Baruch Pelta 5/5/09 Bedzow Jewish Philosophy The Holocaust and Evil in the Theologies of Eliezer Berkovits and Rabbi

Joseph B. Soloveitchik Perhaps the most famous issue confronting modern religious thinkers today is why evil exists if God is good. The problem is magnified by the Holocaust, when God allowed millions of Jews to be tortured in the worst of conditions and six million of their number to perish in the camps. Since the Holocaust happened so recently the problem is especially poignant in the Jewish consciousness. Modern Jewish philosophers and theologians have therefore felt it necessary to examine the Holocaust. Eliezer Berkovits (1908 ± 1992) and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903 ± 1993) are two figures who affiliated with Modern Orthodoxy who attempted this search. I will examine both their examinations. In an essay entitled ³Faith After the Holocaust,´1 Berkovits explores the theological implications of the Holocaust. He begins by dismissing those who ask why it happened with the presumption that there is no God. Still, the question of how the Holocaust could take place under a caring God is still a powerful question. Berkovits presents the possibility that God has abandoned man and does not care about him. This is a troubling view, for it would mean that there is no universal ethical imperative and each

person has his own views which are the truth for him. ³People«with different temperaments, varied desires, and manifold self-created goals´2 would each have their own way of looking at the world and nobody could be said to be more right than anybody else, Nazi and pious Jew not excluded. This would render man to have no meaning and the universe to be absurd. But for man to judge the world around him as meaningless and absurd means he himself has enough meaningfulness and reason to judge the world around him, paradoxically rendering the world into a place which has meaning and is not absurd. So too during the Holocaust, when existence seemed most absurd and evil reached its pinnacle, man¶s capacity also reached its highest potential. Under threat of death, when man greets ³a tyrant or a persecuting church or oppressive falsehood´3 with a negative response, he sanctifies God¶s name. However: «with this act alone, the highest form of kidush hashem is not yet reached. There is still a great deal in it for man. At this stage, man is still acting within the frame of reference of this world. He preserves his dignity in the face of a this-worldly challenge. The ultimate phase of kidush hashem begins after the choice has been made, when the martyr approaches the stake at which he is to be burned. The world has died to him, he is no longer of it. He no longer confronts man and his works. He is alone ± with his God. And God is silent, and God is hiding his face. God has abandoned him. Now man is truly alone. If at this moment he is able to accept his radical abandonment by God as a gift from God that enables him to love God with all his soul, ³even when he takes your soul,´ he has

achieved the highest form of kidush Hashem«no one can so completely surrender to [God] as the one who is completely forsaken by him.4 This lengthy quote from the essay heartrendingly describes the emotional situation of the Jews who suffered in the German camps and decided to put all of their trust in God. This is the ultimate act of faith. This great act can only be done in the darkest of times and Berkovits has thus apparently shown a positive reaction that may be taken in response to suffering, albeit that he admits the problem of theodicy is not completely solved. Soloveitchik examines evil in his Kol Dodi Dofek: Listen -- My Beloved Knocks.5 He begins this volume with the assumption that humanity can exist in an ³Existence of Fate´ or ³Existence of Destiny.´ What is an Existence of Fate? It is an existence of duress«a factual existence, simply one line in a [long] chain of mechanical causality, devoid of significance, direction, and purpose, and subordinate to the forces of the environment into whose midst the individual is pushed, unconsulted by Providence«As an object, man appears as acted upon and not as actor. Man¶s existence is hollow, lacking inner content, substance, and independence.6 The man whose Existence is only Fate essentially attempts to look at his environment from a detached perspective. In doing so, he becomes somewhat paranoid. He sees himself as worthless and he feels surrounded by his troubles, which seem to lack meaning in God¶s otherwise beautiful universe. He then uses his powers of reason to rationalize away the evil around him: essentially he believes that since God is good, there is therefore no evil in the universe.

