Why Did the Holocaust Happen?

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by R. Gil Student

As I reviewed the weekly Torah reading for this past Shabbos, which includes the tokhechah (Deut. 28), I was taken back to my teenage years, reading it one Saturday or Sunday afternoon and seeing Jewish history in it. To a non-religious Jewish teenager in the 1980’s who grew up among survivors, the question of God in the Holocaust was not a faith issue that could be ignored. Reading the biblical text with minimal commentary (I think I used S.L. Gordon’s secular commentary), I saw a prophecy that sin would lead to the kind of inhuman devastation seen in the Holocaust, a prediction that was fulfilled thousands of years later. To me, the Holocaust was not an impediment to faith but a convincing proof of Judaism’s truth claims.

Not everyone sees it that way. Many are offended by the very claim that the Holocaust was a divine punishment, although often due to objections that miss important discussions in traditional Jewish literature which we will mention briefly below. The issues are so sensitive, and during the 1970’s and 1980’s in particular the denominational conflicts were so strong, that unnecessarily forceful rhetoric turned an issue of faith into a weapon. In my opinion, a legitimate theological view has been dismissed due to heightened sensitivities and denominational politics.

I. Five Approaches to the Holocaust

Modern Orthodoxy has developed two main theologies of the Holocaust:

1) Hester Panim – God hid His face, turned away, and let mankind unleash wanton violence. R. Norman Lamm takes this approach in his “The Face of God: Thoughts of the Holocaust”. It is important to note that God hides His face (Deut. 31:17) due to Jewish sins (ibid., 16). (Some claim that brief mentions of hester panim by R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik in his Kol Dodi Dofek constitute his adoption of this approach, but see R. Reuven Ziegler, Majesty and Humility, p. 277 n. 4, where he dismisses this interpretation.)

2) Free Will – God allows mankind the free will to sin, which includes the ability to murder and torture others. R. Eliezer Berkovits advocates this approach in his Faith After the Holocaust.

The alternative approaches generally discussed are:

3) Anti-Zionism – The Satmar Rebbe’s argument that Zionism led to the Holocaust, in his Al Ha-Ge’ulah Ve-Al Ha-Temurah.

4) Zionism – The Religious Zionist argument that the Holocaust paved the way for the creation of the State of Israel. This view is attributed to R. Zvi Yehudah Kook (see Aviezer Ravitzky, Messianism, Zionism and Jewish Religious Radicalism, pp. 126-128).

5) Secularization – R. Avigdor Miller popularized the view that the assimilation and secularization of Jews in the 150 years prior to the Holocaust resulted in this punishment. R. Norman Lamm quotes this from R. Miller’s Rejoice O Youth (pp. 278-279) and you can find quotes on the subject by searching TorasAvigdor.org for the word “Holocaust”. (A reader informed me that R. Miller has a book on the subject was posthumously published — A Divine Madness: Rabbi Avigdor Miller’s Defense of Hashem in the Matter of the Holocaust.)

II. The Slabodka Holocaust Theology

I would like to explore here the approach of a Holocaust victim, Rav Avraham Grodzinski, the mashgiach of the Slabodka yeshiva who perished in 1944. I will be blending in another important view of Rav Grodzinski, along with his son-in-law Rav Shlomo Wolbe’s presentation of Rav Grodzinski’s approach in Rav Wolbe’s (anonymously published) book of outreach speeches given in the wake of the Six Day and Yom Kippur wars (originally published as Bein Sheshes Le-Asor, later republished as Olam Ha-Yedidus). Rav Grodzinski’s approach is most similar to that of Rav Miller, which is not surprising since the latter studied in the Slabodka yeshiva. However, I am not sure that Rav Miller developed it in the same way as Rav Grodzinski and he certainly did not present it in the same sensitive way as Rav Wolbe.

