Lecture #24 Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, Faith after the Holocaust: Divine Providence and Free Choice (part I)

  • Rav Tamir Granot


Rabbi Prof. Eliezer Berkovits, one of the most prominent Holocaust theologians, was born in Romania in 1908.  During the years 1936-1939, he served as a congregational rabbi in Berlin, and with the outbreak of WWII he fled to England.  After the war, he accepted a rabbinical post in Sydney, Australia, and later in Boston.  From 1958 until his aliya 18 years later, he was the head of the Department of Jewish Philosophy at the Hebrew Theological College of Skokie, Illinois.


In this lecture, we will examine Rabbi Berkovits's philosophy, which developed in the wake, and under the influence, of the Holocaust.  His book Faith after the Holocaust (NY, 1973) is one of the most important presentations of a systematic response to the Holocaust.  Like Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, Rabbi Berkovits also addresses the Holocaust in relation to the State of Israel.  However, in his teachings, this connection is of an entirely different nature, as we shall see below.  Rabbi Berkovits addressed the issue of faith after the Holocaust in a systematic manner, attempting to present an Orthodox Jewish view that dealt at the appropriate level with the religious challenge that this catastrophe posed, without resorting to either belittling of the event, on one hand, or theodicy, on the other.  Our discussion of the teachings of Rabbi Berkovits will extend over this lecture and the next one.


A.   Formulating the Question


The question of Divine justice in the Holocaust is based on four assumptions:


1) God is good, and hence does not desire evil or injustice.

2) God is omnipotent, and hence nothing prevents Him from realizing His good will.

3) God exercises providence the world, and hence knows and is responsible for what happens.

4) The Holocaust is a manifestation of absurd evil and suffering, which cannot be understood as the result of sin or as being justified in terms of any purpose.


If any one of the assumptions a-c is false, then the question falls away: if God is not good, heaven forefend, or is not omnipotent (for instance, lacking the knowledge or the power to act vis-א-vis the world), or does not exercise providence over the world, then it is entirely possible that there would be evil and suffering in the world.  Furthermore, even if assumptions a-c are all correct but we are somehow able to justify the suffering in the Holocaust as the result of sin or to regard it as worthwhile for the sake of some justified purpose, the philosophical problem would still not arise.  The problem, then, assumes all of the above four assertions.


Our first step in examining this theological problem is, therefore, a question directed towards God.  Why did God bring about the Holocaust? However, as Rabbi Berkovits points out, there are people who are directly, intentionally responsible, and who in no way deny their actions.  The Holocaust was not a natural disaster; the Nazis perpetrated it.  We hold the principle that man has free will; in the words of Avot (3:19), "license is extended" – even to a person who seeks to do evil.  Judaism is not fatalistic, and we therefore cannot say that everything is determined by God.  Were this not so, anger towards Germany and its allies could not be justified.


Hence, the question must be reworded: Why did God not intervene in order to prevent the Holocaust? However, even this formulation turns out to be problematic.  If God were to withhold people's free choice to do evil, then they would not be able to do evil, and they would also have no such desire.  The principle of free will therefore demands that God refrain from intervention.


A further attempt at defining our question would be: Why did God not prevent the manifestation of such extreme evil and suffering? After all, He also embodies justice ("God is just in all of His ways" – Tehillim 145:17); such that even if man has free will, surely justice cannot be completely trampled?!


For Rabbi Berkovits, the formulation of the question in this precise manner leads us in the direction of a possible answer.


B.   Divine Providence and God's Justice


Following the Holocaust, a variety of modes of response arose to the question as formulated above.  In order to better understand Rabbi Berkovits's approach, let us first review the main responses.


1.  Denial of Divine Providence

As a character in one of Elie Wiesel's books declares, a Messiah who does not arrive while Auschwitz is operating, will never have a reason to come.[1] In other words, if God did not intervene in Auschwitz, then He does not intervene at all – apparently because He lacks the ability to do so.  In short, this represents a denial of Divine Providence:


God is not simply hidden from view, nor is he lurking in the depth of our unconscious or on the boundaries of our infinite space, nor will he appear on the next turn of an historical wheel.[2] Totally committed as he is to the full epiphany of faith in the concrete moment before him, the contemporary Christian accepts the death of God as a final and irrevocable event.


