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Holocaust theology

Holocaust theology (from the Greek ὁλόκαυστος holókaustos: hólos, "whole" and kaustós, "burnt"),[1] refers to a body of theological and philosophical debate concerning the role of God in the universe in light of the Holocaust of the late 1930s and 1940s. It is primarily found in Judaism; Jews were drastically affected by the Holocaust, in which approximately 11 million people[citation needed], including 6 million Jews, were murdered in a genocide by the Nazi regime and its allies. One third of the total worldwide Jewish population would be killed during the Holocaust. The Eastern European Jewish population was particularly hard hit being reduced by ninety percent. While a disproportionate number of Jewish religious scholars would be killed, more than eighty percent of the world’s total,[2] the perpetrators of the Holocaust did not merely target religious Jews. A large percentage of the Jews killed both in Eastern and Western Europe were either nonobservant or had not received even an elementary level Jewish education.[3]

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have traditionally taught that God is omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omnibenevolent (all-good) in nature. However, these views are in contrast with the fact that there is injustice and suffering in the world. Monotheists seek to reconcile this view of God with the existence of evil and suffering. In so doing, they are confronting what is known as the problem of evil.

Within all of the monotheistic faiths many answers (theodicies) have been proposed. In light of the magnitude of depravity seen in the Holocaust, many people have also re-examined classical views on this subject. A common question raised in Holocaust theology is, "How can people still have any kind of faith after the Holocaust?"

Orthodox Jewish responses

Haredi Jewish responses

Satmar leader Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum writes: Because of our sinfulness we have suffered greatly, suffering as bitter as wormwood, worse than any Israel has known since it became a people…In former times, whenever troubles befell Jacob, the matter was pondered and reasons sought–which sin had brought the troubles about–so that we could make amends and return to the Lord, may He be blessed…But in our generation one need not look far for the sin responsible for our calamity…The heretics have made all kinds of efforts to violate these oaths, to go up by force and to seize sovereignty and freedom by themselves, before the appointed time…[They] have lured the majority of the Jewish people into awful heresy, the like of which as not been seen since the world was created…And so it is no wonder that the Lord has lashed out in anger…And there were also righteous people who perished because of the iniquity of the sinners and corrupters, so great was the [divine] wrath. – Aviezer Ravitzky, Messianism, Zionism and Jewish Religious Radicalism (1996, The University of Chicago), p. 124. There were redemptionist Zionists, at the other end of the spectrum, who also saw the Holocaust as a collective punishment for a collective sin: ongoing Jewish unfaithfulness to the Land of Israel. Rabbi Mordecai Atiyah was a leading advocate of this idea. Rabbi Zvi Yehudah Kook and his disciples, for their part, avoided this harsh position, but they too theologically related the Holocaust to the Jewish recognition of Zion. Kook writes “When the end comes and Israel fails to recognize it, there comes a cruel divine operation that removes [the Jewish people] from its exile. – Aviezer Ravitzky, ibid. Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, in 1939, stated that the Nazi persecution of the Jews was the fault of non-Orthodox Jews (Achiezer, volume III, Vilna 1939), in the introduction. – “Piety & Power: The World of Jewish Fundamentalism” by Orthodox author David Landau (1993, Hill & Wang). Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler had similar views, also discussed in Landau’s book. Many Haredi rabbis today warn that a failure to follow ultra-Orthodox interpretations of religious law will cause God to send another Holocaust. Rabbi Elazar Shach, a leader of the Lithuanian yeshiva Orthodoxy in Israel until his death in 2001 made this claim on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War. He stated that there would be a new Holocaust in punishment for the abandonment of religion and “desecration” of Shabbat in Israel.