Rav Avraham Grodzinski succeeded Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel (“The Alter”) as mashgiach of the Slabodka yeshiva, when the latter moved to Israel and established a branch of the yeshiva in Chevron. Rav Grodzinski (a brother-in-law of Rav Ya’akov Kamenetsky) stayed in Europe to the end, suffering a martyr’s death in the Kovno Ghetto in 1944. He sent his writings to his students in Israel, who together with his surviving sons published them in 1963 as Toras Avraham, a brilliant book of profound Mussar thought presented in the style of Talmudic thinking.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe first published Bein Sheshes Le-Asor anonymously in 1975, although it is clearly in his style and was posthumously republished by the foundation to publish his writings. The book consists mainly of his outreach lectures throughout Israel, spurred by the renewed interest in Israel awakened by the Six Day War and Yom Kippur War. The chapter on the Holocaust, however, was prepared for a class at the Bais Ya’akov of Jerusalem (commonly known as BJJ). I assume that Rav Wolbe included this chapter because he believes that this issue is important to those seeking to grow in faith.

Rav Wolbe begins with a story emphasizing the importance of finding meaning in your suffering. It is obvious, he says, that we must help others by alleviating their suffering in any way possible. However, faith teaches us that there is meaning in suffering, a lesson to be learned. Rav Wolbe continues that even when God hides His face from us, there are no accidents. Therefore we must examine our lives to see what God wants from us. This is true not just for individuals but for nations as a whole. Throughout, Rav Wolbe quotes mainly biblical verses to prove his points, although I can think of many Talmudic passages that would do likewise.

The believer is strengthened from the fact that destruction and suffering do not occur by happenstance but rather come guided by divine providence after ample warning. The traditional Jewish texts of the Bible, Talmud and Midrash warn us of the horrific consequences of sin. Rav Wolbe highlights in particular the language of the Gemara (Kesubos 111a), while sidestepping the specific Talmudic context, of “If not, I (God) will abandon your flesh like the gazelles and like the hinds of the field.” Due to sin, Jewish flesh will be hunted like animals.

Nobody, Rav Wolbe continues, is allowed to decide for what reason the Holocaust happened to us unless he personally suffered himself. Only a victim can conduct this examination of the generation. As we will later see, Rav Grodzinski did not necessarily agree with this. Perhaps Rav Wolbe set this condition for rhetorical purposes. Regardless, with that introduction, Rav Wolbe then invokes Rav Grodzinski’s Holocaust theology.

III. Suffering and Sins

The introduction to Toras Avraham (1978 second edition, p. 17) describes how Rav Grodzinski discussed at length with his students in the Kovno Ghetto the spiritual causes of the Holocaust. He listed twelve primary sins, or areas where we were lacking, and exhorted them to strengthen the Jewish people in these areas if they survived the war. Rav Grodzinski wrote all these talks down but the writings were lost in the war. Rav Mordechai Zuckerman survived and recorded the twelve lackings from memory. They are:
1) Faith
2) Shabbos observance
3) Family purity
4) Kosher food
5) Charging interest
6) Torah education of children
7) Wasting time that could be used for Torah study
8) Loving your fellow Jew
9) Lovingkindness (chesed)
10) Making do with less (histapkus)
11) Trust in God
12) The land of Israel (I don’t know what this means in this context).

I do not know if Rav Grodzinski applied Talmudic statements to his contemporary events, such as “seven punishments come to the world due to seven sins” (Avos 5:8), or if he looked at specific types of suffering and found the “measure for measure” in them, or a combination of both methods or something else. Because his writings were lost, we lack insight into his specific methodology. Regardless, I appreciate his general approach, as described below, and recognize that he used it to reach specific conclusions, which I find worthy as areas to strengthen ourselves.

Rav Wolbe adds to the above list the general secularization of the Jewish people that began with Emancipation and continued with the Jewish Enlightenment. This was accompanied by widespread abandonment of Jewish faith and practice. Historically, he claims, every period of “enlightenment” has ended with Jewish tragedy. The Holocaust continues that historical cycle.

I believe that Rav Grodzinski’s Holocaust theology is intimately connected with his theology of suffering. In a series of lectures in late 1936 and early 1937, Rav Grodzinski explored the unique value of suffering to the religious personality. It might be worthwhile noting that since childhood, Rav Grodzinski suffered great physical pain that he overcame through sheer force of personality.

Rav Grodzinski begins by pointing out what we lost as a nation and as individuals by the cessation of prophecy (roughly) after the destruction of the First Temple. The prophets informed us of our sins, directed us to the proper behavior, guided us to spiritual recovery. When prophecy ceased, we lost that guidance but were not left without any religious compass. Suffering shows us where we must focus. God punishes us measure for measure. Therefore, we can look at our suffering, our punishment, as a guide for where we need to improve our behavior.

