On Faith After the Holocaust

J.L. Wall

J.L. Wall is a native Kentuckian in self-imposed exile to the Midwest, where he teaches writing to college students and over-analyzes Leonard Cohen lyrics.

Related Post Roulette

62 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    The most terrible and beautiful thing I’ve read wrestling with this issue is in the intro to Elie Wiesel’s _Trial of God_:

    The trial lasted several nights. Witnesses were heard, evidence was gathered, conclusions were drawn, all of which issued finally in a unanimous verdict: the Lord God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, was found guilty of crimes against creation and humankind. And then, after what Wiesel describes as an “infinity of silence,” the Talmudic scholar looked at the sky and said “It’s time for evening prayers,” and the members of the tribunal recited Maariv, the evening service.


  2. Jonny Scrum-half says:

    I didn’t read the linked article, so forgive me if I’m missing something, but when the Old Testament is full of stories of genocide (the first Passover, Sodom and Gomorrah, Noah) I’m not sure I understand why the Holocaust should cause Jews to question God’s existence.Report

    • Chris in reply to Jonny Scrum-half says:

      In the one sense, it’s different when it’s happening to you.

      But I also suspect that there’s something about the senselessness of it all. The genocides in the Old Testament have meaning, they are caused by a flaw in the destroyed that is apparent to everyone (perhaps even the destroyed). What flaw in the Jews caused the Holocaust? It is utterly senseless.

      And in this case, God’s not doing the killing directly. Was there ever, in the Old Testament, an instrument of God like Hitler and the Nazis?

      I offer these suggestions not being Jewish, and having not read much on the question, other than Levinas.Report

      • James K in reply to Chris says:

        The Abrahamic God commanded Moses and the Israelites to commit genocide on more than one occasion.  If there was any reason to believe anything in the Old Testament actually happened, Moses would be one of history’s worst war criminals.Report

        • Chris in reply to James K says:

          Yeah, I didn’t mean to get into that. My only point was that, in scripture (Jewish and Christian), God tends to be doing the killin’, either directly or by telling someone else to do it. And there’s always a clearly stated and clearly observed reason behind it, at least from the believer’s perspective. Not only doesn’t there seem to be any reason behind the Holocaust, but that it’s not clear that it’s even possible for there to be one. It would take a pretty clear act of God to make any sense of it. That there hasn’t been one, to date, makes a crisis of faith inevitable I imagine.


          • Steve S. in reply to Chris says:

            “Not only doesn’t there seem to be any reason behind the Holocaust”

            I’m afraid I don’t get the distinction.  Certainly the Nazis had their own twisted logic for what they did, not terribly dissimilar from the logic of killing everyone in a city because they worship the wrong deity.  The greatest genocide of them all, the Flood, was inflicted because of general “wickedness”, which is a little abstract if you ask me.Report

            • Chris in reply to Steve S. says:

              If you don’t see the distinction, then you’re probably not trying very hard. Think like someone who believes. If you don’t see it then, eh. I suppose it won’t matter to you anyway.Report

              • Steve S. in reply to Chris says:

                “Think like someone who believes.”

                I am.  You don’t think the Nazis believed in their dogmas?Report

              • Chris in reply to Steve S. says:

                Sure, plenty of them did. That’s irrelevant to this discussion.Report

              • Steve S. in reply to Chris says:

                Uh, why?  You claimed that there were reasons given for the biblical genocides, whereas the Nazis had no reasons for theirs.Report

              • Chris in reply to Steve S. says:

                Yeah, I don’t think I’m being clear. There were divine reasons for pretty much all of the suffering and evil in the Old Testament and New. At the very least, it fits into the narrative, as someone here said I think. The Holocaust doesn’t seem to fit within any divine narrative, at least from the perspective of the Jews (I’d say from anyone’s perspective, but that’s not really relevant to the question).

                The question is: why would or wouldn’t Jews lose faith in the face of the Holocaust? If your answer is, “They wouldn’t because the Nazis believed there was a reason for what they were doing,” I’m forced to wonder whether you understand the question.


              • Steve S. in reply to Steve S. says:

                Hitler as well invoked divinity as the basis for some of his beliefs.  To be sure, not as consistently as did the authors of the Bible, but he did.

