"God and the Holocaust” - Michael Cohen

On Sunday 17 November, 2002, Descendants of the Shoah had the pleasure of hearing a fascinating lecture by Michael Cohen on “God and the Holocaust”. Below is a summary.

The Holocaust essentially translated the phrase ”you cannot live among us therefore you cannot live“ which effectively left Jews for the first time in a history of anti-Semitism with no choices and it is this very issue that has perplexed theologians. “Where was God?” - is a major and inexplicable challenge to Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers alike and Michael Cohen’s lecture very comprehensively addressed the major themes whilst stating in fact there are no answers.

Not only does one have to ask, “where was God?” but one has to ask “a range of questions” where was man? Where was mercy? Why do the righteous suffer? But as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks so aptly expressed “The Shoah is a mystery wrapped in silence”.

Michael raised many more questions than he answered and used the lecture as an opportunity to present a wide-ranging collection of opinions, which reflected on his huge understanding, and reading of the complexities of this topic.

Some of the thinkers and writers he referenced were:

  • Rabbi Richard Rubinstein (a reconstructionist rabbi) who developed a “death of God“ theory and felt that after the Shoah it was impossible to believe in a god because no vindication was possible for such an unprecedented and in comprehensible occurrence.

  • Professor Emil Fackenheim, the eminent Holocaust writer and philosopher opposed this view, stating that God was present in the camps and that there is a need to add one more mitzvah - to remain Jewish - otherwise Hitler wins. He argues that we are mere mortals and can’t understand but we must believe in God. However he offers no explanation for God’s silence/lack of action.

  • Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of UK supports Fackenheim’s views but states Jewish survival has significance after the Shoah because it was significant before. The miracle in fact is that Jewish life continues.

  • The Satmar Rebbe Teitelbaum represents the extreme view that God punished the Jews because Zionism was a secular movement and because the State of Israel was trying to emerge before the Messiah.

  • Still others said it was precisely because Jews had rejected Zionism that the Holocaust punished them.

  • The Lubavitcher Rebbe, who published a book in the 1980’s controversially stating that the Shoah was of benefit because God served as a surgeon general, removing the cancer of the Jewish people, cutting off its gangrenous arm which would lead to saving its soul. The notion that physical annihilation can become spiritual regeneration led to a major controversy in South Africa and Australia. This approach of divine retribution was abhorrent to many and in 1991 the Rebbe recanted saying that the “destruction of six million Jews was beyond human explanation”.

  • Berkovitz and Kushner argued that man’s own moral behaviour determines his destiny. God can’t affect goodness so it’s up to us. It seems to be the only intellectually satisfying theological answer and Berkowitz speaks of the 12 million who were saved, rather than the six million who died.

  • Kushner asks whether God was on the side of the victims or the executioners. He fails to make sense of it, as do many but ponders the question of man’s freedom to choose to good and/or evil.

  • Elie Wiesel “the man who never divorced God” fights with God and tries to find meaning in suffering. In fact only once in ‘Night” does he hint at the absence of God, who is “hanging in the gallows”. Wiesel argues for memory as a source of healing.

  • Irving Greenberg a left wing, modern orthodox US rabbi talks of the ”shattered paradigm” and considers it miraculous that despite the Shoah Jews should have considered continuing their faith. In fact the Shoah shattered the original conventional model, yet after the Shoah faith persisted.

Michael Cohen himself believes that as an educator his task is not to impose beliefs but he finds the notion of divine retribution as expressed by some of the thinkers absolutely unconscionable and says that no Jewish educator or spiritual leader could arrogate the omniscience in such a terrible judgment.

If anything the riddle remains unsolved, the essential question – “Why do good suffer?” still inexplicable.

It remains the single greatest challenge to Jewish belief.

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