One of the subjects that always bothered me and many others for that matter when it comes to religion is the question of human suffering. Particularly that of the Jewish people. One of the greatest events in Jewish history is the Exodus from Egypt. In short, Exodus is the story of God intervening in history, saving a weak, enslaved, persecuted people from the most powerful empire in the world, bringing them from generations of slavery in a foreign land to freedom and independence in their own land.
The Tanakh teaches us that the Jews migrated to Egypt as a result of famine in the land of Israel, following Jacob’s sons selling their brother Joseph into slavery.
Joseph due to his ability to interpret dreams, is called upon out of prison by Pharaoh to interpret his strange dreams, Joseph understood his dreams as the foreseeable coming of famine to Egypt. He is then given the role by Pharaoh as second in command with the task of preparing for the hard times to come. Jacob and Joseph’s brothers are reunited with Joseph, and at the end of the book of Genesis come from Canaan to dwell in Egypt. It is here where they multiply and grow into a nation. We are then told that a new Pharaoh arose, who did not know Joseph.1
Pharaoh orders that all newborn baby boys be killed, thrown in the Nile River and that the girls may live. The era of coexistence between the people of Israel and Egypt that existed under the Pharaoh to whom Joseph served was over. This marks the beginning perhaps the first of much oppression the Jewish people would experience, that of slavery.
One thing that never crossed my mind in the past when Pesach comes each year is how slavery in Egypt challenged the Hebrew slaves faith in a Just God. Connecting with their suffering and the questions they must have asked in contrast to that of our own experience and challenges posed by the prevalence of injustice and the seeming absence of God seems to be all but forgotten.
Lets compare and contrast two periods in history, slavery in Egypt and the Nazi holocaust. Faith after the holocaust has been a subject, which Jews and non-Jews have grappled with. It has been profoundly difficult for many to understand how a Just, all-powerful God remained silent and did not intervene in Auschwitz. How could He allow such terrible things to happen to innocent people.
The holocaust did not give rise to these questions about suffering and evil, but we ask these questions more and are more demanding of a reason whereby we can live with suffering within our faith. Aside from the scale of the holocaust and the process of dehumanization of man by man, is there something new to the general question of human suffering that the holocaust contributed to this issue as a whole that didn’t exist in a pre-holocaust world.
As I listened to holocaust survivor testimonies and hear with immense difficulty the unspeakable suffering and terrible situations they were put under and decisions they had to make, the fact that such things happened can cause us to question God, and ask why such injustice is taking place.
But did not the Hebrew slaves feel the same when they saw Egyptian soldiers taking newborn babies away from their mothers and throwing them in the Nile, and did they not wonder where God was whilst they slaved every day, and watched as their people were beaten and whipped.
On Pesach we do not focus so much on this part of the experience of the Hebrews, we read in the Haggadah about their redemption, and liberation, and pick up the story at the point where God hears the cry of Israel and decides to intervene, by calling on Moses to lead them out of Egypt and to ask Pharaoh to let his people go. But the Hebrews were enslaved for hundreds of years prior to this intervention, according to the Tanakh.
The ultimate dilemma we have from the story of Exodus, is that we learn of a God who does and is capable of intervening to save His people, He inflicts ten plagues on Pharaoh and the Egyptians until Pharaoh eventually lets them go. But we’re left struggling with, if God intervenes, why could or did He not intervene earlier, and spare such suffering.
This must have been going through the minds of the Hebrews as they left Egypt. The Torah tells us that they were not happy with Moses that they rebelled and complained in the desert arguing that they wanted to go back, at least they had food. According to tradition many did remain behind in Egypt. Others built the Golden Calf.
Growing up reading these stories I could not connect with why they felt this way. God had just performed all these miracles, freed them from slavery. It never occurred to me that it is most probable that they faced exactly the same challenges to their faith in God that many Jews do today posed by the holocaust. We read the Haggadah not relating to the Hebrew slaves and their own crisis of faith, but as an outright affirmation of our faith in a God who does not forget His people and delivers them from bondage to freedom.
