Thirteen years ago, at the conclusion of a High Holiday service I was leading, an elderly woman, with a pronounced Yiddish accent, extended her hand and wished me good yontif. She then asked, "Rabbi, how can I believe in God after the Holocaust?"
I nodded to acknowledge her question, then, believing our greeting was over, turned to another congregant. She then firmly tugged on my arm. "Answer me," she demanded.
Rabbi, how can I believe in God after the Holocaust? For many years when this question was posed to me by a survivor, I did not respond, thinking, "Who was I to respond given the pain they endured?"
I have come to realize that for both the survivor and others who are grappling with God's existence, a response is warranted and appreciated as it often comes out of a strong desire to understand and believe in God.
My response has been shaped, in no small way, by this week's Torah portion.
When Cain kills his brother, Abel (Genesis 4:8), we are faced with the question: Where was God? While emotionally there is an incalculable difference between the murder of one innocent and the murder of millions of innocents in the Holocaust, intellectually the question is still the same: Where is God?
My response comes from the belief that human beings are given free choice, that is, the freedom to do good or evil. When people are responsible for the suffering of others, I point the finger of blame at people, not at God.
Cain exercised his free choice, just as the Nazis did during the Holocaust. (The general silence of the world during this horrific period in history was also an expression of free choice.) In raising the question, "Where was God during the Holocaust?" we risk minimizing the responsibility of those who perpetrated or did little to stop the evil. Nazis were responsible for the Holocaust, not God.
Further, what would we have wanted God to do during the Holocaust? Do you wish God had sent disease on every Nazi, or a hurricane to destroy the barbed wire fences surrounding the death and concentration camps? I do. Just as I wish that God would immobilize the hand of the gunman holding up a store, lest he cause any harm. But if God did those things, we would no longer have freedom of choice and would cease to be human.
I believe that God cried during the Holocaust, just as God cries whenever evil occurs at the hands of humans. As professor Elie Wiesel suggested, when asked where was God during the Holocaust, God was with the victims.
The biblical perspective that human beings are created in the image of God and that the value of human life is infinite is evident in God's anger toward those who commit murder. After God asks Cain "Where is your brother Abel?" Cain responds with the well-known verse, "I do not know, Am I my brothers keeper?" (Genesis 4:9) God then says, "What have you done? Your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground." (Genesis 4:10) Here, the word "blood" is written as damai (bloods). The Talmud understands this to mean that when Cain killed Abel, he killed any descendants that may have emerged from Abel. Not only did he destroy Abel's life and presumably Adam and Eve's lives by murdering their son, he destroyed future generations which Abel may have fathered.
There is great suffering in the world that I do not attribute to man, including many diseases, droughts and other forms of "natural" suffering. (Walking out of a hospital cancer ward leaves me deeply shaken.) Why did God create such a disease? Why are children born or young people faced with crippling illness? And while we may attribute some diseases to our polluting the earth, children have been born with infirmities for thousands of years, before human beings had any negative impact on the environment. Why does God create children, innocent children, who suffer? I acknowledge this as a challenge to my deep belief. Yet, the name of the Jewish people, Israel, means "wrestling with God." And so I continue to wrestle.
Nearly 10 years ago, I drove my rented car from Krakow to Auschwitz. In Auschwitz the original brick barracks still stand and each of them is dedicated to the memory of different people who were murdered or imprisoned there. One of the barracks stands as a memorial to the Jews. As you enter the dark brick building, you eventually arrive at a ner tamid (eternal flame). Under that flame, in many languages, is a verse from our Torah portion. Had I not been there, I would have guessed it to be, "Am I my brother's keeper?" But that is not the verse.
The verse from the Torah in this memorial to the Jewish people is "What have you done? Your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground." Just recalling the moment I stood there brings chills to my body. How tragic and ironic that Jews have suffered so greatly because the world has yet to accept the ideal that all human life is of infinite worth.
Can we believe in God after the Holocaust? I believe we can. The questions is: Can we believe in humanity?