Holocaust theology

Holocaust theology (from the Greek ὁλόκαυστος holókaustos: hólos, "whole" and kaustós, "burnt"),[1] refers to a body of theological and philosophical debate concerning the role of God in the universe in light of the Holocaust of the late 1930s and 1940s. It is primarily found in Judaism; Jews were drastically affected by the Holocaust, in which approximately 11 million people,[2][3] including 6 million Jews, were murdered in a genocide by the Nazi regime and its allies.[4][5] One third of the total worldwide Jewish population would be killed during the Holocaust. The Eastern European Jewish population was particularly hard hit being reduced by ninety percent. While a disproportionate number of Jewish religious scholars would be killed, more than eighty percent of the world’s total,[6] the perpetrators of the Holocaust did not merely target religious Jews. A large percentage of the Jews killed both in Eastern and Western Europe were either nonobservant or had not received even an elementary level Jewish education.[7]

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have traditionally taught that God is omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful), and omnibenevolent (all-good) in nature. However, these views are in apparent contrast with the injustice and suffering in the world. Monotheists seek to reconcile this view of God with the existence of evil and suffering. In so doing, they are confronting what is known as the problem of evil.

Within all of the monotheistic faiths many answers (theodicies) have been proposed. In light of the magnitude of depravity seen in the Holocaust, many people have also re-examined classical views on this subject. A common question raised in Holocaust theology is, "How can people still have any kind of faith after the Holocaust?"

Orthodox Jewish responses

Haredi and Hardal

Satmar leader Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum writes: "Because of our sinfulness we have suffered greatly, suffering as bitter as wormwood, worse than any Israel has known since it became a people.... In former times, whenever troubles befell Jacob, the matter was pondered and reasons sought–which sin had brought the troubles about–so that we could make amends and return to the Lord, may He be blessed.... But in our generation one need not look far for the sin responsible for our calamity.... The heretics have made all kinds of efforts to violate these oaths, to go up by force and to seize sovereignty and freedom by themselves, before the appointed time.... [They] have lured the majority of the Jewish people into awful heresy, the likes of which have not been seen since the world was created.... And so it is no wonder that the Lord has lashed out in anger.... And there were also righteous people who perished because of the iniquity of the sinners and corrupters, so great was the [divine] wrath."[8]

There were Messianist Zionists, at the other end of the spectrum, who also saw the Holocaust as a collective punishment for ongoing Jewish unfaithfulness to the Land of Israel. Rabbi Mordecai Atiyah was a leading advocate of this idea. Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook and his disciples, for their part, avoided this harsh position, but they too theologically related the Holocaust to the Jewish recognition of Zion. Kook writes: “When the end comes and Israel fails to recognize it, there comes a cruel divine operation that removes [the Jewish people] from its exile.[9]

Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, in 1939, stated that the Nazi persecution of the Jews was the fault of non-Orthodox Jews (Achiezer, volume III, Vilna 1939).[10] Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler had similar views.[11]

Many Haredi rabbis today warn that a failure to follow ultra-Orthodox interpretations of religious law will cause God to send another Holocaust. Rabbi Elazar Shach, a former leader of the Lithuanian yeshiva Orthodoxy in Israel, made this claim on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War, stating that there would be a new Holocaust for the abandonment of religion and “desecration” of Shabbat in Israel.

Both Rabbi Meir Kahane[12] and Rabbi Avigdor Miller[13] have written extensively in defense of God during the Holocaust, while criticizing the European Jewish community's abandonment of traditional Jewish values.


According to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Rebbe of Chabad Lubavitch, no explanation that human reason can provide can afford a satisfactory theodicy of Auschwitz, especially no explanation along the lines of divine punition. In his published discourses, for example, the following critique of any rational Auschwitz theodicy is to be found.

In our own times, the destruction of six million Jews that took place with such great and terrible cruelty—a tremendous desolation the likes of which never was (and never will be, may the Merciful One save us!) throughout all generations—cannot be considered a matter of punishment for transgressions, for even the Satan himself could not configure a calculus of transgressions for that generation which could justify—Heaven forbid!—a punishment so severe. There is no rational explanation and no elucidation based on Torah wisdom whatsoever for the Devastation, nothing but the knowledge that "thus it arises in My [God's] Mind!" and "It is a decree before Me." And even then, it is certainly not in the sense of a divine desire or innermost will of God—Heaven forbid!—for, as it says in Torah, "When man suffers, what does the Shekhinah [the Divine Presence] say? 'My head is too heavy for me, etc.'" [Sanhedrin 46a ]. It is but "for a small moment that have I forsaken thee" [Is. 54:7]). And most certainly there is no explanation in terms of punishment for sins. On the contrary, all those who were killed in the Desolation are called kedoshim [holy ones] ... because they were killed in sanctification of God’s Name (on account of being Jews) […][14]