                If you’re telling me that victims of a genocide don’t perceive a good reason for it, while perpetrators do, I would take that as trivially true.Report

              • Chris in reply to Steve S. says:

                I don’t know how to reply to this, as it now seems that we’re having two different conversations. In mine, what the Nazis thought is irrelevant. Apparently in yours it is not. I don’t find yours particularly interesting.Report

              • Steve S. in reply to Steve S. says:

                Allow me to expand a bit.  Up at the top the OP sums up the answer to the implied question as “the impossibility of escaping from God.”  I admit that I really don’t know what that means so I start reading the comments.  Someone asks, paraphrasing, how the genocides in the Bible inform the thought process in answering the question.  This being a general interest blog and the question being thrown open to general commentary my assumption is that there might actually be a potential answer to that question rather than simply “those genocides had meaning, the Holocaust didn’t.”  To me that simply says that victims have a different perspective from perpetrators.  There are more comments to read now so I’ll carry on.Report

            • J.L. Wall in reply to Steve S. says:

              There’s an experiential difference between something that happens in history and in, effectively, pre-history, whether one wants to call it mythical or Scriptural.  (Or both.  Eating your cake too is perfectly fine by me.)

              God taking a mulligan on humanity is certainly abstract, but by the logic of Biblical narrative, comprehensible.

              So, of course, are some of the historical explanations offered for the Holocaust: a former professor of mine holds that it was something of an accident (my term, not his) — that there were dehumanizing, deadly programs in place before 1942, but events on the Russian front meant, simply that there was nowhere left to put Jews, and (because the officers were, in fact, beginning to believe the propaganda) they certainly couldn’t keep them alive/even vaguely healthy behind Nazi lines.  This might be part of it, though I wouldn’t call it all of it.  (But he’s an historian, and I’m a literature guy dabbling in theological talk here, so we’re going to go at it differently.)Report

              • Steve S. in reply to J.L. Wall says:

                “There’s an experiential difference between something that happens in history and in, effectively, pre-history, whether one wants to call it mythical or Scriptural.”

                Perhaps, but that’s not what we’re talking about.  We’re talking about the claim that the biblical genocides made some sort of internal sense and the Nazi genocides did not.


              • Chris in reply to J.L. Wall says:

                This explanation seems unlikely to me, precisely because of what was happening on the Russian front. From the beginning of the war, the Nazis were exterminating Ukrainian and Russian Jews, village by village (entire villages). What’s more, they were inciting Ukrainians to do the same. This actually hindered the war effort in some ways, because required large amounts of men and materiel. I just read Grossman and Ehrenburg’s Black Book (I’m a Grossman fan, and now reading his war reporting), and it describes the opening of Treblinka in ’43, when much of the Nazi establishment still assumed victory in the East, and the Nazis controlled all of Eastern Europe, the Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and much of Russia proper. Vrba was sent to Auschwitz, and began documenting the deaths, almost 3 weeks before the 6th Army surrendered.

                I’m not an historian, so I could be wrong about all of this, but it seems a bit of a stretch to think that the Holocaust was a result of what was happening in the Soviet Union. The plans were in place well before the Eastern Front turned bad, before Stalingrad, before they were halted outside of Moscow. The only thing that changed with events on the Eastern Front, from what I can tell, was how fast the Nazis decided to carry out the extermination of the Jews.


              • Chris in reply to Chris says:

                P.S. I meant to say something about Ehrenburg’s hair in the picture at that link, but forgot. Best. Hairdo. Ever.Report

      • trizzlor in reply to Chris says:

        Chris, the 400 years of affliction were not brought on by any specific flaw (that I know of) and performed by an independent actor – the Pharaoh. To me, one of the main themes of Passover has been that God has no qualms over using senseless suffering and slavery as a tool. So I second Jonny’s original question, why should the Holocaust inspire doubt when the Torah is filled with holocausts?Report

        • Chris in reply to trizzlor says:

          I don’t know about Jewish tradition, but in the Christian tradition, the reason why the Hebrews were enslaved and the reason for the length of their enslavement are well known.Report

          • trizzlor in reply to Chris says:

            Genesis 15:14

            And He said unto Abram: ‘Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; and also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great substance.