To some degree, suffering is more effective than prophecy. “The removal of Achashverosh’s ring (for the sealing of Haman’s decree) was more effective than the forty-eight prophets and the seven prophetesses who prophesied on behalf of the Jewish people. They all were unable to bring the Jewish people to repentance, but the removal of Achashverosh’s ring brought them to repentance” (Megillah 14a). Additionally, suffering empowers you to find your own path to redemption, without the need for a third party, a prophet. Suffering not only directs you to improve but encourages you, offers you the incentive of freedom from suffering.

Rav Grodzinski adds (p. 54) that suffering guides not only the sinners but others, as well. When we see someone suffering and understand the sin that caused it, we learn a very persuasive lesson about what behavior we should avoid. This is true also about the educational value of nations making flawed decisions that seal their fate. The suffering of nations teaches us what national mistakes to avoid (cf. Zephaniah 3:6-7).

In Rav Grodzinski’s view, a wise and learned person, steeped in Talmud and Midrash, can examine the suffering of the Holocaust to identify its underlying spiritual causes and learn from them. After conducting a careful examination, Rav Grodzinski reached his conclusions (unfortunately, his thought process was recorded in writing but lost) and beseeched his students to work to fix these spiritual problems.

IV. Common Objections

1) Rav Wolbe concludes with a common question: Why did righteous people suffer in the Holocaust? He quotes Rav Grodzinski as explaining that the more righteous someone is, the harsher he is judged. R. Akiva suffered from Roman torture and murder because, we are told, “this intention arose before” God (Menachos 29b). What is that intention? Rashi (Gen. 1:1) says, “At first God intended to create the world under the attribute of strict justice, but He realized that the world could not thus endure and therefore gave priority to mercy combined with justice.” R. Akiva and the other righteous individuals are judged with the initial intent, pure justice.

Even without Rav Wolbe’s interpretation of this passage, we see elsewhere that the righteous are judged by a hairbreadth (Yevamos 121b), meaning that what for others constitutes a minor infraction for someone righteous is a big sin. Additionally, once God sends a punishment to a group (city, country, nation), that punishment applies to everyone whether righteous or wicked (Bava Kamma 60a). That is part of being a people — our fates are connected. In fact, the Gemara (Shabbos 55a) says that when God punishes the Jewish people, He starts with the most righteous.

2) Were the people killed in the Holocaust guilty? – Even though no one can claim to be free from guilt, it is hard to imagine that anyone committed a sin so heinous as to deserve the horrors of the Holocaust. However, a sin committed by many is worse than a sin committed by an individual. Additionally, God is patient and allows time — generations — for the Jewish people to return before punishing us. When the punishment arrives, it is not just for that generation but for the previous generations as well (Ex. 20:5; Or Ha-Chaim, ad loc.). The generation of the Holocaust lived at the end of God’s long wait for a return that never arrived. We do not stand in judgement of those who died or suffered in the Holocaust, nor do we say that they are more deserving than people before or after them. According to this understanding, they were individuals who lived at a time in history when the Jewish people was punished for its collective sins over many generations, for its long drift away from traditional Jewish observance.

3) Were the Nazis right to kill Jews? – This question is natural but odd. Natural because it emerges from the overall approach but odd because it has been discussed for centuries. Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Teshuvah 6:5) asks why Pharaoh and the Egyptians were punished for enslaving the Jews when it was part of God’s plan as told to Avraham (Gen. 15:13). Rambam answers that someone was destined to enslave the Jews but the Egyptians were guilty for being the ones to do it and therefore suffered ten plagues and drowning at the sea (see also Ramban, Gen. 15:14; I discuss it here). May the Nazis suffer a hundred times ten plagues for their part in the Holocaust. None of this detracts from God’s role in punishing the Jewish people through the guilty Egyptian hands.

