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Grappling With God's Existence In The Context Of The Holocaust

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For nearly as long as humans have walked the earth and been conscious of the unique attributes separating us from the animal kingdom, we have reckoned with the question of why we exist. There is no objective purpose for human existence, and this uncertainty creates an uncomfortable void in the agency we seek to apply to our lives. The pursuit of existential meaning is an inherently human trait prompted by the curiosity of our consciousness and has no definitive answer. Throughout the vast majority of human history, the existence of some type of godly creator provided the most compelling rationale for making sense of the world. Such beliefs are manifested in religions that seek to find meaning and purpose in our lives, giving the most lost and lonely souls a constant companion in their creator. The etymology of religion is derived in the respective Latin roots “re-lig-io” which together suggest a way of binding back to that which made us. Therefore, we can understand religion as a way to connect the concepts of our known reality --“profanus”-- to the sacred unknown --“sacer”-- which we can only imagine. Religion structures that imagination through collective storytelling and the creation of a culture of belief which ultimately creates order and a basis for hope that our existence is not meaningless. Whether one embraces this imposition of a narrative of divine reality on society, or like philosophers Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud criticize its seductive illusion of a comfortable certainty, it is undoubtedly true that religion has shaped human society and greatly defined modern civilization.

Many regional and cultural enclaves offer distinct interpretations of God and manifestations of religion, but the majority of the Earth’s population follows three historically intertwined faiths; Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Today these predominant religions are manifested in definitively different cultures but their theologies are fundamentally related in a shared origin. All three religions are monotheistic and stem from one spiritual source: the worship of the God of the original prophet Abraham of the ancient Israelites. The smallest of the three, Judaism, is the direct product of the Abrahamic beliefs and the religion of his descendants and is most closely linked to its original theology. Christianity and Islam were spread globally through adoption by the Roman and Islamic empires respectively, consequentially altering the interpretations of original Abrahamism through their different contexts. Despite these different evolutions, the traditional teachings of God’s natural all-knowing omniscience, all-powerful omnipotence, and all-good omnibenevolence remained core to all three faiths. The contrast between this common, traditional characterization of God and the realities of injustice and suffering in the world prompts one of the most disputed debates in history known as “theodicy.” Theodicy investigates and attempts to reconcile the assumption of the goodness and power of God with the prevalent existence of evil in the world, which challenges the traditional monotheistic views of God.

Each Abrahamic religion embodies a distinctly challenging application for theodicy, but Judaism offers perhaps the most difficult and contentious context for exploration of the discipline because of the uniquely troubled history of the Jewish people. Every Jew is familiar with the countless tests to the survival of the faith, as questions and justifications regarding our ability to preserve faith in God’s goodness have become ingrained in our theology and characteristic of the narrative of Judaism. Our religious texts reflect the historical prevalence of this adversity, and every year at Passover the Haggadah teaches us to accept that “in every generation, enemies rise up seeking to destroy us,” however, “God delivers us from their hands.” This role of God as a protector redeeming the Jewish people because of our continued faith is crucial to justifications for past evils within Jewish theology. This view remained firmly accepted for over two millennia throughout countless tests such as our Egyptian enslavement, subjection to attacks during the Crusades, and repeated expulsions from prejudiced societies. In fact, antisemitism is as old as Christianity, as the refusal of the Jewish people to accept the narrative of Christ as a prophet prompted systematic demonization and an association between Jews and the antichrist propagated by the Christian narrative of Jews as “christ-killers.” In the millennia between Jesus’s crucifixion and the more recent history of Jewish settlement in Europe, these antisemitic narratives were further enhanced causing deep fissures in Jewish-Christian relationships which greatly transformed perceptions of Jews among European Christians. One of the outcomes of this religious and cultural division was the recasting of Judaism from a religion to an ethnic group by Christian nationalists, making it easier to market the threat of Jewish influence as a kind of malevolent Middle-Eastern taint on European society. Such deeply indoctrinated antisemitic sentiments offer important context for grappling with the greatest challenge ever to face traditional Jewish theology.