The same approach, in which all forms of rational theodicy are categorically rejected, is adopted by Rabbi Schneerson in his correspondence with Elie Wiesel (R. M. M. Schneerson, Iggerot Hakodesh, no. 8969, 23:370-71).[15]

At the same time, Rabbi Schneerson also suggested on occasion that the Holocaust could be compared to surgery. Thus Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer wrote a condemnatory article on this comparison (“God as surgeon,” Haaretz, Jun. 1, 2007 ). In this article he cites the following statement attributed to Rabbi Schneerson (in Mada Ve’emuna, Machon Lubavitch, 1980, Kfar Chabad). “It is clear that ‘no evil descends from Above,’ and buried within torment and suffering is a core of exalted spiritual good. Not all human beings are able to perceive it, but it is very much there. So it is not impossible for the physical destruction of the Holocaust to be spiritually beneficial. On the contrary, it is quite possible that physical affliction is good for the spirit.” The Rebbe is also quoted as saying: “Hitler was a messenger of God in the same sense that Nebuchadnezzar is called ‘God’s servant’ in the Book of Jeremiah (Chapter 25).”

As Bauer notes in his article, Chaika Grossman, a former Knesset member, had published an article in Hamishmar on 22 August 1980 quoting Rabbi Schneerson and expressing her profound shock at his surgery analogue. On 28 August 1980, the Rebbe sent her a reply on his personal stationery in which he confirmed the substance of the analogue—albeit not the import drawn by her.[16]

Whether the citation of the analogue, taken out of context and of dubious authority, indicates a "justification of God's ways to man" remains unclear, in any case, especially in light of Rabbi Schneerson's authorized published works.

What systematic scholarly studies of Rabbi Schneerson's philosophy do show is that such questions in general must be understood in their specifically epistemological character.[17] The surgery analogue is meant to illustrate the limits of human knowledge regarding the problem of evil and Auschwitz, not to provide positive knowledge regarding the problem. As the Rebbe explained in his letter to Grossman, it is because we have no understanding why the Holocaust had to happen that we must believe, as a matter of faith or trust in God (emunah), that it is ultimately for the benefit for those who perished as well as Jews and humanity at large. The Rebbe does not attempt to explain what the benefit is. But it is evidently eschatological-messianic. As is the rationale for the "surgery." The nature of the benefit can only become revealed in a messianic dimension wherein the human intellect has already undergone a radical cognitive revolution, a total epistemic paradigm shift. The analogue only works if human beings in their present state of understanding are compared to an unwitting person who has never heard of surgery who suddenly sees, for the first time, surgeons cutting open an apparently "healthy" human being.

Somewhat in the spirit in Immanuel Kant's 1791 essay on theodicy,[18] the only "Holocaust Theology" clearly propounded and endorsed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe is practical, rather than theoretical, messianism. It is within a pragmatic-messianic framework of thinking that emunah ("faith") shows itself to be the transcendental condition of the very questioning and prosecution of God and the indignant revolt against God.

... it is no mere coincidence that all authentic questioners [like Abraham and Moses] remained by their trust in God. For it could in no way be otherwise. Why so? If only the problem is meant with truth, and it is the expression and product of a true feeling of justice and uprightness, then it is logical that such a deep feeling can only come from being convinced that true justice is the justice that stems from a super-human source, that is, from something higher than both human intellect and human feeling. [...] after the initial tempestuous assault [on God by the sufferer], he has to see that the entire process of posing the problem and of wishing to understand with the intellect that which is higher than the intellect, is something that cannot take place. Moreover, he must—after a rattling outrage and a thorough grieving—ultimately come to the conclusion: Nevertheless I remain confident [ani maamin]. On the contrary: even more strongly![19]

Modern Orthodox Jewish views

Most Modern Orthodox Jews reject the idea that the Holocaust was God's fault. Modern Orthodox rabbis such as Joseph Soloveitchik, Norman Lamm, Randalf Stolzman, Abraham Besdin, Emanuel Rackman, Eliezer Berkovits and others have written on this issue; many of their works have been collected in a volume published by the Rabbinical Council of America in a volume entitled: Theological and Halakhic Reflections on the Holocaust.

