Cross Disciplinary Notes on Teaching the Shoah:


Four Questions for Most Holocaust Courses*



Many years ago I was teaching a course on the Shoah[1] and a woman student suddenly raised her hand and asked, “Professor Blumenthal, why are you barking at us?” I was, to be sure, taken aback but I realized immediately that she was correct; I had been unpleasantly sharp with them. I stopped the class to explain that, at the next session, we were to see Night and Fog and that, although I had seen it several times, I was upset at the coming film. This led to a long discussion about how all of us, including professionals, find the material of the Shoah so difficult to deal with. The very facts offend our sense of humanity. They fragment mercilessly our concept of who we are as people. As Jews, dealing with the Shoah is brutal for we know it was directed against us, against our bodies and souls. The Shoah assaults our sense of the value of Jewish being. It brings us to rage. Sometimes, it brings us to despair.

               Is the Shoah “unique” or, perhaps more accurately, in what sense is the Shoah “unique”? This issue has been a source of contention among scholars for many years. Sometimes “unique” means “inexpressible”; but then, how can one teach the Shoah at all? Sometimes “unique” means “different”; but then, what is unique about the Shoah since all moments in history are, by definition, different? Sometimes “unique” denotes a deeply intense emotion that one experiences when one studies and teaches the Shoah. In this sense, “unique” means that the Jew-hatred, or the inhumanity, or some other aspect of the Shoah is experienced by us as very intense. But, how does one teach that intensity without either diluting it or making it so central that nothing else can be taught or learned except that intensity? Finally, “unique” sometimes means that the subject is alien to the structures of perception, thought, and affect that we usually use in examining and responding to human situations. Does this mean that Shoah cannot be taught because it just doesn’t fit in our usual categories of analysis and response? On the contrary, “nothing human is alien to me” -- even at its ugliest -- should be our motto. The question is, how do we teach that which is alien, indeed repulsive, to us as human beings?

               The first step is to admit our own humanity. We must begin by confessing, to ourselves and our students, that the Shoah upsets us, that the material assaults, indeed abuses, our sense of humanity and, if one is Jewish, our sense of Jewishness. Only through forthright confrontation with our own hurt in connection with the Shoah can we appreciate how hard it is for others to learn. Only through honest self-examination can we come to the realization that the facts of the Shoah preclude -- and perhaps should preclude -- an “objective,” “ethically neutral” examination. We are who we are and we must admit that.

               Notwithstanding the bruising quality of our engagement with the Shoah, it seems to me that there are four questions that beg to be answered and conclusions that demand to be drawn. Any one of them could be a course of study unto itself but, equally, any one of them could be a part of any course of study or any extended thought on the subject of the Shoah. One need not teach a class on the Shoah to confront these questions, and one need not be an expert in any of the disciplines suggested to confront the problematic that these fundamental questions raise, for each question is part of la condition humaine  after the Shoah.


The Historical Question


               The first question deals with the accuracy of what we know. Historians must go over and over the material, checking and cross checking for truth. There is still so much to be uncovered. For instance: Is it true that American oil companies were shipping oil to the German war machine through Spain almost until the end of the war? Is it true that American banks helped finance the Nazi war effort, and provided cover for the saving of Nazi wealth after the war? What is the exact evidence? Does such action make such companies guilty of treason? And, why were no trials held of Americans who acted this way after the war?[2] Can scholars decide whether the genocide of the Jews was part of Hitler’s vision from the beginning or a later improvisation?[3] What of the received numbers of 6,000,000 Jews and 20,000,000 total dead? How accurate are they? How could we know? How accurate are the stories of survivors? How accurate do they need to be?[4] And so on. Especially in view of the rewriting of history by the revisionists, the work of checking and uncovering the truth is very important. Research and seminars on this topic must be held continuously.


The Question of Theodicy


                The second question, which is of more interest to me as a theologian, is: where was God. I am asked this question in every class I teach whether it is Psalms, modern Jewish theology, the prayerbook, Jewish mysticism, the sociology of evil, or Judaism and Hinduism. I get this question from children, students, and adults; from Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, and atheists. The question of God’s responsibility in the Shoah is a perfectly reasonable question to ask, even for secularists. The question jumps out at anyone who tries to think religion and the Shoah in the same sentence.