Here too, as so often, Alitzer's meaning is somewhat obscure.  As other passages in his writing show, Alitzer believes that the Christian dogma of God's descent into the flesh represents the death of God as an event in history.  At that moment, the transcendental God actually collapsed into immanent humanity.  Thus, he perished.  He is unique among the radical theologians with his interpretation.  But they all have in common the inability to acknowledge the concept of a "hiding God." (Faith after the Holocaust [Hoboken, 1973], pp. 63-64)


Rabbi Berkovits explains why such an approach arises specifically out of Christian theology.  The appearance of God in human form means a denial of the idea that God can be present and hidden at the same time.  If God is present, then He must be fully present, and His salvation must also be complete.  This is the meaning of the appearance of the human-God savior. Hence, in his heart of hearts, the Christian no longer believes in the possibility of God being present in a manner that is not real and that does not bring salvation.  A Jew, explains Rabbi Berkovits, does not accept this attitude towards God.


Admittedly, there have been some radical Jewish theologians who have proposed that the Holocaust be viewed as a religious watershed and that faith in Divine Providence, or in the covenantal relationship between God and Israel, should be abandoned.  In response, Emil Fackenheim argued that this position is untenable within a Jewish world view.  Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, in his Sefer Ha-Kuzari (beginning of ma'amar 4) explains that the issue of Divine Providence is what distinguishes the God of Avraham from the God of Aristotle.  Faith, for a Jew, is not an abstract ideal; rather, it is belief in a living God, and the essence of this faith is the connection with Him, the prayer addressed to Him, and trust in Him. 


The counter-argument of those who seek to deny Divine Providence is that it is easier to believe in a God who is not able to watch over the world than it is to believe in a God Who can, and Who nevertheless allows such evil to exist.  Yeshayahu Leibowitz attempted to evade the claim that this represents a non-Jewish approach by asserting that Divine Revelation does exist, but the faith in Divine Providence pertains only to the lower level of Divine service that is "she-lo li-shemah" (not for its own sake).  On the higher level – that of Divine service "li-shemah" (for its own sake) – not only does a person not expect reward or punishment, but he understands that there is in fact no reason to expect them.  On the basis of these views, then, religion is a completely one-directional relationship: it exists only from the bottom upward.[3]


Rabbi Berkovits views the denial of Divine Providence as a victory for Hitler (Faith after the Holocaust, p. 73).  A person who was incarcerated in Auschwitz and rebelled against God did so because he was not able to bear faith in a God Who would cause him such suffering.  We cannot criticize such a person.  However, a similar denial from the outside is like an admission that Hitler was correct in believing that there was no God Who would protect Am Yisrael.  It represents proof that although Hitler himself failed in terms of his objective of complete physical genocide, his metaphysical argument won out.  "Can an evil person do as he pleases?" This is the question that Hitler posed to the world, as well as to the Jewish nation and to Jewish faith.  Faith in Divine Providence rejects such a possibility.  Therefore, a rejection of Divine Providence means, in effect, accepting Hitler's thesis. 


Obviously, we are still far from understanding why, despite Divine Providence, Hitler was nevertheless as successful as he was in his practical goals.  We shall address this question presently.


2.  The Attribute of Divine Justice


The second response to the question posed above does accept all of the assumptions that we listed, but asserts that God, despite – or perhaps because of – His absolute goodness, desired the suffering of the Holocaust.  How can it be that a God Who is all goodness would desire so much suffering? As Rabbi Berkovits argues, even the death or suffering of a single child should not be possible if God seeks only goodness!


Some of the charedi thinkers whose teachings we have reviewed in previous lectures indeed conclude that despite God's goodness, He decreed the suffering of the Holocaust out of His attribute of justice.  Variations of this approach view the Holocaust as a punishment for different sins, such as the Enlightenment (Rabbi Wasserman and his disciples), or Zionism (the Rebbe of Satmar).  Obviously, the Divine attribute of justice ultimately serves the Divine good, but in temporal, human reality it is experienced as Divine anger and as suffering.


