Michael A. Signer

American Jewish Theology After Auschwitz


Let us begin with a short reflection on the nature of theological writing in Judaism and on the unique nature of American Jewish life.

Judaism is notable for its intellectual life. The study of Torah is equal to all of the other commandments states one of the most significant summaries of early rabbinic thinking. However, the study of Torah focuses on the interpretation of texts and their application to the creation of a life in the world that reflects the desires of God and the divine love for the Jewish people. While traditional Jewish authors engaged in philosophical speculation or in systematic expositions of mystical doctrines about the inner life of God, they did not write in theological literary genres that would be recognized by Christian scholars until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Western European authors such as Hermann Cohen, Martin Bubba and Franz Rosenzweig might be identified with writing in a theological manner, but their contributions are quite unique—and that is why Jews who write theology after the Shoah are in their debt.

America has been a land of refuge for Europe almost since its inception. Although many of the immigrants brought their European prejudgments with them and retained them, the enlightenment principles that formed the foundation of American constitutional democracy provided a break against the harmful elements in these prejudices from harming others. This tension between traditional resentments and constitutional protection has made the united states of America a unique experience for the Jewish people. America’s lack of a state sponsored church meant that anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism never became part of the specter of the American legal system.

It is important to recall that the American Jewish community did not have the Shoah take place on its own soil. However, after the Shoah, the USA became a major point of immigration for many of its survivors. The immigration of Jewish intellectual figures from Germany prior to the beginning of the war provided a nucleus of thinkers who were capable of serious theological reflection.

In considering Jewish thinking about God and humanity before the Shoah, the liturgy reflects some of the most important themes from the bible and rabbinic literature:

First, there is a covenant of love and obligation between God and the people of Israel. Even though the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed the Rabbis assured generations of Jews that God remained faithful to them in the lands of their exile. The response to this divine faithfulness was that the Jewish people were to lead lives of studying Torah, observing God’s commandments, and doing deeds of lovingkindess for one another and for the remainder of humanity who were also God’s children. Each of these concepts were joined to the other: through study of Torah Jews discovered the rich character of the commandments. These commandments provided a social structure for the performance of deeds of lovingkindess that created a solid social structure. Jews, until the eighteenth century, were granted autonomy to live according to their own laws and customs. After the enlightenment, Jews in western Europe developed accommodations to the new nation-states that offered them civil rights. However, they maintained their own ritual system and many Jews emphasized the deeds of love and kindness.

Second, at the foundation of this three-fold view of the world was a firm belief that God remained with the people and would eventually bring about their redemption. This narrative of God’s love was reenacted every year during the Passover when Jews read the rabbinic re-telling of the Exodus from Egypt. The liturgy of the home ritual, the Haggadah, emphasized that God had supported Israel and saved them from every persecutor.

Third, The hope and optimism that supported the Jewish community was their belief that God would eventually lead them back to the land of Israel. This hope nurtured a collective sense of responsibility for the welfare of the Jewish communities throughout the Diaspora and their support of the tiny communities that had been established in the land of Israel. In the nineteenth century Jews in both Eastern and Western Europe provided a new dimension for the hope in return to Zion. Drawing upon the secular nationalist movements of their day, many young Jews decided that they no longer could wait for the divine will to act in history. The return to the land of Israel would be a cultural and political rebirth for the people–but the initiative and responsibility rested upon themselves and not upon God. There were many debates about the sincerity and possibility for this human initiative from all sides of Jewry. Many Jews in Western Europe and America resisted the idea of a return to the land of Israel. They were convinced that Jewish hopes for their own nation would harm the status of citizenship that had been such a hard battle for nearly one hundred years. In Russia and Eastern Europe, there were many Jews who thought that the idea of returning to a secular state in the land of Israel would be harmful to the Jewish religion as they understood it for so many generations. These debates gained new stature and reality after WW I when many captive people–including the people of Poland—were permitted to achieve their own national hopes.

