Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 109 (January 2001): 11-14.
It seems unavoidable that history will always link the reestablishment of the State of Israel with the tragedy of the Holocaust. There were only fifteen years between January 1933, when Hitler and the Nazi regime came to power in Germany, and May 1948, when the independence of the State of Israel was declared. In this very brief time, the Jewish people experienced both its greatest tragedy ever and one of its greatest triumphs. Though there certainly is a connection between these events, too many people, both Jews and non–Jews, think it must be a causal connection, that Israel depends on the Holocaust as a necessary precondition. This assumption has led to some very problematic theological speculations by Jews (and also by some Christian milleniarians) that need addressing.
Theology’s interest in history should be to detect the hand of God there. Hence the theological problem—it is hard to see how the same God was involved in both the Holocaust and Israel’s reestablishment. It turns out to be the most serious challenge to Jewish monotheism presently imaginable. The historical juxtaposition of the two events raises two great theological questions. Regarding the Holocaust, Jews ask: Where was God? Regarding the reestablishment of the State of Israel, we ask: How was God there? Can the same God who seemed to have been absent in the Holocaust suddenly become present in the reestablishment of the State of Israel?
Some Jews, of a decidedly pietistic sort, have argued that the Holocaust is God’s punishment for the Jews having been seduced by the modern temptation to become part of the non–Jewish world and abandon their traditional faith and practice. (For example, see First Things, April 1998 and August/September 1998, for the argument between David Klinghoffer and his critics, including me.) Zionism is the worst example of that temptation for the more radical of these pietists, because it, they argue, like all modern ideologies, is a pseudo–messianism, albeit of a particularly Jewish sort. They see Zionism as the arrogant attempt to solve the ontological problem of the Jewish people by human political means rather than waiting for the apocalyptic deliverance of the Jewish people (and with them the whole world) by God through His chosen Messiah.
A different theological approach might be termed “religio–nationalist.” In diametric opposition to the pietistic approach, religio–nationalists regard the reestablishment of the State of Israel as the most important religious imperative of our time. For those who take this position, the commandment to settle the land of Israel and make it habitable by Jews is intimately related to bringing about the reign of the Messiah. In this view, the messianic reality is a process that begins with the reestablishment of the State of Israel and culminates in the full messianic reign in the land of Israel and beyond. This view has found liturgical expression in the prayer composed in 1948 for the new State of Israel, which asks God to bless the state as “the beginning of the growth of our redemption.”
Because what many wanted to be forgotten would not be forgotten, the religio–nationalists had to accommodate the Holocaust in their theological–messianic vision. They accomplished this by pushing the date for the beginning of the eschatological process back to 1933 with the rise to power of the Nazi regime, arguing that the Jewish people were required to suffer the Holocaust in order to be worthy of the State of Israel. Where in the pietistic view the dead of the Holocaust are a guilt offering for the Jewish past, in the religio–nationalist view the dead of the Holocaust are a burnt offering for the Jewish future.
Both of these theologies evoke the tradition of classical Jewish messianism. One might identify the position of the pietists as a form of “apocalyptic messianism,” and the position of the religio–nationalists as one of “historical messianism.”
In historical messianism, the reign of the Messiah is brought about by a Jewish ruler powerful enough to gather the Jewish exiles back to the land of Israel, reestablish a Torah government there, and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. It requires maximum Jewish political activity, centered in the land of Israel. It has as a consequence that Jewish political subservience to any regime other than a Jewish one in the land of Israel, whether from religious or secular motives, is at this juncture of history the greatest Jewish sin. A difficulty for this view is its dangerous mixture of religion and nationalism, which has led to much human suffering in recent centuries.
