Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture
50 Broadway, 34th Floor
New York, N.Y. 10004

Tel: (212) 425-6606
Fax: (212) 425-6602
Email: office@mfjc.org

Memorial Foundation Board Briefings - Recent News February 2007

February 16, 2007

WRESTLING WITH GOD

Please find online on this website a selected list of publications resulting from individual and institutional grants awarded by the Foundation which our office received in 2006-07.  In this report I should like to highlight Wrestling with God, a volume dealing with Jewish theological responses to the Holocaust, recently published by Oxford University Press. 

The publication, initiated by the Foundation as part of its project on the Impact of the Holocaust in Jewish Theology and Thought, is the most complete anthology of this sort ever assembled and a vital contribution to Holocaust Theology.  The volume's senior editor is Professor Steven Katz, who co-chaired the project with Professor Eliezer Schweid.

 

The Ultra Orthodox

The volume consists of three sections.  The first, edited by Prof. Gershon Greenberg, assembles for the first time ever a major selection of Ultra-Orthodox responses to the Holocaust.  Remarkably, these writers, writing in Hebrew and Yiddish, found a way to continue their activities in the occupied areas, ghettos and camps even while Jewish life in Europe was being shattered.

For decades after the war, the existence of these writings was overlooked, even denied by historians, according to Greenberg.  The delay in integrating these works of Holocaust era religious thought into the history of Jewish thought is explained by Greenberg, firstly, by the overall paralysis in Jewish life after the war in reaction to the trauma of the Holocaust.  Secondly, these sources were almost exclusively Orthodox and tended to be ignored by the non-Orthodox.  Finally, leading religious philosophers like Emil Fackenheim and Arthur Cohen did not cite them.

The themes and motifs of these writings, steeped in rabbinic and Kabbalistic tradition, deal with history, meta-history and ontology; the Divine presence; assimilation; secular Zionism; Amalek; teshuva; the suffering of the pious; the Land of Israel; and the path to redemption.  Their orientations are widely diverse and relate to the various religious streams in Eastern Europe (Mizrachi, Agudath Israel, Musar, Kabbalistic & Hasidic).  However, all the writings, according to Greenberg, share a similar meta-historical framework in which God relates to Israel providentially.

Greenberg believes that this sector of religious thought, which entered the interstices between life and death in the camps and ghettos during the Holocaust era, inspired the lives of survivors with meaning.  This may be responsible in large part, according to Greenberg, Schweid and others, for the remarkable recovery of the Ultra-Orthodox community after the war.

 

Israeli Responses

The second section, edited by Prof. Shlomo Biderman, covers essays written by Israeli writers over the last half century.  Compared to the first section, they reveal a much wider spectrum of theological opinion.  They also reflect, according to Biderman, both the subterranean and overt ideological influences operating in Israel.

In his introduction to the Israeli responses to the Holocaust, Prof. Biderman contends that Israeli intellectuals, philosophers and religious thinkers, from the establishment of the State of Israel until the last decade of the 20th century, had great difficulty in confronting the moral problems generated by the Shoah.  This "repression", Biderman believes, stems from Zionist ideology, as understood and interpreted during the early decades of Israel's existence.  Zionist ideology in its classical form sought to establish a unique Israeli identity based on traditional Jewish identity and an image of what it understood to be a secular view of enlightenment. 

In actuality, however, the Zionist ideology's image of the Israeli, Biderman asserts, was heavily based on the Zionist principle of the negation of Diaspora Jewry.  The Shoah supplied support for both the negation of the Diaspora Jew, as passive, submissive and wholly at the mercy of circumstances beyond their control, and the establishment of an alternative Zionist paradigm of what it is to be a Jew.

In the decades immediately after the Holocaust, the institutions of the State of Israel openly emphasized the heroic acts performed by a small number of Jews in the Holocaust who organized resistance to Nazi persecution, in contrast to the majority of Jewish victims who, it was claimed, were passive in the face of death.  Giving esteem to those few who fought the enemy facilitated avoidance of the larger moral concerns connected to the overwhelming majority of European Jewry who perished in the Holocaust.

Thus, those philosophers and intellectuals who accepted the Zionist ethos avoided attention to, and discussion of, the question of evil during the Holocaust.  This painful and difficult question was therefore left, according to Biderman, to the Ultra-Orthodox thinkers.

The outstanding exceptions to this pattern, according to Biderman, were Nathan Alterman and other poets, novelists and dramatists.  They, and not the philosophers, paradoxically, wrestled with the moral dilemmas of the Holocaust during the first decades of Statehood.

Prof. Biderman acknowledges the important new contributions made by significant Israeli thinkers at the two conferences organized by the Memorial Foundation in Ashkelon in 2000 and 2001 as part of its project, The Impact of the Holocaust in Jewish Theology and Thought, mentioned earlier.  Indeed, of the eleven papers contained in this section of the volume, five were presented at those conferences.  They include Eliezer Schweid, Does the Idea of Jewish Election Have Any Meaning after the Holocaust?; Yohoyada Amir, The Concept of Exile as a Model for Dealing with the Holocaust; Yosef Achituv, Theology and the Holocaust; Warren Zev Harvey, Two Jewish Approaches to Evil in History; and Shalom Rosenberg, The Holocaust: Lessons, Explanation, Meaning.

