Introduction to Post-Holocaust Theology

What is Post-Holocaust Theology?

Warsaw Ghetto Boy

The Holocaust was "the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime" during World War II. Such a tragic, horrific event defined by massive, unnecessary, and cruel suffering posed major problems for theologians across the world, especially in the Jewish tradition. Post-Holocaust theology refers to a philosophy within Judaism that provides a pathway for Jews, and others disturbed by the Holocaust, to understand the Holocaust and live a meaningful life. It describes an attempt by theists to rationalize this evil act alongside the image of an omnipotent, omniscient, benevolent God. Post-Holocaust theology is a process of meaning-making, in which it aims to help the faithful lead fulfilling lives by finding meaning through suffering.

Elie Wiesel was a writer and Holocaust survivor. In Night, a narrative based on his experiences in the concentration camps, he encounters a rabbi who says "It's over. God is no longer with us." He elaborates:

"I know. No one has the right to say things like that. I know that very well. Man is too insignificant, too limited, to even try to comprehend God's mysterious ways. But what can someone like myself do? I'm neither a sage nor a just man. I am not a saint. I'm a simple creature of flesh and bone. I suffer hell in my soul and my flesh. I also have eyes and I see what is being done here. Where is God's mercy? Where's God? How can I believe, how can anyone believe in this God of Mercy?"

Such an excerpt exemplifies the questions posed by post-Holocaust theology. Where was God? Why did he allow the Holocaust to happen? What does it mean to live in a post-Holocaust world?

Post-Holocaust theology is a record of how Judaism reacted to the Holocaust. The question of a post-Holocaust life is one that every Jew must face. It is a dreadful event of such magnitude that it undoubtedly has deep ramifications for Jewish history and the modern world. The Holocaust must be understood and reconciled within the Jewish community to properly honor its victims and prevent future tragedies. In this essay, you'll read work from scholars in Jewish philosophy, theology, and literature to understand post-Holocaust theology as an attempt to find meaning in one of history's darkest moments. 

The Problem of Evil

As you might recall from the "God and Suffering: Fyodor Dostoyevsky" interactive essay, a particularly strong argument against the existence of God is the problem of evil. The Holocaust would seem as an apt example for the argument, making it an important topic for theists to unravel. The implications of the Holocaust for the problem of evil become more apparent through the Jewish conception of God. Jews believe that God brings judgement, but his divine judgement is just and tempered by mercy. In fact, God is defined by his interventions to protect his people, such as delivering the Israelites from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 20:2). 

If God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, what does that say about the Holocaust? Joel Teitelbaum, a Hassidic Jewish rabbi and Holocaust survivor, believed that the Holocaust was a divine punishment for the sins of the Jewish people. Richard Rubenstein was a Jewish theologian and post-Holocaust scholar who argued in After Auschwitz that the only rational response to the Holocaust is to reject God's existence and that all existence is ultimately meaningless. He endorsed an existentialist view, where humans define meaning for themselves. Later on in his life, Rubenstein clarified his view, explaining that belief in God is still rational but that our culture is one defined by the "death of God." In this setting, while God may exist, humanity treats God as if he does not exist, instead allowing individuals to create their own meaning. 

Although negative reactions to God, such as denying his existence, are present in post-Holocaust theology, the views of Teitelbaum, Rubenstein, and others like them are largely rejected by Jews and the broader theological community. David Weiss Halvini, a Holocaust survivor and Jewish scholar, summarizes the shortcomings of these views in "Prayer in the Shoah."

What happened in the Shoah is above and beyond measure, above and beyond suffering, above and beyond any punishment. There is no transgression that merits such punishment. Such utter destruction has never transpired before in history, has never before been fashioned by Satan, and it cannot be attributed to sin…Such a person [who attributes the Shoah to the Jews’ sins] not only accuses the sufferers slanderously with having caused their own suffering, but also indirectly belittles the guilt of the truly guilty by implying that they only did what they had to do. If not they, then some others would have had to do this. Such things must not be uttered!

It simply did not make sense to approach this catastrophic event in a gloomy, depressing conclusion. In a way, such a finding undermines and diminishes the lives of those who suffered. After such a tragic event, there must be something to glean from it; otherwise, the unnecessary suffering was worthless and a similar disaster can occur. 