We may also say that out of His goodness, God has an "interest" in allowing such evil to take place.  This leads us to Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook's approach: Hitlerian evil serves the purposes of God's guidance of the world, which requires the painful amputation of the attachment to exile in order to redeem Am Yisrael in its land.  It is clear, however, that the written formulation of the idea even in this form gives rise to intense religious discomfort.  For this reason, Rabbi Berkovits – like many other rabbis and philosophers – rejects such a response out of hand.


3.  "Indeed You are a Hidden God"

Since Rabbi Berkovits opposes both radical theology and the attempt at theodicy formulated either as the principle of "reward and punishment" or as Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook's approach, he develops a third approach, which represents a sort of new-old theology of Divine Providence.  At the center of Rabbi Berkovits's theology stands the idea of Divine hester panim (the hiding of God's face).


In the Torah, the concept of hester panim appears as part of the principle of reward and punishment.  Hester panim casts Am Yisrael into the cruel jungle of history, and from this perspective it is the gravest of all forms of punishment.  As the Torah states: "My anger shall burn against them on that day, and I shall leave them and hide My face from them, and they shall be for consumption.  And many evils and troubles shall befall them, and they shall say on that day: 'Is it not because God is not in our midst that these troubles have befallen us?'" (Devarim 31:17).  In what way is the "hiding of God's face" different from the direct revelation of His judgment? And why is there a need for this sort of justice?


The regular revelation of God's justice is an act of God Himself, and it therefore is, by nature:


-focused and measured; it is directed towards the sinners themselves, and proportionate to the sin, etc.

-specific to a time and place; it is not a prolonged state of affairs.

-connected, usually, to a warning or to some accompanying prophecy, such that we know "why this is happening."


When it comes to hester panim, on the other hand, history and human beings fulfill the Divine role, and Am Yisrael is punished simply because God is not with them.  Why does such a manner of punishment exist? Perhaps it conforms with the principle of "measure for measure," corresponding to the nation's declaration that "God is not in our midst" (ibid.), or "God has abandoned the land" (Yechezkel 8:12; 9:9).  Apparently, the mode of hester panim is the gravest of all punishments, and this sanction is usually applied as the final stage of the curse.


However, Rabbi Berkovits teaches that the concept of hester panim also has a more fundamental aspect to it.  It is not only the result of Israel's sins, but also related to more primal characteristics of God's appearance in the world and His covenant with Israel.


"And My anger will burn against them on that day, and I shall leave them and hide My face from them" – Rav Bardela bar Taviomi said in the name of Rav: Anyone who does not [suffer from] hester panim is not of them [Rashi: of the seed of Israel; as it is written, "I shall hide My face from them" – that he cries out because of the troubles that befall him, but is not answered such that they do not come].  [Likewise,] anyone who is not "for consumption" [Rashi: that the gentiles plunder his property] is not of them. (Chagiga 5a)


The gemara goes on to recount that the Sages observed Rava, the great Amora, who had every type of goodness and luxury, whose prayers were answered, and who was respected by the gentiles – and they suspected that perhaps he was not one of them! Only when Rava proved to them that he, too, suffered and was subjugated, was their suspicion eased.


This is a surprising – even frightening – thought.  If hester panim is no more than a particular manner of Divine justice becoming manifest, then there is no reason to make it a sign of Jewish identity.  Apparently, Chazal understood that the hiding of God's face is part of the essence of the connection between a Jew and God – even when no sin is involved.


As the center of his view, Rabbi Berkovits adopts the paradoxical verse, "Indeed You are a God Who conceals Himself; the God of Israel, [their] Savior" (Yishayahu 45:15).  How is it possible to say of a God Who is hidden that He is a Savior if the whole essence of His concealment is that Am Yisrael is left to the mercy of history and the nations, in the an absence of salvation? And why is it specifically this characteristic – the fact that God is hidden, on one hand, and the Savior, on the other - that awards God the title of "God of Israel?" Rabbi Berkovits offers the following explanation for this verse:


We have discussed earlier the two different forms of hester panim, of the "Hiding of the Face:" one as judgment, the other as apparent divine indifference toward the plight of man.  We may glean a hint of the theological significance of such apparent divine indifference from a passage in Isaiah.  The prophet say of God: "Verily, Thou art a God that hidest Thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour."