4) What value is there in looking for other people’s sins? – As discussed above, Rav Grodzinski sees value in learning what to fix. If we do not learn the spiritual lessons of history, we are condemned to repeat them. Additionally, Ramban (Sha’ar Ha-Gemul in Kisvei Ha-Ramban, vol. 2 p. 281; I discuss it here) offers four reasons to engage in theodicy, even if ultimately you cannot fully understand God’s ways. First, we benefit from gaining a better understanding of God’s ways. More wisdom is good. Metaphysical knowledge, understanding God’s actions, is always positive. Second, studying the ways in which God rewards and punishes people strengthens our belief. Our continuous exploration of God’s ways reinforces within us His existence and His providence. Our greater understanding affords us confidence that explanations exist to even what we do not understand. Additionally, concludes Ramban, the obligations to fear and love God include a requirement to accept His judgment, to explain and justify God’s decisions. This is a mitzvah of tziduk ha-din.

5) Is it sacrilegious to try to understand God’s justice? – No, it is a mitzvah, as per the previous point. It also is not insulting to speak of punishment due to sins. When the Shakh writes about the Chmelnitzki massacres, he refers to what happened to us “due to our sins.” When the Ra’avan writes about the First Crusade (Kuntres Gezeiras Tatn”u), he specifically invokes the tokhechah, saying that they experienced all of the biblical curses. This is a strain of, if not the dominant strain in, traditional Judaism. Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Ta’aniyos 1:3) calls it cruelty to fail to look for the sins that led to divine punishment.

6) Can anyone know God’s reasons absent prophecy? – Rav Yitzchak Hutner (“Holocaust” — A Study of the Term, and the Epoch it is Meant to Describe” in Jewish Observer, October 1977, p. 9) writes: “One would have to be a navi or Tanna (a prophet or Talmudic sage) to claim knowledge of the specific reasons for what befell us; anyone on a lesser plane claiming to do so tramples in vain upon the bodies of the kedoshim who died Al Kiddush Hashem [as holy martyrs] and misuses the power to interpret and understand Jewish history.” On the other hand, this same Rav Hutner gave an approbation to Rav Wolbe’s book quoted above. Furthermore, it seems that Rav Grodzinski, himself a holy martyr, felt his method of analyzing suffering serves the function of prophecy in today’s age.

7) Why does this usually ring so hollow? – When the Holocaust is discussed without sensitivity and empathy, the proposed explanations sound shallow and offensive. In my opinion, that is why Rav Wolbe began with a long introduction and invoked the conclusions of a Holocaust victim, Rav Grodzinski. Furthermore, many of the people offering explanations today either are, or sound like or are portrayed by the media as being, self-righteous fools. It is hard to take seriously someone whose analysis is shallow and only validates his regular message. If your answer to everything is female immodesty, you lack credibility to offer a thoughtful and nuanced answer. Rav Grodzinski does not face this challenge but some people may unfairly associate him with others who suffer that problem. There may be other reasons that this approach often rings hollow but these should suffice for our purposes.

Personally, I benefited from this tokhecha approach which I intuited as a non-religious teenager. I am not certain which sins caused the Holocaust but I am open to honest, sensitive speculation as a way of learning from history, which I believe is that in which Rav Grodzinski and Rav Wolbe engaged. If this approach had been deemed theologically unacceptable, despite its impeccable pedigree, I don’t know if I would be religious today. In my opinion, it is a shame to remove this approach from our theological toolbox due to politics and rhetoric from decades ago.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

4 comments

  1. You missed out on one more important approach. Read the classic introduction to Zichron Kodosh written by the author of Nesivos Sholom – RSN Barzovsky zt”l. The sefer was published once, and never reprinted. Also, the Toras Avrohom was published by a son – not sons – of RAG. Only one son did not perish.

  2. Yaakov Lasson

    Can you summarize the approach here?

  3. I’m not skilled to do so accurately and faithfully. Never the less, I’ll venture to say that the central point is that it’s all part of Hashem’s Grand Plan of human history, and is beyond our comprehension. And therefore the most appropriate response is “Vayidom Aharon”…

  4. There is one idea that is not addressed with the tochachah point of view. That is, in almost every country and every community, it was the religious rather than the less religious that suffered more and was killed more. Many in secular Germany and France survived. In contrast, Poland and Romania, where they were more religious was decimated. Another example: in Hungary, most of secular Budapest was spared while the other religious cities of Hungary were destroyed. Even within single communities, it was the less religious Polish Jew who spoke Polish, had more money, had non-Jewish Polish friends who were able to help them. In contrast, it was the poor frum Jew who did not speak Polish and did not have any Polish friends who had less chances of survival.

    This dichotomy demonstrates that the tochachah theory is not a theory at all.

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