            Exodus 1:8

            Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. And he said unto his people: ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are too many and too mighty for us; come, let us deal wisely with them, lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there befalleth us any war, they also join themselves unto our enemies, and fight against us, and get them up out of the land.’ Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens.

            Everything else is speculation.Report

  3. Tod Kelly says:

    My non-believing perspective might well be too skewed to be useful, but whenever I hear some version of this response to the Holocaust, I always wonder why the crisis of faith is “Maybe God doesn’t exist,” and not “Maybe we’re not so chosen.”Report

    • James K in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      But if they are not the chosen people then their holy texts are wrong in a major detail.  Once you’ve realised your texts are a poor guide to fact, why continue taking the rest of them seriously?Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      I would say, I suppose, because the challenge is larger than to the question of which faith.  I’d phrase it differently than James did, but the point is more or less similar.  There’s also the matter of Judaism having a long tradition of dealing with  the question you asked.

      My other answer is simply to say that I don’t know that the idea had ever crossed my mind that the Holocaust could successfully challenge Jewish faith, while managing to affirm (or at least not challenge) it generally.  I don’t mean this as a declaration of truth or a supposition, even — but my failure to have even seen this as a possibility speaks, I think, to your question (if not in a particularly enlightening way).Report

      • Tom Van Dyke in reply to J.L. Wall says:

        There is no G-d, but we’ll go on being Jewish anyway, for what else would we be?

        And if I understand Franz Rosenzweig correctly, despite the Holocaust, the Jews are still here, are they not?  As they must be, or else all is lost.  For if the Jews survive Pharaoh, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, the diaspora, the pogroms…

        They must survive modernity as well.

        The struggle continues.  Modernity has more, and more insidious tools at its disposal than mere brutality and murder.  It has banality.

        Where would Jews and Judaism be today without the Holocaust to remind them?  Their highest goal only to assimilate, like the Irish, who in Ireland want only to be “Europeans,” in America wearing and drinking putrid green stuff once a year?

        I appreciate your close here, JL, “Less a faith in God, that is, than a faith in ‘the impossibility of escaping from God.'”  As a classical theist I find this satisfactory, and I think you’re tapping a personalism that has an urgency that philosophizing lacks.

        [Your essay here did make me pick into the Book of Job reading through the source materials.  After his tribulations, Job dares argue with God.  As a reply, God asks Job seventy-three questions about the universe that Job cannot begin to answer.

        They reach an understanding, that Job cannot begin to understand, an understanding they both seem to find satisfactory…]Report

        • Chris in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

          This, Tom, is what you look like when your agenda is not on your sleeve. I wouldn’t mind this Tom more often.Report

        • Michelle in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

          Where would Jews and Judaism be today without the Holocaust to remind them?  Their highest goal only to assimilate, like the Irish, who in Ireland want only to be “Europeans,” in America wearing and drinking putrid green stuff once a year?

          So, what are you saying here Tom? That were it not for the Holocaust, Jews and Jewish culture would fold into the amorphous blob of modernity and thus effectively cease to exist? I’m trying not to misread you.Report

          • Jaybird in reply to Michelle says:

            That were it not for the Holocaust, Jews and Jewish culture would fold into the amorphous blob of modernity and thus effectively cease to exist?

            There are a handful of Israeli Jews who refer to America’s version of Reform Judaism as “The Second Holocaust”. Seriously.Report

          • J.L. Wall in reply to Michelle says:

            The other way of making the point that I think Tom is going for is to point out that “Jewish Peoplehood” regularly comes in with a significant majority when polls ask Jews to choose from among “Being part of the Jewish people,” “Religious observance,” “support for Israel,”  and commitment to social equality as the defining feature of their Jewish life/ID.  (See paragraphs 6-8 of this recent Forward column, the title of which will no doubt please Tom.)