In Chabad Lubavitch Judaism, the last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, taught that God killed six million Jews on purpose, and said that this was a necessary and good “surgery”. Yehuda Bauer wrote a revelatory article on this subject:…On the subject of the Holocaust, the Rebbe wrote as follows: “It is clear that ‘no evil descends from Above,’ and buried within torment and suffering is a core of exalted spiritual good. Not all human beings are able to perceive it, but it is very much there. So it is not impossible for the physical destruction of the Holocaust to be spiritually beneficial. On the contrary, it is quite possible that physical affliction is good for the spirit” (“Mada Ve’emuna,” Machon Lubavitch, 1980, Kfar Chabad).Schneerson goes on to compare God to a surgeon who amputates a patient’s limb in order to save his life. The limb “is incurably diseased … The Holy One Blessed Be He, like the professor-surgeon…seeks the good of Israel, and indeed, all He does is done for the good…. In the spiritual sense, no harm was done, because the everlasting spirit of the Jewish people was not destroyed.”The Rebbe’s stance, therefore, is clear: The Holocaust was a good thing because it lopped off a disease-ravaged limb of the Jewish people – in other words, the millions who perished in the Holocaust – in order to cleanse the Jewish people of its sins. There is logic in this theology: If God is indeed omnipotent, knows everything and controls the world (“God presides over the trials of 4 billion people all day long, every day without a moment’s rest”), which implies divine supervision on an individual and collective basis, then the Holocaust took place not only with his knowledge, but also with his approval.

Schneerson does not accept the idea of “hester panim,” or God’s face being turned away, to explain why He was not present when 1.5 million Jewish children were murdered. According to some religious Jews, this hester panim was a consequence of man’s sins, and, above all, the sins of the Jewish people. Schneerson says that God was there, and that he wanted the Holocaust to happen. But because it is inconceivable, in his view, for God to commit evil, he portrays the Holocaust as a positive event, all the more so for the Jews.

After this text was published in the summer of 1980, kicking up a storm, Chabad claimed it was based on an inaccurate Hebrew translation of talks that the Rebbe delivered in Yiddish. The Rebbe, they said, had no idea his remarks were being published. It seems hard to believe Schneerson would not go over every word published in his name, let alone a text put out in Hebrew by Machon Lubavitch in Kfar Chabad.

In fact, there is a document written by the Rebbe himself, in Hebrew, which bears his statements about the Holocaust. The late Chaika Grossman, a leader of the underground in the Bialystok ghetto, who survived the war and served as a Knesset member for several terms, published an article in Hamishmar newspaper on August 22, 1980, quoting Schneerson and expressing her profound shock at his words. On August 28, 1980, the Rebbe sent her a reply on his personal stationary. The letter, apparently typewritten, contains a number of corrections in his own handwriting, and is signed by him. In it, the Rebbe confirms everything in the published text.

His remarks, Schneerson explained, were based on the Torah. Hitler was a messenger of God in the same sense that Nebuchadnezzar is called “God’s servant” in the Book of Jeremiah (chapter 25). The “surgery” he spoke of was such a massive corrective procedure that the suffering (i.e., the murder of the Jews) was minor compared to its curative effect.

– From the article “God as surgeon”, Yehuda Bauer, [Israeli newspaper] Haaretz, Jun. 1, 2007

is father, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, also believe that the Holocaust was God’s will, to punish Reform Jews. Bryan Mark Rigg, author of “Rescued from the Reich: How One of Hitler’s Soldiers Saved the Lubavitcher Rebbe” offers this information:…[T]he Rebbe [Joseph Isaac Schneersohn] of course wanted to escape Europe and had his movement employ every means, even approaching the Secretary of State, to get him out, but when he was here in the US, he did not approach those very same people to help rescue those who had to remain in Europe.However, he did approach those people in the government to rescue his library, which he did get out in 1941. Are books more important than people? Some of the books were secular like Dante’s Inferno and books on Communism. This is a sad part of the history of the Rebbe. Also he started [publicly] condemning people who were organizing amazing rescue efforts like rabbis Kotler and Kalmanowitz of the Vad-Haatzala. He claimed they and Reform and Kofrim Jews were causing the Holocaust with their non-Kosher ways. Yet, we see that Kotler and Kalmanowitz helped rescue up to 100,000 people with the War Refugee Board. The Rebbe felt they were unnecessarily compromising their religious integrity by meeting with politicians on the Sabbath and secular and reform leaders.

So the Rebbe made mistakes and according to Chancellor of Yeshiva University, [Modern Orthodox leader] Norman Lamm, he committed blasphemy by claiming God was punishing the Jews for their sins with the Holocaust. [Lamm] claims this is a desecration of God’s name (Menachem Mendel Schneerson also said that saying such a thing is a desecration of God’s name without mentioning his father-in-law).

