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About the Author
Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok is Professor of Judaism at the University of Wales, Lampeter, and is the author or editor of more than 50 books, including God and the Holocaust and Understanding the Holocaust.
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By Dan Cohn-Sherbok
University of Exeter PressCopyright © 2002 Dan Cohn-Sherbok
All rights reserved.
The Religious Challenge of the Holocaust
Richard Rubenstein: The Death of God
An American-born Conservative rabbi, Richard Rubenstein served as Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of Religion at the University of Florida and as President of the University of Bridgeport, Connecticut. In After Auschwitz ,he argues that it is no longer possible to sustain a belief in a supernatural Deity after the events of the Nazi era. Given God's seeming absence in the death camps, Jews should abandon the traditional belief in the Lord of history. In a later controversial work, Approaches to Auschwitz , Rubenstein explains the origin of his disbelief, and elaborates his conception of God as Divine Nothingness.
I believe the greatest single challenge to modern Judaism arises out of the question of God and the death camps. I am amazed at the silence of contemporary Jewish theologians on this most crucial and agonizing of all Jewish issues. How can Jews believe in an omnipotent, beneficent God after Auschwitz? Traditional Jewish theology maintains that God is the ultimate, omnipotent actor in historical drama. It has interpreted every major catastrophe in Jewish history as God's punishment of a sinful Israel. I fail to see how this position can be maintained without regarding Hitler and the SS as instruments of God's will. The agony of European Jewry cannot be likened to the testing of Job. To see any purpose in the death camps, the traditional believer is forced to regard the most demonic, anti-human explosion of all history as a meaningful expression of God's purposes. The idea is simply too obscene for me to accept. I do not think that the full impact of Auschwitz has yet been felt in Jewish theology or Jewish life. Great religious revolutions have their own period of gestation. No man knows when the full impact of Auschwitz can be felt, but no religious community can endure so hideous a wounding without undergoing vast inner disorders.
(Richard Rubenstein, After Auschwitz, Indianapolis, Bobbs Merrill, 1966, 153)
The Death of God
No man can really say that God is dead. How can we know that? Nevertheless, I am compelled to say that we live in the time of the 'death of God.' This is more a statement about man and his culture than about God. The death of God is a cultural fact. Buber felt this. He spoke of the eclipse of God. I can understand his reluctance to use the more explicitly Christian terminology. I am compelled to utilize it because of my conviction that the time when Nietzsche's madman said was too far off has come upon us. There is no way around Nietzsche. Had I lived in another time or another culture, I might have found some other vocabulary to express my meanings. I am, however, a religious existentialist after Nietzsche and after Auschwitz. When I say we live in the time of the death of God, I mean that the thread uniting God and man, heaven and earth, has been broken. We stand in a cold, silent, unfeeling cosmos, unaided by any purposeful power beyond our own resources. After Auschwitz, what else can a Jew say about God?
(Richard Rubenstein, After Auschwitz, Indianapolis, Bobbs Merrill, 1966, 151–152)
Nothingness and God
I believe there is a conception of God ... which remains meaningful after the death of the God-who-acts-in-history. It is a very old conception of God with deep roots in both Western and Oriental mysticism. According to this conception, God is spoken of as the Holy Nothingness. When God is thus designated, he is conceived of as the ground and source of all existence. To speak of God as the Holy Nothingness is not to suggest that he is a void. On the contrary, he is an indivisible plenum so rich that all existence derives from his very essence. God as the Nothing is not absence of being but superfluity of being.
Why then use the term Nothingness? Use of the term rests in part upon a very ancient observation that all definition of finite entities involves negation. The infinite God is nothing. At times, mystics also spoke of God in similar terms as the Urgrund, the primary ground, the dark unnameable abyss out of which the empirical world has come.
At first glance, these ideas might seem little more than word play. Nevertheless, wise men of all the major religious traditions have expressed themselves in almost identical images when they have attempted to communicate the mystery of divinity. It is also helpful to note that whoever believes God is the source or ground of being usually believes that human personality is coterminous with the life of the human body. Death may be entrance into eternal life, the perfect life of God; death may also end pain, craving, and suffering, but it involves the dissolution and disappearance of individual identity ...
Perhaps the best available metaphor for the conception of God as the Holy Nothingness is that God is the ocean and we are the waves. In some sense each wave has its moment in which it is distinguishable as a somewhat separate entity. Nevertheless, no wave is entirely distinct from the ocean which is its substantial ground.
(Richard Rubenstein, Approaches to Auschwitz, London, SCM, 1987, 315–316)
1. Is it possible for Judaism to exist without a Deity?
2. Does Rubenstein's conception of God as the Holy Nothingness make sense?
Elie Wiesel: The Holocaust and Religious Protest
A Romanian Nobel Peace Prize winner and novelist, Elie Wiesel served as Chairman of the US Presidential Commission on the Holocaust and as Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities at Boston University. In the novel Night , he portrays the evolution of his despair. In this work, he depicts his initial transition from youthful belief to disillusionment. At the beginning of the novel, Wiesel describes himself as a young boy fascinated with God's mystery, studying Talmud and Kabbalah in the Transylvanian town of Sighet. After being transported to Auschwitz, the erosion of his faith began. Shortly after his arrival he questioned God. Later, he ceased to pray.