               In addressing this question, it is my custom to label the problem, present the usual answers, and show why I feel they are inadequate. Then, I present my own answer. Briefly, in classical theological thinking, the problem of the good God Who does, or allows, unjustified evil to occur is called “theodicy” or the problem of theodicy. It is a hoary issue in religious thinking and the roots go back to God’s punishment of Cain. God has not told Cain not to murder and, in a certain sense, Cain’s action is a reaction to God’s favoring his brother. So, is God’s punishment of Cain just? From there, the issue runs like a thread through the Bible: Why does God kill the animals in the flood of Noah? How can God destroy the whole population of Sodom and Gemorra? And so on, all the way through to Job who asks how God can punish him when he has committed no sin. The same question surfaces after the destruction of the first and then the second temples, and again after the massacres of the crusades and, to be sure, after the Shoah.

               One classical answer to the question of theodicy is that those who were killed were really guilty and, hence, what happened to them is not evil but justified punishment. Their innocence, and hence the injustice of what happened, is an illusion. This is one of the answers of the so-called friends of Job. It is also the theology embodied in Book of Lamentations and developed in rabbinic liturgy with such formulas as u-mipnei hata’einu, “because of our sins ....” It became the classic rabbinic response to catastrophe: No matter how grave the catastrophe, the Jews deserved it and there follows a list of sins which justify the destruction. In the case of the Shoah, this classical biblical-rabbinic argument for theodicy has been made: that the Jews of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had indeed deserted God and God’s Torah and, hence, God chose to punish them. I know people who accept this theodicy; I cannot. I just cannot agree that any sin (or sins) of the people justified the extermination of one and one-half million children, or that it justified the cruelty and inhumanity of the way Jews died during the Shoah.

               Another classical answer to the question of theodicy is that we, humans, finite as we are, can never know why God, infinite as God is, did what God did. This answer proposes that the gap between God and humans is so great, in every sense, that we simply cannot know why God does anything. The very transcendence of God argues against our comprehending the reason behind God’s actions. This understanding of theodicy, too, is rooted in the biblical and rabbinic sources. It is embodied in the phrase hester panim, God hides God’s Face. Sometimes the biblical authors hear God say that God will hide God’s Face and, sometimes they poignantly express their own sense of being cut off from the presence of God. The rabbis, too, use this answer. Even as modern and non-rabbinic a thinker as Martin Buber used it when he called God’s presence in the Shoah an “eclipse” of God.[5] It is also another of the answers of the so-called friends of Job.

               This answer to the problem of theodicy is the easiest for contemporary Jews. It enables them to escape from the question: where was God in the Shoah. Affirming the utter transcendence of God and, hence, God’s non-involvement in the Shoah enables contemporary people to keep God clean of responsibility. They can have their God, for whatever reason, and they do not have to ask the uncomfortable question of God’s involvement in history. They can have their cake and eat it too, so to speak. They do not realize that this answer, even though it is classic, denies God’s role in history and is precisely contrary to the other Jewish view that God is deeply involved, directly and indirectly, in the history of the world and especially of God’s people. Providence is denied because, if affirmed, it raises a question that is just too cruel to ask: where was God in the Shoah.

               Another classical answer to the question of theodicy is that we, humans, did it. God gives humans free will and it is they who act wholly on their own, for better and for worse. Therefore, it is humans who bear sole responsibility for the Shoah, not God. This answer too is a hoary one, deeply embedded in biblical and rabbinic thought. The whole theology of commandment, sin, reward, and punishment hinges on it. So does the theology of revelation and of redemption. It seems like a good answer and, indeed, can serve as such at first glance. However, both biblical and rabbinic Judaism did not allow themselves to be drawn into an assertion of human moral responsibility which would clearly deny God’s action in history. The doctrine of free will never takes precedence over the doctrine of providence, except in the matter of individual responsibility. On the matter of national action, Judaism frankly asserts both doctrines even though they are contradictory. Hence, humans are free but God also acts, and both are responsible.[6]

               Again, contemporary persons like this answer to the problem of theodicy. The idea that God leaves us free to act is very precious to contemporary sensibility. We would rather be free, even if guilty, than under God’s continuing influence and presence. In the matter of the Shoah, this leaves the Nazis guilty, together with the collaborators, but it leaves God off the hook. Such a God is abstract, remote -- and contemporary persons like their God that way. An active, intimate God would be harder to deal with. So many prefer a remote God even if that means one cannot ask the question of theodicy.

