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Home » Shemot Parshah, The Jewish Faith, Tragedy

Shemot: Faith in Auschwitz

Submitted by on December 15, 2013 – 3:57 amNo Comment | 3,081 views

Where was G-d?

Where was G-d during the Holocaust is one of a questions fielded by theologians and religious thinkers. Is it possible to believe in G-d despite such tragedy? Was faith possible in Auschwitz?

In fact, the Holocaust is merely the latest and greatest example of large scale atrocities that our people have suffered. We are no strangers to suffering and we have grappled with this question for millennia. The first to raise it was no less a spiritual giant than Moses, who asked G-d why He had done evil to Jews in Egypt.[1]

History shows that it is possible to believe in G-d despite tragedy. In fact, many Jews experienced a strengthening of faith in Auschwitz. Yet, it is equally true that even more Jews walked away from Torah and religion after the Holocaust. For them, faith in Auschwitz was just not possible.

How are we to respond when we are asked where G-d was during the Holocaust?

One thing is clear right off the top. When one who has suffered asks the question of one who hasn’t, the only possible answer is empathy. What words can we offer that might mend a broken heart? They aren’t asking a question, they are outraged; it is an overwhelming surge of emotional output when their loss and sheer horror come to mind. There are no logical answers to emotional questions. The brain simply cannot mend the heart. Only heart responses answer heart questions, which is why rational answers are counterproductive at such times. The only response is empathy and emotional support.

Yet there are many that haven’t suffered in person and for them the question is a logical logger jam. They truly and sincerely want to make sense of this question and don’t know how. In fact, often we are the ones grappling with this question and we seek logical answers to buttress our faith. How should we respond? Is there in fact a basis for faith in Auschwitz?

A thousand articles have been written on this subject and they will never suffice. This article isn’t going to reveal new information that you haven’t heard before, but I hope to provide a new perspective. Every serious student of this question knows that there is no way to resolve this problem logically. It is a theological paradox. If we believe that G-d orchestrates world events and that G-d is just, we are left with only two alternatives, to suggest that the Holocaust was just, a specter we dare not consider or that G-d is either not just or not in control, possibilities we may not consider.

The only other possibility is to conclude that the Divine will is inscrutable and that the human mind cannot comprehend G-d’s mysterious ways. This is the common and in fact the only possible answer that does not compromise our faith tenets. But not surprisingly it fails to satisfy. Many querying souls that have asked this question have anticipated this answer and rejected it. If it is the only answer available to us, how can we make it palatable first to ourselves and then to others?

Not A Question

I met a Jew, who witnessed unspeakable crimes and inhumane suffering faith - innerstreamwhen he visited concentration camps as a soldier in the liberating American Army. For years, he had rejected G-d. He attends Synagogue faithfully, but proclaims that he is there on protest – to protest G-d’s inaction during the Holocaust. When he asked me where G-d was during the Holocaust I tried an empathetic response, but he wanted to dialogue. He wanted more than emotional support. He sought answers.

What could I possibly tell him that he had not already heard?

As I considered my response, I remembered a story about a Rabbi who asked his former student why he had abandoned religious observance. The student explained that he had several faith questions that led him to lose his faith. The Rabbi replied that if the questions came before he had abandoned his faith, they were questions, but if the questions came after he had abandoned his faith, they weren’t questions, they were answers that justified his abandonment of faith. Questions, concluded the Rabbi, can be answered, answers cannot be answered.

Suddenly I knew what I had to say.

The question of where G-d was during the Holocaust cannot be answered, I told him, no logical answer can do justice to the enormity of this question. It defies human logic because it transcends us. That much you already know, I told him, but please consider my next point. A question is by definition a prelude to an answer. If it cannot be answered, it is not a question, it is a statement. The sentence, where was G-d during the holocaust, is followed by a period rather than a question mark.

This means that s/he who makes the statement is responsible for crafting the next sentence. When you ask a question, you expect your interlocutor to respond. When you make a statement you expect your interlocutor to listen. Where was G-d during the Holocaust is a statement that we can all agree on. The question is, what is your next statement? Now that you have stated a universal truth, namely that we don’t understand why G-d allowed the Holocaust, the question is, do you still believe in Him?

You are the sole proprietor of your next statement.

All your life, I told his man, you tied your hands by charging others with answering your question and putting your faith back together. When they couldn’t answer it, you were unable to believe. Stop granting control over your belief to others. You are not asking a question, which would put them in the driver’s seat. You are making a statement, which leaves you in the driver’s seat. You are free to make your own choice – free to believe.

Faith is not the language of the heart or mind, it is the language of the soul. If you choose to deal with this problem on a soulful level you are free to craft your next sentence as a statement of faith. You can reconcile your inability to explain the Holocaust and choose to believe anyway. The opportunity to believe, closed to you for so many years, suddenly opens again.

I don’t know if his faith was restored,[2] but he did thank me for the fresh perspective.

Faith in Auschwitz

In summation, for those who ask where was G-d during the Holocaust, faith in Auschwitz is not possible. For those who state where was G-d during the Holocaust, faith in G-d is eminently possible.

[1] Exodus 5: 22.

[2] On a deep level I believe that his faith is intact. He is certainly engaged in a relationship with G-d. He attends Synagogue readily and regularly. He is there in protest, to be sure, but he is there nonetheless.

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