Understanding Jewish Thought: The Holocaust and Death of God Theology
The nightmare years of the Holocaust changed the Jewish world forever. April 18 marked this year’s Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Day, memorialized by Jewish people all over the world. For many the meaning of their Jewish existence rests within this single event. They see all of history wrapped around, and filtered through, the grid of Sobibor, Treblinka and Auschwitz.
From the generation of the death camps there arose a new school of theological speculation. Holocaust theology became a guiding force in the development of Jewish thought. It stands in sharp contrast to the age of emancipation and enlightenment that preceded it.
When the iron gates of the ghettos swung open, the occupants poured out en masse into a new and wonderful world. Yet in shedding both the gloom and dreariness of the ghetto and the simplistic shtetl mentality, many Jewish people also abandoned their traditional beliefs about God. Judaism had been predominantly theocentric, with a high view of Scripture. Outside the ghetto, however, Jewish people encountered a plethora of philosophical and theological options, and Judaism soon splintered into various theological branches. The Reform movement was most in keeping with the new age of reason. In any event, Judaism seemed to grow increasingly optimistic about the future.
The rise of Nazi Germany and the terror of the Third Reich shattered this optimism. The torture and extermination of 6 million Jews mitigated against faith in the goodness of mankind. Judaism was so stunned by the catastrophe that it also called into question the goodness, and indeed the very existence, of God.
Many theologians concluded that common presuppositions about God were now distorted beyond restoration. In light of their inability to reconcile the goodness of God with the evil of the Holocaust, some redefined their long-held theories.
Among these Jewish Death of God” theologians, Richard L. Rubenstein is perhaps the most radical. He has denied both the existence of the God of Judaism and the chosenness of the people of Israel. For Rubenstein, the Holocaust is the watershed event of Jewish history. He writes, “I believe the greatest single challenge to modern Judaism arises out of the question of God and the death camps.”1 As a result of the dilemma posed by the Holocaust, Rubenstein developed an erroneous, anthropocentric theology.
The God Who Acts in History
Unable to reconcile the goodness of God with the evil manifested in the Holocaust, Rubenstein has concluded that it is impossible to sustain a belief in God. Therefore God—or at least the traditional understanding of the God who acts in history—is dead.
Throughout history, we Jews have struggled to reconcile the problem of evil with the goodness of God. Despite untold evils perpetrated against us, we have resolutely affirmed the character of God. Despite Crusader massacres and Russian pogroms, my Jewish people have clung to the belief that God is good and would not allow us to suffer without reason.
Rubenstein rejects the concept of a benevolent and loving God who cares for His creation, for if God is all-powerful, He permitted an evil for which there was no redemptive purpose; and if God is loving, He is impotent in the face of absolute and unrestrained evil.
Some people, rabbis included, have argued that God used the Nazis in the same way He used Assyria as “the rod of His anger” (Isaiah 10:5) to chastise Israel.2 Rubenstein, however, cannot accept this conclusion at any juncture. He finds no purpose whatsoever in the Nazi death factories and cannot reconcile the death of millions of innocent victims with a higher purpose that protects God’s integrity and goodness. This conclusion has forced Rubenstein to posit that there is no reasonable basis for a belief in God. In his classic work After Auschwitz, he writes:
How can Jews believe in an omnipotent, beneficent God after Auschwitz? Traditional Jewish theology maintains that God is the ultimate, omnipotent actor in historical drama. It has interpreted every major catastrophe in Jewish history as God’s punishment of a sinful Israel. I fail to see how this position can be maintained without regarding Hitler and the SS as instruments of God’s will. The agony of European Jewry cannot be likened to the testing of Job. To see any purpose in the death camps, the traditional believer is forced to regard the most demonic, anti-human explosion of all history as a meaningful expression of God’s purposes. This idea is simply too obscene for me to accept. I do not think that the full impact of Auschwitz has yet been felt in Jewish theology or Jewish life. Great religious revolutions have their own period of gestation. No man knows when the full impact of Auschwitz will be felt, but no religious community can endure so hideous a wounding without undergoing vast inner disorders.3
For Rubenstein the only honest response to the Holocaust is the rejection of God.4 The theological response of viewing Auschwitz as some sort of retributive act is contemptible and an utterly inadequate solution that does not deal with the sheer magnitude of the event. Israel could have committed no sin worthy of such a heinous response, Rubenstein concludes; therefore there is no God and no covenant with Israel.
