Wednesday, December 19, 2007

theological response to the Shoah

Cross Currents raises the question (link) of whether the Shoah is sui generis or simply one of many tragedies to befall the Jewish people through the ages. As the article notes, some prefer the term “Churban” to "Shoah" or "Holocaust" because it connotes continuity with other events in Jewish history. For those opposed to creating a unique Yom haShoah, 10 Teves is an opportunity to mourn the Churban/Shoah in the context of other tragedies.

By coincidence, I recently came across the following words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (VaYechi 5751). Aside from his use of the term Shoah, the implicit recognition of the Holocaust as a sui generis event (except perhaps the churban habayis itself), the Rebbe’s theological approach to the tragedy is worth taking note of:

ישנם עמינים בלתי-רצויים שאינם באים בתור עונש על עונות כי אם מפני שכך גזר הקב״ה ללא טעם והסברה כלל בשכל וחכמת התורה. ובלשון חז״ל...״שתוק כך עלה במחשבה לפני״, ״גזירה היא לפני״

ובנד״ד: השמדת ששה מליון יהודים באכזריות הכי גדולה ונוראה - שואה איומה שלא היתה (ולא תהי׳ ר״ל) דוגמתה במשך כל הדורות - לא יכולה להיות בתור עונש על עונות, שכן אפילו השטן עצמו לא יוכל למצוא חשבון עונות בדור ההוא שיהי׳ בו כדי להצדיק ח״ו עונש חמור כזה
אין לנו שום הסבר וביאור (ע״פ חכמת התורה) כלל וכלל על השואה, כי אם ידיעת העובדה ש״כך עלה במחשבה לפני״... ובודאי ובודאי לא הסבר דעונש על עונות.

In other words: while we are all familiar with the “mipnei chataeinu” approach which connects tragedy to sin, there are events which cannot be understood using that model. For example, the angels complained to G-d that Rabbi Akiva was unworthy of death – his suffering could not be ascribed to any sin for which he was guilty of (Menachos 29). G-d responded that the explanation for Rabbi Akiva’s death was held in G-d’s own thoughts. We are not privy to the reasons for such matters – G-d’s inner thought is not revealed - and can say no more than such is G-d’s unfathomable will.

The death of six million is such an event. Even Satan himself could not find enough sins in that generation to justify the horrific fate which those who perished suffered. We have no explanation for what occurred other than to say such is G-d’s unfathomable will – but certainly, our sins alone cannot explain such a tragedy.


  1. There definitely is a split among the baalei machshava on this topic. Rav Rudderman and Reb Moshe both told me that suggesting reasons/explanations for the holocaust is both foolish and revolting; other individuals (should I say le'havdil?) have publicly blamed public chillul shabbas in Warsaw, not covering hair, the Zionist movement, and other stuff.

  2. Anonymous10:17 AM

    Most definitly we can not claim to KNOW the reason for the holocaust.Hoewever I don't feel we can say with absolute certainty that it wasn't an onesh for averos.Although we of course don't know which specific ones if we are suggesting some in an effort to improve in those areas and other areas of Avodas Hashem I don't see this being different from any other 'Im royes Yissurim Boeim ulov yifasfas b'maasav'.

  3. The navi says "ahl mah avdah ha'aretz?" and the Gemara says they asked even the malachei hashreis what the reason was, and not one was foolhardy enough to suggest an answer, until Hashem Himself said the reasons- brisi heifeiru, etc. These reasons were not hidden, but when it comes to such a terrible punishment, the proper reaction is "I don't know; only God knows." Every individual should seek to improve himself, but no person has the right to even attempt an explanation.

    I know that by the Churban Bayis Sheini Chazal do say reasons-- among them, sinas chinam, he'emidu divreihem, etc. I don't know why they had the right to say so in contrast to the bayis rishon. But my mesora from my teachers is that asserting knowledge of an explanation is not only wrong but even anserine (Kesuvos 85a).

  4. Anonymous11:08 AM

    I can't argue with a mesorah you have but many reasons were given by the gedolim of that time for Gorush Sefard as well as Tach V'Tat so I still maimtain suggesting reasons for the Holocaust for the purpose of not repeating averos is acceptable.

    I know someone who asked Rav Yaakov K. if he may suggest that he had a problem due to a specific avero that he will now refrain from and RYK said yes.(although obviosly the guy can't be certain his chesbon was a correct one or that he received a kapporah)

  5. Anonymous - do you reject the theory that it is possible to suffer tragedy without being guilty of sin?

    >>>if he may suggest that he had a problem due to a specific avero

    On a personal level for a regular human being this makes sense, which is why I think the Rebbe stressed that the Holocaust was such an immense tragedy as to entirely eclipse in its enormity any degree of punishment that could be deserved.

  6. Anonymous4:34 PM

    Anonymous - do you reject the theory that it is possible to suffer tragedy without being guilty of sin?
    No.But I also reject the concept that we can be so certain why Hashem does or does not do someting that we can rule out a possiblty unless that possiblty is imposible(e.g. somone born with a deformity or hereditary illness clearly isn't suffering as an onesh)I don't see why the holocaust is impossible to be an onesh so I don't see the problem with looking for actions that MIGHT have caused it in an effort not to repeat them.