In this passage God's self-hiding is not a reaction to human behavior, when the Hiding of the Face represents God's turning away from man as a punishment.  For Isaiah, God's self-hiding is an attribute of divine nature.  Such is God.  He is a God, who hides himself.  Man may seek him and he will not be found; man may call to him and he may not answer.  God's hiding his face in this case is not a response to man, but a quality of being assumed by God on his own initiative.  But neither is it due to divine indifference toward the destiny of man.  God's hiding himself is an attribute of the God of Israel, who is the Savior.  In some mysterious way, the God who hides himself is the God who saves. 


Thus, Isaiah could also say: "And I will wait for the Lord that hideth His face from the house of Jacob and I will hope for Him." (Faith after the Holocaust, p. 101)


Rabbi Berkovits detaches the concept of hester panim from the realm of justice, locating it instead in the theological and ontological dimensions.  Hester panim is not a certain manner of rulership and judgment, but rather a definition of God's reality in the world: God exists in concealment; He is always thus.  This is the essence of His relationship with His creation (see ibid., pp.65-66; 101-102).


We therefore face the following questions:


a.   Why do we experience God, by His very essence, as a God Who is concealed?

b.   How is His concealment to be reconciled with the fact that He is the Savior, and is salvation really essential to His guidance of the world?

c.   Why is this paradoxical combination – concealment and salvation – related specifically to God as "the God of Israel," that is, to the covenant between God and His nation, Israel?


We will now address only the first question; in the next lecture we will hopefully address the latter two and thereby complete our discussion of the teachings of Rabbi Berkovits concerning the Holocaust.


C.  Divine Providence and Human Freedom


Rabbi Berkovits explains that if concealment is an essential quality of God, then in order to understand it we have to go all the way back to Creation.  The creation of the world and of man represent a transferal of responsibility for reality from God to man.  Man was entrusted with Creation so that he would rule over it, and he was given the task of maintaining a good, worthy world.  However, there can be no acceptance of responsibility without freedom.  A person who is not free to act cannot be responsible for his actions.  The freedom granted to man is, therefore, the most fundamental sense of his creation and of the creation of the world.


However, in order to maintain human freedom, the Master of the world has to limit His own sphere of activity.  If God were too dominant a presence in His world, then human freedom would be nullified and would render man's existence impossible or superfluous.  If man is altogether limited by the Divine will, if he is unable to perform evil and can only do good, and if Divine justice in the world is manifest in conjunction with man's actions, then human freedom has no real existence:


The hiding God is present; though man is unaware of him, He is present in his hiddenness.  Therefore, God can only hide in this world.  But if this world were altogether and radically profane, there would be no place in it for Him to hide.  He can only hide in history.  Since history is man's responsibility, one would, in fact, expect him to hide, to be silent, while man goes about his God-given task.  Responsibility requires freedom, but God's convincing presence would undermine the freedom of human decision.  God hides in human responsibility and human freedom. (ibid., p. 64)


In short, the awarding of freedom to man is the essence and purpose of Creation, and therefore God's presence and guidance of the world must be hidden.


But why is this so? Why does God create a world whose central principle is freedom, thereby forcing Himself to be absent? This is an enormous paradox: God creates a world in order to be manifest in it, to reveal Himself; why then does He select, as the primary quality of this world, a characteristic that forces Him to conceal Himself?!


