Lecture #05a: The Holocaust as a Divine Punishment Part 1

  • Rav Tamir Granot



A.   Criticism of the Theology of Divine Retribution


In the previous lectures,I presented the theological position that prevails among the main sectors of the Charedi public, according to which the Holocaust should be regarded as a punishment for sins.  In general, the sins referred to are the Enlightenment, the abandonment of religion and assimilation.  For the Satmar Rebbe, the sin that led to the Holocaust was Zionism.  Either way, the theological model is a classical one: suffering is a punishment for sin, and the sin must be identified; it is generally connected to abandonment of Torah, a lack of faith, or rebellion against the Jewish sages.  The sin of Zionism is admittedly not a "classical" sin, since there is no negative commandment concerning violation of the "three oaths."  Nevertheless, according to the interpretation of the Satmar Rebbe, the Zionist hastening of the end represents a heretical denial of the very foundations of faith in Divine Providence, and a rebellion against Divine Kingship. 


A view similar to that of the Satmar Rebbe was expressed by a prominent rabbi of the Ger Chassidic sect, Rabbi Binyamin Mendelson of Komemiyut, following the reburial in Israel of Rabbi Menachem Ziemba Hy"d, one of the great Jewish scholars of Poland, who died in the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt:


On Wednesday, as I walked with the cortege of the sage Rabbi Menachem Ziemba, Hy"d, who was brought for burial from Poland to the Holy Land, I pondered: the first and only one of those murdered in Poland, in sanctification of God's Name, who was brought to the Holy Land for reburial, was one of the greatest Torah scholars.  What does this tell us? One thought leads to another: the murder of six million of our generation, in sanctification of God's Name – how do we relate to this? The answer is that it represents the birth-pangs of the Messiah.


Rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk, zt"l, spoke of the Tannaim who said that there would be "birth-pangs of the Messiah" – prior to "the Meilekh" coming, but once "the Meilekh" had come to the world, there would be no birth-pangs.  His explanation for this was, as explained the work entitled Leshon ha-Zahav (Shabbat, chapter "ha-Zorek"), that the Sages of the generation believed that they would merit that the Messiah would come during the lifetime of Rabbi Meilekh, and that if the Messiah would come there would be no birth-pangs, for he had elevated his generation and perfected it to the degree that there would be no need for further repair through the birth-pangs of Messiah.


In our generation, we have sinned in believing in Zionism, which claims that Am Yisrael is a nation like all the nations, and that it needs to redeem itself by its own efforts.  It is like the sin of the golden calf, where the people said, "Moshe, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt" (Shemot 32:1) – not "Moshe, the man of God," but just "Moshe the man" – the leader of the people.  It was for them as though the nation had taken itself out of Egypt, while the truth is that "I am the Lord your God Who took you out of the land of Egypt" (ibid.  20:2). It is not the people who took themselves out, but rather God Who brought us out.  In the same way, seventy years ago Zionism declared that it is not God who will take us out of exile, but rather the nation who by their own effort will redeem the nation from exile.  Owing to this sin, and all the other sins and the uprooting of the Torah arising from this rotten source – owing to this the righteous ones were not successful in the repairs which they performed in order to prevent the birth-pangs of the Messiah, and the terrible birth-pangs came, with disasters and murders, in our generation. 


After these birth-pangs and catastrophes the Messiah should have come, but owing to our sins – and especially the education of Am Yisrael for the past sixty years with the idea that the nation must redeem itself by its own efforts, through diplomacy among the other nations – the minds and hearts of many of our nation, and even some of the faithful, have been filled with the idea that the way to redeem Israel is through our diplomacy among the other nations.  It is for this that they yearned, and the will of many Jews is taken into consideration in the heavens, such that the redemption of Israel and the coming of the Messiah are postponed. (Rabbi Binyamin Mendelson, Letters)


However, viewing the Holocaust as a punishment for sins such as abandoning the Torah, or Zionism, arouses several difficulties in both the psychological and the philosophical realm.


Some thinkers have rejected the very idea of connecting the Holocaust to any sin.  For example, we may cite Prof. David Weiss-Halivni, a well-known scholar of Talmud, who grew up in the world of ultra-Orthodoxy, but after surviving the Holocaust joined the Jewish Theological Seminary in America, affiliated with the Conservative movement.  Halivni did not regard himself as belonging to this stream, even though in certain respects he was also outside of Orthodoxy.  In his memoir The Book and the Sword,[1] which recounts his experiences during the Holocaust and in America afterwards, he writes the following:


It must have been with tongue in cheek that the great second-century sage of the land of Israel, Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, speaking a different matter, said, "Four things the Holy One, blessed be He, detests, and I don't like them either" (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Niddah 16b).  I would like to say the same, in all seriousness, in connection with the Shoah.  There are four things that the Holy One, blessed be He, detests (at least this is my hope), and I reject them as well.  These four things are, first, theological justifications of the Holocaust, which must be rejected out of hand; second, even raising the theological question of why there was a Holocaust, implying that an answer might be found; third, the notion that survival was possible only at the expense of others and that, therefore, every survivor must have a sense of guilt; and fourth, the idea that all survivors of the Holocaust necessarily share certain sociological and psychological characteristics.  (In this last instance, unlike the first three, I merely disagree.  I would not go so far as to say that I detest those who search for commonalities.) 


