Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim

Alon Goshen-Gottstein – The Question of God and Auschwitz

Strona: 2

Rational explanation

Option number one: We try to explain what took place. To explain is in some way to justify. You give a good explanation, you have a handle on that matter. You have a handle, you understand, you justify. So you ask the question, “How could this have happened?” or “How could God have allowed this to happen?” or “Why did God do this?” All these are variations on the theme. Here we encounter several prominent strategies.
The classical response is to view these events in light of classical doctrines of sin and punishment. This understanding is hard to accommodate in the face of the reality of Auschwitz and it leads some thinkers to reject the old classical way of making sense of suffering. There is reward, there is punishment. That’s basic biblical teaching.
But Auschwitz forces us to ask: what sin can justify this? Why did the righteous die, why were entire communities wiped out? What is the relationship between sin and punishment? We lose the ability to engage in reasonable theodicy. Indeed there is a kind of conflict of interpretations of the different attempted answers to account for the Shoah from the perspective of theodicy. It depends on your own historical ideology how you read it. If you are a Zionist, then the Shoah was the punishment for those who were not Zionists. If you are anti-Zionist, then the Shoah is the punishment for Zionism. If you are anti assimilationist, then the Shoah is the punishment for those people who are assimilationist. Everyone reads history in accordance with his own ideology. This of course weakens all attempts, making them improbable and making a sin and punishment based interpretation of the events. What these views yield is a projection of our views and a way of sustaining our own ideologies, rather than the ability to enter into the depth of God’s reasons, accounting for why He does terrible things or allows them to happen.
A second strategy relates to history rather than to sin. So, rather than thinking of these events as God’s punishment, we think of them as launching historical movements. Of course these two perspectives overlap, but they are still distinguishable.
The movement called Gush Emunim, has as its spiritual inspiration, ideologue Rabbi Zvi Yehuda HaCohen Kook who was the son of the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the British Mandate for Palestine in the early 20th century, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook. There is continuity, as well as discontinuity between the two figures. Rabbi Kook, the son, speaks of the Shoah as a surgery. It is a purposeful form of bringing suffering on the Jewish people as a way of conducting an operation to save the patient.
What is the operation? Jewish people do not belong in exile, God wants them to be brought back to the Land. It is difficult to uproot them, and therefore God has to conduct this surgery in order to uproot them from where they are in exile, and to bring them back into the Land.
I personally find this a distasteful theology. Why? First, Jewish people still are to a large extent out of the land of Israel. So it was a heavy price to pay for a failed operation. Second, to paraphrase a common saying, the operation was successful and half the patient died. And thirdly, surely God could have found other ways of doing it, rather than going through the extreme measures that He undertook. So this is a highly “ideologized” kind of reading of history. But maybe more seriously, this is a reading of history that has completely decatastrophalised the Shoah, if one may use this term.
It is a catastrophe beyond word, beyond imagination, but this reading brings it back into the realm of our own understanding. It becomes something we can contain, and make sense of. It is no longer catastrophe. It is actually a wonderful thing that God did for us to destroy half the Jewish people, He could not have given us a greater gift. I find this approach very problematic, and distasteful. It is however an indication of one strand of theological thinking in Judaism, and a strand I think that takes place more predominantly in the land of Israel where the link between Holocaust and State, annihilation and survival, is made so strongly that these kinds of theological moves can be made. Theological moves are also contextual. And to that extent the kinds of moves that are made in Israel, all too often, to my theological taste, make too quick a leap into the domain of justifying by appeal to history.
There is another way of dealing with the Holocaust, which is not to answer the question, but to try and find meaning. This is the more secularist position. Many Jewish people are not religious, many of them are secular. They will put forth the core strategy of how to deal with the Holocaust, not in relation to God, sin, or history, but in relation to humanity: “We must draw the lesson: never again will there be human suffering. We must learn to be good to one another, we must learn to be compassionate, we must never turn away from the suffering of the other,” and similar lessons that people draw from the Holocaust. Of course these are valid lessons. Still, they don’t seem to have prevented further genocides since the Holocaust. From that perspective it is not true that the world learned that much from the Holocaust, considering some of the events that have transpired in the intervening sixty years.
What I find deficient is that all these strategies somehow bring it all to the realm of our understanding, thereby somehow domesticating the absurd. They try to give meaning to something that we can’t really grasp.
Now you could say all theology is about that. You are all theologians, and all of us are forever trying to take the great mystery of God and to put it into a box. So we are forever putting something that is beyond words into words, beyond categories into categories, beyond translation, into our human mind. We are forever imposing our human mind on something that goes beyond it. Maybe we are used to doing this theologically for a thousand years, we are no longer offended by the problematics of how we speak of God, and how we put God also into a box. But somehow facing the reality of the Shoah, maybe because we are still in close historical proximity, or maybe because we are facing evil, it becomes harder to just give an answer. This was a surgery, this was a punishment, we can understand it, let’s draw the lesson. There is a level where all these answers violate something in our moral sensibility.
Maybe I should not speak in the plural. Let me speak for myself. As I think about these issues, I find that there is always something inadequate and problematic about trying to draw the lesson and to offer an explanation for something that goes beyond. I would be very curious to get the responses of professional theologians on whether you feel the same way about it.