            I don’t think you’d see that statistic/result among American Jews were it not for the memory of the Holocaust — whether or not one thinks that Fackenheim’s “No Posthumous Victories for Hitler” rule is philosophically/theologically sound, it is, he admitted, a conclusion he drew from watching/studying the in-life behavior of post-war Jews.  And I think, go along with Tom’s example, that had the British responded to their “Irish Troubles” by attempting to murder all Irishmen, Americans of Irish descent would value a nebulously-defined “Being part of the Irish people” as the central aspect of their being Irish.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to J.L. Wall says:

              Not sure that works either.  Jews are endogamous.   If they happen to have a religion to go along with their endogamy, it’s impossible to separate one from the other, especially since they don’t exactly evangelize.Report

            • Michelle in reply to J.L. Wall says:

              Interesting article. I’m not so sure about your conclusion though since “being part of the Jewish people” is pretty nebulous and can be defined as anything from eating lox and bagels and having a mezzuhah on the doorpost to living a religious Jewish life in which practice is an integral part of one’s definition of being part of the Jewish community. Tom’s post seems to suggest that, save for the Holocaust, Jews (with the exception of an orthodox minority) would have been completely assimilated into Western life, that the Holocaust, in essence, became the raison d’etre for the survival of the Jewish community. I’d like to think there’s more to it than that.Report

        • Kimmi in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

          original sources are best consumed in the original language.


  4. Tom Van Dyke says:

    Thx for this, JL.  It reminded me of


    Sunday morning, very bright, I read Your book by colored light

    That came in through the pretty window picture.

    I visited some houses where they said that You were living
    And they talked a lot about You
    And they spoke about Your giving.
    They passed a basket with some envelopes;
    I just had time to write a note
    And all it said was “I believe in You.”

    Passing conversations where they mentioned Your existence
    And the fact that You had been replaced by Your assistants.
    The discussion was theology,
    And when they smiled and turned to me
    All that I could say was “I believe in You.”

    I visited Your house again on Christmas or Thanksgiving
    And a balded man said You were dead,
    But the house would go on living.
    He recited poetry and as he saw me stand to leave
    He shook his head and said I’d never find You.

    My mother used to dress me up,
    And while my dad was sleeping
    We would walk down to Your house without speaking.

    “Hymn” by Stookey/Mason/Gold


  5. BlaiseP says:

    And the peoples shall be as the burnings of lime; as thorns cut down, that are burned in the fire.  Hear, ye that are far off, what I have done; and, ye that are near, acknowledge My might.

    The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling hath seized the ungodly: ‘Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? Who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?’  He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from looking upon evil;

    He shall dwell on high; his place of defence shall be the munitions of rocks; his bread shall be given, his waters shall be sure.

    Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty; they shall behold a land stretching afar. Thy heart shall muse on the terror: ‘Where is he that counted, where is he that weighed? Where is he that counted the towers?’ Thou shalt not see the fierce people; a people of a deep speech that thou canst not perceive, of a stammering tongue that thou canst not understand.

    Look upon Zion, the city of our solemn gatherings; thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a peaceful habitation, a tent that shall not be removed, the stakes whereof shall never be plucked up, neither shall any of the cords thereof be broken. But there the LORD will be with us in majesty, in a place of broad rivers and streams; wherein shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ship pass thereby.

    For the LORD is our Judge, the LORD is our Lawgiver, the LORD is our King; He will save us.Report

  6. CK MacLeod says:

    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.

    Any consideration of what the Holocaust did to “Jewish thought” (inherently also “the thought of Judaism” – the possibility or essence of Judaism) inevitably leads one to attempt to think things that cannot be thought, not because the thoughts cannot in theory be formed, but because one presumes they will not and should not be accepted, or will be accepted only by those designated as unacceptable, and accepted wrongly by them. To think the also unthinkable God concept  – the blogger’s wishfully unthinkable idea, almost a fancy, that apparently cannot co-exist with the fearfully unthinkable material facticity of the Holocaust – would require a theodicy of the Holocaust that is politically untenable, a for us foundationally unacceptable and unthinkable justification of the ways of God to humanity.  The impossibility of this justification corresponds to the non-existence of God and the instability of the human being within post-war/post-modern thinking. The god concept that survives and operates within this new context remains unthought, because to think it would be to think that which it could never justify, but must.Report

    • BlaiseP in reply to CK MacLeod says:

      Judaism’s holy books are uniquely suited to a theology of doubt.   If there’s any question about thinking things that cannot be thought, perhaps we should steel ourselves to the task of examining the nature of Man.   The theodicy is brutally simple:  man did these things to his fellow man and has always done so.   The Why of the Shoah comes last.  The Who, What and How come first.  Answer those and the matter becomes painfully obvious:  the Nazis invented nothing.  Edward Longshanks murdered his Jews with equal ferocity.   Nobody lumps him in with the Nazis.   Pogroms had been going on for centuries.

