Reflecting on Holocaust Theology

Memory and Philosophy

But the Holocaust (and Israel is its historical counterpart in many ways) looms very, very large in the memories of many. But memory and history are funny things; my generation is a step or two removed. Auschwitz looms less large, and the early vision of Israel has given way to something worrying to many, something out of step with the ideas we were taught. Israel and the Holocaust as the twin pillars of prior generations of Jewish life lack the persuasive value they once had, and their use as rhetorical weapons in the world of American Jewish life is becoming more and more problematic, at least in terms of how we react to those arguments.

I think it’s important that we unpack this a bit. The memory of the Holocaust has far less power for younger American Jews in part because of its distance in time. Auschwitz was liberated seventy years ago; many of us have parents–even grandparents!–who were not alive when that occurred. We know Holocaust survivors as individuals largely older than our grandparents.

And we have no memory of an America with pervasive anti-Semitism. How much of the Holocaust’s hold as a persuasive memory is a result of real, regular experiences with the anti-Semitism that in the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s bubbled just under the surface of “respectable” American culture? I have had isolated experiences of anti-Semitism; my parents’ generation experienced more of it. The Klan marched in Skokie before any time I can remember.

All of this means that “It could happen again–to us!” creates much less fear for many in my generation; at times, those warnings seem to border on farce. It seems particularly less persuasive because the immediate post-Holocaust generation did so much to reshape American culture so that anti-Semitism no longer was respectable. For this, I want to be clear, we owe a tremendous debt.

Yet the first inkling that the Holocaust as sustaining center of Jewish life could be problematic emerged nearly as soon as that separate set of thought called Holocaust theology first came into view, trying to forge some kind of reconciliation. It was not only Jacob Neusner (one of whose many books is the subject of the Magid article in Tablet) who broached the idea that, from a long view of history, the Holocaust would become one of a number of crises in Jewish life to which traditional Jewish covenantal theology would eventually adapt.

Eliezer Berkovitz (a decidedly Orthodox Jewish thinker) made a similar theological move, going so far as to articulate the notion that the Holocaust was the result of the intentional withdrawal of the God of Israel from human history for the sake of all humanity–that is, the God of Israel took his hands off the steering wheel to allow a bloodletting at the hands of Nazi Germany in order to allow the later redemption of a broader spectrum of humanity. But in this, it was one of any number of such historical examples of hester panim–the hiding of the face of the God of Israel. (Yes, this is a pretty offensive thesis, and one I do not accept.) (Also, I don’t have a copy handy, but I recall Richard Rubenstein, one of the first Holocaust theologians, writing in the second edition of his book After Auschwitz that he was in basic agreement with Neusner’s forecast on the effect of the Holocaust on Jewish theology. I don’t recall whether Rubenstein directly cited Neusner, but I recall him expressing a similar sentiment. If someone knows otherwise, please let me know and I’ll correct this.)

The Holocaust has already, then, become less important in Jewish philosophy and theology–as it was bound to do. And we cannot credibly repay the debt we may owe to prior generations by turning into near-farce so serious a thing.

This does not, though, make Magid correct; it only makes inevitable what he had to say.