Eliezer Berkovits's Post-Holocaust Theology: A Dialectic between Polemics and Reception

Article excerpt


In response to the Holocaust, Eliezer Berkovits attempted to reconstruct a Jewish identity reflecting divine power through political powerlessness, by recasting Christianity in a this worldly "power history" versus a powerless Israel occupying a metaphysical "faith history." He accomplished this by drawing upon Christian motifs of suffering and by Inverting antisemitic myths regarding Jewish power. Ironically, his reconfiguration of Judaism and Christianity appears to be a clear inversion of the Augustinian categories of the "City of God" and "City of Man." His work demonstrates a dialectic between anti-Christian polemic and the reception of Christian influence. The author argues that this Jewish-Christian dialectic can actually become a spring-board for dialogue in which each religious community recognizes the necessary role the other has played in the construction of their identities.

While rejecting the traditional Deuteronomic theodicy that all suffering is divine punishment for sin, Eliezer Berkovits (1908-92) constructed a post-Holocaust theology with a strong theodic thrust, in that it transfers much of the blame for the Holocaust from God to humanity and, more specifically, Christian culture. [1] What distinguishes Berkovits's anti-Christian polemic is his attempt to negate the Christian other while implicitly drawing upon Christian ideas and symbols to construct Jewish identity. This tension between attraction to and repulsion by Christianity is reflected in Berkovits's appropriation of Christian theological motifs and his conversion of antisemitic caricatures into positive characterizations of Jewish identity. [2]

Berkovits's theology represents a historical intersection between Jewish and Christian cultures that acts as a catalyst in an organic, dialectical process of Jewish identity-construction. In responding to the genocide of the Holocaust, Berkovits grounded his theodicy in the midrashic approach. However, in his metaphysical and soteriological portrayal of Jewish messianism, Berkovits clearly moved beyond the Rabbis toward a theological position closely resembling that of the fourth-century church Father Augustine. I suggest that Berkovits's response to the Holocaust represents an intermediate zone between Judaism and Christianity, despite his effort to polarize the two cultures.

Jewish Identity: Monolithic Essence or Multiple Subjectivity?

Following the Holocaust, Berkovits attempted to create a united Jewish front to counter an unrepentant Christianity, by using midrash to portray an objective, messianic essence of Judaism that cannot be debated among Jews or with Christians. In his 1964 essay, "Faith and Law," Berkovits tried to distinguish between Pauline Christianity and Judaism by portraying the former as pessimistic with regard to the world versus the latter that offers an optimistic approach to creation. [3] As a result of Pauline despair over the world, Christianity lost faith in the works of law and created a new faith based on otherworldly salvation. Berkovits stated that this faith was predicated on "a flight of the soul from the indignities of bodily existence." [4] Christianity is based on a relationship between God and the human soul that is "outside the dimension of space and time." Ultimately, Berkovits described Christianity as "a religion which is essentially indifferent toward history and society." [5] In a later article cri ticizing the "Death of God" movement of the 196 0's, he portrayed a Christian indifference to history with a reference to Paul M. van Buren, a Protestant scholar who described the redemptive act of Christ as "an event in the history of salvation... an eschatological moment in which... this profane history of the world came to an end." [6]

In fact, Berkovits criticized what he considered to be the Christian notion of a profane history based on the concept of original sin. He stated that this idea arose Out of the necessity of compromising "between the demands of a utopian other worldly Kingdom and the actual conditions of human existence. …