Theological Despair

Some Implications

Persistence, and not Hope

Personal Despair

If only my anger could be weighed

and my passion be put on the scales,

it would surely be heavier than wet sand

-- this is why my words languish.

(Job 6:2-3)

In the film Au revoir les enfants, [1] nazi [2] soldiers enter a school in search of a little Jewish boy. How can that have happened? How can grown men see danger in a little boy? How can armed adults hunt a child? And what did that child do to be pursued like a dangerous criminal? Can it really be that the little boy's Jewish ancestry is justification for his being hunted like a vicious animal? It can't be. It just can't be -- that stormtroopers, who were a match for other armed adult male soldiers, picked as their target and relentlessly hunted children whose sole "guilt" lay in their bloodline. And yet it was so.

To contemplate this one scene is to face all the problems of contemporary Jewish existence. What do we feel? How do we deal with this? Incredulity. Sadness. Fear. Anger. Rage. Depression. Hopelessness. And then: Fantasy. Revenge. Justification. The good guys win. And then: Quickly, put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. Hope. Constructiveness. Goodness. Mission. Normality. And then: Truth. Delusion. Despair.

Slowly. The shoah [3] demands time.

The adult male soldier in the black boots and black uniform, with the double lightning insignia, imperiously hunting an innocent Jewish child.

I do not want to see this. I, as a Jew, do not want to see this at all. For I identify with that child. I know that I, too, am Jewish. That I, too, was once a child. Worse still, that I have children who also are innocent but Jewish. To see that monster pursuing that child is to see that monster pursuing me, or worse, one of my sons. I do not want to see this scene.

As a human being, too, I do not want to see this. For I identify with the child, with the helpless one. Like so many millions of his brothers and sisters everywhere. Children maimed by landmines. Children crippled by toys designed to explode. Children who are sexual slaves. Children who work for nothing, making soccer balls which are kicked around by the rich. Hunted children. I do not want to see this. Worse yet, do I identify with the nazi soldier? Of course not. Really? Do I really believe I would be immune to the pressures that make people do such things? Without the threat of imprisonment, beating, and death, the vast majority of people do what they are told to do. [4] With such pressures, would I have resisted? The odds are against me. I do not want to know this.

This scene frightens me. To be a child. To be Jewish. To be hunted. To be alone. To be able to trust no one. To be cut off from my family and my people. To imagine any of my sons in that state...

And this is a "mild" scene. There is no mass of bodies. No bulldozers pushing skeletons into impersonal mass graves. [5] There is no endless Appel. No cruelty. No torture. No blood. No death. No capricious, wanton terror. Perhaps that is why we can stop and contemplate this scene.

On reflection I am angry at that adult male soldier in the black boots and black uniform, with the double lightning insignia, imperiously hunting an innocent Jewish child. I am very angry. Very, very angry. Angry at him for his cruelty. Angry at his society for its hatred of the child. Angry at his society for its hatred of me. Angry at his people for its hatred of my people. Angry at everyone who hates, especially those who hate children. Yes, I know Alice Miller's explanation, that this hatred is displaced from their own childhoods, [6] but I am still angry -- emotionally, and morally. In fact, when I contemplate what I know will happen to that child, and what happened to the other million and a half Jewish children, I am more than angry. I experience rage. Rage against what happened. Rage against them, the perpetrators. Raging hatred of everything they and their society stood for. Even rage against their descendants and their culture.

I would kill them. I'll never go to Germany to lecture. I won't even let them translate my books into German. I wish I could get even with them. I wish I could avenge the death of that child, and all the others, especially the ones burned alive because the nazis, may their memory be blotted out, did not want to spend the money on the gas. This Way Ladies and Gentlemen to the Gas. [7] It's a wonder more survivors didn't commit suicide. I will avenge them. I will live, in spite of the hate of the enemy. I've even done this once: I was in Germany to lecture and was taken to Nuremberg, to the great stadium built by Hitler for the great rallies. You can go up and stand where he stood. And I did. I stood there, a Jew alive, with the watch of my Uncle Max, the only survivor from my grandfather's family, in my jacket pocket. I stood there, with Unlce Max and all the others. A victory. It serves him right, all of them.