Works of important Jewish theologians

Richard Rubenstein

Prof. Richard Rubenstein's original piece on this issue, After Auschwitz, held that the only intellectually honest response to the Holocaust is to reject God, and to recognize that all existence is ultimately meaningless. There is no divine plan or purpose, no God that reveals His will to mankind, and God does not care about the world. Man must assert and create his own value in life. This view has been rejected by Jews of all religious denominations, but his works were widely read in the Jewish community in the 1970s. Since that time Rubenstein has begun to move away from this view; his later works affirm a form of deism in which one may believe that God may exist as the basis for reality and some also include Kabbalistic notions of the nature of God.

No man can really say that God is dead. How can we know that? Nevertheless, I am compelled to say that we live in the time of the “death of God”. This is more a statement about man and his culture than about God. The death of God is a cultural fact ... When I say we live in the time of the death of God, I mean that the thread uniting God and man, heaven and earth, has been broken ...[20]

Emil Fackenheim

Emil Fackenheim is known for his understanding that people must look carefully at the Holocaust, and to find within it a new revelation from God. For Fackenheim, the Holocaust was an "epoch-making event". In contrast to Richard Rubenstein's views, Fackenheim holds that people must still affirm their belief in God and God's continued role in the world. Fackenheim holds that the Holocaust reveals unto us a new Biblical commandment: we are forbidden to hand Hitler yet another, posthumous victory. He said that rejecting God because of the Holocaust was like giving in to Hitler.

Ignaz Maybaum

In a rare view that has not been adopted by any sizable element of the Jewish or Christian community, Ignaz Maybaum has proposed that the Holocaust is the ultimate form of vicarious atonement. The Jewish people become in fact the "suffering servant" of Isaiah. The Jewish people suffer for the sins of the world. In his view: "In Auschwitz Jews suffered vicarious atonement for the sins of mankind."

Eliezer Berkovits

Eliezer Berkovits held that man's free will depends on God's decision to remain hidden. If God were to reveal himself in history and hold back the hand of tyrants, man's free will would be rendered non-existent. This is a view that is loosely based on the kabbalistic concept of nahama d'kissufa (bread of shame)- the idea that greater satisfaction is achieved when one becomes deserving of a blessing rather than when it is given as a gift. Kabbalah teaches that this is one of the reasons God created man with free will and with obligations, and that in order to maintain that free will, God reduces the extent to which he manifests himself in the world (tzimtzum).[20]

Harold Kushner, William Kaufman and Milton Steinberg

Harold Kushner, William E. Kaufman and Milton Steinberg believe that God is not omnipotent, and thus is not to blame for mankind's abuse of free will. Thus, there is no contradiction between the existence of a good God and the existence of massive evil by part of mankind. It is claimed that this is also the view expressed by some classical Jewish authorities, such as Abraham ibn Daud, Abraham ibn Ezra, and Gersonides.

David Weiss Halivni

David Weiss Halivni, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, says that the effort to associate the Shoah and sin is morally outrageous. He holds that it is unwarranted on a strict reading of the Tanakh. He claims that it reinforces an alarming tendency among ultra-Orthodox leaders to exploit such arguments on behalf of their own authority. In "Prayer in the Shoah" he gives his response to the idea that the Holocaust was a punishment from God:

"What happened in the Shoah is above and beyond measure (l'miskpat): above and beyond suffering, above and beyond any punishment. There is no transgression that merits such punishment... and it cannot be attributed to sin." [21]

Irving Greenberg

Irving Greenberg is a Modern Orthodox rabbi who has written extensively on how the Holocaust should affect Jewish theology. Greenberg has an Orthodox understanding of God, he does not believe that God forces people to follow Jewish law; rather he believes that Jewish law is God's will for the Jewish people, and that Jews should follow Jewish law as normative.

Greenberg's break with Orthodox theology comes with his analysis of the implications of the Holocaust. He writes that the worst thing that God could do to the Jewish people for failing to follow the law is Holocaust-level devastation, yet this has already occurred. Greenberg is not claiming that God did use the Holocaust to punish Jews; he is just saying that if God chose to do so, that would be the worst possible thing. There really is nothing worse that God could do. Therefore, since God cannot punish us any worse than what actually has happened, and since God does not force Jews to follow Jewish law, then we cannot claim that these laws are enforceable on us. Therefore, he argues that the covenant between God and the Jewish people is effectively broken and unenforceable.

Greenberg notes that there have been several terrible destructions of the Jewish community, each with the effect of distancing the Jewish people further from God. According to rabbinic literature, after the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem and the mass-killing of Jerusalem's Jews, the Jews received no more direct prophecy. After the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem and the mass-killing of Jerusalem's Jews, the Jews no longer could present sacrifices at the Temple. This way of reaching God was at an end. After the Holocaust, Greenberg concludes that God does not respond to the prayers of Jews anymore.