When we learn about the holocaust as a period in Jewish history we do the opposite to what we do when we remember Pesach. We are wholly troubled by the experience of slavery/death camps or ghettos and less comforted by the positive that came out of it. To contemporise this event in relation to the holocaust, would be to focus on Israel’s War of Independence, and the establishment of the state of Israel, as God intervening against all odds, in what the world saw as a miraculous victory that no one believed would be possible. A people who had crawled out of the death camps in Europe would regain independence as a people again in their own land after 2000 years of persecution.
One could perhaps argue that no different to slavery in Egypt, God did eventually intervene, the second world war ended, Hitler was defeated, he like all others before him did not succeed in his attempt to wipe out the Jews. As with the Exodus from Egypt, what followed was the rebirth of Israel, and the beginnings of redemption as promised, God would not forget His people and would deliver them to the land that He promised them. But there is a difference; our victory has not come through miracles as described in the book of Exodus, which we will come to later.
In fact, when we read the Midrashim, it is startling if not scary just how similar these two events are. When I first read them, had I not known, I might have thought the Midrash was written in the post-holocaust era in order to compare slavery in Egypt with the holocaust. But the Midrashim were written down some 1800 odd years ago! The Midrash comments on the reason for the Israelites enslavement in Egypt in the first place:
“The Rabbis gave an introduction to their discourse on this Scriptural passage with the exposition of the following verse: – They betrayed HASHEM, for they begot alien children; now a month will devour them with their portions (Hosea 5:7). This comes to teach you that when Joseph died [the people of Israel] abrogated the covenant of circumcision, for they said, “Let us be like the Egyptians.” You can learn that they did not practice circumcision in Egypt from that which Moses circumcised them upon their departure from Egypt.
And when they did this, the Holy One, blessed is He, transformed the love that the Egyptians had toward them into hatred, as it is stated, He transformed their hearts to hate His nation, to plot against His servants (Psalms 105:25).”2
One can’t help but acknowledge that Nazism arose in Germany, the country where the Jews were the most assimilated, many wanted to be Germans and also wanted to abandon their covenant with God by converting to Christianity. The Midrash gives us a description of the management structure for how slavery in Egypt operated:
“Our Rabbis of blessed memory, said: – The taskmasters were from among the Egyptians , and the guards were from among the Israelites. Each taskmaster was appointed over ten guards, and each guard was appointed over ten Israelites. The taskmasters would go to the house of the Israelite guards early in the morning to get them to rooster the crows. One time, an Egyptian taskmaster went to the house of an Israelite guard, and set his eyes upon [the guard’s] wife who was beautiful in form and without blemish. – The next day, [the taskmaster] arose at the time the rooster crows, and sent [the guard] out of his house to arouse his ten men. After the guard left, the Egyptian taskmaster returned to the guards house and had relations with his wife. – She thought he was her husband; and she became pregnant from him. – Her husband returned home and found the Egyptian taskmaster emerging from his house. – [The guard] asked [his wife], “Perhaps [the taskmaster] touched you?” – She said to [her husband]. “Yes, he did, but I thought it was you.” When the taskmaster became aware that [the guard] realized what he had done, he removed him from his post as guard and returned him to perform backbreaking work like the rest of the Israelites; – In addition, [the taskmaster] was striking him and seeking to kill him, in order to prevent him from revealing what he had done.” 3
The Midrash continues to explain that this is the background to the Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a slave to death that Moses saw which lead him to intervene to save his life. Reading the description of how our Sages described the guards and the taskmasters and the brutality and exploitation only made me think of the Kapos in the concentration camps. The Nazis would select certain Jews to do their dirty work and manage the other Jews.
