Lecture #25: Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, Faith after the Holocaust (Part II)

  • Rav Tamir Granot


In the previous lecture, we raised several questions concerning the verse, "Indeed, You are God Who conceals Himself; the God of Israel Who saves" (Yishayahu 45:15):


a.    Why is God manifest, by His very essence, as a "concealed God?"

b.    How is His concealment reconciled with the fact of His salvation? Is salvation indeed vital to rulership of the world?

c.    How and why is this paradoxical combination of concealment and salvation related specifically to God's title as "God of Israel" – that is, to His covenant with the nation of Israel?


            Rabbi Berkovits answers the first question by explaining that the creation of man entails granting him freedom, and that protecting that freedom requires that God conceal Himself so that His Presence should not be prominent in the world. God is long-suffering; He does not exact justice immediately, but rather waits for repentance and forgives sin. His mercy and His long-suffering patience allow man to continue to exist as "man" –as a free being. If God were to act solely on the basis of strict justice, human freedom would cease to exist.


This fundamental principle carries a very heavy price, as Rabbi Berkovits explains:


In keeping with deep-rooted biblical tradition, the rabbis in a homily interpreted the plural form of the Hebrew expression that describes God as "long-suffering" as meaning that God is long-suffering in numerous ways.  He is long-suffering with the wicked as well as with the righteous.  We have great understanding for the fact that God is merciful and forgiving, that he does not judge man harshly and is wiling to have patience with him.  God is waiting for the sinner to find his way to him.  This is how we like to see God.  This is how we are only too glad to acknowledge him.  But we never seem to realize that while God waits for the sinner to turn to him, there is oppression and persecution and violence among men.  Yet, there seems to be no alternative.  If man is to be, God must be long-suffering with him; he must suffer man. 


This is the inescapable paradox of divine providence.  While God tolerates the sinner, he must abandon the victim; while he shows forbearance with the wicked, he must turn a deaf ear to the anguished cries of the violated.  This is the ultimate tragedy of existence: God's very mercy and forbearance, his very love for man, necessitates the abandonment of some men to a fate that they may well experience as divine indifference to justice and human suffering.  It is the tragic paradox of faith that God's direct concern for the wrongdoer should be directly responsible for so much pain and sorrow on earth.


We conclude then: he who demands justice of God must give up man; he who asks for God's love and mercy beyond justice must accept suffering. (Faith After the Holocaust, p.106)


A.        "Savior"


            The existence of suffering is the result of God's mercy and His decision to limit Himself in order to uphold man's freedom. But why is the "God Who is concealed" also the God Who saves? Furthermore, how can God be concealed and a Savior at the same time?


            A parable may explain the matter. There was a king who loved his son dearly and wanted his son to succeed him as ruler of the kingdom. He therefore passed his royal scepter to his son, saying: "My son – rule as your heart desires, and make my kingdom a better place." The son replied, "Father, so long as you are here, I cannot rule – for everyone fears you and obeys you; I, too, nullify my will before your will." The king declares, "If that is the case, then I will go to a place of my own, and you – you shall rule. But know that I am watching you and I care about you from my place." The king prepared a place for himself outside of the boundaries of the kingdom, and there he dwells and observes his son's conduct and the goings-on in the kingdom. No one sees him, but he sees and knows everything. When the kingdom flourishes, the king is happy and is proud of his son, to whom he transferred the reins of power. When the kingdom is sinful, the king is sad – but he does not leave his place, for he promised his son that he would reign. But if he sees that his son's misguided logic, or the bad counsel of his advisors, or his desire for greatness may cause him to destroy the kingdom, the king immediately sends his messengers to save the kingdom and his son.


            The Holy One, blessed be He, wants man to rule the world. He therefore passes on His scepter – freedom - and He removes Himself from the world to observe from a concealed place. God does not seek destruction of the world as the price for man's freedom. It is His love for man that explains the freedom and the responsibility that God entrusts him with, and for this same reason God ensures that man will not destroy the world and himself.