Although the above statement is inherently true, Soloveitchik scolds those who think this way. While there is no evil in the universe, this can only be seen from the Divine perspective. From man¶s perspective, there is evil in the universe and he cannot negate this essential aspect of the universe. The man who lives an active existence, confronting challenges, realizes this and his is called an Existence of Destiny. While recognizing that there is evil in the universe, he also realizes that evil has a halakhic purpose. Suffering can bring man to ³absolute subordination to the Holy One.´7 In other words, God beckons to man through torturing him. Man¶s soul can be purified with the pain that God bestows upon him and then he should turn his intentions towards the Divine. Later, Soloveitchik notes that when the Holocaust happened, the American Jewish community did not engage in activism and thereby did not answer the communal call that God made; in the future, we should be unafraid to identify with our fellow Jews. Neither Berkovits nor Soloveitchik feels the need to dwell on how God views the universe and instead look only from man¶s perspective. Both look at evil as an obstacle which, if overcome, can raise man to unprecedented spiritual heights. While it is clear that neither of them believes this insight on evil to be the equivalent of a flawless theodicy, it is not completely clear whether they believe that it is a partial explanation for evil in the universe or if it is simply how man should react to said evil. In other words, is evil causing man to grow spiritually a partial explanation of why it exists? Or is man supposed to react to evil by attempting to reach greater spiritual heights, but acknowledge that his attempt does not necessarily have anything to do with why evil exists in the universe thereby adopting the stance that there can be no explanations, even partial ones, for evil in the universe? If the answer is the former, their

logic is fundamentally flawed. There are people in the world who do not necessarily realize the reaction that Berkovits and Soloveitchik claim they are supposed to take vis-àvis evil (i.e. repentance) because, for whatever reason, they have not had proper religious worldviews instilled in them. They cannot put their unadulterated trust in a God who, according to their understanding, never showed Himself to them to the extent that they could put such faith in Him. In addition, most believers will fail to love Him completely in the darkest times that Berkovits vividly describes as the truest tests of man¶s faith. The heavenly reward for passing this test is to be reaped by only the most saintly of men. Neither Berkovits nor Soloveitchik solve the problem of why people who never have a chance to become Godly individuals suffer. Berkovits criticizes philosophies that grant ³people«with different temperaments, varied desires, and manifold self-created goals´ equal validity, but his practically accomplishes that unwanted goal. If God has a purpose for men that He does not give them a plausible opportunity of achieving, He essentially gives them permission to do as they please. Therefore Berkovits¶s philosophy essentially decays to nothing more than the moral relativism that he so detests. It seems rather that Berkovits and Soloveitchik both adopt the latter idea mentioned above, namely that there can be no explanations for evil in the universe. Berkovits implies as much when he writes, ³The question for the Jew is«not to explain why God was silent while the crematoria were consuming a third of the Jewish people«Our concern is with the question of whether the affirmations of faith may be made meaningfully«´8 According to Soloveitchik, the question of how evil can exist in the world ³is not given a solution and has no answer.´9 Apparently, both Berkovits and Soloveitchik believe that man cannot discover even one of the reasons that evil may exist

in God¶s world; they do not presume to propose even an incomplete theodicy. Any explanation of how evil may exist in the universe is inaccessible from a human perspective. If I am correct and this is indeed their view, it is extraordinarily problematic. Both Berkovits and Soloveitchik maintain that suffering allows a person to purify his soul. A justification for that specific suffering is offered and therefore they have inadvertently provided a theodicy for some of the evil in the universe. This is problematic as both philosophers seem to imply in their writings that this is an impossible task for all but God. There is another major similarity between the treatments of Berkovits and Soloveitchik: both of them quote Job in order to make their point. This is unsurprising, considering that Job is the classical Biblical text which addresses the issue of theodicy. In Berkovits¶s view, when Job refuses to accept the theodicies offered by his friends, he is in actuality defending the Almighty. In Berkovits¶s own words: ³Because of his faith, Job cannot accept a defense of God that implies an insult to the dignity of the God in whom he believes.´10 To Job, all of these theodicies are unsatisfactory. After God appears to him, he proceeds to repent. According to Soloveitchik, before God appeared to Job, the latter ³«[was] a slave of fate, [who] philosophized about reasons, and motives, and demanded insight into the essence of evil«´11 Once God appeared, Job realized how he could never understand God¶s purpose, but could allow his suffering to bring him to penitence. For whichever Talmudic interpretation of when Job lived one adopts, his fundamental sin is apparent: he was not sufficiently empathetic to the plights suffered by those outside of his own family.