One day when we came back from work, we saw three gallows rearing up in the assembly place, three black crows. Roll call. SS all round us, machine guns trained: the traditional ceremony. Three victims in chains — and one of them, the little servant, the sad-eyed angel.
The SS seemed more preoccupied, more disturbed than usual. To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him....
'Where is God? Where is He?' someone behind me asked.
At a sign from the head of the camp the three chairs tipped over.
Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting....
Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. But the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive....
For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
'Where is God now?'
And I heard a voice within me answer him:
'Where is He? Here He is — He is hanging here on this gallows ...'
(Elie Wiesel, Night, New York, Bantam Books, 1982, 61–62)
Rebellion in the Camps
On the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the last day of that accursed year, the whole camp was electric with the tension which was in all our hearts. In spite of everything, this last day was different from any other. The last day of the year. The word 'last' rang very strangely. What if it were indeed the last day?
They gave us our evening meal, a very thick soup, but no one touched it. We wanted to wait until after prayers. At the place of assembly, surrounded by the electrified barbed wire, thousands of silent Jews gathered, their faces stricken.
Night was falling. Other prisoners continued to crowd in from every block, able suddenly to conquer time and space and submit both to their will.
'What are you, my God,' I thought angrily, 'compared to this afflicted crowd, proclaiming to you their faith, their anger, their revolt? What does your greatness mean, Lord of the universe, in the face of all this weakness, this decomposition, and this decay? Why do you still trouble their sick minds, their crippled bodies?'
Ten thousand men had come to attend the solemn service, heads of the blocks, Kapos, functionaries of death.
'Bless the Eternal ...'
The voice of the officiant had just made itself heard. I thought at first it was the wind.
'Blessed be the Name of the Eternal!'
Thousands of voices repeated the benediction; thousands of men prostrated themselves like trees before a tempest.
'Blessed be the Name of the Eternal!'
Why, but why should I bless him? In every fiber I rebelled. Because he had thousands of children burned in his pits? Because he kept the six crematories working night and day, on Sundays and feast days? Because in his great might he had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many factories of death? How could I say to him: 'Blessed art thou, eternal, master of the universe, who chose us from among the races to be tortured day and night, to see our fathers, our mothers, our brothers, end in the crematory? Praised be thy holy name, thou who has chosen us to be butchered on thine altar?'
I heard the voice of the officiant rising up, powerful yet at the same time broken, amid the tears, sobs, the sighs of the whole congregation:
'All the earth and the universe are God's!'
He kept stopping every moment, as though he did not have the strength to find the meaning beneath the words. The melody choked in his throat ...
Once, New Year's Day had dominated my life. I knew that my sins grieved the eternal; I implored his forgiveness. Once, I had believed profoundly that upon one solitary deed of mine, one solitary prayer, depended the salvation of the world.
This day I had ceased to plead. I was no longer capable of lamentation. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes were open and I was alone — terribly alone in a world without God and without man. Without love or mercy. I had ceased to be anything but ashes, yet I felt myself to be stronger than the Almighty, to whom my life had been tied for so long. I stood amid that praying congregation, observing it like a stranger.
The service ended with the Kaddish. Everyone recited the Kaddish over his parents, over his children, over his brothers, and over himself.
We stayed for a long time at the assembly place. No one dared to drag himself away from this mirage. Then it was time to go to bed and slowly the prisoners made their way to their blocks. I heard people wishing one another a Happy New Year!
I ran off to look for my father. And at the same time I was afraid of having to wish him a Happy New Year when I no longer believed in it.
He was standing near the wall, bowed down, his shoulders sagging as though beneath a heavy burden. I went up to him, took his hand and kissed it. A tear fell upon it. Whose was that tear? Mine? His? I said nothing. Nor did he. We had never understood one another so clearly.
The sound of the bell jolted us back to reality. We must go to bed. We came back from far away. I raised my eyes to look at my father's face leaning over mine, to try to discover a smile or something resembling one upon the aged, dried-up countenance. Nothing, not the shadow of an expression. Beaten.
Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement.
Should we fast? The question was hotly debated. To fast would mean a surer, swifter death. We fasted here the whole year round. The whole year was Yom Kippur. But others said that we should fast simply because it was dangerous to do so. We should show God that even here, in this enclosed hell, we were capable of singing his praises.
I did not fast, mainly to please my father, who had forbidden me to do so. But further, there was no longer any reason why I should fast. I no longer accepted God's silence. As I swallowed my bowl of soup, I saw in the gesture an act of rebellion and protest against him.
And I nibbled my crust of bread.
In the depths of my heart, I felt a great void.