               Another classical answer to the question of theodicy is that God was active but that God suffers with us. God goes into exile with us and suffers our pains with us. The rabbis in particular developed this theology.[7] In this answer, God may have acted unjustly but God’s suffering is somehow expected to mitigate that injustice. If God is infinite, then so is God’s suffering which, then, becomes a kind of repentance for God. Contemporary Jews do not like this answer though Christians, working with the crucifixion as a model, are fond of it. Rather, we respond: So what if God suffers?! Why would suffering justify an unjust action, especially for God?

               It seems to me that all four answers listed above are really not good. The first and last make no common sense to most contemporary people, and the second and third provide answers that are evasive and unsatisfactory because they do not really answer the question; they defer it. There are other classical answers but none are any better. Is there, then, a “better” answer, one which would, on the one hand, affirm God’s presence in history and, hence, God’s responsibility and, on the other hand, hold God to account for what is a clearly an unjust action: causing, or allowing, the Shoah?

               The Bible itself provides another, and to my mind, more satisfactory, answer to the question: where was God in the Shoah? When God announces to Abraham that God is about to destroy Sodom and Gemorra, Abraham realizes that this action involves an injustice and he protests. In the end, Abraham loses the argument but his reaction is the correct one: not to deny God, not to deny God’s power or right to act, but to protest God’s judgment. Similarly, when God announces to Moses God’s intention to destroy the Jewish people, Moses responds with protest. In the several cases where he does so, Moses is more successful than Abraham in stopping an unjust act by God. Similarly, though on a personal scale, when God decides to punish Job unjustly, Job responds by protest. From the beginning of the Book of Job to the very end, Job maintains that he is innocent and God is just plain wrong. Job does not maintain that there is no God, or that God has no power or right to act, or that God has hidden God’s Face, or that God’s ways are by definition unknowable. These are the arguments of Job’s so-called friends whose “support” for God is specifically rejected by God at the end of the book. Rather, Job maintains that God is God, that Job is innocent, and hence that God is wrong. This theme of protest, which is occasionally renewed by the rabbis but in much attenuated form, resurfaces in Jewish civilization after the Shoah in secular Jewish poetry.[8]

               As a contemporary theologian, I favor the answer of protest to the question of theodicy. Protest allows me to affirm that there is a God, that God is active in Jewish history, and hence that God was indeed present in the Shoah. Protest also allows me to affirm that God was wrong, that, as a matter of moral judgement, permitting the Shoah was an unjust, immoral step. This answer itself raises several uncomfortable questions -- what kind of God would do such things, why would one worship or even have a relationship with such a God, and how does one protest -- but there are reasonable satisfactory answers to be considered.[9]


The Sociological Question


               Another question, again one which I find interesting and important, which demands an answer is: where was humanity in the Shoah. Put differently: how were so many, otherwise quite normal people, persuaded to go along with the Shoah? How did they let it happen? My interest in this subject was aroused when I realized that the response “I did nothing special; I was just doing what was expected of me” was the response of both the perpetrators and the rescuers.[10] How, I asked, can those who murdered Jews and those who rescued them contextualize their actions by saying that they had not done anything extraordinary but had just followed instructions given explicity or implicitly by those whom they respected? It seemed too paradoxical to be true. So, I went to check the sources and found out that it was, indeed, true. Perpetrators, almost always, insist that they were not demonic or pathological, and psychological tests show that this was true. They almost always say that they were just following orders, no matter how horrible the acts they committed. Similarly rescuers, much as Jews and some Christians would like to see them as heroes, almost always deny having done anything heroic. And, almost always, they insist that they were only doing the normal, natural thing that anybody would do, though they know that the evidence against that generalization is compelling. Fascinating, and relevant, data is to be found in the obedience and altruistic studies.