Such explanations as the holocaust happened because we abandoned the Torah is something that many of us find incredibly insensitive, if not perverse, myself included. But this is not a perversion, the belief that calamities befall the Jewish people when we do not live up to our part of the covenant is rooted throughout our texts.
It is often believed that Jews today have lost their faith in God, and the proof being their complaint that He did not intervene during the holocaust. I would beg to differ, perhaps this may be the case for some, but I believe it is not the ultimate question that troubles Jews about God. I think that many have not in fact lost belief in God at all. It is really a frustration.
When a Jew says that they do not believe in God and it is because of the existence of human suffering, it is more that they are angry at God. They are not necessarily saying that they don’t believe God exists. If they believed that He didn’t exist then there would not be any reason to get emotional about the whole situation. Someone who claims not to believe in God does not look at human suffering and ask themselves “how could God let such things happen?” He asks questions about human nature, psychology, economics, politics and other factors that influence human behaviour which would make it possible for man to do such things could occur.
The idea of a God that does not exist being guilty or at fault for something it could not have been responsible for is absurd. To blame God or be angry with God or to even grapple with this issue at all is evidence that deep down one believes that God exists.
Theologians point to the fact that God created man in God’s image, with free will, with the ability to create or to destroy, capable equally of being righteous or of doing evil. The first instance in the Tanakh we need to look at is the story of Cain and Abel.
“And the Lord said unto Cain: ‘Why art thou wroth? And why is thy countenance fallen? If thou doest well, shall it not be lifted? And if thou doest not do well, sin coucheth at the door; and unto Abel his brother. And it came to pass, when they were in field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.” 4
God warns Cain not to commit the sin he is about to, but Cain does not listen and goes on to commit the first murder in history. God sees what is coming, warns man to restrain himself and man does not listen and an injustice takes place.
The Talmud records a debate between Hillel and Shammai on whether Gods creation of man was a good thing or not.
“Our Rabbis taught: For two and a half years were Beth Shammai and Beth Hillel in dispute, the former asserting that it were better for man not to have been created than to have been created, and the latter maintaining that it is better for man to have been created than not to have been created. They finally took a vote and decided that it were better for man not to have been created than to have been created, but now that he has been created, let him investigate his past deeds or, as others say, let him examine his future actions.”5
A Midrash tells of God consulting the Angels before creating man, who debated whether it was a good idea or not.
“Rabbi Simon said: When the Holy One, blessed be He, was about to create Adam, the ministering angels separated into groups and camps, some saying, “Let him not be created,” while others said, “Let him be created.” This is as it is written, “Kindness and truth meet, righteousness and peace kiss” (Tehillim 85:11): Kindness says, “Let him be created, for he will perform acts of kindness.” Truth says, “Let him not be created, for he is full of deceit.” Righteousness says, “Let him be created, for he will perform righteousness.” Peace says, “Let him not be created, for he is full of quarrel.”6
God however chose to create man, and gave man free will. And so subsequently, by giving man free will He limits his power. The former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that the story of God warning Cain and him killing Abel shows that God speaks but if we don’t listen even God Himself is powerless. That is the risk God took by giving us free will. But if God sees the future, He must know that in spite of all that would follow that in the end all would be good, even if there were a struggle to get there.
The houses of both Hillel and Shammai had agreed that it would have been better had God not created man. After a series of disappointments in man in the following stories in the book of Genesis, God himself comes to conclude that man should not have been created.
“And the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that He had made man on earth, and it grieved Him at His heart. And the Lord said: “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man and beast, and creeping thing, and fowl of the air; for it repenteth Me that I have made them.” But Noah found favour in the eyes of the Lord.”7
But God in spite of the fact that He believed man was a problem; He did not give up on man. We may look at the story of Noah and conclude that God decided to flood the world to destroy His creation, but He saved Noah and his family. God could have wiped out absolutely everyone and that would have been the end of it. But that is not what God does. He doesn’t ultimately see man as the cause of the problem but also as part of the solution, He continues to have faith in man, and continues to care for and work with His creation.