Apocalyptic messianism, which has far richer resources in biblical and rabbinic teaching, holds that the reign of the Messiah is not the culmination of a discernible process within history, but a singular event that human works cannot bring about. The Messiah is the object of Jewish hope, not the result of Jewish effort. He is transcendent, not in any way immanent. Such messianic hope limits the pretensions of this–worldly projects. It reminds Jews of the dangers of identifying with any totalizing schemes in the world that claim to be able to generate the end of history from within the historical resources at hand. This view too has a difficulty, for it seems to lead to a type of quietism that makes its adherents vulnerable to forces more politically “realistic.”
In deciding among theological views, one should be something of a consequentialist: the choice of one theological position over another should be, if not actually determined, at least heavily conditioned by the fact that it implies a better ethical outcome than the alternatives. By “ethics” I mean what the Jewish tradition teaches is to be done in relationships between humans. I derive this rule linking theology and ethics from the talmudic dialectic between the theoretical and the practical. All the questions discussed in the Talmud and related rabbinic literature are normative questions: either they are questions of what one is to think or what one is to do. Every prescribed thought has some practical implication; every prescribed act has some theoretical implication.
The ethical implication of any theological position about the Holocaust is: What will be its effect on the survivors of the Holocaust, indeed on the whole Jewish people still in mourning? The pietist theology says to the Jewish people that our sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, daughters and sons all died because of their own sins or for the sin of being part of the Jewish people who had been so taken in by Zionism. The religio–nationalist theology says to the Jewish people that six million Jews had to die in order that there be a Jewish state in the land of Israel. It is hard to tell which answer is more morally offensive to Jews—don’t they both basically torture the Jewish people?
In the case of the pietists, we must question whether working for a Jewish state in the land of Israel is a sin. Here we see the enormous theological difference between asking God—even angrily asking God—to justify Himself at the end of time, and providing a conclusive answer in the name of God today. One would think that proponents of an apocalyptic messianism would wait until the end of history to find out the consequences of sin. Instead, they presume to know what is to come, and they beat down their theological opponents using the Holocaust as a stick. If we assume with Scripture and the rabbis that God is “the judge of all the earth who practices justice” (Genesis 18:25), then isn’t this theology, attributing an unjust punishment to God, a blasphemous indictment of God Himself? Should we imply that the survivors of the Holocaust are to hate God because of it?
In the case of the religio–nationalists, did the Jewish victims of the Holocaust (both those who died and those who survived) choose to be sacrificed for the sake of a Jewish state? And even if they did so choose, could that be justified in the face of the ethical norm, “one life is not set aside for another”? If the lives of six million Jews, and the continuing pain suffered by all the survivors, is the price that had to be paid for a Jewish state in the cosmic economy, then the price is too high. The end result, however good, would not have been worth it.
Both of these theologies are guilty of verbal abuse, which the law proscribes. We can learn the immorality of such theological explanations of the Holocaust from the book of Job. God rebukes the three “friends” of Job (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar), who, when they come to comfort him in his mourning, condemn him instead. God says to them, “You have not spoken to Me correctly” (Job 42:7), on which the great medieval exegete Rashi elaborates: “You should have comforted him as Elihu did, but it was not enough that Job was in sorrow and suffering, you added rebellion to your own sins by vexing him.”
As long as even one direct survivor of the Holocaust is still alive among us, it is abusive in the extreme to suggest that his or her family and friends had to die because of something they or someone else did, or because they were means to an end. A good case can be made that as long as even one direct survivor is still among us, that person, and all of us who survived the Holocaust less directly, have the status of mourners, or perhaps orphans. Accordingly, we may not present any explanation of the Holocaust that the mourners and orphans could not possibly accept.
Apocalyptic messianism, at least, need not lead in this direction at all. It can instead play an important role in Jewish political activity, including the reestablishment of the State of Israel and its continued life and strength. Apocalyptic messianism can provide an important context for Jewish political activity, because by avoiding the idea that our actions will hasten the Messiah’s arrival, it frees us to be realistic in our actions rather than zealously moralistic. Historical messianism, on the other hand, can quickly turn into a pseudo–messianism if its proponents become convinced that the end–time is beginning now and we are thus dispensed from the criteria of ordinary Jewish morality.
