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Jewish Theology after Auschwitz

The German philosopher Nietzsche poses a radical answer to the contemporary question: Is God dead? Nietzsche writes:

Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market-place, and cried incessantly: “I am looking for God! I am looking for God!”

As many of those who did not believe in God were standing together there, he excited considerable laughter. ‘Have you lost him, then?’ said one. ‘Did he lose his way like a child?’ said another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? or emigrated? Thus they shouted and laughed. The madman sprang into their midst and pierced them with his glances.

“Where has God gone?” he cried. ‘I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers.”

In the 1960s, the “death of God” sparked considerable debate within Christian and Jewish theological circles. Its primary exponents were Thomas J. J. Altizer, William Hamilton, and Paul Van Buren. Despite the differences, these three agreed that a transcendent God is no longer a part of the contemporary human experience. Jewish thinkers approach the “death of God” theology with a variety of different responses.

Indeed, some Jewish thinkers led by Richard Rubenstein, contend that the horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima are proof enough that the traditional view of God as a Redeemer was not longer valid or religiously meaningful to the Post-Holocaust era, or as the common secular might say, “God has gone on vacation.” Richard Rubenstein claims that Auschwitz demonstrates human life has no essential value due to the lack of a transcendental purpose or process controlling the human condition. Ultimate meaning and purpose must derive from human beings and not from God. In effect, community has to take the place of God. Granted, religious precepts and rituals could still be maintained, but only as sociological and psychological props. Jews, as a result of the Holocaust, continue as a community but without the God of Judaism. Rubenstein’s view represents a broad segment of the secular Jewish intelligentsia. On the other hand, some Jewish scholars would argue differently, believing that the “death of God” theology points to a loss or absence of the Divine in our contemporary age. Jacob Neusner notes:

“I do not understand the question what the “God is dead” theologians are saying. It seems to me they may be saying two things. First, the experience of the sacred, or God, is no longer widely available; second, that experience is no longer available in classical ways. Both of these statements describe Jewish existence, and have for some time, though we prefer to phrase them differently. I think it is clear that God is hiding His face from the world. . . .We are no longer able to approach the gates of heaven, surely not open them with the keys that used to work. God is “dead” for many Jews. In the Jewish community, even the flame of the Yahrzeit candle long ago flickered out. In the synagogue, however, Jewry still keeps up the graveyard. I do not despair. We Jews have passed this way before.”[1]

Neusner’s evocative image of the “graveyard” is suggestive of numbness, death and detachment. This metaphor would certainly describe the spiritual life of many modern Jews. Neusner’s insightful words are revealing and may have antecedents in several rabbinic teachings that suggest that God has taken a leave of absence from the world. Some sages of the Talmud argued that the Divine Presence (a.k.a. the “Shekhinah”) has retreated to Heaven. In the words of the Midrash, “When the Temple was burned, the Holy One (blessed be He) cried and said:  I no longer have a seat upon earth. I shall remove my Shekhinah from there and ascend to my first habitation.”[2]

Emil Fackenheim, one of the leading post-Holocaust theologians of the 20th century, observes:

Each denomination of Judaism seemed to want to keep God out of its modern religious lives.  It allowed no room for a God dwelling beyond the world, yet entering into it to seek out man. He was an irrational incursion into a rational universe. At the same time, in its more congenial moods, modern thought gave substitute offerings to a deist “First Cause” or Cosmic Process outside man and unrelated to him, or an idealistic God-idea within him. Faced with this basic challenge, and these substitute offerings, orthodox and liberal Jewish theology both compromised. Orthodoxy held fast to the Jewish God, but confined His essential activity to a conveniently remote Biblical and Talmudic past, acting as though the sacred documents of the past could be exempted from modern criticism. Liberalism, for its part, wishing a present God, compromised the Jewish God Himself, now using the terms of Deism, then those of idealism, and in its still surviving forms the terms of a cosmic evolutionism.[3]

Another thinker, Eugene Borowitz  also admits it is difficult to believe in a God after the Holocaust. He notes, “Any God who could permit the Holocaust, who could remain silent during it, who could hide His face while it dragged on, was not worth believing in. There might well be a limit to how much we could understand Him, but Auschwitz demanded an unreasonable suspension of understanding. In the face of such great evil, God, the good and the powerful, was too inexplicable, so men said, ‘God is dead…’” [4]

The conundrum is an old one that was formulated by the ancient Greek cynic named Epicurus, who wrote:

“If God is willing to prevent evil, but is not able to, then He is not omnipotent.

If He is able, but not willing, then He is malevolent.

If He is both able and willing, then whence cometh evil?

If He is neither able nor willing, then why call Him God?”

The Catholic theologian Hans Kung gives the old Epicurean criticism a more modern reformulation:

Was God at Auschwitz? If God is God: all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good and loving, present everywhere, then of course God must have been at Auschwitz! But how could God have been at Auschwitz without preventing Auschwitz? How could God have looked on when the gas streamed out and the cremation ovens were burning?

Are the “death of God” philosophers and theologians correct? Maybe to some extent. However, one  could argue that the Holocaust laid bare some of our childish conceptions of God that we unfortunately never outgrew–the concept of a Deity who is “All-Powerful,” “Almighty,” does not exist. Such a deity is more the projection of human beings’ greatest wishes–just as Freud correctly diagnosed in his “Future of an Illusion.”

One could argue that God’s power always functions in tandem with human freedom; redemption in the Bible always requires human participation. Without human actors, there is no God of redemption. With respect to the Exodus, God requires that there be a Moses and Aaron; with respect to every redemptive story in the Tanakh, there are human beings who act as God’s agent of redemption. Why is this so? The answer is simple enough: Human beings reveal God’s Presence in times of sorrow, catastrophe, and loss. The question as Heschel correctly raised decades ago, is not, “Where was God during the Holocaust?” but, “Where was man?” Redemption never occurs in a spiritual vacuum.

(More to come…)


[1] Milton Himmelfarb (ed.), The Condition of Jewish Belief:  A Symposium Compiled by the Editors of Commentary Magazine (Northvale, NJ:  Jason Aaronson Inc., 1988), 156-157.

[2] Lamentations Rabbah 24.

[3] Emil Fackenheim, Quest For Past and Future–Essays in Jewish Theology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968), 5.

[4] Eugene Borowitz, The Masks Jews Wear: The Self-deceptions of American Jewry.



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