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God After the Holocaust: A Faith of Question Marks

Maybe the post-Holocaust believer has 10 tons of pain, but four cubits of halakha, as was said after the destruction of the Second Temple
Photo: christianchan/adobe stock
Photo: christianchan/adobe stock
Rabbi Dr. Shraga Bar-On is the Vice President and Director of the Kogod Research Center for Contemporary Jewish Thought and the David Hartman Center for Intellectual Excellence, and a lecturer of Talmud and Jewish Thought at Shalem College. At the David Hartman Center, he is responsible for the advanced training of aspiring public intellectuals through the Beit Midrash for Israeli Rabbis, the David Hartman postdoctoral fellowship, and the Maskilot fellowship for women pursuing their doctorate. His research in Jewish philosophy

Originally published in Washington Jewish Week

My grandmother, Privat Hershkowitz, was freed from Auschwitz by the Red Army. Not much remains of her body, but her great soul illuminated faith in God and man and partook in a rebuilt Jewish home in Israel.

So now, 70 years after Auschwitz’s liberation, and 10 years after the United Nations declared January 27 as International Holocaust Commemoration Day, I have been thinking about the way believers view the Holocaust. Like Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz, I would have liked to believe that the Holocaust is the problem of the German nation, but it is my problem, being the third generation from Holocaust survivors.

The Holocaust had a great impact upon Jewish identity, but not on religious life. It is not manifest in our collective religious memory, prayer, nor hardly in Jewish theology. Does this silence result from it being too big a question for the believer, or from religious life being petrified by it? Yet many have attempted to pierce its veils.


One cannot judge the survivors. There are survivors who believe that the Holocaust was God’s judgment. But as God himself rebukes the friends of Job, we understand that God justifiers cannot accept Job’s existence. Therefore, I cannot stand God justifiers who are not Holocaust survivors.

The Atheists

“If there is Auschwitz, there is no God,” ruled former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Haim Cohen. If Auschwitz is a place on earth and not on another planet, then there is no place for God on Earth. The atheist is unwilling to accept a God who is not Almighty and Supervising, and prefers His annulment. This kind of Jewish atheist is a “forced apostate,” because of his belief.

The Inexplicable

“Repeating the question, ‘Why did the Holocaust occur,’ pains the victims. The very question reduces the innocence of the victims and the guilt of the murderers. The question should remain unasked,” writes David Weiss Halivni. Is silence healthier for the victims? If not, we mustn’t keep silent. It is our duty to investigate, for their dignity’s sake.

The Moral Post-Modernist

Jews lost faith in God a long time ago and claimed that man created God in his image, said Eugene Borowitz. After the Holocaust, Jews no longer believe in the perfect human being, in enlightenment, and in modernism. The moral man, therefore, has no choice but to reach out again to God, the only anchor of absolute good outside the world of Man.

The Humble Believer

“No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.” This, according to Yitz Greenberg, leads to the realization that complete faith in any ideology or God, is lost forever. The Holocaust taught us humility, and not to stand by, but to oppose evil. Sometimes, in this, God slips through. The question is, are we willing to settle for these few moments, and what happens the rest of the time in this chaotic world?

The Rebellious Believer

The extermination of European Jewry was a sign of God’s betrayal of his people, and Holocaust Remembrance Day is a day dedicated to expressing wrath at God, wrote David Roskies. The permission to protest defines faith. The rebel is not willing to give up either his God, or his realistic view of history. But how is it possible to turn back to God and His Covenant?

God’s Savior

Russian poet Abraham Sutzkever in his 1945 poem, “Resurrection,” describes a dialogue between a survivor’s soul and God, who is buried under the grass:

Redeem me, destined one —
— Who are you, that your command should be heard?
And grass language answered me: God.
I once lived in your word. (Translated from Yiddish by Barbara and Benjamin Harshav)

The Holocaust reversed the traditional roles. God is buried under the ashes, already covered by grass. Man must redeem himself and his God. If he desires life, he must resurrect God, an ingrained idea in man’s consciousness, who is charged with all his joys and sorrows, and who lives in his believers’ sayings. But this is a grotesque Lord.

The 614th Commandment

To Emil Fackenheim, the loss of faith implicates surrender. If the Jewish people lose their uniqueness, it would be as if they had completed the Nazis’ plan themselves. They must carry on Jewish existence by clinging to their faith and their God, and by standing by the oppressed. This 614th commandment is the most difficult of all.

Yet isn’t there too much of a contradiction between this commandment and the other 613? Hasn’t the new revelation in Auschwitz burned out its predecessors?

Praying Grandmother

“Do you know why I say Shema each night in my bed? To keep the nightmares from there away,” Grandma Priva said to me. Here’s her chilling tradeoff: “God, I’ll forgive you the Holocaust if you’ll keep my memories away.”

I said to her, “Grandma, I would also say Shema each night in my bed if only I could wipe out the Holocaust from my memory.”

Maybe the post-Holocaust believer has 10 tons of pain, but four cubits of halakha, as was said after the destruction of the Second Temple. All of these believers – and many others too numerous to mention – create the possibility of living a life of faith after the Holocaust, though inconsolable, torn, and full of question marks. May these disturbed believers continue their quest until they “see children [born] to their children, [and see] peace upon Israel.” (Tehillim 128:6)

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