Trusting in HaShem after the Holocaust
This post is about the vexing theological question posed by the Holocaust, especially as it relates to the subject of my blog, the peril with which the Jewish people is confronted today.
I am an Orthodox Jew. I believe HaShem is personal and controls the world and history. I have preached numerous times of the need for Jews to trust in HaShem rather than in negotiations and peace treaties. Now, for Holocaust Day, I feel obliged to answer, or more accurately to attempt to answer, the question, “How can you trust in HaShem after the Holocaust?”
Even personally, this is no academic question for me. I’m a former secular Jew, and I still have to wrestle with this upbrought question, as well as, sometimes, to answer secular Jews who pose it before me. The question that slithers periodically, sometimes during prayer, is that question indeed: “After G-d let six million Jews go such a way, how can you still trust in Him to save us?”
The first theological responses to the Holocaust were the usual Orthodox Jewish ones, of retribution for the sins of the nation. They were swiftly answered by the rejoinder, “I would not worship a deity who kills more than a million children, for whatever sin”. It is not that that exchange was new, yet I have my own good reason to back away from that kind of theodicy: our generation is too weak to bear it. I mean “weak” in a sense of pity, not disdain: ravaged physically by every kind of enemy, besieged spiritually by fifty gates of impurity (not just forty-nine as in Egypt—this is the generation that has been destined to go down Sha’ar Nun, the gate of Unbelief. But also to get out of there, and then the final salvation would come), this generation is in need of spiritual encouragement to do good rather than rebukes to stay away from evil, which are less effective for it, because of said state. An emphasis on aseh tov rather than on sur me-ra, in other words.
A lot of people, even rabbis, in our age have decided to eschew attempts at explanation and choose silence—the silence of Aaron at the sight of the death of his two beloved sons (“And Aaron held his peace”, Leviticus 10:3, from last week’s parashah) and of Job. Exemplary is the answer of Rabbi Amital zt"l to Abba Kovner when the latter asked him how he could still believe in G-d after the Holocaust: “How can you still believe in mankind? Mankind can be understood, while G-d is incomprehensible; I can lay the Holocaust at G-d’s incomprehensibility, but if humanity does such a thing, then you now know that it is part of humanity, so how can you still believe in mankind?”
All those are attempts to keep the faith, the torch we have carried, father to son, from Sinai to our day. But they do not address my doubts about the future. Each time I write, on this very keyboard, “We must trust in HaShem”, what is there to sustain my belief, to make it alive rather than finger-tax?
I will give my answer, but be warned: though it’s good enough for me, it may not be for you. In fact, you may find it not merely unsatisfying, but possibly outrageous. With this warning, here goes:
We must trust in HaShem because we have no choice.
I come back to the standing before G-d at Sinai. Our sages say HaShem forced it upon them: kafah aleihem har k’gigit, set the mountain upon them like a tub covering them, with no way of escape. The Midrash further says HaShem told our forefathers, that if they did not agree to receive the Torah, kan tihyeh k’vuratchem—“Here shall be your burial-place”. It can be explained in many ways, including one less harsh-sounding than we are led to believe, that, because the entire world was created for the reception of the Torah, G-d would have undone it, destroyed it if our forefathers had refused to receive it, and then they, along with the rest of the world, would have been buried under its ruins. But to the question of the Holocaust, I see a possibility of regarding that forcing as something natural and circumstantial as well:
There were only two ways for the Israelites. One was forward to the Land of Israel, then (as not in the late 19th century) a populous land with many strong kingdoms—kingdoms that our forefathers could not hope to conquer without HaShem’s help. The other way was: back to Egypt. Back to slavery, to day after day of work without pay, of whippings, of humiliation and of no future to look forward to, just a hope of passing to the next day. Our forefathers, then, had no choice: they had to go with HaShem and receive His Torah. Death on the way forward (if they went forth to the Land of Israel without Him helping) and slavery on the way back (if they returned to Egypt) persuaded them to trust in HaShem regardless of their fears.
We are little different.
Where should we go? We can stay here, but, in the view of enemy armies and a nuclear threat amassing upon us with each passing day, it should be clear that military might is not sufficient to pass this. The alternative? Back to the Diaspora. Where to in the Diaspora? Most of Asia and Africa are Muslim, so they are out. Europe is becoming Muslim with each passing day, and the Jews in it are under constant threat of attacks by the immigrants, soon to be overlords, of the continent, attacks that are justified by the Western Left as “responses to Israel’s cruelty toward the Palestinians”. The United States of America, truly Land of the Brave and the Free, is still relatively safe, and friendly toward the Jews; but that could never be counted on to stay that way, and besides, it takes just one Muslim drive-by shooter (G-d forbid) to put an end to that idyllic condition. Like that merchant who tries to evade Death by fleeing to Samara, Jews can try running away to any part of the world, only to find the Islamonazi enemy following them.
The way forward is the Land of Israel—but we need divine help to withstand all our powerful enemies. The way back is no escape from those same enemies. As with our forefathers, HaShem is forcing us to trust in Him, despite all our fears. There is no other choice.
I apologize if this post hurt you. This is the way I see it, and the pattern of thought that helps me overcome the doubts. But even if you don’t believe, at least heed Rabbi Amital’s word that trusting in humanity is not an option either. Chomskyan attempts to save your skin by siding with the enemy won’t save you. Even if you don’t believe in G-d, you should make the natural, human efforts to defend Israel in this good fight, the way sane Jewish secularists like Ben-Dror Yemini and Yehoshua Sobol do, HaShem bless them. Be on the right side of history.