Where was God when evil struck?

January 25, 2002

To mark National Holocaust Memorial Day, Dan Cohn-Sherbok looks at how Jewish and Christian theologians have radically reconsidered God and His relation to man in light of Nazi horrors, while Mark Roseman ponders how well-educated bureaucrats calmly and genteelly drafted the Final Solution over cognac at a lakeside villa.

National Holocaust Memorial Day is a time for reflection and prayer. But it also raises the most perplexing religious questions: Where was God when 6 million people died? If God is all-good and all-powerful, how could he have let the Holocaust take place? Over the past 50 years a wide range of Jewish and Christian thinkers has wrestled with these issues, propounding a variety of solutions.

Some have argued that as God granted human beings free will, the terrors of the Holocaust were manifestations of purely human evil. Others have suggested that God suffered in the death camps with his chosen people. Radical theologians, however, have contended that our understanding of God must be altered in the light of the Nazi terror.

Pre-eminent among such Jewish theologians is the Conservative rabbi Richard Rubenstein, who argues that it is no longer possible to believe in a supernatural deity who acts in history. Jews today, he contends, live in the time of the death of God.

Elie Wiesel described in his autobiographical novel, Night , the evolution of his religious doubt as he experienced the horrors of the Nazi regime. His rebellion was heightened during the high holy days when, unable to pray, he turned accuser. On the day of atonement, he refused to fast, rejecting God's silence in the face of suffering and murder.

In the camps, Jews were frequently overcome with despair. In Camp Music and Camp Songs , the Jewish scholar David H. Hirsch discusses the songs recorded by Aleksander Kulisiewicz. In one, Birkenau is compared to hell, to an evil kingdom without God, where crematoria consume human carcasses.

In Judaism beyond God , the Humanistic rabbi Sherwin Wine also argues that Jews should abandon their belief in a supernatural deity. The world of reason has revealed that the idea that God would save Jews from disaster was mistaken, so there can be no theological solution to the problem of human suffering.

Other thinkers have stressed that Jewish theology requires fundamental change. The late Conservative rabbi Arthur A. Cohen argued that it was a mistake to long for a God who could intervene magically in the course of history. If there were such a God, the created order would be an extension of His will rather than an independent domain brought about by His creative love: "God is not the strategist of our particularities or of our historical condition, but rather the mystery of our futurity, always our potential never our acts."

Reform rabbi Harold Schulweis calls for a radical reconsideration of Jewish belief, arguing for what he calls "predicate theology", where the divine is discovered in qualities that can be experienced and sustained by human beings.

Another Reform rabbi, Steven Jacobs, says the Holocaust demands a new Jewish theology, "a notion of a deity compatible with the reality of radical evil at work and at play in our world, a notion that also admits of human freedom for good or evil". Such theological revision is contingent upon accepting a notion of God as other than historically and traditionally presented by both Judaism and Christianity.

Jewish feminist writer Melissa Raphael similarly calls for a revision of traditional Jewish theology since the patriarchal model failed during the Nazi regime. Drawing on women's experiences in the camps, she seeks to develop a reconstructed conception of God's presence.

A shift in perspective has also taken place in Christian circles. A number of Christian thinkers insist that our theological understanding has been fundamentally altered by the events of the Nazi era. In Anti-Semitism and Christian Theology , the Christian feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether argues that the church must repudiate its traditional conviction that Christianity is the only true path to salvation.

The Catholic theologian John Pawlikowski says Christians should forge a new conception of the relationship between God and human beings in the light of the Holocaust. In his view, the initial act of creation constituted the liberation of humankind from its total encasement in the godhead. Christianity's role is to guide humans in how they use this power and freedom.

For the Christian feminist theologian Dorthee Solle, the Holocaust implies a change in ideas of God as benevolent and all-powerful. He may be all-loving, but He is not omnipotent, she says. He suffers along with those who are victimised and can therefore console the afflicted.

These and other thinkers have recast the theological approach to the problem of God's presence and human suffering. In a post-Holocaust world, traditional views of God are arguably invalid. In his article "Christians and Jews after Auschwitz", the Christian theologian Johannes Metz addresses a clear imperative to contemporary theologians. "Never again to do theology in such a way that its construction is unaffected, or could remain unaffected, by Auschwitz." In different ways, radical theologians have absorbed this message and paved the way for a new theology in a post-Holocaust age.

Dan Cohn-Sherbok is professor of Judaism at the University of Wales, Lampeter, and editor of Holocaust Theology : A Reader , which is published to commemorate National Holocaust Memorial Day this Sunday.

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