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Problem of Evil

What Are They Saying About God and Evil? (New York: Paulist Press, 1989)
© Barry Whitney
Chapter 9: Concluding Comments

The preponderance of evil and suffering has been the greatest threat to belief in the God defined by Christians as all-powerful and all-loving. Yet in our century, the incredible horror of the holocaust has given the theodicy issue a new and even more pressing urgency and significance. Among Jewish theologians in particular the trauma of the devastation has forced a serious reexamination of the relationship between God and evil. In this final chapter, it seems appropriate and profitable to examine some of the leading Jewish theological responses to the holocaust, and then conclude this chapter and the book with a brief overview of the various theodicies (i.e., the scholars and themes) discussed in the preceding pages.

(i) Holocaust Theodicy
Moses Mendelssohn has stated that all history, including the holocaust, is God's doing: "All of this is fact--it must be part of the original design and must have been allowed for or at least included in wisdom’s plan. Providence never fails to accomplish its goals." There is, however, as we have seen, no consensus on this point. Rubenstein, to cite the most prominent Jewish example, has immense difficulty with the traditional interpretation represented by Mendelssohn. In his oft-cited book, After Auschwitz, Rubenstein has argued that the covenant God is obligated to punish evil, and that this punishment supposedly is just and deserved; yet, since this view implies that the Jews must bear responsibility for the holocaust, Rubenstein feels that he has no choice but to reject the God of the covenant: "To see any purpose in the death camps the traditional believer is forced to regard the most demonic, antihuman explosion in all history as a meaningful expression of God's purposes." Again, he writes: "The real objections against a personal or theistic God come from the irreconcilability of the claim of God’s perfection with the hideous human evil tolerated by such a God.... A God who tolerates the suffering of even one innocent child is either infinitely cruel or hopelessly indifferent." Rubenstein, like the philosopher-playwright, Albert Camus, who influenced him, rejects the God of absolute power as inconsistent with a world which has become so vicious and absurd.

Other Jewish writers, nevertheless, have maintained their belief in the covenant relationship and have focused principally upon the following themes: disaster may be a test sent by God; suffering may be the result of a lack of group solidarity; and suffering may be a challenge of Jewish self-identification. Daniel Breslauer has suggested that these three elements usually have been examined in isolation and that each one has become a cornerstone for a different American Jewish theodicy. Eliezer Berkovits, for example, represents the first view: after each catastrophe in Jewish history, God has done something new for the chosen ones: "through Israel God tested Western man and found him wanting."

Yet the holocaust, for Berkovits, is a testimony not only to the callousness of human beings but of the possibility of human self-transcendence. The second approach has major representatives in Emil Fackenheim and Arthur Cohen, among others: the holocaust creates the imperative for social conscience, for strengthening community. The third view, finally, represented by Maurice Friedman, Irving Greenberg, and others, interprets the holocaust as an opportunity whereby individuals can affirm and fulfil themselves.

There are other significant Jewish theodicies, explanations for the holocaust and other human miseries which range from conservative (traditional) perspectives to significantly novel proposals. Immanuel Hartom, for example, sees the holocaust as divine retribution for the sin of assimilation; Joel Teitelbaum sees it as divine punishment for the sins of the Zionists; Ignaz Maybaum claims that the Jews who died in the holocaust did so as vicarious suffering for the sins of others; Martin Buber’s well known view was that God is "eclipsed" or hidden, obscured by the intensity of suffering and evil; and Maybaum appeals to the faith solution, conceding that God's ways simply are incomprehensible to us."

Elie Wiesel speaks of a suffering God as an expression of divine goodness and love, despite the world’s evil, a view shared also by Abraham Heschell and Hans Jonas. The latter insists, as do some of the writers discussed in the previous chapter, that we must seek to revise our understanding of God: "Auschwitz calls . . . the whole traditional concept of God into question." In a manner consistent with process writers, Jonas contends that God is not omnipotent in the traditional sense, and indeed that the conventional concept of omnipotence is meaningless (logically, ontologically, and theologically). Taken literally, "omnipotence" implies that God has all the power, and if this were the case, God's power would be power over nothing. Like process thinkers, Jonas insists that God cannot intervene to prevent evil and suffering. Unlike process thinkers, however, who offer metaphysical reasons for this conception of God, Jonas speaks only of a God who for a time--the time of the ongoing world process--has divested himself of any power to interfere with the physical course of things.

There certainly is no doubt that the holocaust has become our century’s infamous symbol for eviL The diversity of viewpoints among the Jewish writers we have surveyed, moreover, attests to the fact that the problem of theodicy is as pressing and the answers as diverse as ever The arguments of the Jewish theologians, furthermore, are not far removed from the Christian theodicies surveyed in this book, theodicies which range from the dominant, traditional (Augustinian-Thomistic) stance to the innovative proposals found, for example, in Hick’s Irenaean theodicy and in the revised understanding of divine power and in the innovative emphasis upon divine suffering.

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Parts of this chapter, and the endnotes, are not on-line yet. Other chapters from the original book publication are available on this website.

BARRY WHITNEY, 1994, 2006. Please request permission from the author at DrBarryWhitney@mac.com to use this publication in whole or in part in web publications or in other forms of publication and dissemination.