Of the four things I have named, let me speak first of one that I reject with derision: the attempt to make theological excuses for the Holocaust.  I consider it obscene to assume that the Shoah took place (especially since it came from Germany) as a divine response to the spread of German culture of Haskalah, or secularism, among the Jews.  First of all, these apologies are historically absurd: Germany had the most secular Jews, and yet more Jews of other nationalities were exterminated. But, more important, these rationalizations are the theologically offensive.  The phrase "For our sins, we were exiled…" has a legitimate place in our tradition and liturgy; but dispersion, even with its attendant sufferings, is one thing, and vast annihilation of man, woman, and child is another.  To say to people whom we know, "because of our sins" we were sent to Auschwitz - this must be rejected out of hand.  There are certain times in history when justification almost smacks of participation.  A justification, by definition, means: it should have happened, it's justice, it is the fitting course of events.  People who make such statements suggest, in effect, that had it not happened, they would have worked to bring it about.  Even aside from the historical absurdity, sensitive human beings must consider this abominable.


I would go even further: not only is justification itself abominable; even raising the theological question of why there was a Holocaust – implying that there exists a satisfying answer – is objectionable.  One should be encouraged to describe the enormity of the crime, its details and its comprehensiveness.  One can also explain how it was possible, in the midst of the "bright light" of European culture, to commit such unspeakable atrocities.  But one ought not, indeed one should not dare, to explain why it took place, why it happened as it did.  For by merely asking the question "Why was there a Holocaust?" – implying that there is answer, a just answer – one increases the suffering of the victims.  Whatever the suggested answer might be – aside from the tautological statement that the perpetrators were wicked and that God "hid His face" and allowed things to occur – it will inevitably relieve the murderers, at least partially, of their guilt and place it upon the shoulders of the victims.


There are events in history, such as Revelation to the believer, that exist without explanation; they just exist.  They have no "because."  The Holocaust should be treated as such an event – an event without explanation.  The repetition of the question "Why was there a Revelation?" causes pain to no one, though who can find an answer?  The repetition of the question "Why was there a Holocaust," although no more answerable, causes pain to the victims.  The question justifies their suffering.  They very question reduces the innocence of the victims and the culpability of the murderers.  The question should remain unasked.


Let us pursue every detail, every lead, every avenue that describes the horror and the tragedy – explicit information about how and where and who the victims were, how the evil was performed, how the crime was executed, how the atrocity came to fruition.  The logistics of how it was possible to deceive such a large number of people and force them to their death, how it was possible to slaughter millions of people, should be explained.  Everything that is knowable about the actual facts of the destruction should be researched and brought to public attention.  All the cruelty, the indescribable torture and suffering, should become public knowledge.[2]


Halivni objects for two reasons to any attempt at a theological justification for the Holocaust:


a.      Because it represents an offense to and disrespect for the victims, who should not be accused of any sin.  Even if one were to suggest that only some of them sinned, since most of them did not, the accusation is a desecration of their memory.

b.      Because it is disrespectful towards God.  A person who justifies the Holocaust as punishment is in fact saying: Because of the Enlightenment, or Zionism, it was justified for six million Jews, a million and a half of them children, etc., to die.  Is this the image that we have of God?! Would His Divine justice really mete out this punishment? Does God really act with such cruelty in His world?


Indeed, any theodicy surrounding the Holocaust must confront these two fundamental problems, arising both from the enormity and unique severity of the suffering, and from the fact that the destruction took place mainly in places that were centers of Orthodox Jewish life.  It was specifically the Orthodox communities, the Chassidim and the Mitnagdim, in Poland, the Ukraine, Lithuania and Hungary, who suffered the greatest damage.  The blow to the enlightened, assimilated Jews of western Europe, and even the Jews of Germany, was relatively lighter than that dealt to Polish Jewry, while the pioneers in Eretz Yisrael – the great majority of whom were secular Zionists – were spared altogether.  It is altogether absurd to propose that Divine retribution should strike specifically those who did not sin.  That which may be asserted concerning an individual – that so-and-so is a righteous person, but nevertheless has a difficult life, while so-and-so is wicked, but nevertheless prospers – is more difficult to maintain in relation to national events.  Here, if an event is to be understood in terms of categories of Divine retribution, then there must be at least some minimal correlation between the measure of guilt and the extent of the punishment.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1] The Book and the Sword, NY, 1996.  This book, which I highly recommend, is not just a Holocaust memoir. It contains in-depth explorations of the religious significance of Torah study, describes the author's attitude towards faith and observance of the commandments, also raises some important questions.

[2] The Book and the Sword, pp. 153-156.