God, Where Were You?

W. Gunther Plaut z"l

I. It is not easy to believe in God today, and for some it is downright impossible. There are several reasons for this. For one, the whole intellectual climate of our time posits the unlimited capacity of the human being. We can reach the moon, send a spacecraft to Jupiter and beyond, explore the sub-atomic world, and clone living beings. In our cyber-age, God appears to be an unnecessary assumption. Even conversing about an ultimate being is considered odd. A popular quip tells us that the best way to get rid of guests who overstay their welcome is to start talking about God. Many Jews have an additional problem with the supernatural. They ask: how could a benevolent God permit the Holocaust -- the murder of six million innocent men, women, and children whose only offense was being Jewish? Where was divine help when God's "chosen people" were being slaughtered?

II. The biblical Book of Job is the most famous attempt in our tradition to wrestle with the issue. The hero of the prose poem suffers a personal "holocaust": his family is wiped out, his wealth and health are taken from him, and he sits on the dung heap challenging God and his comforters to let him know why all this has happened to him. The answer he receives in the end does not tell him the reason -- on the contrary, it teaches him that God cannot be questioned by humans. While Job accepts the divine reply, many moderns cannot and do not.

The suffering of the biblical Job clearly proceeds from the notion of a God who knows, governs, and controls all human beings down to the smallest detail and does so justly and lovingly. (However, there are some scholars who believe that the real, if hidden, purpose of the biblical Book of Job is the doctrine that God has nothing to do with justice as humans perceive it.) Therefore, if inexplicable tragedy occurs, we are prone to ask, and have, in fact, asked since ancient days: Why did God permit such affliction, whether small as in the personal realm or large as in the Holocaust?

There are several types of possible answers:

1. Some questions have no answers, hence it is futile to ask them. Ours is one of them, for we can never know God's ways, which are by definition beyond us and shrouded in mystery. This was Isaiah's formulation:

For My thoughts are not like yours,
nor are your ways like Mine,
says the Eternal One.
For high as the heavens are above
the earth,
so are My ways above your ways,
and My thoughts above your thoughts.
(Isaiah 55:8-9, translated from the Haftarah Commentary, URJ Books and Music)

Not surprisingly, the rabbis chose this text for reading on the afternoon of Tisha b'Av, the day when people bewailed their exile. They too would ask, "Why was the Temple destroyed? Why have our lives been made miserable for all these centuries?" The prophet responds by telling us that there is no point asking "why," for we can never know. But to take this road requires a strong faith that nothing can shake, and few can muster it in the face of overwhelming disaster. Some will be persuaded by the testimony of Holocaust survivors who confirm their belief in God despite it all, but others will crave an answer that engages both their heart and their intellect.

2. The fact is that neither Isaiah nor most of the other prophets retreated completely behind their existential ignorance of God's ways. In fact, they adopted a unique and, in fact, frightening doctrine based on Daniel 9:16 that said: While it was God who brought about our misfortunes, it was really our fault, not God's. God had no choice but to punish us, for we as a people or as individuals had broken the sacred trust, the covenant that bound us to do God's will. We were exiled because of our sins.

Though the force of this doctrine has greatly weakened in our time, it still commands support. There are those who explain all tragedies that befall us, including the Holocaust, in this way. One "sage" has "divined" that the appearance of Reform Judaism was the underlying cause of the death of six million. The terrorist attack on a bus outside Tel Aviv some years ago that caused many horrible deaths was interpreted by a prominent Orthodox rabbi not as a wanton act of politically inspired murder but as divinely ordained punishment due to the ritual laxity of Jews. A like explanation had been offered some years before when a score of children were killed in an attack on Ma'alot in Israel's north: a self-proclaimed pious wizard who "was able to read the divine judgment" announced that it had been issued because of parental negligence: the mezuzot on these children's homes had not been inspected for years. According to this line of reasoning, God is not to blame for such disasters, for God has no choice. As Shakespeare observed: "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves." (Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2)

I cannot accept this line of reasoning and ascribe the Holocaust to God's will because we Jews fell short of our responsibilities. It was Hitler and company that executed the Shoah, not God.

While we may find this kind of theology appalling, we are still left with the original question, Where was God when evil beyond description was visited on us? If any answer is available to us, what might it be?

III. One answer, of course, is to say with Richard Rubenstein and others that "God is dead." An operative deity would hardly have allowed such execrations to happen. The divine presence, therefore, is now permanently absent, if, in fact, it did exist in the first place.

Furthermore, science is increasingly understood to assert that the world came into being not because a creator willed it but by natural occurrence. The world's order is self-contained -- and if you ask how this order was established, you might be met with the answer: "We don't know it yet, but we will know some day. Russia's Yuri Gagarin had it right when he reported that he had not found any trace of God in his journey through space." Can one reply to this argument from the foundation of Judaism? Are there ways of firming up one's faith beyond saying we are unable to know God's ways or that we Jews brought the Holocaust on ourselves because of our sins? I wrestled with that question when, in April 1945, I entered the gates of Dora/Nordhausen concentration camp and saw the thousands of dead Jews strewn about and half-alive skeletons crawling toward us. For a while I had trouble with my prayers, but in time realized that my view of God's nature needed revision. I had believed in an all-powerful, all-knowing deity, but came to see that our tradition also accommodated the idea of a deity who is neither all-powerful nor all-knowing.