These three points: the life of the commandments, the story of God’s love for Israel and the hope for the return to Zion were all challenged by the Shoah. Hitler’s policy of genocide denied God—but he reserved particular hatred for the people of Israel and its God. Nazism at its core believed that the Jewish people were parasites who infected humanity. The systematic separation and persecution of the Jews in Germany from 1933-39, followed by the elimination of Jewish communities in the East from 1939-45 [including the final solution] was founded upon the notion that the world would be purified and cleansed. Therefore, the term Judenrein–a purification and cleaning of a geographic area from Jews.

The Shoah and its network of slave labor camps and death camps pulled a black curtain over the lives, actions and hopes of the Jewish community. They were exiled in the midst of their exile–moved from their villages and towns into Ghettos where they were systematically starved. They were transported to alien lands into the death camps where they either worked as slave laborers [where they shared a fate with non-Jewish victims]. In these camps they were subjected to cruelty from SS or other prisoners who were put in charge of their daily tasks. They discovered lives that were devoid of opportunity for performing the commandments or human beings who engaged in acts of love and kindness. They awaited daily judgment as to whether they would live or die–being called out each morning at Appel or roll call and suffering through the process of ‘selection’ depending upon their appearance and their health. More often were simply stripped of their remaining possessions and sent into the showers [which were really gas chambers] where they perished in agonizing death: women, children and old men. The crematoria poured out smoke of human bodies being burned–especially in the summer of 1944–with ashes dumped into ponds. An ironic reversal of the sacrifices in the sanctuary of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Even the dignity of proper burial with relatives to mourn was denied these people.

This description is meant to demonstrate how the Shoa is not an abstract concept for Jewish theology. Hitler’s plan for the elimination of the Jewish people and the complicity of the people who participated in the murder of Jews was not just as object of speculation. It was a fundamental assault on the core concepts of Judaism that had nurtured Jews for nearly 2000 years. Any theology or theological thinking after Auschwitz must confront the reality that the existence of Auschwitz and other killing centers–the Endloesung–is a negation not only of Jewish lives but an assault on a way of life in the presence of God that included Torah, Commandments and Deeds of love and kindness.

So when we think about these negations, we contemplate three question:

A] Where was God at Auschwitz?
If the covenant between the Jewish people and its God was one of protection and mutual concern, where was the God to whom Jews prayed? Where was divine intervention in the course of the transports to the camps? Where was the divine spirit when children were lead to their deaths. The biblical God had declared that God desires not the death of the sinner but only that the sinner returns to God. Did God consider the Jewish people who died at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen and at the direction of Dr. Mengele on the ramp consider the Jewish people sinners? Were the Nazis instruments of divine wrath even as Nebuchadnezzar had been the rod of divine anger to punish the Jewish people?

B] Where was man at Auschwitz?
If human beings are created in the image of God, how could it be possible to treat human beings the way Jews were treated during the Shoah? Where did people find the ability to turn away their eyes from the cruelty they committed every day in Auschwitz and return home to their families at night and play with their children? How was it possible to sleep in warm comfortable homes at the borders of this camp while thousands of human beings were starving and had no access to wash themselves or even go to the bathroom? If the teachings of Christianity [the religion of birth for the perpetrators] taught the commandment of “love one another as I have loved you” where was the possibility of love in the midst of Auschwitz.

What about the gradual changes that occurred among the Jews who lived under the Nazi regime in occupied countries? Why did they not resist their captors and refuse to work? Why did they not engage in physical resistance with armed weapons? How was it possible that they became like sheep to the slaughter? Within the context of the concentration camps: How did some of them become kapos who beat their fellow Jews? How did some of them become so devoid of human emotion and soul that they became Musselmanner–an anti-human being in the long night of the camps? Finally, what enabled those few who acted with courage and found it in their hearts to exhibit mercy toward the victims. Easy answers are not so available for Jews who recited the passage from Psalms that humans are created “little lower than the angels?”

C] How can Jews speak about their tradition after Auschwitz?
Does the Shoah mean that the tradition of the Jewish people has been broken? The Jews were God’s unique or chosen people. What does divine election mean after Auschwitz? For generations the Jewish people thought that their election meant that God would protect them. After Auschwitz did it mean that they were elected to die?

