This question is one of the most perplexing that can be asked in our generation.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust—Shoah—little has been done rabbinically.Much has been written, including by rabbis, but in all honesty, Rabbinic Judaism has continued as if no catastrophe has occurred in the very recent past, affecting many still alive, their descendants and all the rest of us.
This is the sad fact.If one enters the synagogue, looks into the Siddur—traditional Jewish prayer book, and seeks a change, even a mention of the Holocaust and the devastating loss of 6 million Jews, one would in most instances come away bewildered.
In very recent years, some Siddurim and Mahazorim have included a prayer—tefillah—known as a E-l Maleh Rahamim—to be recited during the Yizkor prayers—HazkaratNeshamot—on Yom Kippur and at the end of the Shalosh Regalim—Three Festivals of Pesah, Shavuot and Sukkot (Shemini Atzeret) for Ashkenazic Jews.The recently published The Koren Siddur by Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, includes one such prayer on pages 802-3.
Some pioneering work was done by Rabbi Jules Harlow of the Rabbinical Assembly, with the issuing of what became known as the Harlow Mahzor for the High Holy Days.The entire Martyrology service was revamped to include many tragedies that befell Jews throughout the millennia, to include prayers for the victims of the Shoah, all woven into the Eleh Ezkirah recitations.
Sadly, Harlow’s efforts were met with some resistance, due to unfamiliarity with the lengthy prayers and readings.Many quickly skipped through his powerful writings and quotations.
Another powerful work known as The Shoah Scroll—Megillat Hashoah—“The Scroll of the Holocaust” has in recent years appeared and can be incorporated in Holocaust observances.
Tisha B’Av—Fast of the Ninth of Av has been used by many congregations as a time to incorporate in the recitation of Kinot—Prayers of Lamentation, lamentations designed in similar fashion to those of the Middle Ages which include the Shoah.
It is hard to say how effective these efforts are, due to relatively small attendance and the very large number of prayers already part of such services.
For the most part, congregations often leave Holocaust remembrances, especially on Yom HaShoah, to Holocaust organizations in their local communities.Naturally, this is uneven due to the unavailability in some communities of such organizations and groups, and due to a lack of support within some segments of the Jewish community, often not relating well to more secular leadership within the organized Jewish community.
Much more needs to be done and I am sure will be done in the years ahead.
The Sho’ah – more than any other event in Jewish history – remains a theological challenge for Judaism in general and rabbis in particular. That is because the Sho’ah exacerbates the already difficult question of theodicy. Monotheists have historically grappled with the problem of explaining how - if God is both all good and all powerful - there can be evil in the world. Either God is content to let evil exist (in that case we question his goodness) or God is unable to defeat evil (in that case we question his omnipotence). In either case, God, as we conceive God, would be deficient. And that would be contrary to the premise that God is perfect. As hard as it was in the past to imagine a way out of this dilemma, it has become infinitely harder because of the scope and magnitude of the evil of the Sho’ah. It is representative of what one contemporary philosopher calls “radical evil.”
Accordingly, the traditional answers to the provocative questions of why did God allow so many innocents to suffer and why didn’t God intervene, have proven insufficient and unsatisfying. The Torah (e.g. Leviticus 26:3-39) ascribes physical suffering with sin. Yet is would be impossible to argue that the one million child victims of the Sho’ah died because of sin. Minors are not accountable for their actions according to Jewish law and what sins babies could have committed is inexplicable. And the Talmud’s suggestion (Berakhot 5a) that sometimes suffering is a manifestation of God’s love is not very convincing to the victims, the survivors, or to observers.
Consequently, rabbis and thinkers in the post-Sho’ah era have generated alternative answers other than the Jobian Solution that no explanation is possible because human beings can never understand how God operates. For example, Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz valiantly explained that God was present but temporarily hid His face. In the end, however, God conquers evil. Rabbi Moshe Teitelbaum, the Satmar Rebbe, made the outrageous claim that the Sho’ah was punishment for the sin of Zionism. Philosopher Will Herberg and others argued that the real question to ask was not “where was God?” but “where was humanity?” Elie Weisel admits that “after the Sho’ah it is difficult to live with God, but it is impossible to live without him.” And Emil Fackenheim wrote that despite the unanswerable questions if Jews fail to remain steadfast we would be granting Hitler a posthumous victory. Rabbi Richard Rubenstein suggested that after Auschwitz everything has changed – even the way Jews conceptualize God.
Perhaps too little time has passed for Judaism to have fashioned an adequate theological response to the cataclysm called the Sho’ah. But it is clear that the Sho’ah remains a central concern in Jewish theology.
Thank you for your inquiry. You inquired about rabbinic Judaism. Please allow me to me somewhat pedantic at this point. Rabbinic Judaism is defined as the Judaism of the Talmudic period. I think what you mean is "How has the Shoah (Holocaust) affected the thinking of the contemporary rabbinate?"
My response is that by and large, the Shoah has definitely moved the rabbinate into a greater awareness of Judaism as a peoplehood, not merely a religion as many Jews had previously considered it to be. Many of us are strongly concerned that as this generation passes, there are many who will forget the Holocaust, and therefore, we have added emphasis on it in our religious school and adult education curricula. Yom HaShoa is observed in just about every Jewish community in the United States.
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