In the following sections, you will read about the three main principles that define post-Holocaust theology. Please note that post-Holocaust theology is not a defined philosophy, but rather references the larger corpus of works that relate to questions about a post-Holocaust Judaism. We’ve included tenants that are most relevant to our course, but encourage you to research more into the topic if you’re interested. The three principles are:

1) God is hidden

2) The resisting victim

3) Tikkun Olam (Hebrew for "repair of the world")

Key Principle God is Hidden

Meet the Authors

Eliezer Berkovits
Abraham Joshua Heschel

For the first principle of post-Holocaust theology, you will read excerpts from the works of two scholars, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Eliezer Berkovitz. Heschel (1907-1972), a Polish-born American rabbi, was a leading theologian and philosopher of the Jewish tradition in the 20th century. A Holocaust survivor, his work had a profound effect on Judaism by capturing a succinct interpretation of post-Holocaust theology. While Heschel was a respected scholar in academia, his main interest lied in exploring spirituality. He believed that the call of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible was one of social justice, leading him to be a fierce advocate of the Civil Rights Movement and critic of the Vietnam War. Man is Not Alone, one of his quintessential works, explores the relationship between humanity and God. 

Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992) was also a renowned rabbi, theologian, and educator in the 20th century. Similar to Heschel, Berkovits was interested in the relationship between humanity and God, specifically in transcending events like the giving of the Torah by God to the Israelites on Mount Sinai. He was enthralled by the role of piety in this relationship and how individuals can grow closer to God through good actions. Understandably, Berkovits was perplexed by the seeming absence of God during the Holocaust, a question he explored in Faith After the Holocaust

The Hidden God

In Man is Not Alone, Heschel explains God's absence during the Holocaust as the result of human action. For him, human sin and wickedness has exiled God and distanced him from humanity. Without God's radiance of holiness and goodness, the evils of humanity are boundless. The Holocaust was not the result of God's neglect or inability to prevent suffering, but because humanity rejected God's love. Although this paints a grim picture, it also means that human action can reveal God. By engaging in good actions and promoting justice, humanity can reinvigorate its relationship with God. As you read the excerpt below, consider how this interpretation responds to the problem of evil. Is it a convincing account of God's absence during the Holocaust? Can it explain other events of suffering in the world?

We have trifled with the name of God. We have taken ideals in vain, preached and eluded Him, praised and defied Him. Now we reap the fruits of failure. Through centuries His voice cried in the wilderness. How skillfully it was trapped and imprisoned in the temples! How thoroughly distorted! Now we behold how it gradually withdraws. abandoning one people after another, departing from their souls, despising their wisdom. The taste for goodness has all but gone from the earth. 

We have witnessed in history how often a man, a group or a nation, lost from the sight of God, acts and succeeds. strives and achieves, but is given up by Him. They may stride front one victory to another and yet they are done with and abandoned, renounced and cast aside. They may possess all glory and might, but their life will be dismal. God has withdrawn from their life, even while they are heaping wickedness upon cruelty and malice upon evil. The dismissal of man, the abrogation of Providence, inaugurates eventual calamity. 

They are left alone, neither molested by punishment nor mired by indication of help. The divine does not interfere with their actions nor intervene in their conscience. Having all in abundance save His blessing, they find their wealth a shell in which there is curse without mercy. 

Man was the first to hide himself from God, after having eaten of the forbidden fruit, and is still hiding. The will of God is to be here, manifest and near; but when the doors of this world are slammed on Him. His truth betrayed, His will defied, He withdraws, leaving man to himself. God did nor depart of own volition; He was expelled. God is in exile. 

More grave than Adam's eating the forbidden fruit was his hiding from God after he had eaten it. "Where art thou?" Where is man? is the first question that occurs in the Bible. It is man’s alibi that is our problem. It is man who hides, who Aces, who has an alibi. God is less rare than we think; when we long for Him, His distance crumbles away. 

The prophets do not speak of the hidden God but of the hiding God. His hiding is a function not His essence, an act not a permanent state. It is when the people forsake Him, breaking the Covenant which He has made with them. that He forsakes them and hides His face from them.' It is not God who is obscure. It is man who conceals Him. His hiding from us is not in His essence: “Verily Thou art a God that hidest Thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour!” (Isaiah 45:15). A hiding God, not a hidden God. He is waiting to be disclosed, to be admitted into our lives.