Quickly, put Humpty-Dumpty back together again. Build a wall against the chaos. "You set a boundary. Let them not transgress it. Let them not return to cover over the earth" (Psalm 104:9). [8] Yes, I teach. I write. I even go to Germany to lecture. I consciously engage in interfaith dialogue. I actively support social change. I go to Yom haShoah events. I visit the museums. I attend colloquies and conferences. I even engage repentant Germans in dialogue. I do what I can for refugees everywhere. I work toward a better Jewish educational system. Yes, I have friends, Jewish and non-Jewish. Some of them I would even entrust with my life and with the lives of my family. I maintain a wide range of contacts in many communities, working with these people for the betterment of all humankind, and especially for the education of the Jewish community. And yes, I take precautions. I do ask who, among my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, is best equipped and most likely to smuggle my family across a closed border. And I keep enough cash in the house to be able to buy our way out. I am good. I am constructive. I have hope. I work for those goals. So do my friends and acquaintances.

Is it working? Am I "dealing with" the adult male soldier in the black boots and black uniform, with the double lightning insignia, imperiously hunting an innocent Jewish child? Do I feel more "secure" against him? To tell the truth, No. There are still cruel individuals in society. In fact, individual violence seems to be on the increase. There are still societies that oppress people, not only for their political opinions but for who they are. By race. By gender. By age. By economic status. By ethnic identity. By history. No matter how hard I work, I am not making progress. We are not making progress. As I write this, the efforts of all of the western world have not stopped "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo. The Truth is, that it is not working. That I am not making progress against the vision that I do not want to see. This is called despair.

In Jewish law, there is an obligation, derived from the Bible, to return a lost object. But what if the object has no special identification marks? Or what if it has been lost a long time? The law says that the owner is considered to have despaired of finding the lost object and, hence, the finder may keep it. We, the good people, have -- to tell the truth -- lost the battle against evil, both individual as well as social evil. No amount of psychotherapy can really prevent personal evil, and no amount of prosocial action can really prevent social evil.

Theological Despair

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For God's arrows have struck me,

their poison sucks up my spirit;

God's terrors are arrayed against me.

(Job 6:4)

Who is responsible for the shoah? Who bears responsibility for the child's fate in Au revoir les enfants ? Who is the one we blame for the pregnant woman whose feet were tied together when she went into labor so that both she and the infant died in terrible pain? To whom can we point the finger for the thousands who fell into the pits of excrement and drowned as others, who were forbidden to help on pain of death, had to look on?

Yes, we justly blame the human, or more exactly the subhuman, perpetrators. The nazis are responsible for the cruelty and hatred. There can never be an escape from that, much as deniers, neo-nazis, and even children of perpetrators may wish to deny such responsibility. Humans were worse than bestial, for beasts never act with wanton cruelty.

No, the victims are not responsible, much as some macho observers would like to hold them responsible. The victims were just that -- victims, innocent of the "crimes" of which they were accused. Their "guilt" lay in their being, in their bloodlines. As all victims of racism are innocent. They do nothing; they be, and that is enough to condemn them to being victims. Perhaps more of the victims should have forseen what was coming, but hindsight is no blessing.

If one is religious, if "God" means something to you, who is to blame? If one has lived a life in which God's presence has been felt, if religious ritual has been an important part of your spiritual life, who is to blame? If you are a believer, if one believes that God is not some remote force but is active in our personal and national lives, who is to blame? If one accepts the doctrine of God's providence, if you believe in God's action in history, who is to blame? [9]

Most religious folk, and most religious thinkers and clergy along with them, do not want to ask this question. They do not want to know that God is responsible for history, that is, for the bad parts. They do not want to contemplate, not even to think about, how God might be responsible for the shoah. They dodge. They avoid. They cite: "Indeed, your thoughts are not My thoughts and your ways are not My ways" (Is. 55:8). They justify, invoking the sinful ways of the Jewish people. They rationalize, invoking humankind's free will. They make excuses, saying that God's Face was hidden. Mostly, they firmly close their eyes, hiding their heads in the sand. They just refuse to confront this question. They piously claim ignorance of God's ways, and change the subject. The theology of Job's comforters, not the theology of Job. They occupy themselves, faithfully and busily, with the needs of the community. Action, not theology. Busyness hiding unwanted questions. [10]