Both Berkovits and Soloveitchik agree that in the end Job realizes that God is so much greater than he that he will never achieve a perfect theodicy. The subtle, but major difference between the interpretations of Berkovits and Soloveitchik can be seen in how they interpret Job¶s mindset before he encounters God. According to Berkovits, he is defending God by noting that the theological arguments advanced by his friends are insufficient. However, it seems that even here, Job does not recognize that there can be no theodicy devised by the human mind. It is only when Job encounters God that he ³is able to find peace with [Him].´12 Soloveitchik, on the other hand, sees Job as just another man living an Existence of Fate, attempting to justify the bad happening to him. While both Berkovits and Soloveitchik see Job similarly, Soloveitchik gives his search for theodicy a decidedly more negative spin. The Book of Job gives an explicit reason that Job was given a theological test. When God boasted to the Satan of Job¶s saintliness, the Satan responded, ³stretch forth Your hand and touch all that [Job] has, will he not blaspheme You to Your face?" (Job 1:11) In other words, Job may be saintly now but after You test him by giving him pain and suffering, he will probably lose his temper and turn against You. God seemingly accepts the Satan¶s terms and allows him to cruelly torture Job. The fact that this conversation between the Satan and God is recorded in the Bible is extraordinarily important. The conversation seems to imply what the actual Biblical theodicy is: God tests man by giving the latter pain and suffering. God¶s concern in bestowing suffering on the world is not with the penitence of man but with him maintaining his servitude in the harshest of conditions. Neither Berkovits nor Soloveitchik seem willing to accept this

theodicy, perhaps because it seems absolutely cruel. There is no penitence explicitly expected of Job, only his test that God has allowed the Satan to put in front of him. The mystery which may foil such a simple reading is why God chooses to not reveal any of this dialogue with the Satan to Job. Instead, He roars about how great He is, until Job understands that he cannot expect to comprehend the ways of God. Either God is simply exploiting an opportunity to brag about how great He is or there is a deeper secret to the Book of Job. Traditional biblical interpretation does not take the former approach. Rather, there must be a deeper secret to the Book of Job. The question which is implicit in the book of Job is an important ethical one: Why does God make that deal with the Satan? Seemingly, only an inhumane and unethical being could make such a cruel and unusual deal. Had God related that conversation to Job, Job would still have not understood God¶s reasoning; the fact that God made this deal with the Satan would seem to imply that the former is cruel and has his subjects suffer merely to test their loyalty. Why, one may proceed to inquire, did God then make the deal with Satan? This is the question of theodicy and the fact that the Book of Job chose not to answer this question does seem to indeed imply, as Berkovits and Soloveitchik both interpret, that man cannot discover God¶s theodicy. That being said, Soloveitchik¶s reading is still burdened with a profound interpretative issue. God describes Job as follows: ³there is none like him on earth, a sincere and upright man, God-fearing and shunning evil´ (emphasis mine) (Job 1:8). This certainly does not sound like the type of man who does not empathize with his fellow man. There is at least one more major difference between the treatments of Berkovits and Soloveitchik which has not yet been mentioned; Berkovits¶s essay focuses on the

individual Jewish sufferer in the Holocaust while Soloveitchik focuses on the Jewish people who did little to save said sufferer. Berkovits¶s treatment of the Holocaust is therefore much more depressing, for ³to the very end [of the Holocaust], God remained silent and in hiding.´13 In other words, Jews died in the worst of conditions and God did not intervene, but allowed it all to occur; his deal with the Satan was sealed. Soloveitchik is concerned more with the messages that modern Jews should internalize and specifically the message of identifying with their people. According to Soloveitchik, there is hope for the Jewish people to prevent future evils from happening by identifying by our Jewish brethren in Israel who are threatened on all sides by enemies. There are interpretive problems with the ways both Berkovits and Soloveitchik interpret the Book of Job and even their non-solutions as regard theodicy. That being said, identification with the Jewish people and remembering God even in the face of horrific death are noble moral messages. Both of these have been distinguishing characteristics of Jews and Jewish martyrs for centuries. It may very well be this

longstanding tradition of ethical uprightness which has kept the Jews around for so many centuries.


Berkovits, Eliezer. "Faith After the Holocaust." 2002. In Essential Essays on Judaism, edited by David

Hazony, 315-332. Jerusalem: Shalem Press, 2003.

Idem., 319 Idem., 328 Idem. Soloveitchik, Joseph B. Kol Dodi Dofek: Listen -- My Beloved Knocks. Translated by David Z. Gordon.




New York: Yeshiva University, 2006.

Idem., 2-3 Idem. 10 Berkovits, 331-332 Soloveitchik, 5 Berkovits, 317 Soloveitchik, 13 Berkovits, 317 Idem.,