Did Auschwitz mean that the Jews who marched to their deaths looked for redemption at the moment of their death and nothing happened? Rabbinic Judaism had hope because it promised the resurrection of the dead; the judgment of the nations; and the return of the Jewish people to its land under the banner of the messiah. Nineteenth century liberal Jewish theologies reinterpreted the classic rabbinic doctrines of “the end of days” (eschatology) as the coming of the messianic era when all humanity would live together in harmony. These rabbis and their congregations thought that they saw the first lights of the end of days in the growing toleration of Jews in modern society. Their optimism was supported by the ideas of progress and evolution of humanity that were so widespread among European and American secular and Christian intellectuals. As Jews in America began to realize the enormous nature of the devastation of European communities after World War II, the structure of their theological and religious world-view was seriously challenged. They were too deeply committed to a life in the secular society that had given them civil and religious liberties to rush back into the ghettos. On the other hand, they could not have the same complete faith that human beings all shared the goal of mutual protection and loving kindness. Jews on American soil had left the ways of their ancestors in Europe in the belief that they were living in a better land. During the nineteenth century and until the end of World War II, they knew that the old world still existed. They could understand themselves as “progressing”. However, when they came to the realization that thousands of relatives had been murdered; when they heard the stories of the refugees–the survivors of the camps and the post-WW II pogroms in Russia, Poland and Hungary–they were left alone without ancestors or with European Jews who were reduced to poverty. The birth of the state of Israel provided little guidance for their attitude toward the Jewish tradition. It was born from the political considerations after World War II and grew to maturity in the manner of nation states–by wars and weapons. This birth and growth was not a fulfillment of biblical prophecies or of the various accounts of the end of days in the Talmud tractate Sanhedrin. There was no voice from God—only the sounds of weapons, political speeches and international diplomacy. The liturgical formulation by the chief rabbinate of Israel that the new state is “the beginning of the flowering of our redemption” reveals a hermeneutic attempt to connect the modern state with ancient dreams. But self-confidence about the place of the state of Israel in Jewish theology has evoked and continues to provoke heated discussions among Jewish theologians.

Let us now turn to some of the attempts to answer the theological challenges posed by the Holocaust. Our summary will only provide an intellectual map of the territory charted out by Jewish thinkers after the destruction of the European communities. We will divide our discussion into three types of theological approaches. First, we will investigate theologies that present the Shoah within the continuum of rabbinic or biblical images and thoughts: the Holocaust as continuity. Second, we will describe theologies that describe the Holocaust as a break with the past or an interruption. For these theologians there is no possibility of maintaining a continuity of Jewish theology before and after Auschwitz. Our third section will investigate the attempts by Jewish theologians who acknowledge the discontinuity or interruption created by the Holocaust, but who also build a new approach to theology. For these theologians Auschwitz is a point of re-orientation–a turning point in the history of philosophical and theological thinking about Judaism. They want to find new purpose in Jewish life in the post-Shoah world. We shall conclude our survey with some remarks about Shoah in the public presentation of Judaism in America.

The Holocaust as Continuity

In the thought of some Jewish theologians the Holocaust is not a unique tragedy, but simply another divinely imposed tragedy on the Jewish people. The tragedy happens because the Jewish people are sinful and God who is their loving father must punish them in order to make them repent and turn again to him in love. The covenant is preserved and God wants to benefit the Jewish people. Therefore he brings one punishment after another so that they rely upon Him alone and do not trust in any earthly prince.

The first presentation of this sort of theology was by Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the leader of the Satmar Hassidic dynasty. From his perspective the death of Eastern European Jews was explained as divine punishment for the sins of Western European Jews who had left the religion of their ancestors. Teitelbaum considered any mixture of rabbinic Judaism with western European culture to be a violation of God’s covenant: to study philosophy, chemistry, or law and live according to the commandments was impossible. It was only a step towards assimilation into the greater society and sinned against the ideal that the Jews were God’s unique people. For Teitelbaum that uniqueness meant separation from the world of the other nations. God’s wrath was waged against the Jewish people in Eastern Europe as a sinful nation.

We shall observe that Teitelbaum’s theology has evoked serious criticism. Many Hassidic Rabbis did not maintain such a strict point of view. However, it does represent an attempt to view the Shoah as part of the destiny of the Jewish people in its covenant with the God of their ancestors.