Heretics and atheists think about the question of ultimate responsibility. They know the answer. Some say there is no God of history. There is no God Whose will is manifest in human affairs. At least, no good God Who is active in history. Not even a bad God Who acts in human affairs. There may be a God of nature, but there is no God of history, no Jewish God, no God as God is known to Jewish and Christian scriptures. [11] Others say there just is no God at all. We are here alone in a neutral, perhaps even hostile, world. We do the best we can. We work hard to ensure our survival. We even risk death to do so. We write bitter, bitter poetry. [12] We die, and others take up the task.

If you are religious, what do you think? Are you among the pious avoiders? Among those who say that God could not have been involved because God gave humankind free will, an act which relieves God of all responsibility? Are you among those who believe that God is too good to be responsible? That God was absent? Or, are you among the heretical avoiders? Among those who deal with this question by denying God? You must take a stand, if God is integral to who you are.

I, too, as a Jew and as a theologian, confronted this terrifying question and I reached the conclusion that God is, indeed, present and responsible even in moments of great evil. God is, indeed, partly responsible for the shoah. In a certain sense, God is capable of tolerating, or even causing, great evil. Still, God is also capable of great good, of deep blessing. God's presence is part of our ongoing lives, as persons and as God's people. This leaves us with a God who is not perfect, not even always good, but Who is still our God and the God of our ancestors. Jewish tradition advocates this position and reaches the conclusion that protest is the only proper response. Not defensiveness. Not denial. But protest -- in thought and in prayer. [13]

But, is it working? Am I "dealing with" the God of history, including the shoah? Do I feel more "secure" with this God against Whom I can protest? Are others following this path, traditional though it is? To tell the truth, Yes and No. It is working in the sense that, when I have the courage to use the liturgy that I suggested, I know I have done my duty toward God, toward the dead, toward the survivors, and toward Jewish history and religion. When I protest, in liturgy and in teaching, I know that I have done the right thing and that I can face God on the day of judgement. But, it is very hard. The others have not followed me. Rather, they have persisted in their pious or heretical denial. See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil -- especially of God. Job's comforters. Theirs is a counsel of despair, and I despair of them.

Some Implications

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What is my strength

that I should have hope?

What is my end

that I should be patient in my soul?

(Job 6:11)

In the recent Israeli election campaign which took place as I wrote this article, the following confrontation took place: "[Yosef] Lapid ... is a journalist-provocateur turned politician, a Holocaust survivor with a sharp tongue and undisguised contempt for the political rabbis. In a televised debate with Shas [orthodox sefaradi] Minister of the Interior, Eli Suissa, Lapid goaded his opponent ... into forbidden territory. 'Maybe you'd like to put me into a concentration camp,' Lapid suggested, to which Suissa replied, 'You've already been in one and you didn't learn your lesson.'" [14]

A slip of the tongue? A piece of tasteless rhetoric, uttered in the heat of a rhetorically explosive electoral campaign? Maybe, but even if so, it tells us more than we want to know. The incident tells us of a shoah survivor whose contempt for "political rabbis" is not only a function of religious politics. Rather, his scorn for the rabbis stems from his more fundamental contempt for religion and, more specifically, for the God of his fathers Who did not save him or his people during the shoah. It is a contempt born of rage. And it is very, very widely shared among secularists. The incident also tells us of a rabbi who, when push comes to shove, really believes that the shoah was, indeed, the work of a God Who is active in Jewish history. It was the work of a God Who was punishing His children for the sins of modernity. And the rabbi is willing to say so -- to the shame of the victims, and the survivors. This contempt for Jews who have not "learned the lesson" of the shoah is very, very widely shared among fundamentalist Jews.