The direct effect of His hiding is the hardening of the conscience: man hears but does not understand, sees but does not perceive – his heart fat, his ears heavy. Our task is to open our souls to Him, to let Him again enter our deeds. We have been taught the grammar of contact with God; we have been taught by the Baal Shem that His remoteness is an illusion capable of being dispelled by our faith. There are many doors through which we have to pass in order to enter the palace, and none of them is locked. 

As the hiding of man is known to God and seen through, so is God’s hiding seen through. In sensing the fact of His hiding we have disclosed Him. Life is a hiding place for God. We are never asunder from Him who is in need of us. Nations roam and rave – but all this is only ruffling the deep, unnoticed and uncherished stillness.

Humanity Exiled God

Berkovits provides an elaboration on the "God is hidden" argument by showing God's exile is the result of human action, not divine judgement. Such an explanation places the burden on humanity to rectify the relationship with God while showing that God is not responsible for the horrors humanity commits. As you read the excerpt below, consider how Berkovits's thoughts emphasize the human, not divine, role in the suffering.

In biblical terminology, we speak of Hester Panim, the Hiding of the Face, God’s hiding of his countenance from the sufferer. Man seeks God in his tribulation but cannot find him. It is, however, seldom realized that “The Hiding of the Face” has two meanings in the Bible, which are no way related to each other. It is generally assumed that the expression signifies divine judgement and punishment. We find it indicated, for instance, in Deuteronomy, 31:17-18, in the words: 

Then My anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide My face from them. and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall come upon them;…And I will surely hide My face in that day for all the evil which they shall have wrought, in that they are turned unto other gods.

But the Bible also speaks of the Hiding of the Face when human suffering results, not from divine judgment, but from the evil perpetrated by man. Even the innocent may feel himself forsaken because of the Hiding of the Face. A moving example of this form of Hester Panim is the Forty-Fourth Psalm, from which we have already quoted a short passage. One should study the entire psalm: we shall recall here only its closing verses:

All this is come upon us: yet have we not forgotten Thee, 
Neither have we been false to Thy covenant. 
Our heart is not turned hack. 
Neither have our steps declined from Thy path; 
Though Thou hast crushed us into a place of jackals, 
And covered us with the shadow of death. 
If we had forgotten the name of our God,
Or spread forth our hands to a strange god; 
Would not God search this out? 
For he knoweth the secrets of the heart. 
Nay, but for Thy sake are we killed all the day; 
We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. 

Awake, why steepest Thou, O Lord? 
Arouse Thyself, cast not off for ever
Wherefore hidest Thou Thy face,
And forgettest our affliction and our oppression? 
For our soul is bowed down to the dust; 
Our belly cleaveth to the earth. 
Arise for our help. 
And redeem us for Thy mercy's sake. 

The Hiding of the Face about which the psalmist complains is altogether different from its meaning in Deuteronomy. There it is a manifestation of divine anger and judgment over the wicked: here it is indifference—God seems to be unconcernedly asleep during the tribulations inflicted by man on his fellow. Of the first kind of Hester Panim one might say that it is due to Mipnei Hataeinu, that it is judgement because of sins committed, but not of the second kind. It is God hiding himself mysteriously from the cry of the innocent. It is the divine silence of which the rabbis spoke in the Talmud. 

Connection Where was God during the Holocaust?

Jonathan Sacks (1948-2020) was a British rabbi who served as Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth from 1991 to 2013. His work as a philosopher and theologian had a great influence on post-Holocaust theology thus far in the 21st century, especially in explaining the Holocaust's significance to a general audience. In the video below, notice how Sacks invokes the themes of free will and God's exile to explain God's absence during the Holocaust.  

