There are some historical atrocities which are so detached from the core tenants of humanity that we wonder how they could ever have been perpetrated. Perhaps the most heinously notable among these events is the Shoah or Holocaust, in which nearly 17 million people died, 6 million of them being Jewish. In the aftermath of this tragedy, many Jews who had either survived or escaped the fate of their fellows were left to ponder the ramifications of the Shoah in relation to Jewish philosophy and beliefs.
The amount of scholarship on this topic is enormous and covers a range of disciplines; from psychology and sociology, to philosophy and theology. Given the nature of this column I will be attempting to focus on the philosophical arguments and their explanations. The fundamental question in wake of the Shoah is “why?”. If we as Jews are G-d’s chosen people, then how is it that such a catastrophe could be allowed to occur?
The first response is possibly the most obvious, G-d is dead or has changed significantly. This was the first response of many Jewish academics who argued that if G-d existed, the Shoah simply would not have happened. This view is often countered by a secondary response which claims that G-d is not dead or gone, rather G-d is simply distant or not omnipotent. In the case of the former we are told that while it may seem like the Shoah is an unimaginable tragedy, this is simply a human perspective. In the latter case G-d was simply not able to stop the Shoah from happening.
A second stream of responses focuses on the topic of responsibility and the covenant that binds G-d and the Jewish people. The first of these responses which emerged from the more orthodox schools of Judaism, posited that the Shoah was punishment for the sins of the Jewish people (though we may ask, if this was the case, why did millons of non-Jews also have to die?). Some scholars claimed that the Shoah represents the end of G-d’s covenant with the Jewish people. For whatever reason the special relationship they had shared was now gone and with it the obligation to live a Jewish life. Further explanation from Jewish thinkers include the idea that G-d would be capable of evil or that G-d suffered with the victims of the Shoah through means we do not understand.
But many religious and secular writers remove G-d from the equation entirely. One idea in this vein states that, while certainly tragic, the Shoah is just another tragedy in history and not a religious matter in and of itself. Others state that since G-d has given humans free will, it is our responsibility to help one another rather than depend on G-d.
A final point of view is that concepts of philosophy or theology should not be applied to the Shoah at all. The horrors of the event were such that any attempts to rationalize or explore it are equivalent to making light of the situation. But while certain lines of reasoning may indeed come off as crass, it seems foolish for the people of the book to turn a blind eye to the philosophical study of our greatest tragedy.