Reflecting on Holocaust Theology

History and Philosophy

Is Magid–and is Neusner–correct? Is fixation on the Holocaust as a pillar of American Jewish life problematic?

I think we need to answer “yes.” I say that not simply because of Auschwitz’s increasing remoteness from American Jewish life; if Auschwitz is truly a tremendum, as Holocaust theologians have often insisted, it may be that Auschwitz really deserves a central place.  Auschwitz–the entire Nazi project–was a unique performance of mass murder, brought about by a combination of old motivations, common political circumstance, and unique placement of people and technology.

But mass murder and genocide were not new to Auschwitz. Depending on how one defines genocide, it wasn’t new to the Armenians in the early 1910s, either. But the Holocaust was the first systematic, continental, mechanized, industrialized effort at truly wiping out entire populations; its means, fortunately, have not been available to and used by others in quite the same way. (Even the Soviet purges, which killed many more people than the Nazis’ mechanized mass-murder machine, weren’t genocidal in quite the same way.)

Auschwitz is, on this understanding, a historical turning point. But it is not really a philosophical or theological one. It remains, I think, difficult to see how the big arguments about theology are really moved by the means of one tragedy or another. If suffering is unjust, suffering due to the absence or malice of a purported God of Israel doesn’t lose its injustice; if suffering is just, it doesn’t become unjust simply due to its scale if you really believe that suffering is a deserved and proper result of divine action. Put another way, if a divinity demands suffering, is there some number at which that suffering suddenly becomes unjust when it was not so before?

And even as a marker of Jewish identity, as memory fades, the Holocaust will likely take on a role of something akin to any number of other persecutions. This doesn’t mean that it should be misappropriated; only that we will reach a point where the persuasive power of a distant memory will be much diminished. The frantic efforts to continue to depend upon that memory as justifying any manner of arguments and policies will seem increasingly shrill and artificial.

And that is the problem with continuing to rely upon the memory of the Holocaust. As time goes on, the artificial-ness and shrillness of the reliance upon the Holocaust will cease to ring true as new circumstances arise and new opportunities and problems confront American Jews. Where the experience of anti-Semitism is distant and never really experienced, the central place of “the world hates us” and the Holocaust in the face of Jews ascendant will be less and less meaningful. It will give no positive reason to be Jewish.

So, do I think Magid and Neusner are correct?