But once again, the idea that Noah was righteous and by saving him, God hopes that by choosing someone who is righteous and swayed more towards his good inclination he will raise likeminded children. But to God’s great disappointment again, we read about the building of the Tower of Babel. God cannot wipe out the world again, He promised that to Noah and all humanity after the Flood. He curses Ham, and sees the sin of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah.
God then enters into a relationship with Abraham, the first person to demand justice including from God Himself, as God contemplates destroying Sodom and Gomorrah. The relationship between God and man begins to mature, in the sense that dialogue is more common, between Abraham and God that didn’t exist before Abraham, but also as a result of the development of a closer relationship with God we see in the story of Abraham challenging God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah for the first time a human concern for justice, not just God’s concern for justice. Perhaps this is why God does not condemn Abraham’s plea, but listens and bargains with him. God is just pleased to see finally someone who is concerned about justice and following their good inclination, concerned for the innocent. As Abraham asks God “Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?”
What begins with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and culminates at Sinai is the concept of a covenant. God wants man to follow his ways, but at the same time must do so bearing in mind that He created man in His own image with free will. Whilst man was created with the potential to be good, he is equally capable of doing evil, and the beginning stories of Genesis illustrate this.
Potential to be good does not seem to be enough, not everyone was like Noah. But even Noah was only righteous in his generation, Noah unlike Abraham never challenged God’s decision to flood the world, he simply did as he was told. The people God chooses for all his big tasks are more and more people, who are concerned for human justice and will speak up and challenge and protest no matter where they see it including by God, such as Abraham and Moses! Contrary to what many people assert that the patriarch’s and the prophets all being unquestioning and totally obedient to God, this is not the message of the Tanakh. God seems to like a challenge, and a challenger.
The claim that God is all-powerful would suggest that God could if He wanted to just make us all good, but He didn’t and He doesn’t. He is a God who sees virtue in our choosing good as a sovereign decision of each individual as an act of free will that He has given us. So this is why he makes a covenant with the Jewish people to live according to His way through fulfilling the commandments in the Torah. The world that God created is not complete in its creation until the Messianic age. This makes man through the covenant partners in Gods creation. That is the rationale for God choosing to make a covenant, after seeing man sway towards his bad inclination and do evil, in order to continue to give man free will, they must be encouraged to choose to do good over evil. We are tasked with spreading knowledge of God, about His loving, compassionate and just ways revealed in the Torah and to be a Light unto the Nations.
Returning to the subject of the holocaust. It is often asked, if God could intervene supernaturally as He did against Egypt why could He not have done the same against Hitler to save the Jews before all the genocide began.
Such a direct intervention as the plagues against Egypt or the parting of the Reed Sea to rescue the Jewish people, as far as is recorded in scripture has not happened since. Most stories after the Exodus do not attribute the Jews survival directly to Gods divine intervention, in the story of Purim God seems to be absent from the story and the heroine is Esther. On Chanukah the Maccabee’s, if God plays a part in rescuing or saving the Jews in future instances it is not through such unprecedented divine intervention as found in the book of Exodus.
What we see is how God from now on since the giving of the Torah, will work alongside or with humans who will not wait for a miracle but to speak up for what is right and fight injustice when they see it. If God were to intervene every time an injustice were to occur or about to occur, we would have no free will. Our freedom comes at a price, it is not God who is at fault for the holocaust, it is man. The holocaust occurred in an age where religion had been relegated from its position of power in society, and was regarded as superstitious, backwards, primitive and would not survive much longer as science, and rational philosophy were regarded as sufficient enough.
