Monday, May 01, 2006

Holocaust Theodicy

Last week was Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. I don't observe that day, less for of an ideological reason than simply because my memories of the observances of that day do not include anything religious. To me, the Holocaust must be remembered from a theological perspective and Yom Hashoah never provided that for me. In my synagogue, we remember the Holocaust on Tisha B'Av, and that is the Holocaust Memorial Day for me.

Nevertheless, let me bring up an interesting book about the Holocaust. R. Ezriel Tauber is himself a survivor of the Holocaust, which gives him the permission to discuss its theological ramifications that most others lack. Why did God allow it to happen? Why did God cause, or allow, such horrible suffering and death? In his book Darkness Before Dawn, R. Tauber attempts to answer those questions. The book is worth reading if only for the many stories it contains, some horrifying, all inspiring.

R. Tauber's basic answer is that the suffering and death were not Divine punishments but opportunities for spiritual growth through resistance. And even those who did not grow are surely not to blame, given the duress under which they were placed. As individuals and as a group, the martyrs and survivors of the Holocaust also serve as an inspiration to future generations and as guides for how to live our religious lives.

However, this idea ignores the medieval philosophers and commentators who discuss whether there is an exception to the idea that God will not inflict undeserved suffering. According to some, that is the definition of Yissurin Shel Ahavah. According to others, even Yissurin Shel Ahavah require sin.

Furthermore, it raises the question of Divine justice. It says that God would inflict horrific suffering on an individual to see if he will grow from it. In other words, it does not answer the question of the suffering of the Holocaust but only restates it in other words. One is still left with the same questions, even after reading the whole book.

R. Tauber is not unaware of the many Jews who became non-religious because of the Holocaust. Why did that happen? He answers that either they were destined to become non-religious anyway or their souls were of the Erev Rav whose "original conversion to Judaism was laced with questionable, ulterior motives" (pp. 255-256).

[One should not leave this post thinking that there is no other Jewish response to the Holocaust. See, for example, here and here.]

UPDATE: It has come to my attention that not everyone realizes that this post was a criticism of R. Tauber's view. That's what it is.

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