Lecture #05b: The Holocaust as a Divine Punishment Part 2

  • Rav Tamir Granot



B.  A Systematic Analysis of the "Retribution" Argument


Let us address, on the theoretical level, the structure of the argument for "just retribution," i.e., the claim that suffering is the justified result of prior sin.  In logical terminology, this view assumes that:


If 'P' (some person) committed 'X' sin, he must suffer 'S' suffering, proportionate to 'X.'


The questions that surround the idea of "justified punishment" in relation to the Holocaust arise from every element of this equation.  If, for example, 'P' who is suffering could not have sinned, because he is a child – any one of the million and a half children who died in the Holocaust – then it is difficult to reconcile this suffering with the principle of just Divine retribution.  Likewise, even if a certain person, or even an entire community, did indeed sin, but the suffering is altogether disproportionate to the sin, then again we are unable to justify it within our theological equation.  A person may ask, What is the correct proportion? How can we know? To this we may reply that although we certainly cannot define it with any precision, we still have a certain idea of it – based on verses in the Torah, historical experience, and a comparison with the situation of other nations, or of our Jewish brethren in other places, who are not suffering.  On the basis of all of these parameters, the suffering of the Holocaust exceeded any imaginable proportion.  The extent of the destruction, the systematic nature of the annihilation, the cruelty that went beyond any historical comparison – all of these arouse serious doubts as to the applicability of any explanation that fits within the conceptual framework of Divine punishment.


In order to deal with these questions, ultra-Orthodox Holocaust literature has developed a "secondary theology."  This is a term that I have coined for the purposes of clarifying the discussion, and it serves as a heading for arguments that are not themselves central theological claims, but rather serve to supplement or to fill in gaps within central theological arguments.  In other words, the assumption that suffering in the world is essentially the result of sin is a central point and it remains in place, but some supplementary claims are appended to it so that this fundamental assumption remains logically and humanly acceptable even in extreme situations, and especially in relation to the Holocaust.  In reviewing the arguments of this "secondary theology" in ultra-Orthodox thought, I shall rely on two works.


The first is called Tamim Po'alo[1] (His Work is Perfect), written by Rabbi Chaim Zimmerman, the rabbi of the Sokolover chassidic synagogue (of the Morgenstern-Kotzk dynasty) in Tel Aviv, in 5707 (1947) – i.e., very close to the time of the Holocaust – out of a sense that the theological threat born of the Holocaust was hovering over his community, and that there was an urgent need to provide some response.  The following is the opening section of the book, testifying to the depth of the existential anguish of the theological question aroused by the Holocaust.


The question of the six million Jews murdered in the sanctification of God's Name throughout the countries of Europe and in other places, with every type of strange and terrible death, is today the main question; it is a painful and melancholy question that penetrates the depths and innermost parts of the heart and disturbs all of Am Yisrael, great and small, from the left and the right, freethinkers and religious people, wicked and righteous, simple people and pious individuals.  Everyone, with no exception, is asking the same question, and it is: Why did God do thus to this nation, a destruction the likes of which it has never known, the destruction of six million Jews of our people, among them God-fearing and perfect ones, great Torah sages, pure tzaddikim and Chassidim, and people of good deeds who were engaged in the holy Torah day and night, never ceasing for a moment to utter God's teachings?  [This was a destruction of] the center of religious Jewry, the center of yeshivot, with the rabbis and the sages and the roshei yeshivot and the students, great and small, who studied there, for whom Torah was their occupation, as well as the young children who studied at their schools; a destruction of towns and villages and countries and communities, leaving no remainder, all having been erased from beneath God's heavens.  God rained down sulfur and fire on all of their countries where they lived; He sent down a flood of fire from on high, onto all of Europe and also some other places, and all four types of death meted out by the religious court, and every type of strange death in the world, with poisonous gases and all types of sadistic torture which are too unbelievable to speak of, and which cannot even be imagined.  Woe to us that we have come to such a time, to hear such things, which our forefathers never imagined – nor did we.  God has poured His wrath upon His nation and the bitter cup has been poured upon them, and the spine of Am Yisrael has been broken in all of the Diaspora, leaving only a brand plucked from the fire.  And those who are left – they, too, have troubles piled up on troubles, and suffering piled up on suffering, with no rest for their feet; wandering and roaming, naked and barefoot, in the cold and in the heat, hungry and thirsty, from city to city and from country to country and from camp to camp.  And even this is not given to them; they give up their lives at every step, day and night.  Why did God do this to these countries?