The Torah points to this view of God in the Garden of Eden tale. God commands our mythical forebears not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life (i.e., the tree of immortality). Adam and Eve choose to disobey God and, as a consequence, are banished from living in paradise; they must face the world we know. They don't get a chance to become immortal, but they do succeed in gaining the key to moral, intellectual, and sexual knowledge and judgment. (Genesis chapter 3) Having created Adam and Eve with the capacity for good and evil, God had to cut them loose. The tale of Eden is thus a metaphor for the relationship between God and us humans: we do what we decide to do, which includes the freedom to disobey, disbelieve, and act immorally. Other sections in the Torah also describe God's disappointments with human action. Cain kills his brother Abel despite God's express warning not to do so. In the tale of the Flood, God destroys humans because of their violence and lawlessness, saving only Noah and his family in the hope that they will make a new and better start -- but God reckons wrongly, for Noah's family begins "afresh" with alcohol and incest. Or look at the disappointments that Israel causes God by breaking faith with the covenant. The wandering in the Sinai desert attests to moral slippage. The very image of a disappointed God tells us that God wanted it otherwise but could not stop it.

Seen in this perspective, God is not all-powerful. Human decisions are made not on high but by humans. At times, they act in consonance with divine hope, at other times in defiance of it. The rabbis of old debated how such a view could be reconciled with the image of an omniscient deity. Their solution was ingenious: God, they said, is unable to control our species, but reads our minds like an open book and therefore is fully aware of the way we will act. This attempt to rescue both human freedom and divine omniscience was summarized in a famous saying of Rabbi Akiba: "Everything is foreseen, but freedom of choice is given." (Pirkei Avot 3:15)

What then can we surmise God did when the Holocaust occurred? We can only guess, for we cannot penetrate the mystery of divine being. We can speak in images, comparing God to a parent who has raised children, continues to love them, and is always available to guide them toward doing the right thing. But the offspring are on their own. When they get into trouble, the parent can only look on; and when they suffer, their parent will suffer with them. The Talmud already took up this theme when Israel was carried away into cruel exile. Picturing divine frustration and shattered hopes, the Talmud said: "God went with them." (Megillah 29a)

IV. Clearly, this conception relieves God of responsibility for the evil that humans have committed. If so, with what kind of God are we left? Stripped of the power to control us, what role does God play in our lives? All of us have the power to open our souls to the divine presence. When we let God in, we are infused with greater spiritual power and strength. This does not necessarily translate into physical terms, but often it can. In one scientific survey, a certain number of ill persons performed better when prayed for than an otherwise similar control group who were not exposed to the divine connection. Although this result is not likely to persuade the skeptic, I believe that God had something to do with it.

I believe God to be ever-present and ever-available. The relationship is personal and rests on faith. It took me some time to be able to say with Jeremiah, "God is my strength and my stronghold" (16:19) and gain calm and courage from the divine power I invoke. Prayer is my way of tuning in to the divine presence. It does not always work, for God too is free to respond or not to respond. But without booting up the computer of my soul, I have no access to the divine web site.

"It's your imagination," the skeptic says. "The idea of a God who connects intimately with billions of humans is preposterous. Why should God pay attention to you, in all this multitude?" That argument might have commanded attention a hundred years ago, in the age of a Thomas Huxley. But today, when we take it for granted that our computers can instantly connect us with millions of others, when a Pentium chip can perform 885 million calculations per second, such a belief is no longer beyond our imaginations. Tomorrow, such capacities will be increased a thousand-fold or more, ever widening the distance between our ability to create such fantastic tools and our capacity to visualize the way these minuscule particles do our bidding. We accept this as an inevitable accompaniment of our technological advance.

My concept of God operates along similar lines. I believe that God's possibilities of connecting and caring are endless in space and in time. There is an essential mystery here that will always lie beyond my comprehension. If I cannot fathom how a piece of silicon can perform its tasks, how much more reason do I have to stand in awe before the presence of the One who made the world and its resources and put them at our disposal! This sense of awe and wonder, said Abraham Joshua Heschel, should be the basis of one's religious outlook. It is of mine.

The God who suffered and wept with us during the Holocaust is my God. To say this is a statement of faith, and admittedly not grounded on scientific proof. But that does not make it any the less real.

Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut z"l was the senior scholar at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto and the editor and principal author of The Torah--A Modern Commentary. His Haftarah Commentary (with a new translation by Chaim Stern) was published in 1996, and the second volume of his autobiography, More Unfinished Business, appeared in the fall of 1997. This is a sequel to his earlier article, "Taking a Chance on God" (RJ, Fall 1997).Rabbi Plaut passed away on February 9, 2012.