      And the Jews were hardly unique.  The Cathars, an entirely peaceful and largely vegetarian sect, was murdered into oblivion.   Muslims were murdered en masse.   Pagans had been extirpated and their priests murdered. Freethinkers, atheists, Romany, Ukrainians….

      The Nazis just had a better bureaucracy.

      He who demands of a just God an explanation for the sins of unjust Man is asking the wrong party.Report

      • CK MacLeod in reply to BlaiseP says:

        The key difference from within the philosophy of history would be the status of the Jews – up to and through the Holocaust, until the founding of the Jewish state – as particular custodians of the universal/monistic message.  The Nazis’ “better bureaucracy” is also not merely an accident.  .Report

        • BlaiseP in reply to CK MacLeod says:

          Jewish identity is considerably more than a custodial relationship with some universal message.  As for monism and Judaism, there you will find many a historical disputation, for though many have said  shema yisroel adonai elohainu echad , monism isn’t contained in that statement. All sorts of interpretations have been made about the relationship of HaShem to the People of Israel.

          Perhaps you’ll expand a bit on that thought.Report

          • CK MacLeod in reply to BlaiseP says:

            Perhaps you’ll expand a bit on that thought.

            Would be my pleasure.  Got to handle some real life errands first, unfortunately.Report

          • CK MacLeod in reply to BlaiseP says:

            Sorry for the delay, BlaiseP, though it’s given me a chance to think about this all some more. I’ll try to keep this as to the point as I can, and reserve the right to “revise and extend” at some other time. I also hope you’ll be patient with me if I go over some territory you actually already know better than I do.

            First, I’m not sure what you mean by monism not being “contained” in the Shema, since you acknowledge that a monist idea exists as one interpretation, and since you seem to recognize further that it’s the most obvious interpretation. I’d argue that Judaic religious-prophetic monism – universal and absolute monotheism, implying and requiring the eventual realization of the unity of humanity – is the theologically, philosophically, and historically most just and most relevant interpretation of Judaism in the sense of a “Jewish idea.” “Identity” as you seem to be using the term would be something different from “idea,” though obviously related to it. Though ideas are also, in general, only as real – accessible and functional – as they are (really) allowed to be, identity is much more susceptible to shifting social and individual determinations. Even “blood ties” are understood in different, culturally-historically varying ways. The idea is the essence of the identity, and what gives meaning to (possibly) shared history and (possibly) interconnected genealogies.

            Sorting out the differences between ideas and identities remains the telling difficulty for anyone trying to discuss Judaism in history. The essentially religious Jewish idea still lives on and still informs Jewish identity, but the connections were ruptured by two historically linked major events, the founding of the state of Israel under Zionism and the physical annihilation of European Jewish civilization by the Nazis.

            Pre-Holocaust/Pre-Founding Judaism was both conceived and realized, or maybe the order should go “realized, then conceived,” as bearer of a universal revelation. Here’s my summary:  The concept evolved over millennia, but can be found intact and whole at the origins. Robert Wright wrote about it from an agnostic position in THE EVOLUTION OF GOD (a useful survey of the history of monotheism), and it plays a role in the works of so many other writers that it qualifies as a commonplace of intellectual history.  It received its most comprehensive articulation was achieved virtually at the moment of its historical eclipse, in the theological writings of the philosopher Hermann Cohen (RELIGION OF REASON) and in the more prophetic/poetic work of Franz Rosenszweig (STAR OF REDEMPTION). The two men – among the last of the leading pre-Nazi Era German-Jewish intellectuals, Cohen the older and more established – described the historical condition of Jewish statelessness as both burden and privilege. It qualified the Jews as a prophetic and eternal rather than temporal and territorial people, dedicated from the First Commandment down to the god that transcended tribe and nation and ruled the entire universe. In this view statelessness – dispersion among the nations – prefigured, summoned forth, and objectively witnessed a oneness of humanity corresponding to (implying and implied by, co-requiring or “correlating with” as per Cohen) the oneness of God, a relationship to be fully realized in the time of messianic redemption. Dispersion was the partial, pre-figuring realization in historical time of a process that would define and circumscribe all of history, under the Judaic concept of the one true and universal god. It also joined the Jews, symbolically and by the revealed word, to all persecuted peoples, including all of the other victims you mentioned, pointing together to the need for redemption.