            The promise of salvation is the corollary of the purpose of creation. God wants a good world to result of human action. This would be a realization of the principle of goodness that is not the result of nature, of inherent essence, but rather the result of free will. It would be a state of goodness achieved through free choice, a state of perfection that would result from work and effort towards that goal. But who can guarantee that man will rule the world with goodness as a guiding principle? If, heaven forefend, evil and injustice flourish and prevail, who will halt man?


            If God loved the world too much, the gift of His love, freedom, could not be realized in the world. If He cared too little, then evil could take over and destroy the world. God, in His love for the world and for man, does not seek such destruction.


            Thus, Divine Providence is suspended between two extremes: concealment and salvation. Concealment allows man to act without God's threatening, nullifying shadow; at the same time, God promises that the world will not be destroyed by human society. The Lord is "God Who saves" – not because He is saving the world right now, in the present, but because He promises, despite His present concealment, salvation and redemption in the future:


One could call it the divine dilemma that God's erekh apayim, his patiently waiting countenance to some, is, of necessity, identical with his hester panim, his hiding of the countenance to others.  However, the dilemma does find a resolution in history.  If man is to be, God himself must respect his freedom of decision.  If, man is to act on his own responsibility, without being continually overawed by divine supremacy, God must absent himself from history.  But man left to his freedom, his performance in history gives little reassurance that he can survive in freedom.  God took a risk with man and he cannot divest himself of responsibility for man.  If man is not to perish at the hand of man, if the ultimate destiny of man is not to be left to the chance that man will never make the fatal decision, God must remain present. 


The God of history must be absent and present concurrently.  He hides his presence.  He is present without being indubitably manifest; he is absent without being hopelessly inaccessible.  Thus, many find him even in his "absence;" many miss him even in his presence.  Because of the necessity of his absence, there is the "Hiding of the Face" and suffering of the innocent; because of the necessity of his presence, evil will not ultimately triumph; because of it, there is hope for man. (ibid. pp.107)


            Divine Providence is precisely that tension between two ideas with which God runs the world – the idea of freedom and the idea of redemption:


a.     Man's freedom is the very essence and meaning of creation; it is the transference of the world into human hands. This gift of freedom, by definition, permits the perpetration of evil and its result – suffering. Therefore, this world and human history are, by definition, unjust.

b.     The promise of redemption means that, ultimately, good will prevail. In other words, whoever is prepared to act for the good in God's world must know that it will pay off, if not today, then in the future.


            The result of the Divine desire to remain suspended between these two fundamental and contrasting poles is His concealment.


B.        "And You are My Witnesses"


            We have explained why God is concealed and why He also saves. However, we have not yet explained how and why this tension is specifically bound up with the "God of Israel." Is God's covenant with Israel vital to His manifestation in the world, as we have understood it thus far?


            Rabbi Berkovits answers this question in the affirmative. The promise of redemption appears in history in the form of the selection of the Jewish people. A review of history itself does not point to any internal mechanism that assures the victory of goodness; nor is there any indication that it will necessarily end in redemption - until one looks at the history of Israel. The eternity of Israel, living on through history, is living, constant testimony that while victory seems to belong to absolute evil, God is watching – even though He is hidden. Am Yisrael is the ultimate victim of the evil that becomes manifest through human free choice, and therefore the life of Am Yisrael is proof that God is indeed hidden, allowing the nations of the world to act in accordance with their evil choices. On the other hand, Am Yisrael continues to survive, even during times of suffering, and has endured for longer than all adversaries and persecutors. While monsters of human history disappear into oblivion and are forgotten, Am Yisrael continues to stand out prominently, and to live:


Yet He is present in history.  He reveals his presence in the survival of his people Israel.  Therein lies his awesomeness.[1] God renders himself powerless, as it were, through forbearance and long-suffering, yet he guides. How else could his powerless people have survived! He protects, without manifest power.  Because of that, Israel could endure God's long silences without denying him.  Because of the survival of Israel, the prophets could question God's justice and yet believe in him.  The theology of a God unconvincingly present in history alone might not have sufficed.  The dilemma cannot be resolved on the intellectual level alone.  And, indeed, neither Jeremiah, nor Habakkuk, nor even Job, were given an intellectually valid answer.  The Talmudic conclusion was correctly reached: God was silent.  Yet, the dilemma was resolved, not in theory, but, strangely enough, in history itself. 