In the greatest genocide in modern history, the German Nazi regime systematically murdered six million European Jews because their “racial inferiority” threatened the purity of Arian Germany. The evil of the Holocaust was incomprehensible, as entire populations of Jewish men, women, and children were mercilessly subjugated to mass slaughter by being burned alive, gassed, shot, and worked to death by their fellow humans. The murder of not only an astounding numberof Jews but also a disproportionate number of the most devout rabbis and scholars offers the most absolute challenge to the possibility of the existence of a traditional Jewish God. The millennia-old doctrine of the Jews as the chosen people protected by a God who intervenes to balance injustice by punishing evil and rewarding good was suddenly inconceivable. This irreconcilable clash between the God of Jewish traditions and the unfathomable evils done to its most faithful believers creates a seemingly unanswerable paradox in Jewish theodicy. The supposedly eternal covenant between God and the Judaic people which is the basis for the entirety of the faith became inconceivable following the Holocaust. How could it be possible that the traditional all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good God of Judaism could allow such an event to occur? Pragmatically such a God is impossible, however, many Jews have become even more resolute in their faith after the Holocaust. To be able to offer a genuine response to this question, which has become aligned with Theodicy as an intellectual discipline, it is essential to understand the perspectives of both the stakeholders involved and theologians.

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The most significant perspectives for understanding the implications of the Holocaust must come from those who experienced its evil first hand. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel’s primary account of the atrocities experienced in the extermination camps in his memoir Night offers the most validated commentary because his faith was directly tested. Upon witnessing the horrors committed on his supposedly chosen people, Wiesel is prompted to question why God “chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night.” This is an unanswerable question in the context of a concentration camp because it depends on blind faith in God’s benevolence as a protector of the Jewish people, which becomes impossible after the traumas Wiesel is subjected to. The dominance of Nazi human evil over the precise population that Jewish theology claims God protects prompts Wiesel to realize that “man is stronger, greater than God”, rendering the doctrine that God is all-powerful unrealistic and therefore unbelievable. The realization that he cannot be protected by God both empowers and terrifies Wiesel, as “[he] felt very strong” because his “eyes had been opened and [he] was alone in a world without God.” This acceptance of the impossibility of the God of traditional Judaism’s existence is not youthful ignorance, and is in fact shared by a rabbi from Poland Wiesel meets who declares that “God is no longer with us” and justifies his verdict because he repeatedly witnesses the lack of God’s mercy when it is most needed. These understandings of the inconceivability of an omnibenevolent God due to the first-hand witness of unchecked evil hold more weight than the dissertations of any theological scholar who claims to understand the problem of evil. Nobody who has not experienced the Holocaust can discredit the beliefs of the dying Jew whose experiences have caused him to abandon his protector and “have more faith in Hitler than anyone else” because “he alone has kept his promises, all his promises, to the Jewish people.” To most humans the possibility of genocide is unimaginable, but to those who survived it, it is rather the existence of an omnipotent God that is impossible, a position which can never be justifiably discredited. If God failed to answer Wiesel’s father’s dying summons of his Lord, symbolized by the name “Eliezer,” then how can any Jew expect his mercy?

The distinguished theologian Richard Rubenstein offers a second crucial work for understanding Holocaust theodicy, which is further-reaching if less experiential than Wiesel’s. In After Auschwitz, Rubenstein deeply considers theological reactions to the Holocaust by interviewing a wide array of religious leaders, theologists, and philosophers as a basis for his own perspective, thereby offering exposure to many different schools of thought. Much of Rubenstein’s argument depends on the important concept of “Heilsgeschichte,” which is a German term implying that history is sacred because an omnipotent God has been active in influencing human affairs. In the context of Heilsgeschichte, Rubenstein asserts the baseline for his argument about a traditional God: that “Judaism and Christianity differ in their interpretation of history, but not in their basic affirmation that God’s relation to the world is primarily historical.” By clearly defining the traditional God which defines Jewish theology as omnipotent and embodying Heilsgeschichte, Rubenstein sets the parameters for his verdict on the possible existence of such a God and critique of Holocaust theology.

