Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim

Michael Signer – American Jewish Theology After Auschwitz

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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 lovingkindness.  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.
 
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