On Faith After the Holocaust
(I promised myself I would attempt to respond to this article on Yom HaShoah. The latter fell sooner than I thought, and no complete response, I suspect, is possible. So with my caveat aside…)
Ron Rosenbaum takes to—of all places!—The Chronicle of Higher Education to wonder how and why Jews can continue to believe in God after the Holocaust. (To be more accurate, the driving question of the article is why we don’t demand better responses from our leaders and theologians when it comes to the question(s) of God and the Holocaust.) But he also takes to the Chronicle to acknowledge that, though this question is as necessary as it is difficult, there are moments when, perhaps, one falls in the wrong when bluntly swinging it at the faithful.
If two of the three religious thinkers he mentions with respect—Yitz Greenberg and Emil Fackenheim, who are two of the most important influences on my own religious orientation—don’t pretend to have total, or even satisfactory answers to his questions, I’m certainly in no position to offer much in the way of partial answer. I certainly cannot explain the why, except to acknowledge the possibility that my faith is an act of desperate imagination or sheer revulsion at what I see as the alternative (a kind of absurdity that puts me at risk of accusations of reductio ad Hitlerium). The change that the Holocaust has wrought in Jewish thought is, to my mind, precisely this: even faith not born of or structured around that possibility, even to those who don’t think it is impossible to have faith without doubt, who are still willing to sing Ani Ma’amin with its claims of “perfect faith”—even faith when/if faith is justified—must now acknowledge that it is colored, or maybe just touched, by a degree of desperate wishfulness.
But how: I don’t, of course, know how to believe. I only know how I believe, which is the “we will do, and we will hear” (na’aseh v’nishmah, Exodus 24:7) of the Israelites at the foot of Sinai. This is not the faith that on hearing enters into an absolute relation with the absolute, as Kierkegaard formulates it, but one that believes before the call is heard. Emmanuel Levinas comments on the Biblical passage and Talmudic discussion,
[T]he yes [of “we will do”] is a lucidity as forewarned as skepticism but engaged as doing is engaged. […] it is a lucidity without tentativeness, not preceded by hypothesis-knowledge, or by an idea, or by a tribal knowledge.¹
Not, as with Martin Buber’s clever translation, “in order to understand [hear],” but a belief despite, in spite of, and, indeed, almost in order to spite the possibility that there never will be understanding. But also with the understanding that it might emanate from anywhere, that “its messenger is simultaneously the very message.”
Less a faith in God, that is, than a faith in “the impossibility of escaping from God.”
¹This and subsequent quotations are from Levinas’ “The Temptation of Temptation” in Nine Talmudic Readings, pp. 48 & 50. Also, I can insert footnotes into posts now — look out, world!