Such questions are to be heard whenever you meet your neighbor at the synagogue, or in the street, in the bus, at your home or at your neighbor's home, and everywhere.  Whenever you speak with someone, he suddenly asks you the question – why? And this is causing confusion and troubling of the heart and a crisis of faith, heaven forefend.


Even today, two years after the end of the World War, these questions have not stopped.  Everyone passes over them in silence.  There is no answer; no one responds and no one opens his mouth to utter a word to justify the Master of the Universe, so as to silence the question lest His Holy Name be desecrated.[2]


The second book, Ha-Shoah,[3] was written by Rabbi Yoel Schwartz, a Jerusalem rabbi and educator, and a popular, prolific author of wide-ranging ultra-Orthodox philosophical literature.  This book, representing a central and moderate line of ultra-Orthodox thought, is basically a collection of responsa and opinions, to which the author adds his own explanations.


Let us now turn our attention to some of the answers arising from this "secondary theology."




Rabbi Zimmerman introduces his set of answers to the theological problem of the Holocaust with the following words:


Answer 1.[4] One who is truly pious and God-fearing will not ask such questions.  He knows what is written in the Torah: "You shall be wholehearted with the Lord your God" (Devarim 18:13), such that everything should be accepted wholeheartedly, with no questions or difficulties.  As one who is truly pious and God-fearing knows, "Do not both good and evil emerge from the mouth of Him on High?" (Eikha 3:38).  Evil is only because of you, for you have not walked in the way of Torah and the commandments; it is only your fault.  "A person's foolishness perverts his heart, yet his heart frets against God" (Mishlei 19:3). (ibid. pp. 5-6)


The opening words would seem to indicate a departure from the theology of "retribution," in favor of a position that honors wholehearted faith that foregoes any questions.  However, it immediately becomes apparent that this is not the case: the wholehearted acceptance is based on submissive acknowledgment of guilt, and the knowledge that God does not bring evil into the world for no reason.  In other words, suffering can only come about because we have not followed the way of Torah.  To put it differently, there is no assertion here that God's actions cannot be understood because He operates in accordance with other principles, and not only according to the narrow principle of retribution.  Rather, the argument is that the theodicy of Divine retribution should be accepted without questioning it or seeking to find its weak points.


Further on in his answer, Rabbi Zimmerman identifies the Holocaust with the "birth-pangs of the Messiah."  Here, too, the intention is not to remove the events from the framework of the laws of "retribution," but rather to explain why they were of such extreme power, beyond any proportion to the sins of this specific generation:


Behold, according to the opinion of the holy ones and the teachings of our Sages, redemption will come to Israel by one of two ways: a) they will repent and immediately be redeemed, and then "in ease and rest shall you be saved" (Yishayahu 30:15); b) by means of suffering and the "birth-pangs of the Messiah."  As the Maharsha z"l defines it – either through voluntary repentance, or through coerced repentance, [the latter attained by] God appointing over them a king who is as bitter as Haman, and he will bring them back to the right path.  Perhaps this approach can fit into the words of the teaching, "The son of David will come only in a generation that is entirely worthy" (Sanhedrin 98a) – through voluntary repentance - "or in a generation that is entirely wicked" – through coerced repentance, by means of a king who is as bitter as Haman.


Truly wonderful are the words of the Vilna Gaon, z"l, in his commentary on the Tikkunei Zohar.  In citing this teaching – "In a generation that is entirely worthy or entirely wicked" - the Vilna Gaon notes that "[it will] certainly [happen] in the latter manner."  And if Israel do not repent of their own accord, and the time for redemption arrives, then "suffice it that the mourner maintains his mourning" (Sanhedrin 97b). "Suffice it for the Holy One, blessed be He, that he stands for a few days with his right hand behind him; in other words, the mourner does not maintain his mourning forever, and there must surely be an end to it" (Rashi, ad loc.).  "He appoints over them a king who is as bitter as Haman, and he causes them to turn back to the good path" (Sanhedrin, ad loc.).  And this is the secret of the "birth-pangs of the Messiah" – of which, for our many sins, we have reached the climax, and we anticipate and hope for God's salvation, may it come soon, and redeem us and save us with an eternal salvation. (ibid., p. 30)


In other words, the suffering is not for naught, and it is justified, for we did not make good use of the opening that could have saved us from it; i.e., we did not repent and return to God.  According to this argument, the suffering is not only the result of some cause – i.e., sin – but also has a purpose: it is meant to bring us to repentance.  The weakness of this argument in the context of the Holocaust is clear: we have no evidence that the enormous suffering caused Jews to go back to their synagogues and houses of study.  Unfortunately, it may even have caused the opposite result.




