The other day I had my first class called “Post-Holocaust Jewish Theologies and Selected Christian Responses.”
Among the readings with which we began the course, we were given this single page containing the following epitaph:
From the Psalms I learned to pray: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19)
From Irving Greenberg I have learned to add:
“May they be credible in the presence of the burning children.”
The rabbi teaching our class also introduced us to some pages of Zalmen Gradowski who gave an eyewitness account of the death camps. Gradowski perished in October 1944 and his manuscripts were found after the war, hidden underground near the crematoria at Auschwitz.
“The point of departure is emotion and experience,” our professor began. “Until you have a picture of the extreme violence and brutality, you cannot do theology of the Shoah. To start with such testimony is to challenge ourselves not to say anything about God that you could not say before burning children. Asking ‘Where is God?’ before the horrible is not something that you would be ashamed to say, but giving an answer to this is much more problematic. And perhaps this speaks to the proper modality of theology – the need for questioning.”
A little later, he continued, “How can someone say, ‘I am at peace with God’ with the burning children in view? The Holocaust brings Jews and Christians closer together theologically because of the new emphasis on suffering and agony, which had not previously been the emphasis in Judaism. But, it can also undermine this closeness because the Holocaust broke Judaism. And so, how does it affect me if Christians are not broken by it? That can tear the relation asunder – for one to be unscathed by it.”
Reflecting on this made me think about the broader applicability of the need to resist easy answers.
How many relationships are torn asunder by one being “at peace” while the other is in utter distress or unrest?
There is a greater credibility that comes from contending with difficulty and anguish and not succumbing to easy answers, cliches, or euphemisms.
Photo: Group portrait of the children and staff, Izieu Children’s Home, France, summer of 1943. Most of the children in the photo were murdered. (via Yad Vashem website)