Serious Discussion of The Holocaust
The author, John Jefferson Davis, a professor of systematic theology and Christian ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, begins with the following quote from the leaders of Conservative Judaism: “Given the enormity of the horror represented by Auschwitz… the question of how a just and powerful God could allow the annihilation of so many innocent lives haunts the religious conscience and staggers the imagination.”
He proceeds to offer up the main Jewish views on the topic, including those of the Satmar Rav, Richard Rubenstein, Irving Greenberg, Emil Fackenheim, and Eliezer Berkovitz. A brief synopsis of each of their views is in order, and I will briefly list them below.
The Satmar Rav sees in the Holocaust an element of divine retribution. The secular/Reformist gravitation towards Zionism and the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine prior to the arrival of the Messiah, was a form of arrogance in which they sought to bring about a reality that only God could accomplish through his chosen Messiah.
Richard Rubenstein is at the opposite end of the spectrum. According to him, to see any meaning and purpose in the Holocaust would have us look at Hitler and the S.S. as instruments of God’s will. This is too obscene to accept.
As Davis writes, the other views presented fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Irving Greenberg asks that we keep in mind when reflecting on the Holocaust, that “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.” He writes that Christianity needs to examine itself and its legacy of anti-Judaism and that the survival of the Jewish people and the creation of the State of Israel are renewed testimony to God’s continuing presence in history.
Emil Fackenheim, a distinguished philosopher and Reformed rabbi, exhorts us not to hand Hitler posthumous victories. The Holocaust must be overcome with a commitment to the State of Israel, a witness that Hitler did not ultimately prevail.
Finally, Eliezer Berkovitz proffers another Orthodox approach. While we are unable to arrive at a rational justification of God’s ways in the Holocaust, we need to take example from Job: “We must believe, because our brother Job believed; and we must question, because our brother Job could not believe any longer.”
Davis then briefly goes through some of the Evangelical treatments of the Holocaust. Some are simplistic and, according to Davis, “parallel and continue some of the elements of the anti-Judaic theology of the early church fathers and middle ages.” In any case, Evangelical discussions of the Holocaust and theodicy are scant and, in this, Davis finds his imperative to present his own approach.
Theodicies generally fall into four categories: “Non-theodicies,” “Divine Retribution,” “Free Will and the Greater Good,” and “Limited God” theodicies. The “Free Will and the Greater Good” theodicy is the approach I believe has the most merit as it provides some understanding while maintaining consonance with the Biblical depiction of God. Davis also bases himself on this approach and, so, I’d like to spend some time discussing it.
Davis cites John Hick that free-will is inherent in what we mean by “personhood.” The preservation of free-will then, necessitates the possibility of evil. Hitler chose to do evil on a massive scale. Hitler, not God, should be blamed for the Holocaust. Davis now cites Harold Kushner: “If the question is asked, where was God at Auschwitz?” Kushner’s answer is that “He was with the victims and not with the murderers.”
The “Greater Good” theodicy views evil as a regrettable means for a greater good. In this context, this greater good would seem to be the heightened sense of compassion affected by the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel. Davis mentions that critics are quick to point out: for whom was this good? What about the victims? To put it crudely (my way of expressing the critique), “was the butchering of six million Jews for the State of Israel and this heightened compassion worth it? Could it not be done in any other way?”
I’ll quote Davis in full on this one: “In defense of the “greater good” type of theodicy, it could be noted that the critics have their own set of questions to ponder: “If you say that God should have stopped Hitler, how about Mussolini? If Mussolini, then how about Pearl Harbor… If God should have intervened to stop the slaughter of six million, how about five? Four? 400,000? 40,000? 4000? 400? 40? 4? On what basis can you say that “X amount of evil” is inconsistent with the ultimate purposes of God? How can you know that precise quantity “X?” Do you fully understand the universe that God has created or the eternal purposes of God?”
I don’t really think that this is an adequate response for the Holocaust. The Holocaust would seem to be inconsistent with the ultimate purposes of God if those purposes were merely the heightened sense of compassion he speaks of, that has long since ebbed, and the State of Israel. Let’s move on to his approach, the one he terms a “Martyreo-Eschatological Hermeneutic.”
Basically, Davis posits a theodicy that has the raising of the dead and post-history retribution as necessary underpinnings to maintain God’s retributive and compensatory attributes. Transvaluation of the suffering might be possible if the eternal reality of afterlife is taken into account; the suffering, as such, can be counterbalanced and viewed as the birth-pangs preceding an eternal gratification of sorts. This can be appreciated without diminishing the acuity of the suffering; acute pain and suffering can be understood as being counterbalanced by eternal good. This is analogous to childbirth: the most acute physical pain is experienced by a mother during childbirth, but nonetheless, mothers would say that the suffering was more than made up for by the child. Faith that there may be reasons unfathomable to the human mind with the plausibility of there being a counterbalance to the suffering would suffice to lay the ground stones from which theodicies dealing with the Holocaust can proceed.
Davis explains the “martyreo” aspect of his hermeneutic, but I can’t make out his intentions. He cites Emil Fackenheim as questioning the viability of martyrdom as regards the holocaust and that it is time “… to suspend the time-honored Jewish exaltation of martyrdom … after Auschwitz, Jewish life is more sacred than Jewish death, were it even for the sanctification of the divine Name.” Davis now paraphrases Fackenheim, “The supreme value for the Jew is the continuation of Jewish existence, and this is demonstrated in unwavering Jewish commitment to the State of Israel and Jewish self-defense—lest ‘Hitler be given posthumous victories.’” He continues, seemingly now explaining what he meant before by the “viability” of martyrdom here, “In Fackenheim’s view, the dehumanization of so many in the death camps, that reduced human beings to the living dead, removed the real possibility of ethical choice presupposed by the traditional understandings of martyrdom.” From subsequent paragraphs, it seems Davis was trying to make the following point: martyrdom can’t be looked as an ideal when we discuss the holocaust because of the gross dehumanization the victims suffered and its toll on their ability to make ethical choices. We can’t fault them for their failed faith. He then cites Eliezer Berkovits who defends martyrdom in the holocaust. Davis takes Berkovitz’s approach and, this is really fascinating, he uses the traditional Jewish interpretation of the “suffering servant” in Isiah 53 (Christians generally interpret this as prophesying the crucifixion of Jesus) to answer Fackenheim’s objections for the usage of martyrdom in the holocaust: “could one not still appeal to a notion of the solidarity of the Jewish people, and say that one (heroic Jewish martyr) died for the many?” The suffering servant is understood to be referring to the Jewish people as a whole who have suffered throughout the generations and died as martyrs for His Name. He explains: “a Jew, even a non-religious Jew, who was murdered merely for being a Jew, the bearer of a name associated with the God of Abraham, could thus, in an extended sense, be viewed as a martyr. ‘Jew-hatred is God-hatred’: anti-Semitism is theological phenomenon, in that hatred of the chosen race is in the final analysis hatred directed against God himself.” As for why he conflates post-holocaust martyrdom with marytdom during the holocaust itself, and how, at all, martyrdom assists him in the development of his theodicy, I’m at a loss.
I found Davis’s article to be well written and deferential to the victims of the Holocaust. He seemed to be writing to a Jewish audience as well as a Christian one, invoking throughout his essay as support for his themes, the Torah and rabbinic literature. Most of what he writes need not be in conflict with a Jewish approach to the Holocaust.