The holocaust is the result of the abandonment of God along with religion and morals. Hitler claimed that a conscience was a Jewish invention, created so that non-Jews would feel guilty for persecuting them. What the Jews did do was to announce to the world that God asks of us to follow our good inclination as his messengers. Hitler’s hatred for the Jews is more than just hatred for the Jews it is a hatred for God and a universal morality, and the Nazi ideology and crimes against humanity are testimony to that. Hitler could not have the world he desired as long as the Jews existed they would continue to demand justice and righteousness of people in the service of God. Nazi Germany is a regression, an attempt to return to the immoral world that was before the flood, before Abraham, before Moses, before there were any Jews spreading God’s message on earth.
The pre covenant at Sinai world involved horrors that resembled crimes that could be compared to that of Nazism, but such inhumane acts were commonplace, including slavery, child/human sacrifice, rape, murder, theft, incest and more. The Tanakh is full of such accounts, as mentioned above; the book of Genesis begins with the story of God patiently waiting for man to aspire to be good. And so He empowers man through the Jewish people by giving them the Torah to work with Him in teaching the world His ways.
This means that the question of where was God during the holocaust cannot be asked without asking ‘where was man during the holocaust.’ It is our responsibility to create a world and a society that is just and moral. As noted earlier about whether or not God could have intervened during the holocaust as He did in Egypt, it would appear that since Sinai, the answer is, not without human contribution.
The evidence for this is found in the contrast between the way in which battle was waged against Egypt before the crossing of the Reed Sea and the manner in which the Amalekites were fought after the crossing. In fact, the supernatural miracles of God saving us whilst we remain passive end with the Egyptians chasing after the Hebrews at the crossing of the Reed Sea.
As the Egyptians approached the escaping slaves, the Hebrew’s blame Moses for bringing them out of Egypt only to die in the wilderness. Moses responds:
“Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see you will never see again. The Lord will fight for you, but you must remain silent.”8
Moses tells them to remain passive, that God will fight the Egyptians for them, and of course He does, the Hebrews pass through the Reed Sea and the Egyptian soldiers are drowned in the Sea as the Hebrews manage to pass through safely. But what follows on the other side of the Sea is another battle with the Amalekites. But the battle with the Amalekites would be very different to the battle against Egypt, the Hebrews could not remain passive, they had to fight them themselves:
“The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim. Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.” So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up – one on the other – so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.”9
Note how different the two battles are, one fought supernaturally through miracles of God with no human effort and the other where in order for the Hebrews to defeat the Amalekites they had to fight. Moses standing with his arms in the air without the Hebrews fighting them would not have been enough. The Hebrews did not prevail because God fought for them, but because God gave them the strength within them to fight the battle for themselves.
As difficult it is to confront and comprehend the scale of the injustice of the holocaust, the question of how one could continue to have faith in God after the holocaust is not any different to other examples of Jewish or human suffering and the wicked prospering throughout history. This has been the case throughout all Jewish suffering since the crossing of the Reed Sea. What is hard to comprehend is how such a thing could happen in an open, ‘enlightened’, modern, liberal, democratic civilisation like Germany was before the Nazis came to power.
If anything, the holocaust should rather than challenge our faith in God and religion; it should challenge our faith in man, in liberal democracy, or in a society without God or religion. What is perplexing is the reality that Jews and non-Jews in Europe had in large number abandoned both Christianity and Judaism in favour of a belief in an age of reason, that faith and religion were part of the feudal autocratic problem and was not needed.
In large part Europe was already post Christian, and more interested in the modern philosophers ideas on ethics, politics and economics, on Darwinian ideas of evolution and natural selection and a firm belief that we can be moral and be humane without religion and even without God. The logical conclusion from the outcome of the crimes committed by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union can only suggest scepticism towards a society, which is committed to Atheism and anti-religion.
What is perhaps worrying and disconcerting for Jews is that we know that when faced with such situations, the Jewish people are regarded as a collective body and as a people; they will survive whatever persecution they endure. But as an individual, I may not be lucky enough to survive and am commanded to live with full faith that whilst our lives and bodies may be taken from us unjustly, our souls will return to God.