Another attempt to frame Jewish theology within the framework of an historical continuity is by Rabbi Ignaz Maybaum, a liberal Rabbi who survived the war and served in England. He argued that the Holocaust was a moment of divine revelation to the world. The election of the people Israel is for a unique purpose: to call the nations of the world to God. However, he disagrees with Teitelbaum’s idea that Auschwitz was divine punishment for the Jewish people. He asserts that the Jewish people in Auschwitz were like Jesus of Nazareth on the cross. They were innocent victims whose divinely chosen sacrifice made possible the salvation of humanity. In his words, “The Golgotha of modern mankind is Auschwitz. The cross is replaced by the gas chambers.”1

In Maybaum’s theology it is Churban–destruction–that marks the end of one era and the beginning of a new. Within the history of the Jews the destruction of the first Temple made it possible to develop the more sophisticated and universal religion taught by the later prophets. The destruction of the second Temple promoted the universal religion of the Rabbis who made it possible for Jews to live throughout the world in close relationship with God through Torah, Commandments and Deeds of lovingkindness. The final destruction was the Shoah which released the world from the medieval structures of the nation state and into the global realization of common humanity. Maybaum argued that God had used the instrument of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi regime to cleanse, purify, and punish a sinful world. Six million Jews had died an innocent death. But, more important for Maybaum, more than two-thirds of Jewry had survived. In these survivors Maybaum saw the “saving remnant described by the prophet Isaiah, “For a little while I forsook you. But with vast love I will bring you back. In slight anger, for a moment I hid my face from you; But with kindness everlasting I will take you back in love said the Lord your redeemer.” (Isaiah 54:7-8).

We have observed how Rabbi Teitlebaum and Rabbi Maybaum draw opposite conclusions from the same biblical evidence. There are very profound critiques that can be offered about both of their approaches to the problem of Jewish theology after Auschwitz. However, each thinker frames his approach on the basis of the affirmation that God’s covenant with Israel is eternal and that there is a continuity between the relationship between God and Israel before and after the Holocaust. Their views however have not been accepted by the majority of Jewish theologians who contemplate the meaning of Jewish life in the shadow of Auschwitz.

The Holocaust as Radical Disruption

In 1951 Martin Buber one of the most important pre-war Jewish thinkers published an essay called “Dialogue Between Heaven and Earth.” In that essay he proposed an image of God that suggested a radical break in the relationship between Jews and God had occurred after Auschwitz.

In this our time, one asks again and again: How is a Jewish life still possible after Auschwitz? I would like to frame this question more correctly: How is a life with God still possible in a time in which there is an Auschwitz. The estrangement has become too cruel, the hiddeness too deep. One can still “believe” in a God who allowed those things to happen, but how can one still speak to Him? Can one still hear his word? Can one still as an individual and a people enter at all into a dialogical relationship with him? Can one still call on Him? Dare we recommend to the survivors of Auschwitz, the Job of the gas chambers, “Call on Him for He is kind, for his mercy endureth forever.”2

Buber condensed this paragraph into the idea that God was in eclipse or had hidden his face. With the absence of God, the dialogue or I/Thou relationship was impossible. The concept of God “hiding his face” was grounded in images from the Bible and rabbinic literature. It is used in order to describe the absence of divine intervention in the death camps and final solution. But was this ‘hidden face of God’ derived from the portion of Isaiah quoted by Maybaum? Was God hiding for a moment and then ready to reserve a more profound and rich relationship with the Jewish people. Two theologians, Arthur Cohen and Richard Rubenstein, understand the eclipse of God during the Holocaust as just the beginning of a more radical break with Jewish traditional images of God.