The contempt for religion among secularists in Israel is, in my opinion, not a matter of shifting urban neighborhoods. Nor is it solely a matter of "religious coercion." The amount of energy, indeed hatred, generated by the conflict indicates an anger, a rage, which goes beyond politics. To be sure, anti-religious Israelis could just vote the orthodox out of power and restrict "religious coercion." They could also develop forms of Jewish religion that are traditional but not orthodox. But these remedies are not even being considered by the vast majority of anti-religious Israelis. The true source of this anger is, as I see it, theological despair. A despairing of all hope in our relationship as Jews to God. A despairing of the covenant. Such people do not deny Jewishness as an ethnic, cultural, social, and political desideratum. But they despair of it as a religious phenomenon.

Conversely, fundamentalist antisecularism is rooted in the fear of confronting God's complicity in the shoah. It is always easier to blame the victims. All the miracles of the foundation and continuation of the state of Israel do not erase the fact of God's complicity. All the miracles of the reestablishment of orthodox Torah Judaism do not erase it either. All the assertion of love for God, of devotion to God's commandments, even of devotion to the state of Israel, cannot deny what we know: that God must have been active in -- and hence responsible for -- the shoah. Cognitive dissonance is what the psychologists call it. Pious denial is what the Bible would call it. Theological despair is what it is.

As the fundamentalist-secularist rift is tearing apart Jewish society in Israel, so intermarriage and apathy are ripping the fabric of Jewish life in the exile, particularly in America. The vast majority of American Jews don't care about being Jewish. Jewishness is not central to their self-understanding as human beings. A very small percentage of Jews receive an intensive Jewish education. Most Jews have not been to Israel. Intermarriage rates are between 55-60%. Practically, no American Jews speak Hebrew. Almost no one writes in Hebrew, or reads Hebrew literature. And, of those Jews who do identify Jewishly by paying dues to some Jewish organization or by making an annual contribution to the Jewish community, only one third are synagogue affiliated.

This Jewish apathy has been noted and analyzed from many different points of view. However, it seems to me that one important line of analysis has been missing. True, Jews are more integrated into the surrounding society than ever before and, hence, can "assimilate" more easily. True, non-Jewish society, at least in America, has become more pluralistic and, hence, more accepting of Jews who wish to be less Jewish. True, industrialization and internationlization have made it easier for Jews to concentrate on "just being people" without having to deal with their Jewishness. True, ignorance, particularly when spread over two or three generations, erases the Jewish trace.

Still, everyone knows about the shoah, and everyone knows it happened to Jews. How do assimilated, intermarried Jews deal with the shoah? If I were of that group, I would try, first, to generalize the shoah into genocide and then link the shoah to other genocides, thus denying its particularly Jewish character. Second, insofar as Jewishness was part of the shoah, I would insist that assimilated Jews had a better chance than more "ethnic" Jews, even though the evidence for that thesis is very ambiguous (it depended on where one was). Third, I would want to know as little as possible about my Jewish identity. I would spend a great deal of time avoiding my Jewishness -- ethnic, intellectual, and religious. Who would want to be Jewish if genocide is a special Jewish destiny? Finally, I would have really serious doubts about any Jewish God. What kind of God would let His people be exterminated? Who could believe any of the so-called miracles of the Bible? Who could have faith in the chosenness of the Jewish people after the shoah? And, why be Jewish if there is no reliable Jewish God Who has a special relationship with His people? At its root, Jewish assimilation is a function of theological despair. It is despair of God's action in Jewish history. It is despair of God's ongoing, active, loving presence in our personal and national lives. [15]

One of the side effects of this despair is the utter amazement of Jews toward "Jews by choice." Converts face, again and again, the question: why would you convert to Judaism? Why would you want to expose yourself, and your progeny, to the horrors of Jewish existence in history? [16] Born Jews are in such theological despair that they do not understand what motivates Jews by choice. Even Jews who are actively identified as Jews, who work hard -- and they do -- for Jewish survival and Jewish continuity, do not understand why someone would want to become Jewish. This is theological despair at its deepest, ethnic and theological self-doubt at its most profound.