We are commanded to Love God, with all your heart and all your soul. This is to love God unconditionally and to sanctify His name, Kiddush Hashem. This is a subject that really cuts to the heart of Jewish faith it demands even in such circumstances as the death camps as an ultimate sign of one’s love of God. That in spite of such injustice being inflicted upon us we are to have complete faith.
This is shown in the book of Job for example, where God says to the Angels that Job was truly righteous and faithful to God, but the Satan challenges God by pointing out that Job is a wealthy and blessed man, he has no reason to not have faith in Him, but if Job were to lose his wealth, his loved ones, his livelihood, he would lose faith in God and turn against Him. God then permits the Satan to inflict suffering on Job, to prove his point. Job then suffers a series of attacks, on his flocks, losing his children and his health. He does not understand his suffering, His wife tells him to curse God and die, to commit the sin of Chillul Hashem. But he refuses to. Job’s friends come to him and come to the defence of God, justifying his suffering as a form of punishment, that God is just and therefore he would not cause him suffering without sin, Job must be guilty of something.
Job does not accept the opinions of his friends, nor will he curse God. He eventually gains the courage to ask God why he is suffering, what was it that he had done. God condemns Jobs friends for defending Him, and attempting to justify the suffering of Job. Job was correct to question the injustice inflicted on Him, yet he does not get an answer to his question from God. The outcome is a condemnation of Jobs friends by God for justifying an injustice as just. This story challenges the idea of human justice and the concept of divine justice, and suggests that there is only human justice and that we are right to speak up against injustice and suffering of the innocent wherever it occurs.
As with Job and not seeing any justification for his suffering, many of us ask this same question with regards to the holocaust. From the book of Job it is not the questioning of God that is at stake, we are right to question injustice, but we may never get an answer from God to our questions, it is being able to live with the faith that understanding God is sometimes beyond our comprehension as humans. What is at stake in this story and in others is the issue of Chillul Hashem, of cursing God, which Job refuses to do.
When faced with the choice of committing idolatry, murder or incest or to die, a Jew is to sanctify God’s name and to choose death, rather than to violate these commandments. One may break any other commandments in order to preserve one’s life but these according to Jewish law, one is to sanctify God’s name and choose death rather than break these commandments.
Throughout the middle ages Jews were put into this situation when being forced to convert to Christianity and those who were faithful either chose death, or in some cases such as the Spanish inquisition had a third option, the opportunity to leave. This is one example of a Kiddush Hashem.
Eliezer Berkovitz describes the death of Rabbi Akiva is one of the most illustrative examples of one who fulfilled the commandment of Kiddush Hashem.
“The classic example of Jewish martyrology is the manner of the death of R. Akiva. As they were tearing the flesh from his body with iron-pronged combs, “he took upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.” His disciples asked him “Thus far?” His answer was: “All my life I was worried by the verse, ‘You shall love the Eternal your God… with all your soul,’ that is, even when he takes your soul. I said to myself: When will I have the opportunity to fulfil it?” As he surrendered his soul, with the completion of the verse of the shema, “Hear O Israel, the Eternal our God, the Eternal is One,” he prolonged the pronunciation of the word “One.” When R. Akiva was captured by the soldiers of Hadrian, he had little choice to die or not to die as the average Jew in the death camps in Europe. He had already forfeited his life by renouncing Judaism. It would not have helped him. He rebelled against Rome and was under sentence of death. As the sentence was carried out, R. Akiva was fulfilling a religious commandment: He recited the Shema, whose meaning is the acceptance of the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, the affirmation of one’s love of God. The “Thus far?” of the disciples meant: Is one obligated to fulfil this commandment even at a moment of ones being forsaken by God? The question becomes even more poignant just because there was no choice for R. Akiva…..
