By Zev Garber
Professor Emeritus, Chair of Jewish Studies
Los Angeles Valley College
Questioning God in the face of Evil is as old as the Bible, as the story of Job and the words of Jesus at the Crucifixion attest.1 But the savagery of the Shoah places the Nazi brutality in a category by itself. For many survivors of the Kingdom of Night, the aching question, “Where was God when Six Million Jews, 1.5 million of them children, and others perish in an indescribable catastrophic evil?,” is answered by a deafening silence from Heaven and righteous anger born in frustration on Earth.
Take, for example, the shattered belief of retired US Army Maj. Gen. Sidney Shachnow.2 Born in Kaunas, Lithuania, he and his family were arrested in 1941 with other Jews from in the Kouno ghetto. His father escaped, but Sidney, then 7, was imprisoned three years in a Nazi forced-labor camp. His mother was sent to a concentration camp. Of 220,000 Lithuanian Jews, 96% lost their lives. Shachnow and his parents survived. After being liberated by the Soviet army, the family was reunited and immigrated to the United States in 1950. Later, Shachnow enlisted in the U.S. army as an infantryman and rose in the ranks.
He was commanding general in Berlin during the Cold War, protecting Germans from the Soviets who liberated him. He resided in the home that had been used by Hermann Wilhelm Goering, second in command to Hitler. Shachnow also served as commanding general of U.S. Army Special Forces Command, Airborne (the Green Berets) at Ft. Bragg and saw action in Vietnam and in the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm. He retired in 1994.
Addressing a community-wide observance of Yom HaShoah held at the prestigious Orthodox Beth Jacob congregation in Beverly Hills, CA , in April 2001, Shachnow asked where was the biblical God during the Shoah – not the philosopher’s theoretical abstraction nor the psychologist’s God spot nor the theologian’s necessary being but God the intervener, the miracle worker. Where was the God so palpable that walls tumbled at the sound of the trumpets and evildoers perished beneath the thunderous judgment of cresting waves? His child-self inquired what sin merited the murder of countless innocent children and women? His observant-self lamented that if the Jews are God’s chosen people, why are they so despised? And the soldier in him revealed that in combat he prayed to God, and as soon as the danger was over, he asked all kinds of questions, and he did not receive many answers.
How may a Jewish traditionalist and modernist respond to General Schachnow’s painful questions? The traditionalist may say that there are miracles recorded in biblical literature, but there are also fundamental principles. The Torah is clear that the staff Moses used to split the Sea of Reeds lost its power soon after the battle against Amalek (Exodus 17). May this not be the Torah’s way of saying that in the face of evil, heavenly intervention is not necessarily determined by Man’s plight? There are abysses in history that man will have to conquer. The lachrymose history of the Jews in Christian Europe served as a preamble to Hitler’s inferno. And the world in general and Christendom in particular did very little. Thus “where was God?” should be discussed fairly. It should not be an emotional retort where fairness is not given to God’s defense.3
The modernist rejects the idea that God is a super ally in the sky. In Judaism, every individual is created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26). In classical rabbinic theology this is understood that Man and God are co-creators and co-responsible. However, substitute “godliness” for God. Why? Because wherever God is used as a noun He becomes a person, a thing, an object or a Son, and this for the modern rationalist becomes idolatry. Godliness has all the attributes which monotheists ascribed to God and which Man is obligated to imitate. When humankind is callous, when it turns its back to the predators, when it allows homelessness and brutality to exist, it betrays the Godhood in all of us. Man has to behave in godliness. That God will intervene in times of agony and anguish is an illusory and therefore will end in disillusion. The question is, does the individual have an ethical and sophisticated conception of the god idea to make one understand what the world is and what the world ought to be? The point is that Man must never forget the evil that was committed before and during the Shoah, but we dare not forget the altruistic good done by individuals against all odds. The good is that spark of humanity.4
My position, however, is to view theodicy and history by “historiosophy,” whose importance is demonstrated in biblical and rabbinical literature. The agonizing questions may be anchored in historical events, but its religio-understanding lies in the paradigmatic value of “faith knowledge.” The position taken is that in responding to God and Shoah, one must move beyond historiography to historiosophy if the goal is to maintain a commitment to life and memory and not affixation on death and finality.
In the face of Evil, Godspeech is the language of silence. I believe that was the condition in Deuteronomy 30: 11- 20, which states that God brings life and death, curse and blessing. The divine instruction proclaims choose life so that you and your offspring would live. Having said that, the very same passage says that the command is not in heaven, as the Torah is not in heaven. The text says that the command is very near to you. It is “in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it” (verse 14). That is where you begin with the response to the question of faith after the Shoah. If Judaism’s understanding is a covenant with God, then God is restricted by choice of both Heaven and Earth. Man has free will. For man to have free will means that God is self restricted when it comes down to Man’s determination, one’s fate, for better or worst. It is one way of suggesting that Judaism as a religion is a religion of accomplishment and achievement. The Jew has got to see this as a sign of seeking life under all circumstances, including the Shoah. It is not a question of where was/is God in travesty. The question is, where was/is Man?
In sum, it is O.K. for General Shachnow to God wrestle. That is basic Judaism, and its greatest strength. To ask “where was God?” in the Nazi inferno is permissible. And the response is intuitively conveyed in Exodus 24. Moses read from the Book of the Covenant before the people, and they respond, “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do (na’aseh), and we will hear (nishma’)” (verse 7). I profess (“in your mouth”) therefore I act and by so doing I understand.
1 The Jesus words at the Cross of Cavalry, “Eli/Elohi, Eli/Elohi, lama sabachtani” (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34) exemplify the ubiquitous cry of the Jew, “Why, O’ Lord, do you remain silent?”
2 Information on the life and career of General Sidney Shachnow is extracted from the LA Times, April 21, 2001.
3 From an interview with Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles , LA Times, April 21, 2001.
4 From an interview with Rabbi Harold M. Schulweiss, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, Encino, CA, LA Times, April 21, 2001.