These facts and many more show how much Chabad does to ignore unpleasant facts about their history. They just claim that when people write such things, they are jealous of their movement, do not understand their people or on a political campaign to smear them. Very weak arguments and signs of inferiority complexes. So basically this story shows that instead of pointing fingers, we need to act and make a difference. Small minds blame others; big ones blame themselves and then seek out action to make the situation better.

What people wanted was a hero of the Jewish people fighting for their rights. Instead, the Rebbe just thought of himself and his movement and condemned others. He was not helping the problem, but creating more. He should have worked with Kotler and Kalmanowitz, or at least have tried to, instead of [publicly] condemning them and a host of others.

also see

Modern Orthodox Jewish views

Most Modern Orthodox Jews reject the idea that the Holocaust was God's fault. Modern Orthodox rabbis such as Joseph Soloveitchik, Norman Lamm, Randalf Stolzman, Abraham Besdin, Emanuel Rackman, Eliezer Berkovits and others have written on this issue; many of their works have been collected in a volume published by the Rabbinical Council of America in a volume entitled: Theological and Halakhic Reflections on the Holocaust.[citation needed]

Works of important Jewish theologians

Richard Rubenstein

Prof. Richard Rubenstein's original piece on this issue, After Auschwitz, held that the only intellectually honest response to the Holocaust is to reject God, and to recognize that all existence is ultimately meaningless. There is no divine plan or purpose, no God that reveals His will to mankind, and God does not care about the world. Man must assert and create his own value in life. This view has been rejected by Jews of all religious denominations, but his works were widely read in the Jewish community in the 1970s. Since that time Rubenstein has begun to move away from this view; his later works affirm a form of deism in which one may believe that God may exist as the basis for reality and some also include Kabbalistic notions of the nature of God.

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 the thread uniting God and man, heaven and earth, has been broken ... [4]

Emil Fackenheim

Emil Fackenheim is known for his understanding that people must look carefully at the Holocaust, and to find within it a new revelation from God. For Fackenheim, the Holocaust was an "epoch-making event". In contrast to Richard Rubenstein's views, Fackenheim holds that people must still affirm their belief in God and God's continued role in the world. Fackenheim holds that the Holocaust reveals unto us a new Biblical commandment: we are forbidden to hand Hitler yet another, posthumous victory. He said that rejecting God because of the Holocaust was like giving in to Hitler.

Ignaz Maybaum

In a rare view that has not been adopted by any sizable element of the Jewish or Christian community, Ignaz Maybaum has proposed that the Holocaust is the ultimate form of vicarious atonement. The Jewish people become in fact the "suffering servant" of Isaiah. The Jewish people suffer for the sins of the world. In his view: "In Auschwitz Jews suffered vicarious atonement for the sins of mankind."

Eliezer Berkovits

Eliezer Berkovits held that man's free will depends on God's decision to remain hidden. If God were to reveal himself in history and hold back the hand of tyrants, man's free will would be rendered non-existent. This is a view that is loosely based on the kabbalistic concept of nahama d'kissufa (bread of shame)- the idea that greater satisfaction is achieved when one becomes deserving of a blessing rather than when it is given as a gift. Kabbalah teaches that this is one of the reasons God created man with free will and with obligations, and that in order to maintain that free will, God reduces the extent to which he manifests himself in the world (tzimtzum).[4]</blockquote>

Harold Kushner, William Kaufman and Milton Steinberg

Harold Kushner, William E. Kaufman and Milton Steinberg believe that God is not omnipotent, and thus is not to blame for mankind's abuse of free will. Thus, there is no contradiction between the existence of a good God and the existence of massive evil by part of mankind. It is claimed that this is also the view expressed by some classical Jewish authorities, such as Abraham ibn Daud, Abraham ibn Ezra, and Gersonides.