Apocalyptic messianism keeps our attention on the present and its needs. In my mind, apocalyptic messianism, minus pseudo–messianic historical judgments, lends itself to an adequate theological relation of the Holocaust and the reestablishment of the State of Israel much better than the historical messianism of the religio–nationalists. It seems to be harder if not impossible for the religio–nationalists to express their messianism without at the same time seeing the Holocaust and its victims playing some sort of instrumental role in a cosmic drama.
The question is: How does our moral duty to comfort the mourners of Auschwitz and Buchenwald enable us to constitute a coherent theology that sees the same God at work in both the Holocaust and the reestablishment of the State of Israel? Here I would say we Jews need to separate our anger with God over the amount of death and suffering in the Holocaust from the judgment made by some contemporary Jewish theo logians that the Holocaust falsifies the fundamental covenantal promise made by God to Israel. That promise, however, would be falsified only if all the Jews had been destroyed, or if the surviving Jews were so demoralized that they could not go on as Jews and thus were to commit religious and cultural suicide. Yet two–thirds of the Jewish people did survive and in many ways—most especially in the reestablishment of the State of Israel—the Jewish people has done much more than merely survive. In the light of our obligation to comfort the mourners of the Holocaust, what greater comfort could we possibly give them than to demonstrate this truth to them in our own lives among them? The attempt to exterminate the people of Israel failed, even if we cannot celebrate that fact—yet. Our wounds are still too painful. Many of us still suffer from “survivor’s guilt.” Why did so many more righteous than we die rather than we ourselves?
But the reestablishment of the State of Israel is something Jews can celebrate now, even though many died in the event as well. The difference, I think, is that we only escaped the Holocaust; the defeat of the murderers came through the hands of others. In the case of Israel, we Jews didn’t just escape our enemies, we triumphed over them. God gave the victory to us. There is a difference in the way we thank Him for having let us survive and the way we thank Him for letting us triumph, but the God who saved us from Hitler and who gave us the State of Israel is neither a God whose covenant has been falsified nor a God whose final and unique messianic victory has yet come. We who are alive today still have more to thank God for than to contend with Him about.
So, what is the theological connection between the Holocaust and the reestablishment of the State of Israel? If by “connection” one means some sort of causal relation, then, theologically speaking, there is none and there should be none. If there were any such causal relation, then it would seem we would have to “thank” the Holocaust in one way or another for the blessing of the State of Israel. The State of Israel does not have to claim the Holocaust as its necessary precondition in any theologically significant way.
The proper theological connection between the two events is not causal but analogical. The similarities are located in the very similar responses that are prescribed for those who have experienced either event: God is to be thanked now for our survival then. Our suffering does not admit of any theodicy because the ways of God are mysterious, the ultimate secrets are yet to be revealed. “The secrets are God’s; for us and our children there is [only] doing all the words of this Torah, which are revealed” (Deuteronomy 29:28). Any attempt to reveal now what God intends to be hidden can only be destructive to ourselves and painfully abusive to others.
The Holocaust and the reestablishment of the State of Israel both pose great challenges to the Jewish people to remain faithful to the covenant. Each also poses a temptation. The Holocaust tempts us to believe we are so weak that the covenant and its responsibilities are beyond us. It tempts us to blasphemous despair. The reestablishment of the State of Israel tempts us to believe we are so strong that the covenant and its responsibilities are behind us. It tempts us to blasphemous arrogance. By tempering the fear of the Holocaust with the joy of the State of Israel, and by tempering the joy of the State of Israel with the fear of the Holocaust, we are able to speak to God and of God in the world, without presuming to speak for God or in place of God. That is the true task of Jewish theology at this juncture of history.
David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies
at the University of Toronto and is author, most recently, of Covenantal
Rights (Princeton University Press).