Now, historical facts that conflict with a philosophy of history eo ipso refute that philosophy.  But historical facts, however numerous, cannot refute another historical fact however irregular and solitary.  It is indeed true, as was seen by Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and others, that a great deal of the historical experience contradicts some essential Judaic propositions of a just and benevolent providence; the way of the wicked often succeeds, God is much too often silent.  But it is even more true that seen in the light of the generally observed facts and processes of history, the very idea of a people of God, of constituting a people on the basis of a commitment to do the will of God and to the belief that life and death are determined by the ethical categories of good and evil, was a fantastic proposition.  All history advised against it.  From the very beginning, all the powers and processes that determine the course of history were poised to render its materialization impossible.  Indeed, had it all been only an idea, a theology or philosophy, the testimony of the facts of history would have rendered the concept of a people of God and the propositions on which it was to be based ridiculously absurd.  However, this fantastic concept became itself a fact of history.  The people of God did come into being; it entered history, it became itself a historical reality, exercising great historical influence and demonstrating mysterious survival power.  It has all been quite irregular.  It is all in conflict with the rest of historical experience, yet itself a fact of history.  (ibid., pp.109-110)


            The nation of Israel, then, testifies to God's concealment, in both senses: absence, arising from the bequest of freedom and allowing for evil and suffering; and Divine Providence, promising the continued wondrous existence of the Jewish people in impossible conditions, beyond natural explanations, and devoid of any power, thereby testifying to the Divine Presence that is concerned for the world's redemption. This is the role that has been set aside for Am Yisrael in Divine history:


God's unconvincing presence in history is testified to through the survival of Israel.  All God's miracles occur outside of history.  When God acts with manifest power, history is at a standstill.  The only exception to the rule is the historic reality of Israel.  That faith history has not been erased from the face of the earth by power history, notwithstanding the incalculable material superiority of the forces arrayed against it all through history, is the ultimate miracle.  Since, however, it has been accomplished without manifest divine intervention, it remains within history, the only miracle that is a historic event, the miracle of the viability of faith history.  It is for this reason that Isaiah could say of Israel on behalf of God: "Therefore ye are my witnesses, says the Eternal, and I am God" (Yeshayahu 43:12).  Rightly do the rabbis add the comment: If you are my witnesses, I am God; if you do not witness, I am – as it were – no God.  There is no other witness that God is present in history but the history of the Jewish people." (ibid. pp. 114, see also pp. 128-137)


            However, the testimony of Am Yisrael is not only passive evidence, as the discussion thus far might have implied. Aside from the very fact of Israel's survival through history, testifying to God's Providence, Am Yisrael testifies actively to God's existence through its faith and spirit. The fact that a weak, suffering nation continues to maintain its faith and to sanctify God's Name, although this brings no benefit and despite continued suffering, is itself decisive proof – the sole proof – of the supreme truth of that faith. In any culture in which it "pays" to believe, where faith brings with it happiness, success, and power, there is no way of knowing whether the religion is true or whether it is pursued only for the sake of happiness or power – purely human interests that have nothing to do with faith. Where faith is not maintained for the sake of heaven, there is no proof of the existence of "heaven." It is only through the fate of Am Yisrael and its choice to have faith that the world comes to know God's existence:


God's own destiny in history is joined to the history of Israel.  Great empires do not testify to divine presence in history.  Whatever they are and accomplish is fully explicable in terms of their material resources.  They have their self-explanatory place in power history.  Half a billion Christians all over the world prove nothing about God's presence in history.  They are too many, too influential, too pervasive.  They are a this-worldly power in the context of power history… This is the ultimate significance of the idea of the chosen people.  God needs a small relatively weak people in order to introduce another dimension into history – human life – not by might nor by power but by His spirit.  "The Eternal did not love you nor choose you because you were more numerous than any other people"; He could not associate his cause with the mighty and the numerous.  It is not through them that a God who renders himself "powerless" in history, for the sake of man, can advance his purpose for man.  Only a nation whose presence in and impact on history testify to God's presence may be God's people.  God's relation to human history is such that he needs a chosen people.  The chosen people satisfies a need for divine concern for all men. (ibid., pp. 114-115)


