SHOAH—The Holocaust from a Jewish perspective

SHOAH—The Holocaust from a Jewish perspective.

Summary of a talk by David Simcock on Sunday 2 February 2020.

Perhaps the most obvious starting point for the Jews is the Covenant between God and his chosen people. In the Deuteronomic Code, blessings are promised for faithful obedience but curses will follow disobedience. Similarly the prophet Amos saw the impending threat from Assyria as God’s judgement on his people. The liturgy for the Day of Atonement speaks of the people being chosen but on account of sins were exiled from their land.

The Orthodox Rabbi Bernard Maza said in 1986 that in the first part of the 20th Century Jews were turning away from God to pursue secular Zionism, socialism and materialism, so the Holocaust was God’s fury yet God intends it to be renewing rather than punishing. This parallels Jeremiah ( Jer 32: 37 and 40 for example) in which the anger of God is so that they shall never turn away from God again. However, the murder of 6 million Jews would seem disproportionate if the intention was a Torah observing revitalised Israel.

The Reform Rabbi Ignaz Maybaum in 1965 treats the holocaust like the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the Roman devastation of 70CE. He believes in progress and development and that in the election of Jews, God intends to bless all nations and peoples. After the Roman destruction of the Temple, Jews learned that true worship may be offered in words alone and this was a message for all people. In the 20th century, Hitler was God’s servant and the beneficial outcomes of the holocaust include the purification and modernisation of society away from the Medieval Judaism and similarly that Christians can be faithful outside the Medieval Roman Church. Rubenstein points out that the ‘medieval’ Jewish communities in Eastern Europe were faithful to ancient beliefs and not all of them were backward in their life, many sharing the highly sophisticated life of the big cities. Surprisingly, Maybaum tries to speak to Christians, saying that the six million died, as Jesus died, just because they were chosen by God. We can say that Jesus assented to his death, but the six million did not.

The Orthodox Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz argues that God hides to preserve the freedom and responsibility God has given to humankind. God is present in history but hidden, choosing non intervention to preserve people’s freedom. Jonathan Sacks agrees and says that God does give a confirmatory glimpse of his presence in the survival of Israel as a people. Andre Neher (French Jewish scholar) says that free mankind is improvisation made history; human beings could work with God to perfect the world or perpetrate Auschwitz. In permitting humans free will, God set aside his omniscience.
The idea of a hiding God has a Biblical base, for example in Psalms 44, 74, 79 and 89, but this is temporary for a God whose usual mode is interventionist. There is also the question that if you believe God intervenes, then why not in Auschwitz ?
Colin Eimer (a Reform Jew) in 1992 said that a hiding God may appear to be an unfeeling God. However, when a loving God sees his people suffer, God suffers too and a similar idea exists in Christianity. Christians speak of God suffering in Christ on the cross for the redemption of people and ultimate glory. Jewish thinking on the other hand is that pain and glory are incompatible, so it is only that God suffers with people and nothing more.

At this point we heard a heart rending grim story ‘Night’ by Elie Wiesel. This was about three people being hanged in a concentration camp, including a young boy who after the action of the rope was left half-dead and half-alive on the ground for more than half an hour and the onlookers were forced to march past and look closely at the boy. The story ended “For God’s sake, where is God?” then “Where is he? This is where—hanging here from this gallows..”

Emil Fackenheim, a Jewish theologian, has made a famous statement saying that at Auschwitz God was heard as a commanding voice making it the 614th commandment to survive as Jews. With Hitler in the end having lost the battle, this is a stirring encouragement to Jews to remain faithful. Emil sets this in the context of history in which God has both a saving voice and a commanding voice. In Exodus it was a saving voice and in the Torah was the commanding voice. There is a religious objection to this as a new commandment in the context of the holocaust, since why did it have to wait for the murder of six million Jews, many of whom were not minded to abandon faith before the Nazi persecution and what about those who despaired of God as a result ?

There is a more fundamental message about all of these attempts to interpret the holocaust. In 1990, Neil Gillman claimed that all theodicies operate on an intellectual level only, leaving us with a sense of emotional irresolution; we need a more affective direction based on a religious affirmation that our cosmos will be restored intact. The true religious response is about acceptance and hope, not explanation.

In the subsequent discussion at our meeting, one of the points made was about the current situation in Israel. They may have the right to exist there, but have they learned to obey God ? If in their relations with the Palestinians they have not learned this, then as seen in the Old Testament experience they will lose the land.


Nigel Jones (Feb’20)

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