God, the Holocaust, and Divine Memory
To the Editor:
I read with aroused interest Rabbi Joseph Polak’s “The Last Witness” [July/August]. What got my attention was Polak’s imagining briefly the unanswerable question in relation to the Holocaust. As he uniquely cries it out:
“Where is G-d?…Is He out there reciting the names of the camps? Belsen, Treblinka, Majdanek, Sobibor? Is He reading the names of the victims?…Is He weeping?”
These questions are meant to rebuke two opposing assertions put to Elijah as to the “great absence while one-and-a-half million Jewish children were being murdered.” The first imagined assertion is Dostoevskian, that there can be no answer to, or explanation of, such transcendent injustice and cruelty. God should stay silent. The second, opposite, assertion is Abrahamic, that man cannot question God, cannot demand explanations and answers of such awesome divinity.
The rebuke is rageful. How dare anyone remain silent? What self-indulgence allows such silence?
Polak’s questions admit of no answer. They ask what kind of a God would allow such suffering and killing? Who is this God? Wherefore His “great absence”? What penance does He do? Polak “would pound the tables with both hands.” His God must be held to account. Polak is engaged in an imagined confrontation with his creator, from whom he demands some action of remembrance, contrition, and atonement.
I, a non-believer, take a different view. I ask no such questions (of whom, after all?). I am interested in Polak’s questions insofar as they reveal to me the absurdity of belief and faith in light of the overwhelming evil of the Holocaust (in which an uncle and cousin of mine were killed, and during which another cousin of mine suffered but survived the depredations of the concentration camp).
I get no succor or relief from being able to make my God human and contend ferociously with Him. It is a wasted effort. For its presupposition is that there is some divinity worthy of such contention, which concedes reification of a notional God.
If there ever were an occasion that informs Jews that God is not great, that belief and faith in Him are preposterous, and that by them we diminish ourselves and the meaning of the Holocaust, then the Holocaust itself must be that occasion.
To the Editor:
Joseph Polak’s heartfelt and stirring article resonates within me. Like him, I was born in the Hague, Holland. Unlike him, I survived in hiding, not in Bergen-Belsen. My memory was questioned by adults, my suffering diminished by the assumption of adults that the madness had not touched we youngsters: “You were only a child.”
Joseph and his friend played hide-and-seek around the corpses in Bergen-Belsen. I did not play at all. We children who grew up overnight, did not know play. We were co-operative with our hiders, remained silent unless bidden to talk, and we did not cry.
It appears we two little Dutch boys, Joseph Polak and I, now aged 70 and 72 respectively, are indeed fated to be among the last Shoah survivor witnesses, along with G-d. But can we trust Him to be a reliable witness?
Vancouver, British Columbia
Joseph Polak writes:
I am struck by how well Mr. Basman read my article, and am grateful for the frankness with which he presents his non-belief. And, if I understand him correctly, he is proposing a kind of Occam’s razor in Holocaust theology: It takes fewer assumptions from the experience of the Holocaust to conclude that there is no G-d than it takes to conclude that there still is one.
Alas, were Mr. Occam alive, I think he would take issue with Mr. Basman. The Holocaust does not pose a single challenge to G-d as Creator, nor to the integrity of His recorded revelation, nor—come to think of it—to most of the classical philosophical proofs that Anselm and Descartes proposed. It does raise questions about our understanding of His role in history—perhaps because we got this wrong in the first place, or perhaps because without the advantage of old-fashioned prophetic revelation, it is impossible to make sense of this role. However, let me assure Mr. Basman that Jews who observe the Sabbath or immerse themselves in the study of the tradition do not seem to feel that they are alone. Nor do they feel that they are deluding themselves.
My article is not about G-d’s existence but instead about divine memory: It is a sort of Midrash on the 2,000-year-old High Holiday liturgy, which claims ve-en shikcha lifnei kisei kevodecho (“there is no forgetting before Your glorious Throne”). More than us, it is G-d Who will have to live with the memory of the Holocaust. What is He doing with this memory?
To my dear friend Robert Krell, the psychiatrist who has dedicated his life to helping child survivors of the Holocaust maneuver their way out of the horror of their memories, my answer is not much different. If G-d can forget nothing—in some ways, that’s terrible. So what is the best way for Him to deal with the Holocaust? Repress it? I think He will be more reliable on keeping the message alive than Dr. Krell gives Him credit for! Or, as I say in the article, I certainly hope so.