Lecture #05c: The Holocaust as a Divine Punishment Part 3

  • Rav Tamir Granot




We have examined two points of "secondary theology" employed by Rabbi Chaim Zimmerman in his attempt to "justify the ways of God to man." Let us now turn our attention to three complementary answers proposed by Rabbi Yoel Schwartz in his book, Ha-Shoah (pp. 68-88).


The first answer addresses the distorted view that we maintain concerning the essence of suffering and happiness.  As mortals with material, finite bodies, we attach great importance to physical happiness and suffering, as two sides of the same coin.  However, both of these are worthless and of no significance in relation to the eternal happiness of the World to Come, on the one hand, or – heaven forefend – the suffering in the World of Truth, or the suffering of one who has lost his portion in the World to Come, on the other.  Religious education and philosophy speak extensively of nullifying the importance of the pleasures of this world, and being satisfied with little, but the presence of concentrated, powerful suffering does not allow us to ignore it on the existential level.  At this point, a true world-view must prevail over the negative existential experience – which, if it is powerful enough, may distort one’s world-view.




Rabbi Schwartz explains that we have no true knowledge as to the severity of various sins.  Just as our Sages taught that "You do not know what reward is given for [different] mitzvot" (Avot 2:1), so we may also assert, in general, that the knowledge provided to us by our tradition concerning the relative severity or innocuousness of different sins is only a partial view.  The fact that a certain matter is mentioned as being a matter of great severity, in a halakhic or exhortative context, cannot convey a full perspective of it and its relation to other mitzvot


This problem may easily be demonstrated even within rabbinic tradition.  Let us ask the following simple question: which sins are regarded as being most serious, according to the Sages? We may propose several different yardsticks for measuring severity, each producing a different set of results:

a.  "cardinal sins" – concerning which one should give up one's life rather than transgress them: idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder;

b.  those sins concerning which we are told that one who performs them loses his portion in the World to Come: e.g., a person who declares that there will be no resurrection of the dead, or one who reads heretical books (Mishna Sanhedrin 10:1);

c.  sins for which Yom Kippur does not atone: mocking one's neighbor, abrogating the covenant of circumcision, intentionally misinterpreting the Torah (Yoma 85b; Shevuot 13a);

d.  transgressions that are considered as being "equal to the entire Torah": Shabbat, wasting time that should be used for Torah study, idolatry;

e.  transgressions concerning which the Sages express themselves in strong terms – such as embarrassing a person in public, etc.;

f.  sins that incur the punishment of karet (excision) or death by stoning;

g.  the sins for which the Temples are said to have been destroyed, such as causeless hatred.


Thus, our parameters for evaluating sins are clearly quite limited and partial in scope.  Therefore, the claim that people who were not sinful were those who were killed has no solid basis, for we are unable to truly measure who sins, nor whose sins are more serious.  Is accidental desecration of Shabbat worse than deliberate slander? Is wasting time that should be spend on Torah study, or "youthful transgression," any less serious than eating meat that has not been slaughtered in accordance with Halakha?  We cannot really know.




To all that has been said above, we may add the traditional argument that is based on God's words following the death of Nadav and Avihu: "I shall be sanctified by those who are close to Me" (Vayikra 10:3).  This explanation is invoked especially in the context of the Ten Martyrs (great Sages who were put to death by the Romans).  According to this claim, the principle of "retribution" is not applied only on the level of the individual, but rather has social and national aspects to it.  The belief that the death of righteous people has the power to bring atonement means that the sins of certain individuals, which should have brought about their punishment, are transferred to the public sphere, such that the punishment acquires an address that is different from the original one.  In this way, the severity of the accumulated punishment on the national level is lessened.


In contrast to the previous answer, which conveys something of a humble recognition that we, law-abiding, observant Jews sin no less than our enlightened, secular brethren, the present answer proposes that the death of Torah sages and yeshiva students may serve as a general atonement.  It may be the result not of sin in the personal sense, but rather the principle of mutual Jewish responsibility, and a reflection of the status of these righteous people in the eyes of God.




Let us now return to our "equation of retribution" and see how the secondary theology strengthens it and fills in its cracks, so that the claim that all suffering is caused by sin can maintain its prime position in the theology.  We recall that the equation proposed that:


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


According to answers 2 (reincarnation) and 5 (mutual responsibility, death of the righteous as atonement), 'P' is actually unknown.  Our mistaken assumption was that that the principle of retribution applies to a known persona, but in truth it turns out that we know a person only on a very superficial level.  It is possible that his soul is not the one that is revealed to us.  Alternatively, in the context of retribution, perhaps we should not be discussing the individual 'P,' but rather 'P' as part of a whole society or community.