Arthur Cohen‘s book The Tremendum is a meditation upon the meaning of life in and after the death camps. He begins his argument that ‘thinking’ and ‘death camps’ are ‘incommensurable’—they cannot be brought together. The death camps obliterate the possibility of thinking. This assertion has been confirmed by the literary memoirs of both Jean Amery and Charlotte Delbo. They both argue that in conditions of starvation and endless work and enduring cruelty all ability for abstract thought is gone; the ability to use one’s memory is gone. On the basis of such an assertion, how can one think about the death camps? Cohen proposes an approach of awe and humility: Language simply fails us. Theology–which means speaking [logos] about God [theos]–must find a new form of expression. Therefore Cohen describes the death camps and their experience as the ‘tremendum’–based on Rudolph Otto’s notion of God as mysterium tremendum. However, Cohen uses the broken form–only tremendum–because the death camps are the reversal of life and the celebration of death. This reversal is so great that Cohen does not refer to thinking about the experience as transcending—moving across—but creates a new and artificial word–‘subscending’–to go beneath. The tremendum is not a continuity, but a radical break in the tradition. Since language fails to account for the tremendum, after the break we must develop new language to describe God.

According to Cohen, Jews must open their eyes to the fact that radical evil was very much part of the world. After the break in the tradition God must abide in a universe in which neither evil nor God’s presence is accounted unreal. Even the demonic elements must be seen as meaningful and valuable. The break brought about in the tremendum means that the theologian can no longer isolate the reality of God from God’s involvement in creation. The comfortable alliance between liberal Jewish thought and optimism is shattered by the tremendum.

Once the break with the past is acknowledged, the Jewish people is free to subscend the tremendum and redefine God and the divine relationship with the world. God must abide in a universe whose history is scarred by evil. History must include a demonic structure and unredeemable acts. The divine relationship with humanity allows for radical freedom from the constraints of goodness. It is precisely the misuse of this human freedom that permitted the Shoah. Cohen describes the Tremendum as the obscene use of human freedom. Cohen begins to find a language for a renewed theology in the Jewish mystical tradition. It is the kabbalistic tradition that can provide a vocabulary for describing the inner life of God that includes both goodness and evil in a tense balance. Each of them has its own life. Both good and evil are dynamic and ever changing in the vocabulary of the kabbalistic tradition.

Cohen’s deep meditations on the Tremendum frame the issue in a new way. He never fully develops a constructive theology for Jewish life, but his thinking makes it possible for others to move in new directions. The break with traditional understanding of God and humanity in the Tremendum is not an occasion for abandoning Judaism but an opportunity for realizing a broader horizon for reinterpretations.

Richard Rubenstein is a Rabbi, philosopher and profound student of psychology. His thinking about the Holocaust has been controversial and provocative. Over the years he has reversed himself and demonstrated his ability to rethink his positions.

Rubenstein’s involvement with thinking about the Shoah began with a meeting in Berlin with Heinrich Gruber, a Lutheran pastor who belonged to the confessing church and was radically anti-Nazi. In 1961 Gruber told Rubenstein that the Jews must cease their rejection and continued crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The Holocaust had been the punishment of the Jewish people for their disobedience to God’s calling them to believe in His beloved Son. After his initial shock, Rubenstein thought carefully about the nature of the biblical covenant and its call to obedience. He decided that Gruber had read Scripture correctly. God punishes those who disobey him. Even if one did not consider the reality of Jesus Christ as a possibility, the biblical and rabbinic idea was that the consequence of election by God was divine punishment. From Rubenstein’s perspective no other reading of the Bible and the Rabbis was permitted.

Rubenstein then made a radical move of interpretation. Borrowing the language of protestant theologians like Thomas Altizer in the 1960’s, he declared the traditional rabbinic understanding of God to be “dead.” This was an unfortunate choice of language because it caused many Rabbis and theologians to dismiss the importance of Rubenstein’s thinking. Rubenstein did not claim that “God was dead.” He did argue that a traditional understanding of the God of Israel’s covenant was dead and could no longer give life to the Jewish people in a post-Shoah world. Rubenstein rejected the doctrine of divine election. It made no sense after the horrors of the death camps. [His rejection of this concept was not new. Mordechai Kaplan had a eliminated the idea of the chosen people in his new theology of Jewish reconstructionism before the Shoah occurred.] In later years, Rubenstein reformulated his thinking about the nature of the Jewish people. He argued that there was no theological value in the religion of the rabbis and their insistence of divine election. However, the Jewish community and its rituals provided a beneficial psychological environment for human beings to bond to one another and overcome the sense of loneliness and rootlesness that characterized the post-Auschwitz world.