One perspective Rubenstein seeks for insight into how to properly interpret the Holocaust is that of prominent religious leaders from both sides of the debate, a German minister and Jewish rabbi. He first consults Dean Grüber, an evangelical Christian minister who had survived the Holocaust after being imprisoned for criticizing the persecution of Jews. When Rubenstein traveled to West Germany in 1961 to meet with Grüber, the minister was working as an activist against continued antisemitism in Germany. Grüber viewed the Holocaust as a punitive measure by God for a transgression committed by the Jewish people, identifying “problematic” traits of European Jews such as their involvement in illegal business and brothels. While Grüber’s intentions were ambivalent, and he simply “want[ed] Christians to become better Christians and Jews to become better Jews” as Rubenstein identifies, his critiques of Jewish behavior troublingly suggest that Jews must essentially have behaved perfectly to have avoided the Holocaust. It is “evident in [Grüber’s] mind Jewish behavior and antisemitism were objectively related,” an assertion that ignores the antisemitism indoctrinated into Nazism and Christian culture to a broader degree. Despite Grüber’s work to protect the Jewish people, his perspective that God intended the Holocaust to occur but that Nazis simply overstepped its intentions in an exercise of free will undermines the possible presence of a traditional God as defined by Heilsgeschichte.

In Rubenstein’s later discussion with Rabbi Joseph Schneersohn, similar discrepancies between his belief in a traditional God and theology specific to the Holocaust are apparent. Like Grüber, Schneersohn contends that the Holocaust was punitive in nature, as he believes “Hitler is but God’s instrument for chastising the Jews, who had abandoned the ways of Torah; Nazism is divine punishment visited upon the Jews” for choosing assimilation. Shneersohn’s theory is typical of a devout biblical scholar intent on following God’s commandments, but fails to account for the fact that other scholars such as himself who promoted following the Torah were murdered at an even higher rate than Jews who weren’t absolute in their faith. His justification of God’s punishment as caused by Jews assimilating and moving away from strict adherence to the Torah also puts the blame on the victims rather than on the murderers. The omnipotent mercy and goodness combined with the active role of the traditional God defined by Rubenstein would never justify such a punishment, and Schneersohn’s justification for the atrocities problematically absolves Hitler’s Nazis of the guilt, instead placing it on the victims themselves.

The theologian and reform Rabbi Ignaz Maybaum offers a different perspective on the implications of a traditional God who actively intervenes in history. Maybaum suggests that divine intervention is manifested in acts of destruction as a form of terrible sacrifice necessary for an act of salvation to follow. Maybaum “contended that the nations of the world can only hear and respond to God’s call when that call is in the language of death and destruction,” and dubbed such sacrificial interventions “churbans.” He believes that churbans signify a transition between eras in Judaism, such as the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem and crucifixion of Jesus, suggesting that the Holocaust represents the ultimate churban. His argument becomes more contentious when he suggests the Holocaust was “an ultimately beneficial act,” because it enabled “medieval” European Jewish societies to modernize and become freer . I find this sacrificial interpretation both sadistic and wildly inaccurate, as the “freedom” he suggested Jews enjoying in post-Holocaust “salvation” was born in blood and has been repeatedly attacked at its symbolic home in the Jewish state of Israel, and half a century later antisemitism is still readily present globally. Rubenstein contends that Maybaum’s belief further proves the inability to simultaneously advocate for a traditional biblical

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Grappling With God’s Existence In The Context Of The Holocaust. (2022, February 18). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 4, 2023, from
“Grappling With God’s Existence In The Context Of The Holocaust.” Edubirdie, 18 Feb. 2022,
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