            Just as the Holocaust is frequently put forward by Zionists as the last resort justification for the Jewish state, it is also taken as the absolute and definitive refutation of this idealized Judaic universalism. My own view is that the story is more interesting than that, and that it’s also not over yet.

            I hope that helps.Report

  7. greginak says:

    You could just as easily ask how did Christians continue to believe after the various plagues that swept through Europe. How did Af-Am’s go to and stay Christian after the horrors done to them by Christians. The world has been full of suffering people, mostly, continue to believe.Report

    • J.L. Wall in reply to greginak says:

      I think your second comparison is the one that holds more usefully, though with interesting variations that are the most tempting paths to escape your question.  Perhaps because Christian thought/theology already has an experience of cruel slavery leading into freedom — that could be adapted perhaps (apparently?) in a convincing enough manner?  This isn’t a good answer.  But I wouldn’t presume to have a good answer; I didn’t mean to imply that it wasn’t a question worth asking in more than this situation. The more interesting, and to my mind near-unfathomable question, is how the enslaved adopted the religion of the slave-owners.

      There is, in fact, an argument that views the Holocaust as the culmination of a process of totalizing slavery (as very distinct from Arendt’s concept of “total domination”) that includes and was previously “best” embodied in American ante-bellum slavery.  (Richard Rubenstein, mentioned in the article I linked to, pushes this in THE CUNNING OF HISTORY, and from there William Styron latches onto it.  I don’t think the idea was originally Rubenstein’s, but he may have formulated it most succinctly.)Report

      • CK MacLeod in reply to J.L. Wall says:

        Whatever you think of Christianity, it’s rather slanderous to associate it with the slavers exclusively, considering the role of faithful Christians in finally putting an end to the slave trade internationally and in demanding Abolition in the U.S.  Christianity – like its sister faith Islam and like its parent faith Judaism – is at its core a religion of liberation from bondage, though how and why practicing Christians, Muslims, and Jews frequently diverge from the seemingly clear commands or directions of their faiths, just like atheists, is another question and potentially very long discussion.

        Incidentally, the “cunning of history” is a phrase from Hegel’s philosophy of world history, and is just the kind of secularized theodicy I was referring to above.  I don’t know whether Rubenstein uses the phrase ironically.  SInce the cunning of history amounts to a kind of law of historical irony – serving to demonstrate how this, that, or the other catastrophe or apparent setback still ended up serving historical necessity within an overall scheme of progress – that would be doubly (at least) ironic.Report

        • J.L. Wall in reply to CK MacLeod says:

          I think that Rubenstein is trying to use the title in a, “Hey, Hegel, how’d that turn out for ya?” kind of way, but I’m not sure.  I read Rubenstein before Hegel, which isn’t the best direction for figuring out the way the reference is working.

          Also, it wasn’t my intent to imply that Christianity was solely of the slavers (though I can see quite clearly how that might have been taken as what I said).  Yes, the Christianity of abolitionism and its own freedom narrative certainly played into it.  And I’m sure that I could turn to certain corners and get answers about the inevitability of syncretism, etc.    I suppose all that I was trying to express was my surprise that there wasn’t more skepticism toward Christianity in the slave generations and those immediately following, after the experience.  On the other hand, I suppose that more of them experienced a freedom-narrative Christianity than read or listened to their (former) owners try to use religion to justify their enslavement.  My view of how religion was used in American slavery is, in fact, probably rather different than what was seen as it happened.


          And — of course, I can keep a wary eye on the idea of culture and the claims of freedom from barbarism in the West after modernity, but I’m hell-bent on devoting my life to the humanities — and spent however many years studying Greek, but very little in Hebrew.  So maybe I shouldn’t express such surprise at the way that being skeptical in theory doesn’t necessarily translate into skepticism-in-practice.Report

          • CK MacLeod in reply to J.L. Wall says:

            Well, now I’m even more curious about Rubenstein, so am tempted to put the book on my list.