In his second answer, Rabbi Zimmerman continues his claim that the Holocaust is what the Sages referred to as "the birth-pangs of the Messiah," and – based upon the teachings of the Ari z"l – he proceeds to invest it with heavy metaphysical significance:


Behold, in order to understand all that has happened to us in these terrible years, the terrible and frightful destruction in which a third of our nation was annihilated and wiped out, meeting strange and cruel deaths, we deem it necessary to cite the teaching of the Ari z"l from his Sha'ar Ha-kavvanot, 1.  He says as follows:


One Introduction Concerning the Troubles of the Messiah


One has to know what our Sages taught, "Suffice it for the Holy One, blessed be He, with His mourning, and suffice it for Israel with their mourning" (based on Sanhedrin 97b).  This teaching can be understood on the basis of the following introduction. Prior to the generation of the Flood and the generation of the Tower of Babel, the Holy One, blessed be He, meant to shower down His holy souls – six hundred thousand holy souls – until the generation of the Flood were so corrupt that God decided to destroy them, in order to purify them through Noach and his sons, as we shall explain below.  Likewise in the generation of the Tower, there was also an abundant showering of holy souls, up until their sin concerning the Tower, and God divided them into seventy nations, and He chose Israel for Himself, as it is written, "For God's portion is His nation" (Devarim 32:9). 


When the Israelites entered the land and there were six hundred thousand pure souls, generation after generation, and they became so corrupt with the sins of idolatry, bloodshed, sexual immorality, and suchlike, He sent them prophets to rebuke them, to see if they would repent, so that there would be no need to perform another "purification" by means of the sword, hunger, etc. When their sins piled up and they did not wish to repent, and He saw, in His wisdom, that it would be necessary to perform a total purification for them, because it would no longer be of any [spiritual] benefit to them were they to die in the normal manner that people die and to return in a reincarnation, for the sins had accumulated as in the generation of the Flood, then the Temple was destroyed. 


And if one should ask: but did those who were idolatrous not die in a previous generation? Or did those who put Zekharia to death in the Temple never receive their punishment, for they had already died? This is not the case, for God caused them to die in order to bring them back in a reincarnation.  Those same people who had worshipped idols in a previous generation, or those who put Zekharia to death – they themselves were reincarnated so as to receive their punishment in [days of] the destruction of the Temple.  Each received his punishment in accordance with his sin: those who had indulged in sin to only a small degree were killed quickly, with the least amount of suffering.  Those who had indulged excessively, in promiscuity and the suchlike – such people were pierced [with the sword] and would live for a number of days, starving and destitute, and would see their children slaughtered before their eyes, heaven forefend – all in accordance and by measure, so as to cleanse each in accordance with his sins.  Those Jews who remained after the destruction – they were a purifying furnace, to bring [back into the world] all those souls that had been killed.  Therefore during the days of the Babylonian exile, and the Second Temple, they multiplied exceedingly.  Until here are the words of the Ari z"l.


[R. Zimmerman comments:] It is necessary to study these holy words in great depth, that they may illuminate our eyes with the light of pure faith.  We see here that there is no refuge or hope for a person who sins: either he must repent, or he will be purified through difficult and bitter suffering, by means of reincarnation, in order to cleanse his sin.  "And when their sins piled up and they did not wish to repent, and He saw, in His wisdom, that it would be necessary to perform a total purification for them, because it would no longer be of any [spiritual] benefit to them were they to die in the normal manner that people die, but rather He had to bring them back in a reincarnation, in order to purify them through strange deaths" – one's hair stands on end when we consider these words and consider the results and conclusions drawn by the heavenly judgment when [Jews] are stubborn and do not wish to repent. (Ibid., pp. 31-32)