In families where there is incest and sexual abuse, there is deep, deep denial. The family knows, and doesn't want to know. The family hides, from others and from itself, the truth of what is happening. It rationalizes. It busies itself with daily chores. But the Truth is there, underneath. So it is with the Jewish people today. The Jewish family is caught up in post-shoah theological despair and this has resulted in utter denial, subconscious denial, and in blaming the victim not the perpetrator.

Contemporary, post-shoan Jewish identity is, then in my opinion, rooted not only in the nature of modernity but in the very special state of despair which Jews feel at God's presence. Jewish history is a Heilsgeschichte, a history of the holy at work in the destiny of the Jewish people, even when we deny it. The shoah has led us to question, consciously or subconsciously, whether the holiness of our history is defensible. Reluctantly, many Jews -- fundamentalist, secularist, modern religious, and assimilationist -- have reached, each in their own way, a state of theological despair, a distrust of the holiness of our history, a doubting of the One Who lends meaning to that history. A very, very sad state. A type of heresy that is worse than accusing God of being abusing. At its worst, this theological despair is a new form of self-hatred.

 Persistence, and not Hope

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Futility of futilites, said Kohelet,

futility of futilities, all is futile.

What advantage does a person have

of all the work that he or she does under the sun? ...

The end of it, after all has been heard --

fear God, and observe God's commandments

for that is [the destiny] of every person.

(Ecclesiastes 1: 2-3; 12:13) [17]

Hope is a well-known religious affection [18] in Jewish faith. One of the great psalms of healing, Psalm 27, after running the gamut of emotions from confidence to despair, from anger to pleading, ends with the following two lines: "Were it not for the fact that I have been certain that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of life, [...]. Have confidence in the Lord; be strong, and He will give courage to your heart; then, have confidence in the Lord." The first of these two verses is one of the most doubting verses in Scripture. It is a fragment of a verse. The conclusion of the thought in the verse is not stated. Indeed, the psalmist barely allows the reader to complete the verse, for the missing thought is so doubting, so mistrusting as to be unbearable. [19] The second verse, which is the closing verse of the psalm, on the other hand, is full of hope. Indeed, the word which I have translated as "confidence" is usually rendered as "hope"; thus, "Hope in the Lord ...." [20]

There are many calls to hope in the Bible.

But is hope, or confidence, the appropriate response to despair, especially to theological despair? Despair is more profound than doubt. It runs much deeper than distress. Despair is a questioning of the very frame of meaning in our lives. Despair is more than a patch of rough water, more than stormy weather. Despair is a shaking of the foundations of the building of our lives. Despair is a loss of logocentric orientation, which is why traditional theologians object to deconstructionist tactics that deprive us of meaning-ful center. [21] Dealing with despair requires re-centering. Dealing with despair requires activating our anger and expressing our rage. Dealing with despair requires turning again to community, to empowerment through action and relatedness.

Protest -- social protest, but also and perhaps more importantly, theological protest -- is the first step. "Fear God" -- in protest. Tremble, but say and pray the protest.

Social empowerment, within community, is the second step. "Observe God's commandments" -- build God's community.

When all is said and done, "that is [the destiny] of every person." Persistence in faith, the integrity of which can be preserved through protest. Persistence in community, in loyalty to one's people, in spite of reality. In a word, persistence in covenant.... Persistence, not rejection. Persistence, not hope. "Faith is not the same as belief.... Faith is sensitivity, understanding, engagement, and attachment.... Faith includes faithfulness." [22] I am not sure I hope, but I persist in the face of despair.

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[*] This article appeared in Bridges: An Interdsciplinary Journal of Theology, Philosophy, History, and Science 6:3/4 (1999) 1-18 --; reprinted in Robert S. Frey, ed., The Genocidal Temptation: Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Rwanda, and Beyond (Lanham, Md., University Press of America: 2003) 173-86..

[1] Academy award-nominated Au revoir les enfants, directed by Louis Malle (1932-1995), is an auatobiographical recounting of Malle's memory of his experiences as a Jew at an all-boy Roman Catholic school in 1944. The film is known as Auf Wiedersehen Kinder in German and Goodbye Children in English.