Rubenstein may have rejected the God of rabbinic tradition. He did not reject the possibility to discover God. It was precisely in God’s absence from history that Rubenstein also found new areas for realizing God. Nature and the earth were the foundation for a renewed relationship with the divine. Once again, Rubenstein borrowed the contemporary language of ‘paganism’ with its ideas of mysticism and pantheism [God is found in all nature] to move beyond the God of History. “The dialectical-mystical interpretation excludes the distinctive ascription of guilt to Israel and the category of divinely inflicted punishment to the Holocaust. Creative destruction and even destruction transcending the categories of good and evil may be inherent in the life of Divinity, but not punitive destruction.”3

There are further ethical implications that may be drawn from Rubenstein’s rejection of divine election. The Shoah demonstrates the evil that comes from the secularization of election: the nation state considering itself elected and belonging to God. Once there is the confidence born from election, it becomes possible to create “surplus populations” who may be eliminated. In the realm of history–rather than in the realm of divinity—Rubenstein discovers that there is far less discontinuity with Auschwitz then we would like to admit. The idea of election leads to the idea of Holy War: that a chosen nation may assert its will over other nations. The recent tragedies in the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union indicate that the pattern of ‘election’ creates a continuing cycle of destruction.

The Holocaust as Break and Opportunity for Renewal

We have seen how both Arthur Cohen and Richard Rubenstein describe the Holocaust as a radical discontinuity with the rabbinic and biblical tradition. Both of them insist that the break is at the very foundation of the Jewish experience. Both of them attempt to reach across the abyss and point to new ways of thinking. In this section of our essay we will focus on three thinkers [or one novelist and two thinkers] who acknowledge the elements of discontinuity in the Holocaust but emphasize the new opportunities for the Jewish people and humanity after Auschwitz.

Elie Wiesel is not a philosopher, but a writer of fiction. He was born into a Hassidic family in Sighet, Hungary. Hassidism since its beginnings in the eighteenth century utilizes the narrative or story to convey moral and theological lessons. Wiesel uses his talents as an author to advantage and his writings about the Holocaust have been very influential in the public theology of the American Jewish community. In fact, Wiesel’s novels opened up the eyes of many Jews of my own generation to both the horrors of the Holocaust and its lessons. It would not be an exaggeration to state that more Jews in America have learned about Auschwitz and its lessons from Wiesel than from any other authors discussed in this paper [with the possible exception of Emil Fackenheim].

Wiesel’s earliest novels describe the experiences of a young man who is taken from his village, transported to Auschwitz and survives the death march at the end of the war. They allow insight into the world of a child for whom God was a loving presence that surrounded him. That love was removed with a rapid transportation into Auschwitz. It was there that the young boy witnessed the hanging of a child. In that moment, he lost his faith in God and his ability to believe in the tradition of his ancestors. By the end of Night, the first novel, we observe a boy who is more dead than alive. The other two early novels allow further insight into the restoration of the young boy into society and into his faith in God. Wiesel’s young man makes the journey from darkness to light—from the abyss of despair to the recovery of faith. His novel, The Gates of the Forest, focuses on the problem of choices that stood before the Jews during the war. In a series of dialogues between a young man and a Hassidic Rabbi, we learn about the possibilities of spiritual resistance. I can tell you personally that the words of the dialogue have haunted me ever since I read them as a counselor in a Jewish summer camp in 1967. The rabbi asks, “How do we know that there is not resistance in a song? In a prayer?4 The haunting sense of inadequacy and impotence that many young Jews experienced when they heard stories about the death camps and killing squads found some healing in the novels of Elie Wiesel. We shall also observe that both Irving Greenberg and Emil Fackenheim–our remaining two authors—utilize the literary imagery and stories of Wiesel in their more academic theological reflections.

Irving Greenberg gave an address at the first major symposium on the Holocaust that took place in America. It was in June 1974 at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Greenberg’s essay was titled, “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity, and Modernity after the Holocaust.” Greenberg, an orthodox rabbi with a doctorate in analytic philosophy provided a framework that has been very important for all subsequent discussions of the Shoah in America.