David Weiss Halivni

David Weiss Halivni, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, says that the effort to associate the Shoah and sin is morally outrageous. He holds that it is unwarranted on a strict reading of the Tanakh. He claims that it reinforces an alarming tendency among ultra-Orthodox leaders to exploit such arguments on behalf of their own authority. In "Prayer in the Shoah" he gives his response to the idea that the Holocaust was a punishment from God:

"What happened in the Shoah is above and beyond measure (l'miskpat): above and beyond suffering, above and beyond any punishment. There is no transgression that merits such punishment... and it cannot be attributed to sin." [5]

Irving Greenberg

Irving Greenberg is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who has written extensively on how the Holocaust should affect Jewish theology. Greenberg has an Orthodox understanding of God, he does not believe that God forces people to follow Jewish law; rather he believes that Jewish law is God's will for the Jewish people, and that Jews should follow Jewish law as normative.

Greenberg's break with Orthodox theology comes with his analysis of the implications of the Holocaust. He writes that the worst thing that God could do to the Jewish people for failing to follow the law is Holocaust-level devastation, yet this has already occurred. Greenberg is not claiming that God did use the Holocaust to punish Jews; he is just saying that if God chose to do so, that would be the worst possible thing. There really is nothing worse that God could do. Therefore, since God cannot punish us any worse than what actually has happened, and since God does not force Jews to follow Jewish law, then we cannot claim that these laws are enforceable on us. Therefore he argues that the covenant between God and the Jewish people is effectively broken and unenforceable.

Greenberg notes that there have been several terrible destructions of the Jewish community, each with the effect of distancing the Jewish people further from God. According to rabbinic literature, after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem and the mass-killing of Jerusalem's Jews, the Jews received no more direct prophecy. After the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem and the mass-killing of Jerusalem's Jews, the Jews no longer could present sacrifices at the Temple. This way of reaching God was at an end. After the Holocaust, Greenberg concludes that God does not respond to the prayers of Jews anymore.

Thus, God has unilaterally broken his covenant with the Jewish people. In this view, God no longer has the moral authority to command people to follow his will. Greenberg does not conclude that Jews and God should part ways; rather he holds that we should heal the covenant between Jews and God, and that the Jewish people should accept Jewish law on a voluntary basis.

His views on this subject have made him the subject of much criticism within the Orthodox community.[citation needed]

Elie Wiesel

A Hungarian-born Jewish-American writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Laureate, and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel is the author of 57 books, including Night, a work based on his experiences as a prisoner in the Auschwitz, Buna, and Buchenwald concentration camps. Wiesel's 1979 play The Trial of God is about a trial in which God is the defendant, and is reportedly based on events that Wiesel himself witnessed as a teenager in Auschwitz. Over the course of the trial, a number of arguments are made, both for and against God's guilt. Wiesel's theological stance, illustrated through the intuitive possibilities of literature, is a theology of existentialist protest, which neither denies God, nor accepts theodicies.[6] In one of his books, Norman Lamm treats Wiesel's theological novel, The Town Beyond the Wall, to literary, theological and Judaic commentary.[7] The novel's protagonists symbolically proceed through a range of theological views, which Wiesel's Midrashic style literature can explore where theodicy fails. The ending sees the hope of renewed mystical reconciliation with God.

Post-Holocaust and child abuse theology

David R. Blumenthal, in his book Facing the Abusing God (1993), has drawn on data from the field of child abuse and has proposed "worship of God through protest" as a legitimate response of survivors of both the Holocaust and child abuse.[8]

Another writer addressing survivors of the Holocaust and child abuse is John K. Roth, whose essay "A Theodicy of Protest" is included in Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy (1982).[9]

Works of important Christian theologians

Jürgen Moltmann

In The Crucified God Jürgen Moltmann speaks of how in a theology after Auschwitz the traditional notion of God needed to be revised:

Shattered and broken, the survivors of my generation were then returning from camps and hospitals to the lecture room. A theology which did not speak of God in the sight of the one who was abandoned and crucified would have had nothing to say to us then.[10]:1

The traditional notion of an impassible unmoved mover had died in those camps and was no longer tenable. Moltmann proposes instead a crucified God who is both a suffering and protesting God.[citation needed] That is, God is not detached from suffering but willingly enters into human suffering in compassion.