One could justly conclude from these remarks that Rubenstein is an atheist. However, his statement that “God is dead” is misleading. Rubenstein does not deny the existence of God, but he rejects the biblical understanding of God as a personal being who chose Israel as His elect nation. He argues that the Holocaust necessitates a re-evaluation of the Jewish concept of God.
“God is dead” insofar as man’s concept of a personal deity who acts in history is dead. The Holocaust necessitates a corrective to man’s most basic assumptions about God. Rubenstein succinctly states this when he writes:
No man can really say that God is dead. How can we know that? Nevertheless, I am compelled to say that we live in the time of the “death of God.” This is more a statement about man and his culture than about God. The death of God is a cultural fact.… When I say we live in the time of the death of God, I mean that thread uniting God and man, heaven and earth, has been broken. We stand in a cold, silent, unfeeling cosmos unaided by any purposeful power beyond our resources. After Auschwitz, what else can a Jew say about God?5
Rubenstein’s thought has gradually shifted from existentialism to more of a mysticism. Nevertheless, his understanding of the God of history remains essentially the same. To reiterate, Rubenstein’s position can be reduced to the following syllogism: (1) The God of Judaism would not have allowed the Holocaust to happen. (2) The Holocaust did happen. (3) Therefore, God, as He is understood by Judaism, does not exist.6
Based upon this argument, Rubenstein rejects the concept of the God who acts in history. Thus, he is compelled to reject the God of Jewish tradition. He writes:
If I believed in God as the omnipotent author of the historical drama and Israel as his chosen people, I had to accept [the]…conclusion that it was God’s will that Hitler committed 6 million Jews to the slaughter. I could not possibly believe in such a God nor could I believe in Israel as the chosen people of God after Auschwitz.7
Rubenstein finds it utterly unimaginable that a benevolent God would not have responded to the cries of the victims of the death camps. For God to have tolerated these anguished cries and not have responded makes Him despicable and cruel. In a letter to the editor of The Christian Century, Rubenstein responds to criticism of his stance with, “You would rather believe in a cosmic sadist, more malignant than Satan in his dealings with mankind, than deny the traditions of our fathers.”8
For Rubenstein the sheer horror of the Holocaust makes it the central and climactic event of all Jewish history. The Holocaust is a unique event. While evil has always been present in the world, nothing compares to the depth and magnitude of the evil of the Holocaust. It is the most “demonic anti-human explosion in all history.”9
Are Rubenstein’s conclusions warranted? When closely examined, significant weaknesses become evident within his argumentation. His appeal to the Holocaust as a distinctive and reorientating phenomenon is problematic on several levels.
The evil of the Holocaust overwhelms us. But do the death camps of Auschwitz destroy the possibility of faith in the God of Israel? The question concerns how history is to be viewed. Is the Holocaust the climactic event of Jewish history? Rubenstein lifts the Holocaust out of Jewish history, isolating it from all events before and after, but “history” is related and bound together as a sequence of unfolding events. History, Jewish history in particular, has causal connection and interdependence.10
Rubenstein sees Jewish history too narrowly. The evil that erupted from within the Third Reich emerged from a pre-Holocaust history. The events of 1933-1945 are unintelligible when examined in isolation.11 To comprehend how and why the Holocaust occurred, it must be studied as part of an unfolding chain of events.