            Hegel’s Philosophy of World History is so tilted and unrestrained as regards the meeting of in his view superior Europe and inferior Africa as to make it almost unreadable in the era of multi-cultural moral equivalence, post-colonial guilt, and bourgeois shame, but it’s not difficult to transfer its intended lessons to American slavery:  African culture inherently so weak that it is easily and totally overwhelmed and annihilated by the European, but in the very long view (cunning of history) the process constituting an historical advance even for the Africans. It should also be noted in this context that Hegel’s exposition of the master-slave dynamic could also help to explain why the institution had to be overcome, and in the meantime would deform, disfigure, and in the most fundamental ways dissatisfy the master as well as to the slave.

            As I was implying above, a sufficiently (inhumanly? – unacceptably?) dispassionate application of Hegel’s secular theodicy can render the Holocaust as “historically necessary.”  It can do the same thing to slavery, though to similarly unspeakable, easily abusable effect.  There’s much more to it, of course, but, summarized for a blog comment it’s likely to come out as agnostic John Hagee or Pat Robertson, with history or Spirit substituted for providence or God, so I’ll stop here, except to note further in my buddy GWF’s defense that the great historical project at whose feet the bodies are piled is precisely the liberation from the master-slave relationship, including its reign in the West.Report

            • J.L. Wall in reply to CK MacLeod says:

              The subtitle to Rubenstein’s book is “The Holocaust and the American Future” — he pivots at the end to what we can learn from history in order to be warned against the nasty side-effects of what he sees as a technologizing/technologized (these are not complimentary terms) future in America.

              There’s no index in my edition, and a quick skim through the endnotes shows no references to Hegel, which I find curious.  It is something of a using Hegelian history to learn how to avoid Hegelian history.  If that makes sense.Report

              • CK MacLeod in reply to J.L. Wall says:

                Makes sense to me, since “history” in the philosophy of world history amounts to a process of self-overcoming, the gradual and inexorable self-liberation of the historical subject.  So I think your formulation captures the idea:  History as a vast collective learning to avoid (negate, escape, transcend, move beyond, etc.) history, at the end of history realized as absolute freedom from history.   The same outlines can be made out in messianic prophecy, bringing us part of the way back to your initial topic (which, as you’ve probably gathered, is one of my favorites).

                It IS curious that a writer would use a key Hegelian phrase for his title and nowhere mention Hegel.  I have to take it as signal of some kind, not sure how conscious on the part of the writer.Report

              • Michelle in reply to J.L. Wall says:

                There’s no index in my edition, and a quick skim through the endnotes shows no references to Hegel, which I find curious.

                Hegel gets a nod in the endnote 23; Hegel’s myth of the origin of civilization is also discussed on p. 94 of my copy.

                I thank you for encouraging me to pull my copy of this book from my bookshelves, where it’s languished over the last 20 years or so. I read it once or twice during graduate school. It’s a slim tome, about 100 pages, but one of the most powerful (and depressing) books I’ve ever read. Definitely time for a re-read for its savage critique of modernity, corporatism, and bureaucracy.

                Rubenstein posits that theologians have not reckoned with the likelihood that no laws were actually broken at Auschwitz and that, even if there were some natural law on which all parties agreed, it would be meaningless because it lacks a means of enforcement:

                Does not the Holocaust demonstrate that there are absolutely no limits to the degradation and assault the managers and technicians of violence can inflict upon men and women who lack the power of effective resistance? If there is a law that is devoid of all penalty when violated, does it have any functional significance in terms of human behavior? Is not a law which carries no penalties functionally equivalent to no law at all?

                For Rubenstein, the biggest theological question to rise out of the Holocaust is not how Jews can go on believing in G-d, but how anybody can. Surely the people who manned and operated the camps, many of whom no doubt saw themselves as good Christians, were also degraded and dehumanized by the experience (albeit not to the extent of the victims). For Rubenstein, the Holocaust throws all religion and notion of some kind of natural law and innate sense of human dignity in question. It’s a pretty bleak book.Report

              • CK MacLeod in reply to Michelle says:

                It’s a pretty bleak book.

                OK, just bought it.  Decided to take the Kindle edition, among other reasons so I could easily search it.  Seems to have 14 mentions of Herr H, all confined to the notes, but the initial one goes right to the subject we’ve been discussing – my emphasis:  “Perhaps it was no accident that the most highly urbanized people in the Western world, the Jews, were the first to perish in the ultimate city of Western civilization, Necropolis, the new city of the dead that the Germans built and maintained at Auschwitz.”

