continued return of dispersed Jews from throughout the world, Israel's victories in five wars since then against overwhelming odds, and the nation's significant economic growth are seen as proofs that the nation is no longer under judgment of Deuteronomy 28. Those who hold this view tend to overwhelmingly be pro-Israel and are often involved in Messianic Judaism or Messianic Discipleship in varying degrees, while those who hold that God is done with Israel may or may not be pro-Israel, and are opposed to Messianic Judaism, viewing it as an abandonment (at least, in part) of pure Christianity.

Works of important Christian theologians

(To be written.)

See also

External links


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