Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim

Alon Goshen-Gottstein – The Question of God and Auschwitz

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Answers of Rabbi Shapiro

And to do so I want to look at the works of a figure who lived in a small town just outside Warsaw, a place called Piaseczno. The man was Rabbi Kalonimus Kalman Shapiro. He is usually known in Jewish circles by the name of his book Esh Kodesh, Holy Fire. He had a huge following, mainly of young people. He was killed in 1943. The place of his death is not beyond dispute but apparently it was in the district of Lublin at Trawniki, where there was a forced labor camp. Apparently he was shot to death there. His teachings were formulated in the Warsaw ghetto which means that he did not know Auschwitz, he did not know the extent of what took place. But the enormity of the destruction fell upon him as the book advances. The book is composed in cycles year after year. He even makes notes on the margin, “what I said there was only valid last year, but since then, things have reached levels of unique proportions in Jewish history. Never before has this happened.” What is interesting is that throughout the book there is never an attempt to create a new theology, or to find a new religious language, even when he touches on the depth of suffering, even when he states that this suffering has reached a level that has never been reached before. He still feels he can appeal to the old theology. The deepening of the response is the deepening of the empathetic response to God’s suffering, rather than the need to articulate a new theology.
In my remaining time I want to highlight the mystical response of sharing in God’s suffering, noting that this can only be done if we also make space for a rational understanding of how evil can be tolerated, and how God can tolerate evil. Therefore before reading some texts together with you, I want to bring forth some theological notions that permit us to go beyond the process of accounting and to move into the experiential. I am very conscious of the fact, that if we simply jump from the historical and theological into the mystical, we will be accused of being irresponsible. In order to make this move you have to also offer some kind of a theological understanding, why certain things are allowed to happen. Once you establish those parameters, then you can make the deeper experiential transition. I want to lift three or four ideas up from Rabbi Shapiro and from the literature on the theme, and then move to the reading of the text.
 
The first notion that I think we have to recognize is the divine respect for free will. Respect for free will means that God gives evil the possibility to play itself out. He will not necessarily intervene where there is evil, because if He intervened, that would undermine the most fundamental rule that God has established in creating the human order namely free will. Of course this is the key difficulty. Why doesn’t God intervene? How does God intervene? When does God intervene? It is all founded on the principle, and I think it is very much defensible philosophically, that free will is such a primary principle of running the world that God will support evil for its sake.
 
A second notion that has been appealed to in the context of the Holocaust, and that Rabbi Shapiro in his Esh Kodesh also refers to, is a notion that in Hebrew is captured as hester panim – a hiding of the countenance, the face. Martin Buber translated this as the eclipse of God, as though God were the sun, and something comes in between us and God, and stops the light. This is not a philosophical concept. This is a biblical notion which has great evocative power. The idea is that together with freedom of human will there is some Divine self-limitation. It can be the limitation of God not applying His power with full force, or it can be understood as the limitation of God turning His face away. God may turn His face away because He cannot stand the pain. He may turn His face away as an expression of anger. He may turn His face away to permit things to take place. There are various possible understandings. But I think that the notion of the Divine turning His face away can fit into this structure, though in itself it requires much further thinking.
 
The Esh Kodesh uses additional concepts to account for the general conditions that he refers to theologically. One is Dinim, which is the Hebrew word for judgment. That is to say there is a judgment going on. Judgment brings us into the realm of sin and punishment. But Dinim also has a kabbalistic association of limitation, contraction, a block that occurs in the Divine flow, something in the metaphysical workings having obstructions. Judgment, constrictions and obstruction all form a conceptual cluster that has both the element of punishment and the sense that something is blocked. The blockage applies to God, and thus we are, through our actions, implicated in the workings of the Divine flow and obstruction. Our actions may influence that, and in turn we suffer as a consequence of the Dinim, the limitations placed on the Divine, particularly through our sins.
 
Another notion that various people have used, also taken from kabbalistic literature, is the notion of tzimzum – divine self-contraction. There is already an implied sense of tzimzum in the limitation of free will. That God does not fully exercise His power, because of how important free will is, is a form of divine contraction. Various theologians, in particular Arthur Cohen, have used the notion of tzimzum to account for suffering in the context of the Holocaust.
 
To summarize what I have done so far: I have looked at a range of Jewish responses, I have shown the complexity of the theological challenge, a complexity that is in part related to the complexity in assessing a historical phenomenon. It touches on the questions of uniqueness or non-uniqueness, and challenges us whether we can continue to uphold old models, or do we need new models. I have argued that in dealing with the Holocaust it is very problematic to try to explain, because every form of explaining becomes a form of justifying, whether the explanation is in relation to sin and punishment, or in relation to history. Explanations don’t really work, and therefore we should be looking for a religious response that doesn’t domesticate the absurd. This religious response I have suggested is found in the domain of mysticism.
 
I will be reading with you shortly texts from Rabbi Shapiro of Warsaw that show his own mystical response. However the mystical response of deep empathy and sharing God’s suffering cannot be divorced from a theoretical understanding. There are some key ideas that we want to keep in the back of our minds before we enter the mystical domain: free will, the hiding of the Divine face and different aspects of the kabbalistic tradition that allow us to speak of the contraction of God as a way of making sense of what takes place. With these elements in the background, we have permission, so to speak, to move into the more spiritual, religious response.
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