Answer 4 (mistaken evaluation of sin) tells us that our understanding of sin 'X' is purely formal: we may cite its source in the Torah or in the Shulchan Arukh, but we cannot know its true and precise status on the religious scale.  Therefore, it is not proper to nurture expectations of some or other fitting punishment, since we have no way of comparing the punishment deserved by a person, or a community, guilty of sin 'X,' with the punishment appropriate to a different person or community that is guilty of sin 'Y.'


According to answer 3, we cannot truly know the severity of the suffering 'S,' and we judge it by mistaken standards.  Therefore, the assertion "He should suffer 'S'" is problematic, since it may be that what appears to us as being horrific may in truth be of little weight, and vice versa.


Finally, answers 1 (birth-pangs of Messiah – repentance) and 2 (birth-pangs of Messiah – reincarnation), and perhaps also answer 5 (death of the righteous as atonement), undermine the question of proportionality, since it is possible that during a period of transition, at the end of an era – and especially during the period of "the birth-pangs of the Messiah" – the proportions will be dramatically different from the norm at other times (owing to the need for souls to achieve their repair, or for the sake of bringing Am Yisrael to repentance, or because of the transition to the next era, etc).


C.   Secondary Theology, Education and Service of God


The problem with the secondary theology and its arguments is that it may inadvertently shatter the foundations of our moral and religious consciousness.  Undermining the most primal perceptions about the people around us, about our experiences, and about our power of judgment, may well do away with the moral and religious basis of existence.  What is supposed to determine the worth or significance of actions, if not our judgment – which is precisely what is being called into question? How are we to evaluate people? How can we know the difference between good and evil?


If I cannot know the identity of the soul that is now standing before me, if I am convinced of the principle of reincarnation,[1] then how am I to relate to this person, to his sins, to his suffering? Is it good that he is suffering, in order that his sins may be repaired, or is it bad? Does his suffering arise from his own failings, or may it be traced to some previous level of spiritual existence? Can we ignore all of this on the level of concrete human and religious existence, relegating the principle of reincarnation to the realm of theology alone?


How can we establish any sort of religious order of values, or an educational approach, or social standards, if we cannot truly know what is serious and what is trivial? There is no society that does not have its own hierarchy of values and actions.  If we truly do not know what is worse than what else, what is important and what is insignificant, then where do we start? What is left for a rabbi to talk about on Rosh ha-Shana, before the sounding of the shofar?


Does the awareness that we live in a generation of "birth-pangs of the Messiah," and that the regular laws and processes are not applicable – does this not render our religious life, and our expectations of God in the present, completely baseless? If anything could happen right now, and we have no way of knowing, nor even of entertaining any reasonable hope, that there is some connection between our actions and their results, since we are living in a time of "birth-pangs of the Messiah" – then what is supposed to motivate our religious service of God?


Meaningful grappling with these difficulties is an exercise in worshipping God "for its own sake" – i.e., building morality and religion only on the positivist basis of Halakha and the inner value of the actions themselves, devoid of any significant existential or objective basis.  For instance, I may mourn because Halakha demands it in my situation; I may even feel sad - for the same reason; but not because death is inherently bad.  I may keep myself distant from irreligious people, or even hate them, because I think Halakha demands this of me; but not because I myself believe that they are any more sinful than I am.  According to this approach, halakhic rules are perceived as purely normative statements, with no significant weight in terms of values.[2]


However, the thinking that accompanies religiosity "for its own sake" may create a new educational and moral problem.  Such a view may serve as a catalyst for a religious culture that is technocratic, at best, or – at worst – a false religiosity (having a distorted scale of values, failing to distinguish between the inner and outer aspects, etc.).


Ultra-Orthodox society, then, and especially its educators and leaders, are faced with a choice between the theological difficulties arising from the wholehearted acceptance of the principle of retribution which they espouse, and the existential and educational crisis that may be created by the secondary theology with its apologist tendencies.


Obviously, there is also a third possibility: a complete abandonment of the principle of Divine retribution in relation to the Holocaust, and the proposal of some other explanation.  We shall explore this option in a future lecture.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]  Obviously, I have no wish to discuss this principle in and of itself and to entangle myself in debate with mystical masters who are far greater than I.  The discussion here concerns the relevance of the principle of reincarnation to our religious life and its ability to provide us with a more accurate view of history, of God, and of man.  There are some beliefs that are suited to "tzaddikim," but regular people should not meddle with them.

[2] For instance, the rule that a commandment of greater weight takes precedence over a commandment of lesser weight is a purely normative instruction (i.e., it tells us how to act), teaching us nothing about the inner value of the matters involved.