Key Principle The Resisting Victim

Meet the Authors

Biography about and pictures of Arthur Cohen and Emil Fackenheim

The Irrationality of the Holocaust

Arthur Cohen's "Thinking the Tremendum"

Whatever we may learn from history, moral philosophy, psychopathology, or political science about the conditions which preceded and promoted the death camps, or the behavior of oppressors and victims which obtained within the death camps, is unavailing. All analysis holds us within the normative kingdom of reason, and however the palpable irrationality of the events, the employment of rational analysis is inappropriate. I do not feel the calm of reason to be obscene as some critics of the rational inquiry into the tremendum have described it. It is not obscene for human beings to try to retain their sanity before an event which disorders sanity. It is a decent and plausible undertaking. It is simply inappropriate and unavailing. Probative inquiry and dispassionate reason have no place in the consideration of the death camps, precisely because reason possesses a moral vector. To reason, that is to estimate and evaluate, is to employ discernment and discrimination before a moral ambiguity. The tremendum is beyond the discourse of morality and rational condemnation. It is not that the death camps were absolutely evil. Such judgments do not help. It is not enough to pronounce them absolutely evil. Absolute evil is a paradigm. There is nothing to which we can point in the history of men and nations which is absolutely evil, although the criterion of that abstraction has helped moralists to pronounce upon the relative evils of history.

Absolute evil - even if it designated something real - would be an inept formulation, for what does it mean, in fact, to say of some thing or event that it is absolutely evil? It means only that we can conceive of no greater evil, whereas in truth we can: we can conceive of a system that can murder all life (assuming, of course, that abundant life is an absolute good), but clearly this adds nothing to our absolute but exaggeration. We look for qualitative enrichment of our moral sensibility, a texturing and refinement, while all our language before the event presses us to grosser and more extreme formulations.

The relativity of evil in the deliberations of moralists rarely entails the exposition of the relative good. Relative evils do not complete themselves by the description of relative goods. Relative evil is measured in the mind against absolute evil. Of course, such a logic of moral experience has an ultimate reckoning. If it is commonplace for human beings to free themselves from the paradigm of the absolute, it becomes ever easier to ignore or to excuse transgression. Human beings learn to rationalize and justify so artfully and so well that the right time passes unobserved, when they should have shouted ‘no, not this, not this.’ But, of course, it is hard in a shouting and busy world, continuously assaulted by interests and needs, for any single human being to be heard warning against evil. During such times, the recognition that there are indeed absolute evils (even though abstractly described) has not prevented us from accumulating a mountain of small evils which, like the bricks of the Tower of Babel, might one day reach up and pierce the heavens. The point of this is to suggest that moral convention, a pragmatic regimen of norms and regulae of behavior retain their authority only so long as the absolute evil of which they are special and modest exempla remains abstract and unrealized. When absolute evil ceases, however, to be the abstract warning of the impending and possible and comes to be, how shall the descriptive domains of the moral and immoral retain their authority? Can one doubt the relevance of this to the politics of the twentieth century? Until the end of the eighteenth century the political theory of Europe centered about philosophies of law, right, duty, and freedom. It was understood that the relation of citizen and state was somehow a moral relation, that the citizen was a person educated to freedoms and informed by responsibilities. In our time such language has virtually disappeared from public inquiry and debate. The language of politics is not that of moral interaction and representation, but the calibration and weighting of power, influence, need, control in such fashion as to guarantee for one’s own constituency a larger and measurably greater security both for and against uncontested aggression. Questions of right and law, of justice and equity have virtually disappeared as moral criteria for social and political action. The consequence of all this - the process of the demoralization of the political - is the consequent irrelevance of the ‘absolute’ and the ‘utter’ as the adjectival thunder of the putatively relative. What civilization once called murder or barbarism or cruelty or sadism has in our day become a useless rhetoric. Not one of us can summon these words with the authority with which John Milton or Voltaire might have spoken them, and few can hear the English rendering of the Hebrew prophets with little more than a recognition of their immense eloquence. Words no longer command us, precisely because they no longer reflect concepts and convictions which directly govern and thereby agitate conscience.

Being a Resisting Victim

Fackenheim's To Mend the World

What, then, of the banality of evil? Thought is, indeed, "frustrated" by the Holocaust not, however, because the evil to be thought is “banal” or “on the surface”-because thought looks for “depth” and there is “nothing” since “only good has depth and can be radical.” In truth the frustration occurs because the circular thought that grasps the whole-of-horror-it grasps it only if it confronts it as whole at every point of its circular movement-in no way comprehends but merely confronts it, in a horrified surprise, or a surprised horror. Hence we reach a fundamental conclusion. The evil of the Holocaust world (which is radical and far removed from banality) is philosophically intelligible after Auschwitz only in the exact sense in which it was already understood in Auschwitz-and Buchenwald, Lublin, and the Warsaw Ghetto-by the resisting victims themselves. When Pelagia Lewinska “grasped the true meaning of Auschwitz” she "awakened from a dream" and “felt under orders to live." No deeper or more ultimate grasp is possible for philosophical thought that comes, or ever will come, after the event. This grasp-theirs no less than ours-is epistemologically ultimate.