Thus, God has unilaterally broken his covenant with the Jewish people. In this view, God no longer has the moral authority to command people to follow his will. Greenberg does not conclude that Jews and God should part ways; rather he holds that we should heal the covenant between Jews and God, and that the Jewish people should accept Jewish law on a voluntary basis.

His views on this subject have made him the subject of much criticism within the Orthodox community.

Elie Wiesel

A Hungarian-born Jewish-American writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Laureate, and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel is the author of 57 books, including Night, a work based on his experiences as a prisoner in the Auschwitz, Buna, and Buchenwald concentration camps. Wiesel's 1979 play The Trial of God is about a trial in which God is the defendant, and is reportedly based on events that Wiesel himself witnessed as a teenager in Auschwitz. Over the course of the trial, a number of arguments are made, both for and against God's guilt. Wiesel's theological stance, illustrated through the intuitive possibilities of literature, is a theology of existentialist protest, which neither denies God, nor accepts theodicies.[22] Regarding the theme of protest in particular, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson maintained a correspondence with Wiesel, urging him to perceive faith (emunah) as the transcendental precondition of authentic protest.[23] In one of his books, Norman Lamm treats Wiesel's theological novel, The Town Beyond the Wall, to literary, theological and Judaic commentary.[24] The novel's protagonists symbolically proceed through a range of theological views, which Wiesel's Midrashic style literature can explore where theodicy fails. The ending sees the hope of renewed mystical reconciliation with God.

Post-Holocaust and child abuse theology

David R. Blumenthal, in his book Facing the Abusing God (1993), has drawn on data from the field of child abuse and has proposed "worship of God through protest" as a legitimate response of survivors of both the Holocaust and child abuse.[25]

Another writer addressing survivors of the Holocaust and child abuse is John K. Roth, whose essay "A Theodicy of Protest" is included in Encountering Evil: Live Options in Theodicy (1982).[26]

Works of important Christian theologians

Jürgen Moltmann

In The Crucified God Jürgen Moltmann speaks of how in a theology after Auschwitz the traditional notion of God needed to be revised:

Shattered and broken, the survivors of my generation were then returning from camps and hospitals to the lecture room. A theology which did not speak of God in the sight of the one who was abandoned and crucified would have had nothing to say to us then.[27]:1

The traditional notion of an impassible unmoved mover had died in those camps and was no longer tenable. Moltmann proposes instead a crucified God who is both a suffering and protesting God. That is, God is not detached from suffering but willingly enters into human suffering in compassion.

God in Auschwitz and Auschwitz in the crucified God – that is the basis for real hope that both embraces and overcomes the world.[27]:278

This is in contrast both with the move of theism to justify God's actions and the move of atheism to accuse God. Moltmann's trinitarian theology of the cross instead says that God is a protesting God who opposes the gods of this world of power and domination by entering into human pain and suffering on the cross and on the gallows of Auschwitz. Moltmann's theology of the cross was later developed into liberation theologies from suffering people under Stalinism in Eastern Europe and military dictatorships in South America and South Korea.

Pope Benedict XVI

In the address given on the occasion of his visit to the extermination camp of Auschwitz, Pope Benedict XVI suggested a reading of the events of the Holocaust as motivated by a hatred of God Himself. The address begins by acknowledging the impossibility of an adequate theological response:

In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can only be a dread silence – a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this? In silence, then, we bow our heads before the endless line of those who suffered and were put to death here; yet our silence becomes in turn a plea for forgiveness and reconciliation, a plea to the living God never to let this happen again.[28]

Nonetheless, he proposes that the actions of the Nazis can be seen as having been motivated by a hatred of God and a desire to exalt human power, with the Holocaust serving as a means by which to erase witness to God and His Law:

The rulers of the Third Reich wanted to crush the entire Jewish people, to cancel it from the register of the peoples of the earth. Thus the words of the Psalm: “We are being killed, accounted as sheep for the slaughter” were fulfilled in a terrifying way. Deep down, those vicious criminals, by wiping out this people, wanted to kill the God who called Abraham, who spoke on Sinai and laid down principles to serve as a guide for mankind, principles that are eternally valid. If this people, by its very existence, was a witness to the God who spoke to humanity and took us to himself, then that God finally had to die and power had to belong to man alone – to those men, who thought that by force they had made themselves masters of the world. By destroying Israel, by the Shoah, they ultimately wanted to tear up the taproot of the Christian faith and to replace it with a faith of their own invention: faith in the rule of man, the rule of the powerful.[28]

Most coverage of the address was positive, with praise from Italian and Polish rabbis. The Simon Wiesenthal Center called the visit historic, and the address and prayers "a repudiation of antisemitism and a repudiation of those... who refer to the Holocaust as a myth".[29]


A few Jewish commentators have objected to what they perceived as a desire to Christianize the Holocaust.[30][31] Certain Christian theologians have also criticized a tendency to historicize and dogmatize certain political or secular events such as the Shoah which are not part of theology as traditionally understood.

