Grappling with Lingering Pain, Lingering Questions

By Joseph Grunblatt

Ever since World War II, the problem of how to deal with the Holocaust has replaced all previous challenges facing traditional theologians.  How can we cope with God’s silence in the face of that calamity which destroyed one third of our people, including the cream of the Ashkenazic Torah community?

Some responses have called for silence in the spirit of Aharon HaKohain.  The Torah records “vayidom Aharon,” Aharon remains silent in the face of his private holocaust which wiped out half of his family.  Of course, in that instance, the Torah provides us with the cause of that calamity – Nadav and Avihu “offered strange fire before the Lord which He had not commanded them.”  While their deaths affected all of Klal Yisrael, it was nevertheless a private tragedy.

That does not mean that those who counsel silence ignore the Holocaust.  On the contrary; while not engaging in theology, they would focus anecdotally on the remarkable tenacity and spiritual heroism of those who sustained their unflinching faith in the face of indescribable suffering and adversity.

There are those in the Chareidi community, such as Satmar and others, who see in the Holocaust another case of “mipnei chataeinu – because of our sins.”   They see it as a punishment for the sins of our people since the dawn of modernity.  The intrusion of foreign ideas, assimilatory trends, and secular nationalism (Zionism) displacing Torah as the central focus of Jewish nationhood triggered Divine retribution, as has been the case in all of Jewish history.

On the Left, is a group of influential literary intellectuals, some of whom retain “membership” in the Orthodox community, who see in the Holocaust a “new revelation.” They insist that the Holocaust was a unique and unprecedented event and that the classical theories of Jewish suffering and redemption are no longer applicable. Some speak of a voluntary relationship with God henceforth, since “the Covenant is no longer operative.”  The “new revelation,” they assert, is that we are now more dependent on ourselves. They claim that the enormity of the catastrophe (especially the deaths of one and a half million children), which seems way beyond anything that we could deserve for our sins, has radically altered the way we may look at Jewish history and continuity.  Their position has also become a basis for total acceptance of pluralism.  In post-Holocaust Jewry, they say, no one group has the right, nor is it historically prudent, to claim absolute validity to one “expression” of Jewishness.

We have precedent for such shock and dismay after past Churbanot.  Our sages tell us that the Jews confronted the prophet after the first Churban Beit Hamikdash (destruction of the First Temple) and asked:  “A servant whose master has sold him out — does that master still have a claim on him?”  In theological language:  Is the Covenant still binding?  Of course, the prophet rejected their plea.  The nature of the Covenant is its unconditional bond.

What is even more striking is the reaction of great Biblical figures according to Chazal.  We find it in the Talmud (Yuma 69): In the name of Reb Joshua ben Levi, who said:  “Why were they called the Men of the Great Assembly (Anshei Knesset Hagedolah)?  Because they restored the old Crown (of God) to its original glory.  To what does this refer?  Moses had said (Deut. 10, 17) “God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome” (HaKeil hagadol hagibor ve’hanora).

Then came Jeremiah [who had witnessed the Temple’s destruction] and said, “The idolaters are dancing in His Temple.  Where is his awesomeness?”  So he omitted awesome (hanora).

Then came Daniel [who went to Babylon in the first galut], who said: “The idolaters enslaved His children.  Where is His might?”  So he omitted mighty (hagibor).

Then came the Men of the Great Assembly, and said:  “On the contrary, this is His might and this is His awesomeness:  His might because of His patience towards the wicked; and this is His awesomeness, for had not men felt His awesomeness, how could such a small people (as Israel) have been kept alive among so many idol-worshipping people?”  Therefore, they reintroduced the phrase, “God, the great, the awesome, and the mighty. 

But how could Jeremiah and Daniel rely upon their own authority to abolish what Moses had established?  “Because,” said Reb Elazar, “they knew the Holy One Blessed Be He loves truth.  So they did not wish to lie to him.”

In short, Jeremiah and Daniel, survivors of the destruction, could not see themselves uttering the words “mighty” and “awesome” in referring to God.  Did these sages, for one moment, harbor the thought that Hashem is not mighty and awesome?  Did they look upon the devastating events as a “new revelation” that must accept a limited God instead of the classical faith of the omnipotent God?  Of course not!  Theirs was an existential response to a truth that was difficult to internalize at that point in time.

To cite somewhat of a comparison:  while the sages insist that “all that The Merciful One does is for the good,” they nevertheless coined two different blessings: one tailored for the good we experience as good, and the other for the “good” we experience as tragedies.  It would be cruel to make a mourner say the blessing for the experience of good, “Hatov Ve’hameitiv,” on the death of a loved one, because at that moment he cannot accept it as good.  Jeremiah and Daniel could not hear themselves utter “the mighty and the awesome” as an existentially experienced moment of truth.

The great theological discovery of The Men of the Great Assembly a generation or more later, albeit in hindsight, was to see the “mighty and the awesome” operative within the Churban in the miracle of Jewish survival and in the theological principle of Divine restraint, even towards the wicked, (under special circumstance) in favor of sustaining human bechirah— moral choice.

There is another aspect of this remarkable Chazal.  Why did the Men of the Great Assembly not respond with a more basic challenge, particularly to Jeremiah? Did you and all the n’viei emet — the prophets of truth — not predict that Churban?  Did you not all preach for several centuries that our people are doomed if they will not follow the Torah?  Does the Talmud earlier in the same tractate Yuma, not reveal to us the reasons for the first Churban and the second Churban?  They tell us of the prevalence of the three cardinal sins, idolatry, sexual misconduct and the taking of human life during the first commonwealth as the cause of the calamity.  The downfall of the second commonwealth was sinat chinam, disunity and undue hatred and divisiveness, as demonstrated by the infamous Kamza Bar Kamza story.  What happened was emet! Was it not the fulfillment of the prophecy?