This is our first conclusion. But it is not all. Doubtless our thought is richer than theirs. We possess historical facts beyond their ken. We have hindsight knowledge. We have the leisure that has enabled us in this exploration (to employ two Kierkegaardian expressions) to "circumnavigate” the Holocaust whole-of-horror in detached “reflection” before confronting it in the “immediacy-after-reflection” of horrified surprise. All this they did not have. Even so, our knowledge is not superior. Though without our hindsight knowledge and our leisure, they were able to “grasp the motivating principle” of the whole. Moreover, whereas our resisting drought is merely a pale, intellectual struggle, theirs was a “terrible" life-and-death- “struggle. which went on day and night”-a struggle so total that "to abandon (it) meant letting oneself be broken, [that] capitulating meant going under."90 We have seen that our resisting thought must point beyond thought itself, to resistance in life. In their case, resisting thought not only went together with resistance in life. Their recognition of the Nazi logic, of destruction helped produce resistance to it a life-and-death struggle that went on day and night.

We are thus led to a second conclusion. We have previously identified the Holocaust world, as novum in human history. We have also suggested that resistance to it is a novum as well. Now our ecstatic thought must point to their resistance-the resistance in thought and the resistance in life-as ontologicolly ultimate. Resistance in that extremity was a way of being. For our thought now, it is an ontological category.

With this monumental conclusion what may be called a necessary excursus, extending over the last two sections of the present exploration, has come to a climax and an end. Prior to these sections we reached an impasse with the question whether perhaps no thought can be where the Holocaust is; whether perhaps all thought is “paralyzed” vis-à-vis that event; and whether perhaps paralysis at this catastrophic point calls into question significant post-Holocaust thought everywhere. The two sections that followed were an excursus in that that question was suspended; and the excursus was necessary because only the astounding fact that existence was not wholly paralyzed during the Holocaust itself could give our thought any hope of breaking the impasse. Now that the astounding fact has been confronted, contemplated, explored, the suspended question returns; and there arises for future thought-the focus of our concern is Jewish thought, but also involved are philosophical and, to a lesser extent, Christian thought-an imperative that brooks no compromise. Authentic thought was actual during the Holocaust among resisting victims; therefore such thought must be possible for us after the event: and, being possible, it is mandatory. Moreover, their resisting thought pointed to and helped make possible a resisting life; our post-Holocaust thought, however authentic in other respects, would still lapse into unauthenticity if it remained in an academically-self enclosed circle-if it failed to point to, and help make possible, a post-Holocaust life.

But can this imperative be obeyed? Only through a new departure with the help of a new category. In this whole work we have been engaged in thinking-philosophical, Jewish, and within proper limits, Christian. When it was “old” thinking it required access to Eternity. When it was “new" thinking it still required historical continuity. (This is obvious in the case of Jewish and Christian thinking, with their need for access to the Scriptures. In the case of philosophical thinking it was demonstrated for us by Heidegger, for his earlier thinking needs “recovery” of “tradition,” and his later must “think more primally still what was originally thought.”) Our own thinking in this book, recover as it did the past, itself presupposed a continuity between present and past. Yet our question now is whether the continuity indispensable for thought is still available. This question first appeared when our own thought, surprised and horrified by the Holocaust, could only resist but not comprehend it.

The continuity is broken, and thought, if it is not itself to be and remain broken, requires a new departure and a new category. Only thus can the imperative that brooks no compromise be obeyed. Historical continuity is shattered because “at Auschwitz not only man died, but also the idea of man”; because our “estrangement from God” has become so "cruel" that, even if He were to speak to us, we have no way of understanding how to "recognize” Him.91 We need a new departure and a new category because the Holocaust is not a “relapse into barbarism,” a “phase in an historical dialectic,” a radicalbut-merely-”parochial” catastrophe. It is a total rupture.