It would, however, seem that with this act alone, the highest form of Kiddush Hashem is not yet reached. There is still a great deal in it for man. At this stage, man is still acting within the frame of reference of this world. He preserves his dignity in the face of a this-worldly challenge. The ultimate phase of Kiddush Hashem begins after the choice has been made, when the martyr approaches the stake at which he is to be burned. The world has died to him, he is no longer of it. He no longer confronts man and his works. He is alone – with his God. And God is silent, and God is hiding his face. God has abandoned him. Now man is truly alone. If at this moment he is able to accept his radical abandonment by God as a gift from God that enables him to love his God with all his soul, “even when he takes your soul,” he has achieved the highest form of Kiddush Hashem. “Thus far?” asked the disciples; “thus far” answered the master. R. Akiva does not complain to his God, asking why he has forsaken him. His radical abandonment is the great moment for which he has been waiting all his life. For no one can so completely surrender to him as one who is completely forsaken by him.” 10
To the disillusionment of us Jews today who struggle to make sense of the holocaust it is the doubt in faith in both human beings and God. There are stories of the Hasidim who like Rabbi Akiva followed in his example during the holocaust of being unimpressed by Nazi Germany, completely oblivious to the reality of what was going on around them, if it was time for prayers it was time for prayers, if it were a festival it would be celebrated, even if it meant death or torture. For these Jews the response to such atrocities was to love God more! Whereas others were feeling the opposite, who could not bring themselves to ‘love God with all their heart and all their soul’ when faced with such horror and evil, they learned that their love was conditional, they were not only angry but could no longer believe in God or be faithful to Him.
The ultimate crisis in Jewish identity broil’s down to coming to terms with accepting the realization of the Shema. To love God, no matter what happens to us. To fear God is to fear that He may not be there for me and to continue to love Him. That is the essence of what it means to say, “It is not easy to be a Jew.”
This is not anything new that has been posed by the holocaust, Jews have had a history of inquisitions, pogroms, expulsions, ghettoization and enslavement and had the Jews in the past not had that faith we would not be here today. I started by comparing this to the story of the Exodus from Egypt and how the Hebrews must have had to deal with the exact same questions about where was God during the four hundred years of slavery as Jews and others ask today about the holocaust.
The greatest miracle of all is that such a faith can survive such tragedies. King Louis XIV of France asked the French philosopher Pascal, the great French philosopher, to give him proof of the supernatural. Pascal answered: “Why, the Jews, your Majesty ― the Jews.” We have outlived the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Nazis and the Soviet Union and will as a people outlive any future empires, but as individuals we may not. But regardless, our survival as a people is dependent on us continuing to have faith even if having faith is difficult, difficult to live with the reality of accepting that God may be too late for us but better late than never. But if God is late He is no later than man is too late to intervene.
The world had abandoned the Jews, our German neighbours turned on us, the occupied countries willingly surrendered their Jewish citizens to the invading Nazis, with some resistance by a few nations, such as Denmark, Italy held off for some time, the allies too did not take opportunities to save Jews when they were presented with them and even sent Jewish refugees who had escaped Nazi Europe back only to be sent to death camps. But there were those who were brave enough to risk their lives and to respond to God’s call for justice and to do good against evil, these are honoured as the Righteous among the gentiles at Yad Vashem.
We cannot lose faith in God without equally losing faith in man. There were those who risked their lives to save Jews and there are those who sanctify God’s name by continuing to stand up for injustice today, however not enough. Edmund Burke said “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” The Torah is God’s call for us to be good men and to stand up against injustice; it is our commitment to this that brings hope to all humanity.
1) Exodus 1:8-11
2) Shemot Rabbah 8, Artscroll translation and elucidation
3) Shemot Rabbah 30:2 Artscroll translation and elucidation
4) Genesis, 4:6-8
5) Eiruvin 13:b
6) Bereishit Rabba 8:5
7) Genesis, 6:5-8
8) Exodus, 14:13-14
9) Exodus 17:8-13
10) Berkovitz, E (2002) Essential Essays on Judaism, Chapter 13. Faith After the Holocaust, The Shalem Center: Israel, pp. 327-328