One refrain I hear very often is that the Holocaust marks the biggest challenge to (or sometimes even hyperbolically-stated as the ‘end of’) Jewish theology. The idea that the horror of the Sho’ah is an irrevocable condemnation of God seems to me both misguided and far over-simplistic.
Whenever I teach about what academics call ‘theodicy’ (basically, the discipline of trying to explain why bad things happen to good people within theology) the inevitable first question asked is: “Yes, but what about the Holocaust? How could God let that happen?”
I think we need to reframe that question, and I think the sources are with me on this. We should be asking instead, “How could humanity let that happen?” The Sho’ah should shatter our faith in the goodness of us not in the goodness of God. Displacing our righteous indignation at the ease with which “normal” people became ravenous murderers beholden to genocidal ideology unto God instead is easy— it is far easier to cry out to God, to condemn God. Yet it is humanity whose verdict is confirmed by the trial of the Sho’ah.
There isn’t a great deal of reason why we should turn to castigate God first. You may respond: ‘Fine, but then why didn’t God intervene? Why didn’t God smite Auschwitz or send a stroke upon Hitler?’ Perhaps once again instead of asking, ‘Why didn’t…’ we should look at what we know about the ways in which God does intervene in the events of history.
Consider the Exodus: God allows the Israelites to be enslaved and subjugated for over 400 years before considering intervention. An entire generation of infants were drowned before our story even starts. When God does ‘intervene’ it is as passively as possible— speaking to and through righteous human beings, Moses, Aaron, Miriam. God acts through them. Perhaps we can ask why God did not simply kill Pharaoh with a heart attack? Why did God not simply pull the Israelites out after 4 years, or even 40, waiting instead until more than 400 had passed?!
The answer, for better or worse, is simple: that just isn’t the way it works— and that’s okay. God has given humanity free will, and the cost of that extraordinary gift is accountability and responsibility. We may feel God’s presence in the system of Providence set up from above, but that is an indirect interaction with Divinity at a distance. God is not “personally” responsible for our failures or our successes, our kindnesses or our violences— we are.
The uncomfortable truth we erase by condemning God for the atrocities of the Holocaust is that the blame lies instead in the human heart. “Normal” men, women and children joined the blood-lust fueled murder of their neighbours. “Average” people went to work each day at Auschwitz and came home each evening to their family, kissing their own children goodnight after having spent the day supervising the slaughter of someone else’s children.
During these weeks between Pesach and Shavu’ot our tradition obligates us to learn the ethical principles contained in the the tractate of the Mishnah called Avot (“Fundamentals”). From the first chapter, and on today– Yom haSho’ah– we must reflect on the teaching of Hillel (1:14):
הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי:
“He (Hillel) used to say: If I am not for me, who is for me? When I am only for myself, what am I? And, if not now, then when?”
It is upon us to choose life, to choose goodness, to choose kindness. The responsibility falls upon us to ask, ‘If not now, then when?’ God does not exist as a cosmic helicopter parent, waiting to swoop in and save us from ourselves. Humans committed the crimes of the Holocaust and it is humans who must be held responsible. We musn’t distract ourselves from the critical project of changing the human heart to ensure ‘never again,’ by misdirecting our anger at a Divinity who did exactly what God has always done: given humanity freedom and choice, between life and death, good and evil, salvation and slaughter.
Lastly, I leave you with the words of Rabbi Solomon David Sassoon, a 20th century British rabbi who wrote the following in response to the Annihilation which he witnessed in his own lifetime:
“God does not want to always have to make things right. God has given humanity room to do it- and if they choose not to, then evil prevails, and humanity is responsible for it. God wants for us to be responsible.”
May this Yom haSho’ah, as it draws to a close, remind us of the terrible responsibility we bear toward each other and the dangerous consequences if we do not step in to make things right.