Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim

Michael Signer – American Jewish Theology After Auschwitz

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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:
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