Personal Faith and the Holocaust

Topic 4


How has the Holocaust impacted your personal relationship with God?

How did the Holocaust affect my personal faith? Well, firstly, it hugely strengthened my Jewish identity because I just felt the weight of all these ghosts and I knew that what they had died for I had to live for. I could not let their Jewish story end with me. I just couldn’t. But it did completely transform my understanding of faith.

And here I want to speak about a Midrash, a Rabbinic exegesis, which dates from the 4th or 5th century. And it is a commentary on Abraham leaving his land, his home, his father’s house. And the Midrash, who was very enigmatic, says the following: What was the matter like? It was like a traveller who is going through a desert and sees a palace in flames. And he says, “Is it possible that the palace has no owner?” Just then the owner of the palace appeared over the parapet and said, “I am the owner of the palace.”

Now that’s a very enigmatic Midrash. But once I had been to Auschwitz, I really understood what it meant. And it is a rather dramatic thing. Abraham saw the universe, it’s a palace. This vast universe, this vast law-abiding universe. The laws of chemistry, physics, you name it. It’s a universe that is pretty predictable for the most part. It obeys its laws. It’s a palace. Somebody made it, it has design. But it’s in flames. I see a world full of violence, war, injustice, exploitation, cruelty.

Now who somebody builds a palace, doesn’t just leave it to the flames. You try and put the flames out. So how can I understand that on the one hand, the universe is a palace and on the other hand people are ruining it and killing one another. And that’s when God appears to Abraham and says, “I’m the owner of the palace. I need you to help Me put out the flames.” I need you to help Me put out the flames.? God who made the entire universe can’t put out the flames of violence and injustice? Yes, there is only one thing God cannot do without help from us and that is live within the human heart. And that is what God was calling on Abraham to do. “I need you to help Me put out the flames because I cannot do it Myself without destroying this very thing I created.”

The only thing I created in my image, human beings with freedom of will. I can’t take that away without taking everything human away. I would turn humanity into a bunch of 7 billion robots programmed to sing My praises all day long. I’m sorry, that’s not what I created in human beings. And reading this Midrash, and thinking about the tragedy of the Holocaust, I suddenly realised that that is what makes Jewish faith very unusual.

Most faith is born in a simple, consistent view of the universe. Judaism is born in cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, we believe in a God of justice, on the other hand, we see a world full of injustice. And it was not the people at the fringes, the disbelievers, the atheists who raised this challenge. It was the heroes of faith themselves. Abraham said, “Shall the judge of all the earth not do justice?” Moses said, “Why have You done evil to this people?” Jeremiah said, “You always win when I argue with You about justice, but still I want to know, why do the wicked prosper?” Job is an entire book dedicated to it. But when you find that cognitive dissonance between the world that is and the world that ought to be, there’s only one way of solving it, and that’s not by thought, it’s by deed. You have to help God put out the flames.

And that is to me, what faith is all about. I suddenly realised faith is not some passive thing that happens to you. It’s an active thing that gets you to engage in the world and fight injustice and ignorance and disease and poverty, because that is what God is asking us for. We have to act. Faith is something we do, not just something we believe.

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Discussion Questions

  1. Do you agree that faith is more than belief?
  2. Can you have faith without acting on it?

Midrash, according to Rabbi Sacks’ definition, was the rabbinic response to the end of prophecy. Essentially, Midrash is the bridge across the abyss of time between the world of the original text, given by God at Mount Sinai thirty to forty centuries ago, and our world in the present of time and place. Midrash asks not “What did the text mean then?” but rather, “What does the text mean to me-here-now?” Jews do not take everything they read in a Midrash literally, but it is thought that each contains some important insight and truth. Behind Midrash are three fundamental principles of faith: (1) First, the Torah is God’s word, and just as God transcends time so does His word; (2) Second, the covenant between God and our ancestors at Mount Sinai still holds today; and (3) Third, the principles underlying the Torah have changed very little in the intervening centuries.

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This series, in partnership with the Holocaust Educational Trust, has been made possible thanks to the generous support of Richard Harris.