               The obedience studies conducted by Milgram[11] at Yale are the most well-known of a series of such studies, though there are many others. In this electro-shock experiment, subjects were asked to administer shocks of increasing intensity to another human being. The final range of the shocks was clearly designated as lethal. When subjects objected, the only pressure put upon them was firm instruction from the experimenter to continue, including the assurance that the experimenter assumed all responsibility. Depending upon the subject group, between 65-85 percent of the subjects went on to administer what they believed to be lethal levels of electro-shock. The film that accompanies the book on this experiment is particularly disturbing. Other obedience experiments showed the same phenomenon: the overwhelming majority of people will do what they are told to do. If it conflicts with their moral instincts, they will show signs of nervousness, but they will indeed do as instructed.

               The altruistic studies showed the same results. In a study conducted by Ervin Staub,[12] himself a Shoah survivor, groups which had been assigned busy tasks were given one of the following three instructions: you may not leave the room, you may leave the room, or no instruction on leaving the room. When a cry of distress from an adjacent room was simulated, almost all those in the prohibition group did not leave the room, almost all those in the permission group did leave the room, and the results varied for the group which was given no instructions. Again, the evidence was clear: most people will do what they are told and, if they are given permission to do good, they will do so.

               A particularly interesting study[13] showed that theology students who had just spent time studying the parable of the Good Samaritan (a person who acts with spontaneous goodness toward an outcast while the acknowledged religious leaders pass by the sufferer) will walk right past an ostensibly suffering person if they have been told to hurry to their next appointment. That is, theology students will follow instruction they have been legitimately given even if it means ignoring an ethical lesson in a text they have just studied.

               The implications of these data are enormous for, if we wish to have people do good (even rescue), we must give them instruction to do so. Indeed, fully sixty-seven percent of the rescuers did not rescue until asked to do so by someone in authority. One might say that the most important factor in creating people who do good is not what we teach them, though that of course does count, but how we teach them. It may not be the content of our classes but what we give permission for and what we choose to proscribe. For example: Is the excuse “I was with a sick friend and couldn’t do my homework” (if true) an excuse we would accept in a classroom? Are we assigning so much work that people feel obligated to do the work and do not have permission to do spontaneous acts of kindness? If we want people to do spontaneous acts of goodness, we need to give them permission. Should, then, doing acts of goodness be an actual course requirement -- and not only in ethics, philosophy, and religion classes?

               The second factor relevant to the analysis and teaching of good and evil in the Shoah is family and institutional discipline. Pearl and Samuel Oliner[14] have shown that almost all of the rescuers came from homes where discipline was fair. This meant that any particular act of discipline was commensurate to the wrongdoing, and could be appealed if it was too strict. Growing up in an environment in which reasonable punishment is expected but unreasonable punishment is wrong forms the background of rescuers. Children and young adults growing up in an environment where punishment is reasonable and where unreasonable punishment can be questioned grow up to be fair and reasonable authorities, and expect all authority -- civic, political, religious, legal, etc. -- to be fair and reasonable. Hence, rescue is normal. Fully fifty-two percent of the rescuers acted out of “normocentric”motivations.

               Studies on abused children show the opposite:[15] Growing up in a home or school environment where unreasonable punishment is the rule and where no unreasonable punishment can be questioned most often produces children and then adults who learn to accept unreasonable authority. They expect all authorities to be unreasonable, or least arbitrary, and often act that way themselves as adults. Since they have no choice, such people also become very obedient. The studies of perpetrators show them to have come from homes which were “authoritarian.”

               Again, the implications of these data are enormous for, if we want people to do good and not to do evil, we need to pay attention not to what we are teaching them but to how fair the rules are by which we are asking them to live. One might say that the most important factor in creating people who do good is to make sure that they think we are fair with them. For instance, do we always ask the class if the exam we are about to give is fair? Do students have a right to question our integrity and how do we react to that kind of challenge? Do we encourage students to challenge the administration? Do we do it ourselves?


The Social Action Question


               The fourth question, perhaps the most pressing, is what does one do with all the knowledge and feelings one acquires when one studies the Shoah? Given what the Shoah was, and still is, to us as human beings, it is not enough to study the facts, or to analyze the theological and sociological implications. It is not even enough to take the theological next step of active protest to God, or to take the sociological next step of intelligent pedagogy at home and in our social institutions. The issue here is injustice and apathy, and the proper response is to reject apathy and become active in social justice issues. It does not make much difference which oppression one works against. It might be other genocides. It might be child abuse, or immigrant issues, or women’s health, or landmines. Whatever it is, one must choose at least one injustice and try to help correct it. And one must help others to make similar choices.