The actions of individuals can only be understood in a wider historical perspective. This is true not only of the victims, but also of their killers. Hitler’s Thousand Year Reich would never have come to power were it not for the surrender of Germany in World War I and the economic upheaval of the Weimar Republic. No single event can comprehensively reveal the meaning of existence. The Holocaust does not explain the past. Stephen Katz writes:
To think…that one can excise this block of time from the flow of Jewish history and then by concentrating on it, extract the “meaning” of all Jewish existence, is more than uncertain, no matter how momentous or demonic this time may have been.12
The Holocaust did not end Jewish history. The State of Israel was reestablished after Auschwitz. Out of the ashes of the death camps, the Jewish State arose yet again.
Rubenstein does assign importance to the rebirth of Israel; yet he views it as theologically independent of Auschwitz in defining the meaning of Jewish existence. He arbitrarily assigns theological meaning to a negative event while ignoring a positive one. Rubenstein is inconsistent when he fails to assign any existential and metaphysical significance to the latter event. If God was present in the Holocaust, then He must also have been present in the formation of Israel.13
A theological interpretation of history must also account for the birth of Israel in 1948. Indeed, this event was nothing less then miraculous and deserves equal consideration. Admittedly, some people will question the relevance of such talk as a theological category.14 Nevertheless, the Bible does operate on the premise that history “speaks” as a confirmation of God’s existence. Yet the message of history cannot be gleaned arbitrarily; the “big picture” must be clearly understood.
Rubenstein’s perception of existence is incorrect because he unevenly balances the phenomena of historical reality. Jewish history, indeed all history, is filled with instances of good and evil. These events are inseparable from one another. Evil events result in good events and vice versa. History is far too complex to view one event in isolation.
Rubenstein, however, appeals to a single event which he perceives to be metaphysically conclusive.15 The Holocaust serves to confirm Rubenstein’s his own theological assumption that God cannot allow evil to occur on such a grand scale. Based upon his subjective interpretation of history and the “meaning” inherent in that event, Rubenstein minimizes and negates the significance of any positive phenomena. He has already made up his mind about God and he merely interprets the facts to fit his presuppositions.
The Jewish people did survive despite the Nazis’ official policy of genocide. The State of Israel was established despite overwhelming obstacles. Theologically speaking, these events have an equal, if not a greater importance in the unfolding of Jewish history.
God has preserved His people. Yet not even this act completes the “big picture” of history.
God acted in history ultimately by sending Jesus the Messiah into the world. Yeshua entered the sphere of human history and became a man in order that He might die for the sins of the world.
Rubenstein’s struggle to find meaning in the Holocaust is commendable, but we cannot ignore the fact that he finds incorrect answers. He and other Holocaust theologians have failed to examine the most basic explanation of all, the problem of sin. Only here are we able to explain why this world is filled with radical good and radical evil at the same time.
The Holocaust was a frightening demonstration of mankind’s potential for evil; yet long before Auschwitz, humanity demonstrated the evil it harbors. Nevertheless, God acted in history. He sent Jesus to deliver the human race from the power of evil for all time.
In the end we must conclude that Rubenstein’s theological reasoning is unacceptable at its roots, for he argues from a position devoid of a biblical framework. The problem of evil cannot be resolved outside of this context, for only here are found the realities of universal sin and redemption in Messiah Yeshua.
- Richard L. Rubenstein, After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1966), p.153.
- Seymour Cain, “The Questions and the Answers after Auschwitz” Judaism (Summer 1971), p. 268.
- Rubenstein, After Auschwitz, p. 153.
- Steven T. Katz, Post-Holocaust Dialogues: Critical Studies in Modern Jewish Thought (New York: New York University Press, 1983), p. 146.
- Rubenstein, After Auschwitz, p.151-152.
- Katz, Post-Holocaust Dialogues, p. 174.
- Rubenstein, After Auschwitz, p. 46
- Richard L. Rubenstein, “God as Cosmic Sadist: in Reply to Emil Fackenheim,” The Christian Century 27 (July 29, 1970): p. 92.
- Rubenstein, After Auschwitz, p. 153.
- Katz, Post-Holocaust Dialogues, p. 176.
- Ibid, p. 177-178.
Noel is an approved student working with our Dallas branch. This article is based on a paper he submitted at Dallas Theological Seminary.