Greenberg asserts that Auschwitz was a point of departure for both Jews and Christians. Neither religion of covenant could escape the consequences of Auschwitz. No one emerges from the Shoah without wound. No one group can find itself the same. More important, Greenberg asserts, is that modernity and the Enlightenment with their claims to tolerance and democracy also failed. The easy alliance between Christianity, Judaism and modernity resulted in the tragedy of the Shoah.

With first principle, Greenberg offers the possibility that the Holocaust is a revelatory event which provides an opportunity to discover God in a new way. However, Greenberg offers a most important warning: “No statement, theological or otherwise should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.”5 This shocking statement argues for humility in theological reflection and prevents all of us from making easy answers.

The Holocaust calls on Jews, Christians and others to absolutely resist the total authority of this cultural moment. The experience frees them to respond to their own claim, which comes from outside the framework of this civilization, to relate to a divine other, who sets limits and judges the absolute claims of contemporary philosophic and scientific and human political systems. To allow this orientation to be opened again to the possibility of Exodus and immortality.6

This possibility to allow the Exodus moment of redemption for Jews or the Easter event for Christians is not innocent. Auschwitz does present a divide. But it is not a rupture in the traditions. It is, for Greenberg, a moment of critique of the blending of religious revelation with secular modernity. Judaism and Christianity must act in a prophetic manner to counter the seductions that secularism provides all of the answers—that difference is evil and homogeneity and uniformity are the ultimate good. That ‘ultimate good’ ended in Nazi ideas of Gleichshaltung and the ovens of Auschwitz as the final judgment on who shall live and who shall die.

Nor are Christians and Jews permitted easy faith after Auschwitz. Greenberg describes religious faith after Auschwitz as dialectical. We swing between moments of ecstatic communion with the divine and sink into absolute despair. Greenberg calls faith after Auschwitz, “moment faith.”

The answer is that faith is living in the presence of the Redeemer and in the moment of utter chaos, of genocide, one does not live in His presence. One must be faithful to nothingness. Faith is a moment truth, but there are moments when it is not true. This is certainly demonstrable in dialectical truths, when invoking the truth at the wrong moment is a lie. To let Auschwitz overwhelm Jerusalem is to lie (i.e. to speak a truth out of its appropriate moment) and to let Jerusalem deny Auschwitz is to lie for the same reason.7

Greenberg provides biblical resources for reinterpretation in light of this dialectic of moment faiths. We may once again turn to Job, to the suffering servant of Isaiah, to ch. 3 of Lamentations for resources that will reinforce our moments of faith. However, the image of burning children will always move us back to silence and humility.

It is in Emil Fackenheim‘s To Mend the World: Foundations of a Post-Holocaust Theology that we find a comprehensive framework for reinterpreting Judaism after the horrors of Auschwitz. Where others find a void and an absence of God during the Holocaust, Fackenheim argues for an Ereignis which he explains as a “presence.”

Fackenheim rejects the idea that the Holocaust was a divine punishment, yet his is not a traditional theology. He works his way through ideas of revelation and arrives at his own conclusions. There are what he calls “root experiences” which may be discovered in Scripture: Exodus, the Red Sea, and Sinai. All of these are moments that disclose the saving God. However, there are also what Fackenheim calls “epoch making events” that test and challenge the root experiences: the destruction of the Temple; the experience of the diaspora—and finally, the Holocaust. In Fackenheim’s system, the Holocaust is a disorienting event. It was not a relapse into barbarism but a total rupture with the previous value systems of Judaism, Christianity and Western philosophy. It is a rupture, but not a void.

In a very sophisticated argument, Fackenheim asserts that Tikkun or repair is possible after the rupture. Repair is possible because even during the darkest night of the Holocaust with all of its examples of evil, there were moments of Tikkun. People resisted the Nazi logic of death

Only in this midnight of dark despair does post-holocaust thought come upon a shining light. The Nazi logic of destruction was irresistible: it was nevertheless, being resisted. This logic is a novum in human history, the source of an unprecedented, abiding horror: but resistance to it on the part of the most radically exposed too is a novum in history and it is the source of an unprecedented abiding wonder. To hear and obey the commanding Voice of Auschwitz is an ontological possibility, here and not because the hearing and obeying was already an ontic reality then and there.8

