Where was God during the Holocaust?


I came across this interesting article from Menachem Z. Rosensaft in The Washington Post. The author’s mother, father and others in his family were either tortured and imprisoned during the Holocaust or murdered.

Philosophy centered around the Holocaust, specifically as it relates to the role (or lack thereof) God played has been numerous since the liberation of the concentration camps in 1945. As the author cites, some suggest God in a way, washed his hands of the Jewish people’s plight. Some even go to the extreme and suggest the Jews deserved the Holocaust as justice for their sins.

I particularly found this passage deep and moving:

Very much in the spirit of the Shabbat Shuva Torah reading, Professor Weiss Halivni has written that, “There were two major theological events in Jewish history: Revelation at Sinai and revelation at Auschwitz. . . .  At Sinai, God appeared before Israel, addressed us, and gave us instructions; at Auschwitz, God absented Himself from Israel, abandoned us, and handed us over to the enemy.”

Understandably, many of the faith were angry, confused and disenfranchised with God in the wake of the Holocaust. If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, why did he presumably stand by as six million people (His people, at that) were humiliated, tortured and systematically slaughtered?

Elie Wiesel, famous author and survivor of the Holocaust, for instance, wrote eloquently and beautifully about his “rebellion” toward his faith and his God. He even goes so far as to suggest at one point, “Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”

That’s an incredible condemnation of God from a man previously of faith, that his God was “murdered.”

The author, however, arrives at a nuanced understanding of God’s role in the Holocaust. God was there. God was in every suffering individual. And God was the one to give those individuals, like his mother, the strength to carry on and persist amidst unimaginable horror and dread.

Intriguingly enough, the Pope responded to this sermon from Rosensaft here. He seemed to suggest that Rosensaft’s logic and conclusion were transcendent and sound.

In any event, even as an atheist, I still find the question of, “Where was God during the Holocaust?” an interesting theological, philosophical and intellectual exercise of sorts.

Was God neutral? Was God apathetic? Was God, as the author suggests, within the suffering and the impetus for their persistence? Or was God complicit with the evil-doers and punishing his people?

Personally, I cannot jive the concept of a loving, all-knowing, all-powerful God sitting by while genocide occurs. “He works in mysterious ways,” does not suffice as an explanation. There’s nothing mysterious about that. If we’re presupposing that God, as the creator of the universe is all-knowing and all-powerful – and he would have to be these things, if he created the universe – then, he has a moral obligation to stop it. If he doesn’t, then that is evil, as I see it.

Moreover, if we continue with this concept of all-knowing, all-powerful, then presumably, as the creator of the universe, is not that he created evil? If he is the maker of all things, then evil must have flowed from his design. From whence else could it have originated? To suggest it could flow from someone else is to suggest God is not the creator of all things, which is a bit troubling, as that deludes the all-knowing, all-powerful premise.

God could be all-knowing and all-powerful, but not a loving God; he could merely be apathetic to his creations’ plight (or delight, as it were). I do not see that premise nearly as troubling as the former.

As for the author’s claim that perhaps he was the divine presence in all the survivors, willing them on, as well as those that died, comforting them until their death, I don’t like it. I don’t like it because it robs us of our humanity. It wasn’t people that survived the Holocaust; it was God imbuing them with his spiritual presence. I don’t like that at all. It was humans that suffered, died and survived in the Holocaust, not God. In other words, it almost seems to evoke the old refrain of, praise God for all that goes well, and condemn the Devil for all that goes ill. That’s contradictory to me for the aforementioned reasons, but again, it also negates our humanity. There is something beautiful and potent about how much adversity humans can endure and survive with. That should not be a testament to God. We should not put that at the altar of God as a blessing.

Where was God during the Holocaust? From my own personal standpoint, he wasn’t there because he doesn’t exist. Just as giving God our humanity and perseverance is wrong, so is giving the Devil the evilness of the perpetrators. That evilness exists within humans and it was on full display by the Germans during WW2 and the Holocaust. We should recognize fully that human beings perpetrated those acts. And human beings suffered and died and survived as a result of those acts. Not God.

However, in trying to see it from a theological standpoint, given the premises outlined in the faiths, I would contend that either God, as a loving, all-knowing and all-powerful being, was the dichotomous force for both good and evil during the Holocaust or that he’s not loving, in which case, he was apathetic during the Holocaust (“apathetic” is a human attribution, it would be kinda silly to think of him as apathetic – it would be like saying we’re apathetic to the plight of ants; it’s just weird).

Certainly, these questions are not specific to the Holocaust, as they can be applied to any instance of injustice or human suffering under the supposed all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good God. However, the Holocaust is a focal point perhaps because of the scale and systematic injustice and suffering perpetrated; it’s clearly a watershed moment for many of the faith.

Some, such as Rabbi Alan Lurie, would posit that my framing of the issue is simplistic. In other words, I’m misunderstanding the nature of God and creation. He argues:

The Universe was therefore set in motion with the purpose of developing creatures who would arrive at self-consciousness – the awareness of being aware -, see the obvious design in creation, feel the presence of a loving Designer, and reach out in gratitude. This connection in love is both ours and God’s greatest pleasure and delight (and, I believe, also for countless beings on planets scattered throughout the Universe).

The purpose of creation, then, is to be in a loving relationship with its Creation.

Essentially, in order to develop this loving relationship, humans have to have absolute free will in their actions to choose love or hatred; ergo human suffering. However, he does say that no matter what, God as all-knowing and all-powerful still knows what choices we will make. Therefore, God bears witness to events such as the Holocaust with “great love” and doesn’t interfere because to do so would sever the loving relationship built upon free will.

I take issue with two of his contentions. First, he makes it out that God was basically lonely in the universe and created us to not feel lonely. That feels so human and how could something so powerful and so knowing derive some kind of meaning or whatever his conception of love would entail, from a relationship with such indescribably inferior beings?

Secondly, I do not accept that human beings have free will under this conception of God. As the author even says, God still knows what our choices will be. How is that free will? If God already knows the final destination and presumably, is the one to have laid it out (all-powerful), then how is there free will? He created Adam and Eve, knowing that they would fuck up, presented obstacles to ensure that they would fuck up, and then still got mad at them for fucking up. That makes no sense.

He uses this analogy:

We can be mad at God for the Holocaust or for other human tragedies, but this is like a teenager who begs you to let him drive a car – promising to be responsible -, gets drunk, crashes in to a telephone pole, and then blames you for giving him the keys. If we agree that humanity must have free will, we must accept the consequences of its decisions. As Elie Wiesel wrote, “After the Holocaust I did not loose faith in God. I lost faith in mankind.”

But a parent doesn’t know what the consequences are; God does. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, then even our actions supposedly based on free will are of his doing – the concept of predestination. And I don’t understand how we can derive a framework of an all-knowing and all-powerful (and even perhaps all-good) God without predestination.

In any way I look at this, I do not understand how God, positioned as an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good God, can allow human suffering and human injustice.


One thought

  1. Beyond our understanding as humans.Israel now is a Member in the UN.in 1915 Turkey massacred 1 1/2 Armenians ,my grandparents were among them.The world did nothing to help to stop the genocide.The genocide in Kosovo Rwanda,Darfur,Politicians commit the crimes and some one ask how God can let such thing happen.?WWI ,,WWII 38 million people murdered ,it was the greed,ignorance and hate,it wasn’t God.God gave us free will and a brain.The evil is within the world.jalal


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