                The discussion of law in relation to the Holocaust (or “the camp”), and the non-accidental (therefore revelatory) aspect of Auschwitz, also makes me think of Giorgio Agamben, whose view of modernity or of the modern nation-state might be even pretty-bleaker.   I’ll withhold judgment until I’ve read Rubenstein. Meanwhile, by further transposition, and irony, the God-destroying event is converted immediately into a divine revelation or something commensurate to one:  History overcoming and annihilating history, God overcoming and annihilating God, and thus producing the new history/God in a Schroedinger’s Box, always implying its opposite.

                Thanks to both of you for pointing to the book!Report

    • Chris in reply to greginak says:

      greg, the plague scenario is actually an interesting comparison, I think. During and after the plague, religiosity was heightened for some, to the point of cruelty (including violent attacks on Jews), and vastly diminished for others, to the point that the Church lost some of its power and prestige in parts of Europe. I imagine this is pretty typical of widespread tragedies in religious communities. Some people will retreat into the faith, some away from it. I think this is purely psychological, and likely isn’t dependent on a specific theology.


      Really, Kierkegaard and Levinas aren’t that far off. For them, there is always a pre-conceptual acceptance of an inescapable relationship with the Absolute. Someone here, several months ago, asked which Kierkegaard to start with. An excellent starting point, particularly if you’re Christian (and particularly if you’re not a more American-style Protestant) is the Edifying Discourses, and in particular Purity of the Heart Is to Will One Thing. There you’ll find a sort of proto-Levinisian discourse on the inescapable Absolute. I think this is, in many ways, the sort of relationship with the Absolute you’ll find sophisticated theologians and religious philosophers discussing in pretty much all religions, whether it’s Vedic Hinduism or 20th century Judaism. It’s not the popular, American Protestant view of things, though, and I think that’s what tends to shape most of our representations of Christian theology these days, at least in this country.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        I believe that it was in The Enlightenment that The Question (or, at least, one of the twenty-some The Questions) in Christianity switched from “Why did God do this?” to “Why did God allow this?” (and if I had to put my finger on a linchpin moment, I’d pick the Lisbon Earthquake).Report

        • Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

          This may very well true. I can’t say that I’m anything of an expert on the history of theodicy or other approaches to evil by the religious. I do wonder if the mid-18th century is a little late for the transition, though. The problem of evil had become a big deal again in the 17th, if I’m not mistaken. But maybe only under the old formulation.Report

      • greginak in reply to Chris says:

        I think the social psych theory of Cognitive Dissonance probably explains a lot of peoples reactions to massive tragedy. since almost all people would have been believers they would have doubled down on their belief as a way of dealing with the apparent failure of their God to save them. Finding a people, Jews were always convenient, to displace their pain onto would have been a predictable answer. I have no prof of this, but i would bet there were more then a few atheists around during these tragedies, they just couldn’t be open about it.Report

        • Chris in reply to greginak says:

          There were definitely some agnostics, at least (they would have been labeled atheists anyway).

          I’m not sure how far cognitive dissonance goes. It does make people double down sometimes, but the drive to avoid dissonance only goes so far. I suspect there’s something more to it: existential angst is a powerful motivator, and sometimes the hot system overrules the cold one enough to make a person’s behavior look incomprehensible to someone who’s thinking about it coolly.Report

          • greginak in reply to Chris says:

            Well its not just the drive to avoid dissonance, its how you deal with the dissonance when you have it. People will keep believing harder and harder  and try to convert others when faced with a faith that seems to be failing. This has been studied in cults whose predictions don’t’ come true. I’d guess that many people who threw the massive kinds of tragedies we’re talking about were likely in complete mental shock and overload for years after or even for the rest of their lives. And there was also booze.Report

            • Chris in reply to greginak says:

              Yeah, the whole point of dissonance theory is that people have a strong motivation to get rid of the dissonance or lessen it (avoid is probably too limited a word for it). It’s a strong motivator, but existential angst is a stronger one.

              You might find Terror Management Theory interesting, if you haven’t stumbled upon it already.Report