(Elie Wiesel, Night, New York, Bantam Books, 1982, 63–66)
1. Where was God in the boy hanging on the gallows?
2. Is Wiesel's despair similar to Job's response to God in Scripture?
David H. Hirsch: The Holocaust and Camp Songs
David H. Hirsch has served as Professor Emeritus of English and Judaic Studies at Brown University. In 'Camp Music and Camp Songs', he discusses music that was written in the camps. Here he discusses the collection of songs recorded by Aleksander Kulisiewicz. One of these songs, composed anonymously, is a lament of despair at God's absence at Birkenau.
Kulisiewicz was, in his own right, an extraordinary being. Born in Krakow in 1918, he aspired to become a musical performer. In October 1939, however, soon after Germany had invaded Poland, he was picked up in a Gestapo dragnet and incarcerated in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, near Berlin, where he remained until liberated on May 2, 1945. As a prisoner,
Alex helped organize and himself performed in numerous illegal poetry readings and sings. When an informer denounced him to the authorities as a 'nightingale' SS doctors employed 'scientific' means to try and shut him up. Three times they injected him with diphtheria bacilli to destroy his hearing and three times comrades managed to smuggle in the antidote. Finally the doctors gave up. 'Let the dog sing,' they laughed.
For a brief period in 1944 Kulisiewicz worked in the SS canine training centre (SS Hundenzwinger Kommando), where he contracted an infection of animal origin and nearly lost his sight. In addition to collecting songs, he composed 54 camp songs, 15 of which included both the words and music. In June of 1945, following his liberation, he spent more than three weeks dictating camp songs he had memorized, a total of 716 typed pages. At the time, he was a patient in the tubercular clinic in Krakow, and dictated the songs from a hospital bed. The doctors thought Alex was mad. After his recovery, Kulisiewicz performed the camp songs around the world ...
This is music from another world. More precisely, Kulisiewicz refers to his repertory as songs from Hell ... The lyrics of some of these songs are so revolting as to make listening to them not only painful, but almost unbearable. But they are, after all, songs, and the bare lyrics do not dothem justice. Not only are the words inseparable from music, but the songs are inseparable from the singer, whose raspy voice is a legacy of his captors' efforts to silence him by injecting him with diphtheria bacilli. Kulisiewicz's rendition of the songs projects a sense of total authenticity that no one seems likely to match ...
Accursed scrap of earth,
Where people are nothing but numbers
Where base brother oppresses brother,
Where bony death stretches out his palm,
Where everything is drenched in blood and tears,
Where you wake up screaming in the watches of the night.
If one should ask,
'Oh where is Hell?'
You can surely answer,
'Birkenau, accursed Birkenau.'
Bathed in blood and tears,
Birkenau, forgotten by God,
Godforsaken hellhole, Birkenau,
Where millions of victims lie
In a common grave.
Birkenau, evil kingdom,
Where there is no God.
This is Birkenau.
Crematoria consuming human carcasses,
Pestilential stench of human flesh,
Chimneys belching reddish smoke,
This is the journey's end,
The end of all suffering.
And you, my friend,
Will be a handful of ashes,
Swept away by the prairie wind.
But it doesn't matter.
You're one of many
Forgotten by this beastly world.
Birkenau, accursed Birkenau,
Drenched in blood and tears,
Forgotten by God
Birkenau, thorny path,
Where millions of victims lie
In a common grave,
This is Birkenau ...
The author of this song was perhaps not a theologian, but in the next lines he raises questions that theologians studying the Holocaust have pondered for the last fifty years. Birkenau is a Godforsaken hellhole, an 'evil kingdom ... where millions of victims lie in a mass grave. ... A kingdom where there is no God, This is Birkenau.' A kingdom without a king. Is this not, perhaps, the author's definition of Hell, 'a world without God'? The anonymous author seems to be saying that where God does not exist, there Hell does.
Excerpted from Holocaust Theology by Dan Cohn-Sherbok. Copyright © 2002 Dan Cohn-Sherbok. Excerpted by permission of University of Exeter Press.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 The challenge: the religious challenge of the Holocaust Part 2 Faith in the death camps: religious faith the Holocaust and divine providence the Holocaust and mystery faithfulness and suffering Part 3 Wrestling with the Holocaust: the suffering of God human free will the Holocaust and Christian faith the Holocaust and the kingdom the Holocaust and covenant the Holocaust and human evil the Holocaust and Jewish survival reconstructing Judaism. Part 4 Jews, Christians and the Holocaust: the Holocaust and Christian responsibility re-evaluating Christian theology
Jewish-Christian dialogue. Epilogue - the future of Holocaust theology.
What People are Saying About This
"This anthology does indeed offer a panoramic survey, and thus is a valuable contribution to Holocaust literature.]"
-The Princeton Seminary Bulletin
"Rabbi Dan Cohn-Sherbok has provided a much needed and indeed "panoramic survey of Holocaust theology" (1) that offers a comprehensive overview of excerpts from representative writings in the field. Holocaust Theology: A Reader provides a fine, comprehensive overview of the interpretive possibilities."
-Journal of the American Academy of Religion
"Holocaust Theology: A Reader should prove useful as an introductory text which grapples with complex issues."