But the Men of the Great Assembly not only understood God, but also understand Jeremiah and Daniel.  The enormity of the Churban overwhelmed even Jeremiah and Daniel, as they had experienced it.  Only generations later would our people understand how God was present, even amidst this enormous tragedy.  They did not say Jeremiah and Daniel had their facts wrong.  They merely implied that they could not have been expected to have that objective depth perception at that time.

Somehow, our great sages made all the theological Churbanot dimensions come together.  The pattern was classical historical “mipnei chataeinu.”  The prophets had predicted it.  The enormous tragedy is the result of the activities of the wicked whose free choice (bechirah) was not challenged by God.  This is the other side of the coin of the Biblical expression “hester panim,” i.e., Hashem said, “If you will sin, I may hide my face – as if I were absent – and let the wicked reign.  My presence, even within the great disaster, is discovered eventually through the miracle of Jewish survival.”

The principle of human bechirah extending punishment beyond its reasonable limits is developed by Nachmanides (Ramban) in his comments on Pharoah’s punishment.  He raised the question why Pharoah was punished for oppressing the Jews.  After all, he merely appropriated the agency for carrying out the Divine prophecy already conveyed by God to Abraham centuries before!  Nachmanides answers: Pharoah was punished because he did not do it for the sake of fulfilling the Divine prophecy, but with an evil intention to hurt the Jews.  This important point assures us that even when we do deserve punishment, our enemies who execute it for the sake of evil are still guilty and subject to retribution.

Secondly, Pharoah exceeded the limits required by the prophecy in afflicting the Jews.  He inflicted more pain and harm than was inherent in the prophecy.  This is the reason why Hashem said to Abraham “…And also the people who will enslave them I will judge” (rather than punish). Why did he not say, “I will punish” the enslavers?  Obviously, they were open to judgment at the time, both for their intention and the excessive extent of their oppression.  As a matter of fact, Ramban carries this idea directly over to the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash.  He says that even though the prophet Jeremiah clearly stated that the Babylonians were entitled to attack the Jewish people, the Babylonians were nevertheless punished, as the Egyptians had been, because they were not intentionally fulfilling the prophet’s message and also because they exceeded their mandate on the suffering they imposed on the Jewish people.

The implication is clear: when the flood gates of human agencies are opened, they are subject to their own freedom of will, and their own evil can expand the suffering of their victims.  This concept may already be implied in the statement of Chazal:  “When permission is given to the destroyer, he does not discriminate between the good and the bad.”

This post Holocaust era is yet very young.  (The Jews returned from Babylon to Israel 70 years after the first Churban. Not even that much time has elapsed since our Holocaust.)  Many survivors are still alive.  The gruesome evidence of the horrible human tragedy surrounds us.  A whole literature and all art forms are utilized to keep the event alive before our eyes.  Today, we experience an overlapping of  “phase one” and “phase two:” On one hand, we still feel the immediate shock and amazement of Jeremiah and Daniel. On the other hand, the miracle of survival stares us in the face.  Not only have many survivors rebuilt their own lives, but survivors helped immensely in the building of the Jewish State and the rebuilding of Torah life and Torah study in Israel and in the Diaspora.

But we are seemingly not quite ready for theodicy facing the enormity of the tragedy. There is great pain and conflict in trying to reconcile our passionate love for our God and our passionate love for our people. The difficulty was probably best expressed by the great Torah sage Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, zt”l, in a lecture he delivered in 1976 and was published transcribed in the October, 1977 edition of The Jewish Observer. Acknowledging the mipnei chataeinu aspect of the Holocaust, he said:

It should be needless to say at this point that since the Churban of European Jewry was a Tochachah  phenomenon (the imprecations in Leviticus and Deuteronomy), an enactment of admonition and rebuke which Klal Yisrael carries upon its shoulders as an integral part of being an Am Hanivchar – God’s chosen ones — we have no right to interpret these events as any kind of specific punishment for specific sins.  The Tochachah is a built-in aspect of the character of Klal Yisrael until Moshiach comes and is visited upon Klal Yisrael at the Creator’s will and for reasons known and comprehensible only to Him.  One would have to be a Navi or a Tana (a prophet or a Talmudic sage), to claim knowledge of the specific reasons for what befell us; anyone on a lesser plane claiming to do so tramples in vain upon the bodies of the kedoshim (holy ones) who died al kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name) and misuses the power to interpret and understand Jewish history.”

Careful in avoiding an indictment of the Jewish people in anything specific, he still places the event in the category of Tochachah.  While one may be tempted to interpret his words as indicating an inexplicable fate of suffering, only a glance at the Tochachah texts tells us otherwise.  Both segments of the Torah outlining dire penalties start with: “And if they will not listen and they will not perform all these commandments…” or: “It will come about, if you will not listen to the voice of the Lord your God…”

Maybe in another 50 years or so we will find the way to explain what happened, even if we are not prophets or Tanaim. As a contemporary Orthodox Jewish philosopher put it:  When tragedy strikes, we say “Yitgadal v’yitkadash” and we keep on believing.  Jeremiah and Daniel were pained and daring enough to alter the liturgy slightly, but they never altered their faith in God.  Nor did they ever suggest that the Covenant is no longer binding.  On the contrary, they kept on observing Torah, teaching it, comforting their people, and looking forward to a better future.

The rabbi of the Queens Jewish Center in Forest Hills, New York, Rabbi Grunblatt is adjunct professor of Jewish Studies at Touro College and author of Exile and Redemption (Ktav, 1988).  He is a contributing editor of Jewish Action.

This article was featured in the Spring 2001 issue of Jewish Action.