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Alon Goshen-Gottstein – The Question of God and Auschwitz

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Alon Goshen-Gottstein

The Question of God and Auschwitz

 
What I understand my mandate to be is to think theologically with you from the resources of Judaism concerning ‘The Question of God and Auschwitz’, how we reflect theologically, and how we respond religiously to the common challenge that we as religious people and as human beings face, at the threshold of this place.

The issue of naming

Language determines a lot how we look at things. How do you refer to the events that took place in Europe in the 1940s and whose symbol has become the place at which we gather? People have felt the need to use a new kind of language in order to capture the momentous, horrendous events that took place here. Some have used new terms, some have used old terms. Elie Wiesel is credited with referring to it as a Holocaust.
A Holocaust as you know is a biblical term for an offering, a sacrifice. To call it a Holocaust is not a descriptive fact, it is already a way of giving value. It is to say, this is religiously significant because an offering has been made, thereby a neutral act, or an act that we do not know the
meaning of, has been transformed.
Very common as a second strategy, is the term Israelis have opted for, Shoah. Shoah interestingly is not as religiously charged. Shoah describes an unexpected, sudden, other destruction, something coming from a distant place. It echoes a biblical verse (Isaiah 10:3), “Unexpected calamity will befall us.” So it speaks of the psychological condition of the destruction and of the total destruction.
The third terminology which is representative of classical orthodox thought is churban. The word churban is the same word that we use to describe the destruction of the first Temple, and the destruction of the second Temple, and the destruction of many communities throughout the middle-ages. To say, “this was the great churban” is simply to say, this is one more calamity in the series of ongoing calamities that have taken place for millennia.
So the choice of language by means of which we refer to the events symbolized and epitomized in this location, will already determine what it is that we see in them and what we find in them. It raises for us issues of philosophical and theological significance. If you need to frame your references to the events at Auschwitz with a new language, it means that somehow, something new, different, has presented itself. And this has been the powerful need felt by most thinkers concerning the holocaust, as expressed in the first two options above.
 

Is the Holocaust unique?

This leads to the question: Is the holocaust unique? Are its theological challenges unique? If you continue with the language used throughout the generations, the language of churban, destruction, then you are in fact saying, “I can recognize the continuity of what has taken place throughout the generations.” Then in theory at least, my religious response to what took place here would be in keeping with the inherited religious responses of the different generations.
So based on this linguistic consideration we arrive at a statement of the problem: When talking about the theme of God at Auschwitz, we are challenged to consider whether the challenge of finding God at Auschwitz is similar or dissimilar, continuous or discontinuous, with the entire history of Jewish suffering. For the non-Jew the question might be phrased whether it is continuous with the history of human suffering in general. Let me, then, make a point concerning the question of uniqueness and lack of uniqueness.
Steven Katz, is professor at Boston University and the foremost expert on questions of the Shoah from a philosophical perspective.1 Katz discusses in the introduction to his work the question of the uniqueness of the Holocaust. He points out the following fact: Theologians have tended to correlate their theology to their own historical understanding, so those who felt the holocaust was unique also claimed you needed a new theology. One could no longer continue to talk of God in the same way. In view of the uniqueness of the Holocaust they said, “Something new and unique has taken place, therefore from now on, we do our theology differently, speak of God differently.”
For example, Rabbi Irving Yitz Greenberg in his theology of the Holocaust, initially argued for a radical break, a discontinuity. Now he argues, “Something has changed in the very nature of the relationship between Israel and God, a covenant has been broken by God. From now on Jewish fulfillment of the covenant is voluntary, and no longer obligatory.” He ties in the sense of historical uniqueness with theological novelty.
Another famous thinker, Emil Fackenheim says, “After Auschwitz we no longer have 613 commandments, which is the classical rabbinical prototype for the number of commandments, we now have 614 commandments. The new commandment is: We must not let Hitler win.” The Jewish people have always to find a way of continuing. There is always a sense of breakage.
By contrast, those who want to maintain classical theological understandings will speak of historical continuity. A good example in this respect is Eliezer Berkovitz. He will argue, that historically the Holocaust is not unique from the perspective of the theological challenge that it presents. There has always been suffering, there has always been destruction, and whatever responses worked in the past, have to be upheld. Most orthodox responses fall into the category of continuity.
In a recently published work by David Weiss Halivni, he offers his own theology, not of Auschwitz, but ‘After Auschwitz’.2 Halivni speaks of a pendulum. At one pole of history is Sinai, at the other pole of Jewish history is Auschwitz. Sinai is a representation of God’s presence; it appears to us, forms a relationship with us, commands us. At the other pole of history is Auschwitz. Auschwitz is a representation of God’s absence. And Jewish history is lived in this tension between presence and absence. Halivni draws lessons from this, not only for understanding God’s presence in evil and suffering, but also for prayer, as well as for hermeneutics, and for the study of Torah. What is interesting is how Halivni conceptualizes this relationship between Sinai and Auschwitz. For Greenberg it is a continuum, you move and then you come to Auschwitz, and you hit a point of no return. There is a before and there is an after. Things will never be the same following Auschwitz. Halivni on the other hand, uses the pendulum metaphor. A pendulum swings to an extreme, and when it reaches the outer limit, it swings back. Halivni says, “Auschwitz was the pendulum swinging to the absolute extreme. Now the pendulum starts to swing back.”
And of course what allows Halivni and many other people to make that move is precisely the fact that Auschwitz occurred in such close historical proximity to the founding of the state of Israel. That raises the question: What is the theological meaning of the establishment of the state of Israel? For most Christians I don’t think there has been sufficient understanding of the theological, as distinct from political or existential significance of the foundation of the state of Israel. Because the state of Israel is understood not only as a way of securing the continuity and ability of the Jewish people to live, but because it stands in relationship to millennia of promises that are fulfilled, the fulfilment of faith. Therefore the charge that this particular state has in Jewish awareness is very different and very disproportionate from the charge of any other state. So, returning to Halivni, the founding of the state of Israel, immediately after Auschwitz, offers the ultimate assurance of not having been abandoned by God.
 
Returning then to the question of the Holocaust’s uniqueness, I find convincing the argument put forward by Katz. According to him, what is unique about the Holocaust is in the historical rather than in the theological domain. What is unique about the Holocaust is that never before has a state created a policy as a matter of intentional principle, to annihilate physically every man, woman, and child who belongs to a specific people, and then gone ahead and implemented it. To that uniqueness of intent, purpose, and will, we can add the means of execution, and the technology, and the efficiency, and various other things that went into making the Holocaust unique.
This is an expression of historical uniqueness, not necessarily theological uniqueness, and therefore, Katz argues and I concur with him, you may well say that one needs to have a new theology, and you may well say that one does not need to have a new theology. But whatever position you take, can and should be divorced from the question of uniqueness. Therefore even if the Holocaust is unique, you can uphold old views, and even if the Holocaust is not unique, you can articulate new theological views. This nexus of the relationship between the historical and theological dimensions, that so many people relied on, is not a necessary nexus.
 
To a certain extent the question of the uniqueness or lack thereof, is a function of how we frame the question. Let me suggest some formulations that will help us move into the substantive theological discussion. What is the question that we try to answer? As we look at the Holocaust, and at Auschwitz, what are we trying to do?
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