Fackenheim provides an illustration of this mirror world of resistance in the camps with an anecdote from a non-Jewish prisoner, Pelagia Lewinska:

From the instant when I grasped the motivating principle… it was as if I had been awakened from a dream….I felt under orders to live…and if I did die in Auschwitz it would be as a human being. I would hold on to my dignity. I was not going to become the contemptible, disgusting brute my enemy wished me to be…and a terrible struggle began which went on day and night.9

Because these moments occurred within the camps and in the ghettos, it is possible for Jews and Christians to create an orderly world based on the conduct of those souls. Both Jews and Christians have the possibility and responsibility to repair the world. This repair begins with each community returning to their respective traditions and confronting them with the realities of the rupture created by the Holocaust. To some degree this process will occur different in each community.

Both Jews and Christians will face the reality that after the Shoah, the Jews have a new commandment: They must survive in order not to give Hitler a posthumous victory. In Fackenheim’s system this survival is assured by the birth of the state of Israel. Fackenheim asserts that after the Shoah both Jews and Christians must become Zionists. The state of Israel puts the Jewish people back into the realm of history. They have a testing ground that on the one hand provides them with a safe haven and on the other hand presents them with ethical challenges that they have not confronted for 2000 years. The Jewish people both in the Diaspora and in its own land must utilize the experiences of Tikkun that took place during the great rupture and continually examine its conscience.

I have not done justice to the complexity of Fackenheim’s theology, but only provided a brief summary. It is comprehensive and defies any simple answers.

Some Conclusions
Let me make some points of conclusion–especially with regard to the public discussions of the Shoah by the American Jewish community.

  1. The Shoah is an orienting event for American Jews. Both in their most serious considerations and in moment of serious self-criticism, they examine the meaning of the Shoah. There are times when the connection between the Shoah and the State of Israel is described as the modern fulfillment of exile and re-entry into the promised land of the bible. We hear these arguments very often in America and it is hard to resist them.
  2. The Shoah is part of the liturgical calendar of most American Jews. Our communities commemorate the Shoah each May following the pattern established in the state of Israel. Once again, I would emphasize the deep spirit of disruption and repair, of terror and healing that comes about when Israeli independence day follows the cycle of Yom HaShoah.
  3. The Shoah has provided a serious re-evaluation of the value of an inner spiritual life for American Jewry. Following in the pattern of Richard Rubenstein and Arthur Cohen many American Jewish thinkers of the younger generation are utilizing Kabbalistic imagery and descriptions of God as part of their reintegration of the Jewish tradition. There are certain dangers in such a rediscovery, but the memorialization of the victims of the Shoah has become an important part of the link between American Jews and their European past. Even the state of Israel is now rediscovering the value of this past.
  4. The Shoah, as we can observe from Greenberg and Fackenheim, has provided a significant bridge for Christians and Jews to begin a serious discussion. There is still much resistance by Christians to confronting their responsibility for rethinking their theology about Judaism and discovering the consequences of 2000 years of a contra-Judaeos tradition. However, with the II Vatican Council and the teaching and actions of John Paul II, the first important steps have been taken.

  • 1 Ignaz Maybaum, The Face of God After Auschwitz. Amsterdam 1965, p. 36.
  • 2 Martin Buber, The Dialogue between Heaven and Earth. In: M. Buber, On Judaism, (ed. by Nahum Glatzer). New York 1967, p. 224.
  • 3 Richard L. Rubenstein, After Auschwitz: History, Theology, and Contemporary Judaism. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992, p. 174.
  • 4 Elie Wiesel, The Gates of the Forest. New York 1970, p. 196.
  • 5 Irving Greenberg, Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity, and Modernity after the Holocaust. In: Eva Fleischner (ed.), Auschwitz, beginning of a new era? Reflections on the Holocaust. New York 1977, p. 23.
  • 6 Ibid. p. 31.
  • 7 Ibid. p. 33.
  • 8 Emil L. Fackenheim, To Mend the World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought. Indiana University Press, 1994, p. 25.
  • 9 Ibid.

Published in: Dialogue at the edge of Auschwitz. Kraków 2014, s. 109-127.