Thursday, March 30, 2006

Response to Andrew Sullivan

I haven't been writing very much in this blog, as my few loyal readers can tell, but I was just moved by a posting today on Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish about "God and Sides."

He writes (about responding to religious fundamentalism, especially what he calls "Christianism"):
Another trap is to play into the hands of fundamentalism and try to defeat their version of faith, rather than working, daily and hourly, on improving one's own morality, bettering one's own soul. Opposing one ideology with another is simply to perpetuate the same mistake. I admire Karen Armstrong's work a great deal; and in this profile, the intrepid breadth of her own faith journey comes through. Money quote:
"It's a mistake to define God. I gave it up a long time ago ...'To define' literally means to set limits. That is a travesty to try to define a reality that must go beyond our human thinking. The idea of a God overseeing all of this death and despair is untenable. That's the antithesis of God. If you looked at the history of the 20th century, who is overseeing this? Elie Wiesel says that God died at Auschwitz. That's just one human idea of God as overseer, and it's a childish idea of God."

I wrote this to Sullivan:
I'd like to write in response to your quote from Karen Armstrong. I also admire her large-heartedness and her attempts to see the commonality among the Abrahamic religions, but I'd like to object to what she says about Elie Wiesel. She's only quoting part of what he says about his own experiences, which is actually very powerful if you read his great work, Night. As a teenage boy, imprisoned at Auschwitz, he witnessed the hanging of a young boy, together with two adult men. Just before the hanging, a man behind Wiesel said, "Where is God? Where is He?" After the three were hanged, the prisoners were forced to parade past them. When he passed the boy, he was still alive - dying slowly. Wiesel reports, "Behind me, I heard the same man asking: 'Where is God now?' And I heard a voice within me answer him: 'Where is He? Here He is - He is hanging here on this gallows...." (p. 76 of the 1960 English translation) I don't believe that this is a childish idea of God - it's one wrought out of deep suffering, written by a man who grew up in a deeply devout family, suddenly confronted as a child by the worst horrors imaginable.

I don't know what she means by God "overseeing" the death and despair of the 20th century - perhaps she's thinking of the traditional idea of God as King and Judge. Perhaps that is a limited way to view God, although it is difficult for me to reject that vision of God entirely when it sustained my own people (I am Jewish) for so many years. I myself don't know how to understand - or even deal with - the genocide of the Jews and the other genocides of our time without believing that God in some way is present among the victims. Last summer, while visiting Prague, I took a day visit to Terezin - the ghetto/concentration camp where most of the Jews of Prague (and many others) were sent on their way to Auschwitz. Part of the tour took us to the "Small Fortress," where political prisoners were held, and executed. We walked along long corridors inside the building to the execution site - the same path that the prisoners would have taken on their way to death. It was horrifying to imagine what they must have felt - and what helped me as I walked along that path was believing that even in this place God was present. Of course, that does not mean that divine intervention stopped the executions. In that sense God does not act as the Bible teaches us He once acted to save the people of Israel at the splitting of the Red Sea. But I believe that even if we cannot rely on miraculous intervention, we must be able to rely on God's deep wisdom to sustain us.

Wiesel wrote in 1997, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times at the time of the High Holidays:
What about my faith in you, Master of the Universe?

I now realize I never lost it, not even over there, during the darkest hours of my life. I don't know why I kept on whispering my daily prayers, and those one reserves for the Sabbath, and for the holidays, but I did recite them, often with my father and, on Rosh ha-Shanah eve, with hundreds of inmates at Auschwitz. Was it because the prayers remained a link to the vanished world of my childhood?

But my faith was no longer pure. How could it be? It was filled with anguish rather than fervor, with perplexity more than piety. In the kingdom of eternal night, on the Days of Awe, which are the Days of Judgment, my traditional prayers were directed to you as well as against you, Master of the Universe. What hurt me more: your absence or your silence?

In my testimony I have written harsh words, burning words about your role in our tragedy. I would not repeat them today. But I felt them then. I felt them in every cell of my being. Why did you allow if not enable the killer day after day, night after night to torment, kill and annihilate tens of thousands of Jewish children? Why were they abandoned by your Creation? These thoughts were in no way destined to diminish the guilt of the guilty. Their established culpability is irrelevant to my "problem" with you, Master of the Universe. In my childhood I did not expect much from human beings. But I expected everything from you.

Where were you, God of kindness, in Auschwitz? What was going on in heaven, at the celestial tribunal, while your children were marked for humiliation, isolation and death only because they were Jewish?

These questions have been haunting me for more than five decades. You have vocal defenders, you know. Many theological answers were given me, such as: "God is God. He alone knows what He is doing. One has no right to question Him or His ways." Or: "Auschwitz was a punishment for European Jewry's sins of assimilation and/or Zionism." And: "Isn't Israel the solution? Without Auschwitz, there would have been no Israel."

I reject all these answers. Auschwitz must and will forever remain a question mark only: it can be conceived neither with God nor without God. At one point, I began wondering whether I was not unfair with you. After all, Auschwitz was not something that came down ready-made from heaven. It was conceived by men, implemented by men, staffed by men. And their aim was to destroy not only us but you as well. Ought we not to think of your pain, too? Watching your children suffer at the hands of your other children, haven't you also suffered?

With this essay, Wiesel was rethinking what he wrote in Night. I think we need to consider seriously what he has written - both originally, and in his rethinking fifty years later.


  1. "I haven't been writing very much in this blog, as my few loyal readers can tell,"

    We all regret it very much. We had a meeting the other day, and agreed on this.


  2. And a lot of things go through my mind reading this, most of which I don't think I could well articulate just now, and thus best not try. But I found it, essentially atheistic that I am nonetheless, very moving.

    Good post.

  3. I forgot to mention/ask that I assume you've read about the back-and-forth over the new translation of Night?

  4. (Oh, and you might, perhaps, want to switch the time-stamp on your comments to include the date (see "settings" and "comments" on Blogger page). :-))