There is a special b’nai mitzvah tradition at Temple Beth El. Each student can ask me any question of their choosing on the big day, and I will do my best to begin a conversation around it. This past month we celebrated two wonderful b’not mitzvah. One was Sadie Lieb; the other was Zoe Davidson. Below are my responses to their rather thoughtful and intriguing questions.
Sadie Lieb’s question: If we believe that everything in the world happens because of God, then why should we believe in God after the events of the Holocaust?
This question, Sadie, is as deep as you are. It is a question of struggle and a matter of conscience. It is a question of a young mind trying to make sense of a broken world. It is perhaps a question all of us must grapple with.
In the Holocaust’s aftermath, rabbi and academic Richard Rubenstein wrestled with this question in his controversial book After Auschwitz. In it, he explained that he couldn’t fathom how to believe in God in light of the destruction, violence, and evil that our people had lived through. He was unable to envision his faith.
Doubt and questioning are inherent parts of our tradition. After surviving the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel understandably struggled with his faith. He asked if perhaps God had died in the concentration camps. Wiesel has wrestled with his faith just as Jacob wrestled with God long ago. He questioned, he doubted. But in the end, he counts himself as an observant believer. In a 2005 interview, Elie Wiesel was asked why and how he continues to believe. He answered:
“I cannot not believe. Not because of myself, but because of those who were before me. It is my love for and fidelity to my parents, my grandparents, and theirs, and simply to stop, to be last in the chain, is wrong. It would humiliate them. They weren’t at fault. Why should I do it to them? I feel such a presence when I think about them and even when I don’t think about them. I want to follow in their footsteps. I don’t want to break the chain. And to choose what? Is it better to be agnostic or better to be an atheist? I don’t know. I’ve never tried it. I accept having faith. I call it wounded faith, my faith is wounded. But I believe. A very great Hasidic master once said, ‘No heart is as whole as a broken heart.’ And I paraphrase it differently, no faith is as pure as a wounded faith because it is faith with an open eye. I know all the elements of the situation; I know all the reasons why I shouldn’t have faith… it’s a choice. And I choose faith.”
Emil Fackenheim, is another person who held onto his faith—and perhaps even deepened it in the aftermath of the Holocaust. He was going to believe because “rejecting God because of the Holocaust was like giving in to Hitler, giving him a posthumous victory.” He proclaimed that there should be a 614th commandment- for Jews to work for their survival and their faith actively.
Terrible things happened in the Holocaust—evil, despicable things, but perhaps even if everything stems from God, everything is not God’s fault. Perhaps God is not the cause of evil or suffering. Instead, God is there with us to help us through. These are the theological thoughts of Harold Kushner, who had all too much experience with heartache. If God gives human beings free will, then there are times when people will do horrible, unthinkable things to one another. There will also be times when people uplift and help one another in truly inspiring and life-changing ways. “The question about Auschwitz is not where was God, but where was man,” said Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Human beings created this destruction and violence and hatred. The only way to get through such times of hardship is to reach out to God, and live up to our highest sense of morality.
So why believe in God in the aftermath of the Holocaust? Because faith does not necessitate perfection. We can be angry with God for the devastation of the Holocaust. Perhaps we even have an obligation to do so. But I believe there is an even bigger calling at work, one that is intertwined with our very mission as Jews and as human beings. We live in a broken and imperfect world, a world that needs us to work to fix it. We are God’s partners in overcoming evil, hatred, and oppression. God needs us as much as we need Her.