 

European and American Responses

The European and American responses assembled by Professor Steven Katz, the senior author of the volume, covers an even more diverse theological spectrum, ranging from the traditionalists to those scholars who believe that the Holocaust proves God's non-existence. The first set, the traditional thinkers, according to Katz, employ explanations that have roots in the Bible in response to the perennial question of human suffering.  The second set of responses is composed of new answers that attempt to re-configure the Jewish theological landscape.

The Biblical models, which are an extension of classical Jewish responses to national tragedy include the Akaida (The Binding of Isaac); the Book of Job; the suffering servant presented in Isaiah; Hester Panim (God Hides His Face); Mipnei Chataeynu (Because of Our Sins We Are Punished); and The "Free-Will Defense", which argues that human evil is an ever present possibility entailed by the reality of human freedom.

The more radical responses proposed by contemporary thinkers include:  Auschwitz: A New Revelation (Emil Fackenheim); The Covenant Broken: A New Age (Yitzchak Greenberg); A Redefinition of God (Arthur Cohen); God is Dead (Richard Rubinstein); The Ethical Demand, emphasizing that the primary imperative of our post-Holocaust era is a defense of ethical obligations that human beings owe to one another (Emmanuel Levinas and Amos Funkenstein); and Mystery and Silence (Eli Wiesel).

Prof. Katz very ably examines each of these positions and shows how they are all open to critical interrogation and rebuttal.  He contends that both the theological radicals and conservatives have all run ahead of the available evidence to reach conclusions that are not necessarily intellectually persuasive. Thus, the matter of whether the Shoah entails any religious changes regarding Jewish practices and behaviors remains an open question.  Katz concludes provocatively that "the death camps do challenge - even while they do not necessarily falsify - traditional Jewish theological claims.  However, just what this challenge ultimately means remains undecided."

 

The Challenge Before Us

Both this volume and an earlier one, The Impact of the Holocaust on Jewish Theology and Thought, published by the New York University Press, resulting from the two conferences organized in Ashkelon mentioned earlier, are valuable contributions indeed to the field of Holocaust thought and theology. They also help move the Holocaust beyond the work of historians and educators who have been the dominant actors in the field for half a century since the Holocaust.  The historians have documented the historical facts and have taken major steps in integrating the Holocaust into Jewish history.  The educators have selected and shaped this historical material for the purpose of transmitting this horrific experience to the next generation.

The Foundation has played an important, modest role in both these efforts.  The Foundation's motivation in initiating and supporting this new enterprise is to deepen and expand the dialogue and discussion among the next generation of Jewish thinkers and philosophers, not to explain the Holocaust, but to explicate its significance and meaning, especially to the Jewish people.

A half-century is certainly a very short span to achieve comprehensive results in this area.  Yet through this volume we learn of Prof. Greenberg's prodigious research, making available to the Jewish community a collection of important Ultra-Orthodox writings overlooked and neglected for several decades since the Holocaust.

On the other hand, in Prof. Greenberg's view, the Orthodox community possessed traditions that provided a context for response that was unavailable to other modern forms of Judaism.  The modern religious streams, according to Greenberg, "did not possess alternate, independent, non-traditional, trans-historical layers to which to resort when its fundamental presumption that morality was inherent to human history was shattered by the evil the Holocaust represented."

Prof. Biderman also argues that Zionist ideology in Israel repressed for several decades serious contemplation of the moral and theological concerns about the Holcaust.

At a recent Nahum Goldmann Fellowship with fifty young leaders from all around the world, there was consensus among the Fellows who participated in workshops dealing with the propagation of Jewish education and consciousness that what was needed was "less Holocaust and more Hebrew".

By "more Hebrew" we believe they meant more attention to Jewish culture and their connection to Israel as part of their quest for normative expression as individuals and future leaders in their Jewish communities.  "Less Holocaust" might have meant less emphasis on the Jews as victims.  Or it might indicate the absence for these future leaders of the Jewish people of a philosophical and theological vocabulary and concepts that can provide them with a fuller understanding of the meaning and significance of the Holocaust than current Holocaust educational programs provide.

Wrestling with God provides those seriously concerned about these issues with the most comprehensive conceptual inventory to date of the work of our finest Jewish thinkers ranging across the entire Jewish religious and intellectual spectrum about the significance and meaning of the Holocaust.  It is also a valuable step forward, encouraging and enlarging the conversation about this critical concern.  It hopefully will also serve as an indispensable prelude and stimulus to the challenge still before us, the need to be more effective in our ongoing efforts in Holocaust education to articulate more meaningfully and definitively the meaning and significance of the Holocaust to the next generation of young Jewish leadership, especially in the Diaspora.

It is an assignment far from being completed and the major challenge, in our judgment, for the field of the Holocaust in the future.

Best wishes for a joyous Purim.
Sincerely yours,

Dr. Jerry Hochbaum
Executive Vice President