In response to this question, Rabbi Berkovits explains that human freedom is not merely an external condition for the existence of Creation; it is, in fact, the whole purpose of Creation.  The characteristic of freedom, in the human sense, is lacking for God:


In a sense, God can be neither good nor bad.  In terms of his own nature, He is incapable of evil.  He is the only one who is goodness.  But since, because of his very essence, he can do no evil, he can do no good either.  God, being incapable of the unethical, is not an ethical being.  Goodness for him is neither an ideal, nor a value; it is existence, it is absolutely realized being.  Justice, love, peace, mercy are ideals for man only.  They are values that may be realized by man alone.  God is perfection.  Yet because of this very perfection, he is lacking – as it were – one type of value; the one which is the result of striving for value.  He is all light; on just that account, he is lacking the light that come out of the darkness.  One might also say that with man the good is axiology; with God, ontology.  Man alone can strive and struggle for the good; God is Good.  Man alone can create value; God is Value. (ibid., p. 104-105)


The honor of human freedom is not a privilege extended to man, nor is it an act of Divine kindness, in the usual sense of the term.  This freedom is the deeper meaning of Creation.  Without it, there would be no man, in the most important sense of human existence, nor would there be any point to Creation.


But the awarding of freedom to man comes at a heavy price, and we pay it – along with God:


But if man alone is the creator of values, one who strives for the realization of ideals, then he must have freedom of choice and freedom of decision.  And his freedom must be respected by God himself.  God cannot, as a rule, intervene whenever man's use of freedom displeases him... If he did so would the possibility for good also disappears.  Man can be frightened; but he cannot be bludgeoned into goodness.  If God did not respect man's freedom to choose his course in personal responsibility, not only would the moral good and evil be abolished from the earth, but man himself would go with them.  For freedom and responsibility are of the very essence of man.  Without them, man is not human.  If there is to be man, he must be allowed to make his choices in freedom.  If he has such freedom, he will use it.  Using it, he will often use it wrongly; he will decide for the wrong alternative.  As he does so, there will be suffering for the innocent. (ibid., p. 105)


Thus, the possibility that evil and suffering will appear in the world – moreover, that they will always be part of the world and will never disappear – is rooted in the very origins of Creation and its precondition.  In order to honor human freedom, the Master of the universe must suffer evil and injustice.


Hence, the original question that we posed concerning the phenomenon of suffering is actually a question about man's very existence in the world.


The question therefore is not: Why is there undeserved suffering? But: Why is there man? He who asks the question about injustice in history really asks:  Why a world? Why creation? To understand this is, of course, far from being an answer to our problem.  But to see a problem in its true dimension makes it easier for us to make peace with the circumstances from which it arises.  It is not very profitable to argue with God as to why He created this world.  He obviously decided to take his chance with man; he decided for this world.  Given man, God himself could eliminate moral evil and the suffering caused by it only by eliminating man, by recalling the world of man into nothingness. (ibid.)


We have attempted above to explain two problems: the existence of evil and suffering in this world, and the fact of God's concealment.  It turns out that they are two sides of the same coin.




Following all of the above, we are left with some issues that still require clarification.  Firstly, is it really true that the awarding of freedom is the sole principle determining God's manner of guiding the world? Has God abandoned the world to man's freedom? Can such an idea even be contemplated after Auschwitz? And, of course, what of the other two questions we raised above based on the second part of the verse in Yishayahu concerning the relationship between God's concealment and His identity as Savior and the implications of this combination for His covenant with Israel? We shall address these questions in the next lecture.


An important comment, in conclusion.  I have heard many people explain that according to Rabbi Berkovits, the principle of Divine Providence is subservient to human freedom, and therefore the question posed by Hitler is not a question at all, since he and the Nazis were simply human beings exercising their freedom.  In short, according to this explanation, the reality of human freedom explains Auschwitz.  Although this is part of the truth, it is not the whole truth.  As we shall see in the next lecture, halting the discussion at this stage would mean missing the principal significance of faith in God and in the chosenness of Israel.  Quite simply, this is not Rabbi Berkovits's position at all.



Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]  I am unable to locate the source.

[2]  Rabbi Berkowitz refers here and further on to Thomas J. J. Altizer and William Hamilton, Radical Theology and the Death of God (Indianapolis, 1966).

[3] From a metaphysical perspective, if God is not revealed in history, then the giving of the Torah cannot be a binding principle of faith.  Leibowitz was aware of this, and explained that the giving of the Torah is indeed an article of faith that has no metaphysical basis.  It is a decision to believe.  He offers no elaboration on this assertion.