God in Auschwitz and Auschwitz in the crucified God – that is the basis for real hope that both embraces and overcomes the world.[10]:278

This is in contrast both with the move of theism to justify God's actions and the move of atheism to accuse God.[citation needed] Moltmann's trinitarian theology of the cross instead says that God is a protesting God who opposes the gods of this world of power and domination by entering into human pain and suffering on the cross and on the gallows of Auschwitz. Moltmann's theology of the cross was later developed into liberation theologies from suffering people under Stalinism in Eastern Europe and military dictatorships in South America and South Korea.

Pope Benedict XVI

In the address given on the occasion of his visit to the extermination camp of Auschwitz, Pope Benedict XVI suggested a reading of the events of the Holocaust as motivated by a hatred of God Himself.[citation needed] The address begins by acknowledging the impossibility of an adequate theological response:

In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can only be a dread silence – a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this? In silence, then, we bow our heads before the endless line of those who suffered and were put to death here; yet our silence becomes in turn a plea for forgiveness and reconciliation, a plea to the living God never to let this happen again.[11]

Nonetheless, he proposes that the actions of the Nazis can be seen as having been motivated by a hatred of God and a desire to exalt human power, with the Holocaust serving as a means by which to erase witness to God and His Law:

The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the earth. Thus the words of the Psalm: “We are being killed, accounted as sheep for the slaughter” were fulfilled in a terrifying way. Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid. If this people, by its very existence, was a witness to the God who spoke to humanity and took us to himself, then that God finally had to die and power had to belong to man alone – to those men, who thought that by force they had made themselves masters of the world. By destroying Israel, by the Shoah, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful.[11]

Most coverage of the address was positive, with praise from Italian and Polish rabbis. The Simon Wiesenthal Center called the visit historic, and the address and prayers "a repudiation of antisemitism and a repudiation of those... who refer to the Holocaust as a myth".[12]


A few Jewish commentators have objected to what they perceived as a desire to Christianize the Holocaust.[13][14] Certain Christian theologians have also criticized a tendency to historicize and dogmatize certain political or secular events such as the Shoah which are not part of theology as traditionally understood.

See also


  1. ^ The word is only marginally found in Greek [Classical] literature referring in general to an offering. The adjective ὁλόκαυστος "holókaustos", "wholly burned", more common in the parallel form ὁλόκαυτος [holókautos], is in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible used in Leviticus 6,21–22 in the following context: "[...] the baked pieces of the grain offering you shall offer for a sweet aroma to the Lord. / The priest [...] shall offer it. It is a statute for ever to the Lord. It shall be wholly burned)."
  2. ^ Steven T. Katz, Shlomo Biderman, Gershon Greenberg, ed. (2006). Wrestling with God: Jewish Theological Responses during and after the Holocaust: The Third Era. Oxford University Press. 
  3. ^ Reeve Robert Brenner (2014). The Faith and Doubt of Holocaust Survivors. Transaction Publishers. p. 81. 
  4. ^ a b Rubenstein, Richard (1966). After Auschwitz. Bobbs-Merrill. 
  5. ^ "Prayer in the Shoah". From: Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.
  6. ^ All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs vol 1, Elie Wiesel, Schocken 1996. Chapter "God's Suffering: A Commentary" p 101-106 and other references in the book
  7. ^ Faith and Doubt: Studies in Traditional Jewish Thought, Norman Lamm, Ktav Publishers, Chapter XII: Suffering and Literature
  8. ^ Blumenthal, D (1993): Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest. Despite the term "abuse" being new in Jewish theology, as shown on page 261 of the book, the arguments connected to it have a long tradition in Jewish theology.
  9. ^ Roth et al. (1982) - Extracted from a review of Roth's essay, in which the author comments that "Roth is painting a picture of God as the ultimate example of a bad and abusive parent!"
  10. ^ a b Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (Augsburg Fortress:Minneapolis, 1993).
  11. ^ a b "Pastoral Visit of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI in Poland: Address by the Holy Father - Visit to the Auschwitz Camp, 28 May 2006"
  12. ^ Simon Wiesenthal Center
  13. ^ e.g. Daniel Goldhagen in "The Holocaust Was Not Christian"
  14. ^ Goldhagen, 2002, p. 240.

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