Several weeks ago, I spoke at an Anglican church about the major tenets and teachings of Judaism. During the question period that followed, a university student asked a familiar but difficult question: “Why did God who personifies love, mercy, justice and truth allow the Holocaust to happen?” Why did God allow the Germans to murder six million innocent men, women and children?
Some years ago, an Orthodox rabbi visiting Hamilton suggested that the Holocaust was God’s way of punishing wicked and sinful Jews. Indignant and outraged, community members protested that surely the Jews of North America were no more pious and religious, or less sinful. It was blasphemous to declare that the slaughtered Jews deserved cruel punishment. As a matter of fact, many of them were piously observant to the most minute detail. Moreover, Jewish belief rejects vicarious suffering.
Jews who believe that the miracles reported in the Bible did indeed occur must confront the question, why did not God create a miracle to save millions of innocent lives? If God suspended the laws of nature so that the Israelites might cross safely to dry land; if He made the sun stop for Joshua to win a battle – then why did He not save a million and a half innocent children? Certainly they were deserving of a miracle! How can true believers explain this “hiding” of God? It will not do to argue about God’s gift of free will to human beings. The omnipotent God who thwarted the evil plans of Pharoah could have set aside the evil intentions of Hitler.
Harold Kushner, author of the widely read book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, proposed the idea of a limited God. He writes that the “many forms of evil are not the will of God, but represent that aspect of reality which stands independent of his will and which angers and saddens God as it must anger and sadden us.”
Martin Buber expressed doubt as to whether, after the Holocaust, he could address God as kind and merciful. At the same time, however, he never surrendered his faith in the human potential to redeem evil and sanctify the world.
Rabbi Richard Rubenstein asserts that, in the light of the Holocaust, God is no longer a reasonable source of belief. His relationship to the covenant and to Jewish history must be redefined. He said: “An infinitely sadistic or capricious God might exist; a less than omnipotent God might exist; a God who is indifferent to the actors in human history might exist, but the just, righteous and all-powerful God, as understood within Jewish tradition, could not exist. Thus, one would have to conclude that the experience of Auschwitz presents a most serious challenge to the understanding of both God’s nature and his relationship to the Jewish people.”
How did I answer the young man’s question? I began by acknowledging that I was ignorant of the ways and intentions of God, and that apart from the usual inadequate explanations, I could offer no convincing arguments or original ideas.
I did point out, however, that, although many who suffered in Nazi death camps abandoned their religious faith, others found their way back to affirming faith in both God and Judaism. How could they place either confidence or hope in human beings, capable of creating the horrors of the Holocaust?
I suggested, perhaps the proper question to be asked is not, “Where was God,” but rather, “When was God?” And to answer that God was there in the minds and hearts of those who, at the risk of their lives, shielded and saved those in distress and, despite the enveloping dread around them, showed concern, mercy and love for others.