JEWISH RENEWAL AND THE HOLOCAUST: A Theological Response

By Magid, Shaul | Tikkun, March/April 2006 | Go to article overview

JEWISH RENEWAL AND THE HOLOCAUST: A Theological Response


Magid, Shaul, Tikkun


ONE COULD ARGUE THAT all post-war Jewish theology is post-Holocaust theology. Without taking a stand on the historical debate as to whether or not the Holocaust is a unique event in general or in Jewish history, the existential impact of this catastrophe was such that Jewish thinking after the war was by necessity thinking through the war. Elie Weisel once said that he understood how someone who was a believer before the Holocaust could become an atheist afterward, and how someone who was an atheist before the Holocaust could later become a believer. What was incomprehensible to him was someone whose theological worldview was the same before and after the Holocaust.

Understanding Jewish Renewal as a post-Holocaust phenomenon requires us to understand the role the Holocaust played in its development.

Turning toward the Holocaust

JEWISH RENEWAL'S FOUNDER AND ARCHITECT, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (b. 1924), was born into a Hasidic but semi-enlightened family. A refugee of internment camps in France who immigrated to the United States after the war, he became a disciple of the sixth and then seventh Lubavitcher Rebbes and later forged his own spiritual alternative, known today as Jewish Renewal. Surprisingly, Reb Zalman wrote little about the Holocaust. However, there are references (though sometimes oblique ones) to the Holocaust and its impact on Jewish Renewal throughout his writings.

As a spiritualist (not identical to a theologian) Reb Zalman seems to have little interest in dwelling on the anti-Semitism that fueled the Holocaust, although he surely acknowledges the centrality of that anti-Semitism in coming to terms with the Holocaust. His approach, and that of Jewish Renewal more generally, seem to be more forward looking-not dwelling on the hurt caused by the Holocaust or the culpability of its perpetrators as much as on the opportunity it presents for the future of the Jewish people and humanity. This model is, to some extent, aligned with the prophetic approach to Jewish disaster-the prophetic call to respond to tragedy by looking inward and forward in a practice called teshuvah. This word is often translated as "repentance," but literally means turning inward, or an act of introspection. For the prophets, Jews are called to turn inward because any disaster, and according to Reb Zalman even the Holocaust, must be understood within God's covenantal relationship to the Jews. One could argue that in a spiritual senseand only in a spiritual sense-if the Jews are blameless for any disaster that befalls them, then the covenant is broken.

For many traditional Jews, the Holocaust did present the terrifying possibility that either Jews had broken the covenant or God had. For example, the late Satmar Rebbe (Grand Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum), invoking the liturgical formula "for our sins we are punished," argued that the Jews, and particularly the secular Zionists, were to blame for the Holocaust due to their unabashed sacrilege. Others argued that the Holocaust was an illustration of an act of divine concealment (hester panim), a temporary effacement of covenantal reciprocity (Eliezer Berkovitz), or worse, that God had left us entirely (as Richard Rubenstein argued in his "Death of God" post-Holocaust theology).

Reb Zalman and Jewish Renewal, however, posit what may be a more radical answer, one that holds the possibility of a constructive, and covenantal, response. Perhaps the covenant was not irrevocably broken, but rather a part of it was destroyed, resulting in a seismic shift. Others have experimented with a theology along these lines. Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, for example, has argued that what has shifted is Israel's attitude toward the covenant or the nature of covenantal obligation. For Reb Zalman, however, the shift was on a grander scale. The entire world has shifted and the Jews are situated on the fault line. This view suggests a drastic altering of the world's spiritual terrain.

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