4 Jewish Responses to the Holocaust


Crematoria ovens at Auschwitz

I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your seed after you.
Genesis 17:7

There are two great upheavals of modern Jewish history:
- Elie Wiesel: “the two great mysteries"
    • The Holocaust (i.e. the Shoah, the Churban)
    • The Modern State of Israel

Nine Classical Responses
Post-Holocaust Jews respond to the Holocaust

1. Berkovitz: the Holocaust is like all other great Jewish tragedies
    • But he resists theodicy
    • Also admits that those who passed through Auschwitz are entitled to their rage

2. Soloveichek: the Holocaust as God’s justice for Israel’s sins
   • “because of our sins…”
   • Popular in the 1940s, but quickly lost steam

3. Maybaum: Israel suffers for the world’s sins
   • Hitler as God’s Instrument (What!?!)
   • Compare with the Biblical Nebuchadnezzar

4. Greenburg: the Holocaust as a Test of Jewish Faith
   • Nothing can be said of religion now, that cannot be said in the face of burning children
   • Compare with the Binding of Isaac (i.e. the Akedah)

5. Buber: God inexplicably turned away during the Holocaust
   • Compare with the
Book of Job
   • C.f. Primo Levi: God and Auschwitz can’t exist in the same reality (i.e. rejects God)

6. Rubenstein: the Holocaust is proof that God is Dead
   • Existence is meaningless; it’s up to us to give it meaning (c.f. Existentialism)
   • Popular in the 1960s 
“Death of God” Theological Movement

7. Jonas: the Holocaust is the price of human freedom
   • student of Martin Heidegger
   • the Holocaust is the maximum of human evil

8. Fackenheim: the Holocaust as the Revelation of God
   • “614th Commandment” – Don’t forget to be Jews. Don’t give Hitler posthumous victories.
   • Likes Primo Levi. But God’s silence at Auschwitz is instead a commanding Voice

9. Wiesel: the Holocaust as inscrutable mystery
   • God shows his Face at Auschwitz. And what a Face!
   • We must refuse to totalize (i.e. bend to the limits of our reason) the Holocaust. Like God, it is incomprehensible.

Four Responses: Summaries
Rubenstein (academic), Maybaum (pulpit), Fackenheim (academic), and Berkovits (pulpit)

  • Rabbi Richard Rubenstein (God is Dead)
    • the only honest response to the Holocaust is the rejection of God
    • we must reexamine classical Jewish values from this perspective
    • Whether Christians see Jews as “Jesus” or “Judas,” the end is the same: the Jew as sacrificial victim
    • Rubenstein’s Zionism: the State of Israel as the historical / ethnic territory of the Jews

  • Rabbi Ignaz Maybaum (Suffering Servant)
    • the Holocaust is a vicarious atonement for the world
    • the Holocaust is part of God’s plan for the Messianic redemption of the world
    • Maybaum's Zionism: but hey — at least the Holocaust got rid of the shtetl Jews (offensive!)

  • Rabbi Emil Fackenheim (614th Commandment)
    • urges Jews to follow the mitzvot (commandments) after the Holocaust, difficult as that might be
    • Jews who remain Jewish after 1945 have answered the commanding Voice of Auschwitz
    • Fackenheim's Zionism (after the 1967 War): the State of Israel is the Holy Land of the Jews

  • Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits (Holocaust as History)
    • the Holocaust as the eventual culmination of Christian-European Antisemitism in history
    • an adequate understanding of Jewish history renders the Holocaust comprehensible
    • Berkovits’ Zionism: the Jewish history of exile and extermination demands national sovereignty

Four Responses: Challenges
Rubenstein, Maybaum, Fackenheim, and Berkovits

  • Rubenstein removes the God of the Jews from Jewish history
    • How does this change Jewish history?
      • the Torah?
      • the Holocaust?

  • Maybaum thinks of the Jews as the world’s Suffering Servant — who suffer for the redemption of the world
    • But the historic martyrs of Judaism chose their fates. Holocaust Jews did not.
    • Doesn't a martyr choose his or her fate? Fackenheim thinks so.
    • Could a mass, unjustifiable extermination redeem anything?

  • Fackenheim says to remember to be Jews. Staying Jewish will ensure we don’t let Hitler win.
    • But the Jews of Eastern Europe weren’t exterminated because they abandoned their Judaism.
    • They were exterminated because their grandparents refused to deny their Judaism.

  • Berkovitz places the Holocaust within the normal unfolding of history (c.f. Hegel)
    • But both Rubenstein and Fackenheim say the Holocaust is an ahistorical singularity
      • Fackenheim says that Auschwitz forever ruptures history
        • the Holocaust: neither politically nor militarily motivated
        • the Holocaust: not a “war crime.” The Jews weren’t at war.
        • the Holocaust: an assault on God by destroying God’s first witnesses
          • the Holocaust isn’t bigotry, racism, or xenophobia — it’s blasphemy
    • Can there ever be an overcoming of Auschwitz?
      • Will we just “get it” one day and move on?
      • Will there be a day when Holocaust museums and memorials shouldn’t exist?