C.        Hitler, the Holocaust, and the Establishment of the State of Israel


            Hitler took it upon himself to prove that there is no concealed God; that if man so wishes, he can rid himself of God's annoying presence – annoying because the plan of the leader of a super-race to rule over the world simply for the sake of self-fulfillment and power and to establish a kingdom of evil cannot be realized – either practically or metaphysically. There is no apostasy greater than that of Hitler, and he himself knew this. If Am Yisrael is correct, then Hitler could not possibly succeed. Therefore, Hitler fought – in the most elementary manner, and in the most direct historical sense, not in the mystical sense – against both the nation of Israel and the God of Israel. For this reason, the Nazis burned Sifrei Torah and other religious artifacts wherever they went, wherever possible getting the Jews to do this themselves, in order to prove their contention that, heaven forbid, there is no God of Israel, and no faith in Israel, and therefore that the Jewish nation would cease to exist.


            The Holocaust, then, is the most radical expression of the idea of God Who is concealed, because it provides the cruelest possible proof of man's freedom of choice – proof of God's "concealment." Hitler tested the outermost boundary of God's absence from a theological point of view: he raised his hand against God's Throne, which is the source of man's free choice, and tried to prove that evil (specifically, his own thesis) has absolute, unlimited power.


            On the other hand, the Holocaust was also the clearest possible proof of God's concealed presence. Hitler and his thesis were defeated, and Am Yisreal rose up from the ashes and received life – moreover, political life. The eternity of Israel testifies to God's presence.


            Thus, there is a profound connection between the Holocaust and the State of Israel, but it is not a connection of purpose (as in Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook's metaphor of an operation) nor of causality (reward and punishment). Certainly, the establishment of the State of Israel does not justify the Holocaust, for Divine Providence is not based on a perception of justice in the simple sense. The principle of "God Who is concealed and Who saves" is a theology with two extremes – the Holocaust (concealment) and the State of Israel (salvation). The Holocaust is cruel proof of the existence of human freedom and Divine concealment, without which man cannot exist. The State of Israel is the most wondrous proof of God's presence in history; proof without which it would be all but impossible to believe in His existence. Through the establishment of the State, Am Yisrael returned to the stage of history, and – no less importantly – the Master of the universe reappeared in it once more.


Translated by Kaeren Fish


[1]This refers to the midrash concerning God's title as "great, mighty, and terrible." For the purposes of understanding the context, I quote here from my lecture for Yom Ha-shoah:


Ezra the scribe, the great reviver of Judaism at the time of the return to Zion from Babylon, along with the colleagues who helped him in his efforts, were known as the "Anshei Kenesset Ha-Gedola" – the Men of the Great Assembly. How did they come to earn this title? They were named thus because they "restored (God's) lost glory." The glory was described by Moshe, who referred to God as "God Who is great, mighty and terrible" (Devarim 10:17). The prophet Yirmiyahu, who witnessed the terrible events of his times, could not reconcile himself to this title: "Gentiles are crowing in His Temple – where is His characteristic of being 'terrible?'" And so he did not refer to God as 'terrible.' Then came Daniel, who said: "Gentiles are subjugating His children – where is His characteristic of 'might?'" And so he did not refer to God as "mighty." Then came Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly, and they explained: "On the contrary, that is precisely His might – that He conquers His inclination, extending long-suffering patience to the wicked. And this proves that He is 'terrible' – were it not for the fear of Him, how could this one people (Israel) survive among all of the nations?!" (Yoma 69b)


The Sages of the Talmud viewed the Almighty's "might" as His control over His spirit, conquering His desire to judge and to punish, and conducting Himself in history as though He was helpless to intervene. To hold back and not use force while His force is unlimited, to suffer the scorn of enemies while He could easily wipe them out – this is true strength. This is God's true might. God is "mighty" because He binds His omnipotence and renders Himself "helpless" in order that history can be possible.