[2] It is my practice to capitalize only nouns referring to God, together with nouns usually capitalized in English. This is a theological-grammatical commitment to the sovereignty of God. Thus, I spell "messiah," "temple," etc. To infuse literature with ethics, I especially do not capitalize "nazi," "führer," "fatherland," "third reich," "national socialist," "final solution," etc. except in quotations. I am indebted to Hana Goldman, a plucky ten year old, who defied her teachers by refusing to capitalize "nazi," thereby setting an example for all of us.

[3] For many years I used the word "holocaust" to designate the destruction of European Jewry during the Second World War. I have since been persuaded that "holocaust" should not be used for two reasons: First, it bears the additional meaning of 'a whole burnt offering,' which is certainly not the theological overtone to be sounded in this context. And second, the destruction of European Jewry happened to Jews and, hence, it is they who should have the sad honor of naming this event with a Hebrew term. The word "shoah" has been used for a long time in Hebrew to denote the catastrophe to Jewry during World War II and has even been adopted by many non-Jews as the proper designation. I now adopt this usage and acknowledge my debt to Professor Jean Halpérin of Geneva and Fribourg for the insight. However, since this word, too, refers to catastrophe and not to God, I have consistently not capitalized it.

[4] See David R. Blumenthal, The Banality of Good and Evil: Lessons from the Shoah and Jewish Tradition (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1999) Part One.

[5] This image which has become an icon of the shoah is actually of the British army sanitizing Bergen Belsen after its liberation. Still, the horror of being such a victim strikes us to the quick.

[6] A. Miller, For Your Own Good (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983).

[7] T. Borowski, transl. M. Kandel (New York: Penguin Books, 1976).

[8] On containing evil and chaos, see Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988) -- reviewed by my in Modern Judaism 10 (1990):105-10.

[9] I follow the psalmist in rapid shifting of the person-subject.

[10] On this defensiveness, see David R. Blumenthal, "Confronting the Character of God," God in the Fray: A Tribute to Walter Brueggemann, eds. T. Linafelt and T. Beal (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998) pp. 38-51; also available on my website.

[11] See, for example, Richard Rubenstein, After Auschwitz, 2nd. ed. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1992).

[12] A. Laytner, Arguing With God: A Jewish Tradition (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1990) -- reviewed by me in Modern Judaism 12:2 (February 1992) 105-10 -- pp. 192-93, 203-8.

[13] David R. Blumenthal, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Louisville, KY: Westminster / John Knox, 1994).

[14] Ze'ev Chafets, "Clarity, At Last," The Jerusalem Report, 24 May 1999, p. 26.

[15] While traveling through Burgundy (France), I met a chatelaine who proudly explained that her father had been Catholic and her mother Jewish. She, together with her siblings, had been raised in both religions and, at age eleven, she was given the choice. She explained her commitment as follows: "When I read and heard about the concentration camps and the gas chambers, I said 'That is not for me' and I chose Catholicism." Upon questioning, this turned out to be motivated not only by self protection but by an inability to believe in a God Who could not protect His people.

[16] I actually heard someone say to a person who was about to convert, "Well, are you ready to go the gas chambers with us?"

[17] Verse 12:13 is the next to the last sentence in the written text. However, when Ecclesiastes is recited liturgically, verse 12:13 is repeated so that it becomes the final verse of the book. This is also true of Lamentations 5:21 and Malachi 3:23.

[18] On this term, see Facing the Abusing God, pp. 58-60.

[19] This is also true of Lamentations 5:22. My thanks to Tod Linafelt for pointing this out to me.

[20] For a full exegesis of this psalm, see Facing the Abusing God, pp. 157-89.

[21] For one such critique, see David R. Blumenthal, "But Rabbi David Says," a review of M. Taylor, Erring, Cross Currents 38 (1989) 468-74. Perhaps deconstructionism is itself a form of theological (or social) despair, not unlike shoah denial or incest denial

[22] A. J. Heschel, God in Search of Man (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1955) pp. 154-55.

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