See also

Wikimedia Commons has media related to Holocaust Jewish theology.


  1. The word is only marginally found in Greek [Classical] literature referring in general to an offering. The adjective ὁλόκαυστος "holókaustos", "wholly burned", more common in the parallel form ὁλόκαυτος [holókautos], is in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible used in Leviticus 6,21–22 in the following context: "[...] the baked pieces of the grain offering you shall offer for a sweet aroma to the Lord. / The priest [...] shall offer it. It is a statute for ever to the Lord. It shall be wholly burned)."
  2. Rosenberg, Jennifer. "Holocaust Facts: What You Need to Know About the Holocaust". About.com. Retrieved 26 June 2015.
  3. Fitzgerald 2011, p. 4; Hedgepeth & Saidel 2010, p. 16.
  4. Snyder 2010, p. 45.
    Further examples of this usage can be found in: Bauer 2002, Cesarani 2004, Dawidowicz 1981, Evans 2002, Gilbert 1986, Hilberg 1996, Longerich 2012, Phayer 2000, Zuccotti 1999
  5. Dawidowicz 1975, p. 403.
  6. Steven T. Katz, Shlomo Biderman, Gershon Greenberg, eds. (2006). Wrestling with God: Jewish Theological Responses during and after the Holocaust: The Third Era. Oxford University Press.
  7. Reeve Robert Brenner (2014). The Faith and Doubt of Holocaust Survivors. Transaction Publishers. p. 81.
  8. Ravitzky, Aviezer (1996). Messianism, Zionism and Jewish Religious Radicalism. University of Chicago. p. 124.
  9. Ravitzky, Aviezer (1996). Messianism, Zionism and Jewish Religious Radicalism. University of Chicago. p. 124.
  10. Landau, David (1993). Piety & Power: The World of Jewish Fundamentalism. Hill & Wang.
  11. Landau, David (1993). Piety & Power: The World of Jewish Fundamentalism. Hill & Wang.
  12. Kahane, Meir (1985). "In Defense of G-d - Confronting the Holocaust". mkwords.com. Jewish Press.
  13. Miller, Avigdor (2013). "A Divine Madness: Rabbi Avigdor Miller's Defense of Hashem in the Matter of the Holocaust". Google Books. Simchas Hachayim.
  14. R. M. M. Schneerson, Sefer HaSiḥot 5751, Vol. 1 (Brooklyn: Kehot, 1992), pp. 233-34.
  15. http://www.chighel.com/opening-statement-7a/
  16. The letter is reprinted in Likutei Siḥot, Vol. 21, page 397.
  17. E.g. Elliot R. Wolfson, Open Secret (Columbia University Press, 2009), pp. 67ff.
  18. http://cas.uchicago.edu/workshops/germanphilosophy/files/2013/02/Kant-On-the-Miscarriage-of-all-Philosophical-Trials-at-Theodicy.pdf
  19. http://www.chighel.com/the-argument-7b/
  20. 1 2 Rubenstein, Richard (1966). After Auschwitz. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
  21. "Prayer in the Shoah". From: Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought.
  22. All Rivers Run to the Sea: Memoirs vol 1, Elie Wiesel, Schocken 1996. Chapter "God's Suffering: A Commentary" p 101-106 and other references in the book
  23. Michael Chighel, Hosanna! Eliezer Wiesel's Correspondence with the Lubavitcher Rebbe
  24. Faith and Doubt: Studies in Traditional Jewish Thought, Norman Lamm, Ktav Publishers, Chapter XII: Suffering and Literature
  25. Blumenthal, D (1993): Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest. Despite the term "abuse" being new in Jewish theology, as shown on page 261 of the book, the arguments connected to it have a long tradition in Jewish theology.
  26. Roth et al. (1982) - Extracted from a review of Roth's essay, in which the author comments that "Roth is painting a picture of God as the ultimate example of a bad and abusive parent!"
  27. 1 2 Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology (Augsburg Fortress:Minneapolis, 1993).
  28. 1 2 "Pastoral Visit of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI in Poland: Address by the Holy Father - Visit to the Auschwitz Camp, 28 May 2006"
  29. Simon Wiesenthal Center
  30. e.g. Daniel Goldhagen in "The Holocaust Was Not Christian"
  31. Goldhagen, 2002, p. 240.
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