The teaching of the Ari z"l here addresses the argument raised by Yirmiyahu (31:28) and Yechezkel (18:2): "The fathers have eaten sour grapes, but it is the children's teeth that are set on edge."  This claim arises specifically in generations of destruction.  During a period of destruction there is always a feeling – quite justified – that this generation is no worse than its predecessors, perhaps even better than them, so why must so many of this generation suffer and die, while the previous generations suffered no such fate? The Ari's answer is that the souls of a generation of destruction should not be regarded as new souls.  For if this were so, the situation would truly be difficult to understand: in what way were they more sinful than their predecessors? Even if one were to argue that destruction comes because God does not wish to wait any longer for repentance, we are still left with the same issue of fairness: why does this generation have to suffer, while previous generations did not (or at least, not to the same extent)? The sheer number of people suffering and dying is, therefore, clear proof that these are not new souls, but rather souls that have been reincarnated specifically for this purpose: to repair and to bring about atonement for their actions in their previous lives.  In other words, the discussion of suffering at a time of destruction – which, based on the examples before us, also represents the end of an era – cannot be limited to the status of some particular souls before God.  Since a time of destruction is always a time of accounting and judgment for all the souls that lived during that era, the souls that sinned are reincarnated into the world and suffer together, so as to complete the repair.


To this we may add, in the name of the Ari, that in later generations (i.e., from his time onwards) there are no more new souls.  In other words, we are already living in the stage of accounting and repair, close to the time of redemption.  The Holocaust, then, is the end of a period.  Insofar as it may be regarded as the "birth-pangs of the Messiah," it may even represent the metaphysical conclusion of several periods, and therefore every soul is also judged in accordance with its status in previous generations.  Perceiving the Holocaust and the processes leading up to it within the framework of reincarnation may explain some of the unique phenomena of recent generations:


The second principle in the enlightening words of the Ari z"l is: "Therefore during the days of the Babylonian exile, and the Second Temple, they multiplied exceedingly.  It was all those souls that had served idols, or those who had put Zekharia to death.  They themselves were reincarnated in order to receive their punishment in the destruction of the Temple." How these words cast light and illuminate our own situation! How fascinating, in light of the Ari z"l's words, is that which has been pointed out in several places – that the numbers of our people prior to the destruction and after it are astounding.  "About a hundred years ago we numbered four and a half million Jews; during the past hundred years we grew four-fold and numbered, at the outbreak of the war, seventeen million or perhaps even more - even though this century, too, was not characterized by any special love for Jews, even though during this time, too, there were many years in which we witnessed the evil of assimilation and both spiritual and physical death.  Now we have fallen back greatly, a fateful backward fall, and we are back to the same numbers that we had fifty years ago – i.e., at the beginning of the present century (according to the gentile calendar): eleven million souls" (Ha-Tzofeh, 18 Tevet 5707).  In light of these facts, the huge growth in the past hundred years, and the great and terrible destruction in which a third of our nation was lost to us, illustrate as clearly as the blue sky the holy words of the Ari z"l concerning the birth-pangs of the Messiah.  All that has come upon us is clearly revealed to us, along with what is destined to be for us, for the good, in the near future.  Let us remember these holy words and repeat them to ourselves and to our children. (Ibid.)


In other words, the inexplicable natural growth, on the one hand, and the inconceivable annihilation, on the other, are two sides of the same coin.  The Holocaust is not only the punishment for its generation, nor should it be understood only against the background of the sins of that generation.  It is a punishment for many generations, and by the same token, it marks the end of an era.  Obviously, a discussion of the Holocaust that is couched in terms of reincarnation serves to nullify the question of, "X did not sin – at least, not to a degree proportionate to his suffering," since we cannot know the sins of any soul in a previous life.



Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]   C. Y. Zimmerman, His Work is Perfect: Questions and Answers Concerning the Annihilation of the Six Million Jews (Hebrew), Jerusalem, 5707.

[2]   Tamim Po'alo, pp. 4-5.

[3]   Y. Schwartz and Y. Goldstein, Ha-Shoah, Jerusalem, no publication date indicated.

[4]   According to the author's own definition, this answer is aimed at a reader who is "truly pious and God-fearing" – i.e., a person of high spiritual caliber.  The answers that follow are directed at the nation in general.