               One year I led the departmental senior seminar in which students had to form groups, pick a problem on campus, and try to remedy it. Out of that seminar came action on rejection of labor pools which exploit illegal workers, recognition for the janitorial and food services employees, and other projects.

               For many years, I led the departmental internship program in social ethics and community service in which students had to choose an agency, set up a supervised internship, and then accomplish the goals they contracted with the agency. Projects included working with gangs in Denver, working for peace in Northern Ireland, working with Betselem (the Israeli-Palestininan human rights organization), serving in the local juvenile courts, prison ministry, immigrant workers, homeless voting rights, AIDS awareness, and many others. Over the years, I have solicited and received funds to send students for summer and year-long internships in social ethics and community service. In addition, I have broadened the program from the department to the entire university.

               Not all political and social protest is Shoah-related in the strict sense of the word but, in a broader sense, social action is part of the legacy of the Shoah and, in my opinion, it is an integral response to the Shoah.[16] I only regret that my own personal involvement in these issues has not been more intense.


* This appeared in Goldenberg, Myrna, and Rochelle L. Millen, eds. Testimony, Tensions, and Tikkun: Teaching the Holocaust in Colleges and Universities. (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2007)  160-71.

[1] I prefer “shoah” to “ Shoah” and both to “Holocaust” because the latter has the connotations of a sacrifice, which the victims were not, and because the use of a Hebrew term to describe the destruction of Jewry appears to me more appropriate. It is my custom, for ethical reasons, not to capitalize words referring to the destruction of the Jews; hence: nazi, shoah, final solution, etc. Ethics must prevail in scholarly writing; this is one of the ways in which consciousness of the shoah must penetrate the lives of those who live after it. However, in order to comply with editorial custom, I submit to the request of the editors and publishers to capitalize these words.

[2] See J. Loftus and M. Aarons, The Secret War Against the Jews (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994).

[3] This is the Historikerstreit  question.

[4] As the editor of one such autobiography -- A. Gross, Yankele: A Holocaust Survivor’s Bittersweet Memoir  (Lanham, MD: University Press of America,  2002) -- I am very aware of this problem.

[5] Martin Buber, The Eclipse of God  (New York: Harper,  1952).

[6] Maimonides, Code of Jewish Law, Hilkhot Teshuva, chapter 5, is the most classical statement of this doctrine. I usually give the following example to illustrate this: If I give the keys to my car to my teenage son and he does damage to another with the car, am I responsible? I may, or may not, be legally responsible depending upon local statutes but I am surely morally responsible and feel myself morally responsible. He acts and is responsible but I have also acted and am responsible.

[7] See, for example, E. Urbach, The Sages (Jerusalem: Magness Press, 1975) chapter 3.

[8] See David Blumenthal, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest  (Louisville, KY: Westminster / John Knox, 1993), 251-53.

[9] For a full discussion of these issues, see Facing, passim.

[10] For the presentation of this problem and for the data on the experiments and studies listed below, see David Blumenthal, The Banality of Good and Evil: Moral Lessons from the Shoah and Jewish Tradition (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 1999). My website <> also contains articles on this subject as well as a syllabus for teaching this material.

[11] Stanley Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View  (New York: Harper and Row, 1974).

[12] Ervin Staub, “Helping a Distressed Person,” L. Berkowitz, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (New York: Academic Press, 1974) 7: 293-341.

[13] Darley, John M., and C. Daniel Batson, “From Jerusalem to Jericho: A Study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,   27:1 (1973) 100-8.

[14] Samuel and Pearl Oliner, The Altruistic Personality  (New York, Free Press: 1988); reviewed by me in Critical Review of Books in Religion,  3, 1990, 409-11.

[15] See, for instance, Miller, Alice.  For Your Own Good  (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1983).

[16] For a good list of methods of protest, see Banality, in the appendix; for a list of prosocial causes, see Banality, at the index, and my website.