The mystical dimension

I would therefore want to characterize my present attempt, not as explaining, or accounting, or even doing a new theology, but in terms of seeking a possible religious response that focuses on the Question of God at Auschwitz. What could be a religious response in the face of the suffering? Here is the strategy I offer: To try and understand Auschwitz not in relationship to sin, not in relationship to history, not in relationship to humanity, but in relation to God Himself. How can we struggle to articulate a religious position that doesn’t do the injustice of bringing this reality into our own boxing mechanism, where we give answers, domesticate and ultimately decatastrophalise. I wish to neither explain nor to justify. What I want to do is to look for a different kind of religious language. And in that context, the following does not view the Holocaust as unique.
In looking for a religious language I have implicitly pushed myself now into the field of mysticism. When I say ‘mysticism’, I don’t want to say that mysticism is irrational. Rather I want to say, there is a field of religious approach that takes us beyond the rational, if we are able to do so responsibly, taking into account what needs to be done from the perspective of accounting, for what you can call the flight to the mystical. When I speak of the mystical I am assuming that in our traditions we have rational dimensions, with whose help we analyze, think, and understand. We also have those dimensions that take us directly into the core of the religious experience. These are not necessarily available to everyone, because you have to touch them, to experience them.
The Vatican has just released some documents regarding Padre Pio’s stigmata and visions, I read them and thought: Padre Pio was talking about his vision of Jesus in which Jesus says to him: “The ingratitude of priests, how priests are not appreciative of their own vocation, and how this pains Jesus.” Well, here is the mystic who has some unique vision in the presence of God, something not available to all. It is not open to all and may even be in tension with the rest of community. Still, it does not defy rationality nor does it contradict the core of its teaching.
What I am about to do is perhaps a little problematic because of how heavily it relies on the vision and experiences of the individual that are gained in moments of mystical intimacy and that may not be readily available to all. Still, it is an invitation to reflect, an opening to a new realm of experience and a broadening of how we think about matters as painful and complex as the task at hand.
My attempt is based on finding a Jewish mystic who lived through these times and to look at his response. This kind of response may or may not be available to all people. I think this is the biggest challenge in what I want to share with you. How do other people who do not have that experience, the priests who are not Padre Pios, the Jewish people who are not Rabbi Shapiro, what for them is the meaning of the kind of mystical intimacy with God that we shall presently consider. At the end of the day, I personally find a kind of religious response that is based on being present with God in the moment, and in the context, more meaningful than so many other attempts that end up being ‘reductionist’, in reducing God and the powerful events to our own understanding.
Mysticism has various components. Silence has a mystical dimension. I have an article published, based on a talk that I did in a conference together with Cardinal Lustiger 14 years ago, on the question of mystical silence, precisely as a response to the Holocaust3. But the sense of mysticism that I use here today is mysticism in the sense of living in God’s presence in a deep intimacy. The mystical notion that I want to share with you is the notion of sharing God’s suffering. I want to put forward the proposal that a religious response to the Holocaust will take the form not of accounting for it, but experientially sharing in the suffering that properly belongs to God.
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