Sources of Holocaust Insight
Learning and Teaching about the Genocide
- ISBN: 9781532674181
- Published By: Wipf & Stock
- Published: January 2020
Sources of Holocaust Insight: Learning and Teaching about the Genocide, by John Roth, focuses on views of the Holocaust, specifically from Jewish philosophers. He begins by stating that “religion was not a sufficient condition for the Holocaust, but it was a necessary one” (11). In other words, the torture and murders that occurred in the Holocaust are inconceivable without the beliefs in God held by Jews. Also, the Holocaust is different from other genocides because it raises directly and insistently the question of how such a series of horrific events can be reconciled with the traditional idea of God and His so-called involvement with history. In fact, the Holocaust “resonates and collides with the theological and philosophical and ethical traditions of biblical religion” (11).
Roth first discusses the influence of Richard Rubenstein, specifically his theological and philosophical views on the Holocaust. He notes that Rubenstein’s main contribution to the debate about faith after Auschwitz was his refusal to admit that “Gott mit uns under any circumstances” (“Some Perspectives on Religious Faith after Auschwitz”, Holocaust: Religious and Philosophical Implications, Paragon House, 2018).
Rubenstein’s personal and intellectual ideas changed drastically after 1961 when he interviewed Heinrich Gruber, a German Christian leader who was imprisoned at Sachsenhausen for the crimes of aiding and rescuing Jews, and who also testified at the trial of high-ranking Nazi official Adolf Eichmann. Gruber affirmed a biblical faith in a God who acts in history, he believed that Jews were God’s chosen people, and that everything that ultimately happened to them was part of God’s plan. Therefore, Gruber believed that “God was ultimately responsible for the Holocaust” (13). The conversations Rubenstein had with Gruber prompted him to write After Auschwitz (Bobbs-Merrill, 1966), which was one of the first books to discuss religious life after the Holocaust. Interestingly, Roth notes how this book actually caused controversy because Rubenstein argued that a belief in a redeeming God—that is, a God who acts in history to bring about his ends—is no longer credible. Because of this, Rubenstein was considered a “death of God” theologian (13), yet Roth notes that his ideas are better described as “radical theology.” Roth shows how Rubenstein’s ideas called into question the need for a traditional, transcendent God, and as a consequence he focused more on the idea of God and religion in an anthropological sense.
The next Jewish philosopher Roth discusses is Elie Wiesel, who Roth believes is very significant due to the poignant simplicity of his works, which Roth calls impactful and abrupt. While Wiesel wanted people to study the Holocaust, he also made people aware that one cannot know or comprehend everything about it. He was adamant that the Holocaust demands interrogation, as it calls our ethical systems and values into question. However, constantly asking questions does not automatically imply that we will get answers, nor that the world will get better; questions will always remain, which according to Wiesel is vital for human development, as they provoke inquiry and dialogue (33-35). Wiesel believed that the Holocaust cannot be compared to any other event in history, as it completely “transcends history” and “reduces us to silence” (37). It is well known that Wiesel never forgave God for the atrocities that happened at Auschwitz, but he wished to move on.
Roth moves on to insightfully talk of Emil Fackenheim, who was imprisoned at Sachsenhausen concentration camp and claimed that the Holocaust was the most “radically discriminating ‘epoch-making’ event in all of Jewish history” (123). He also stated that Jews must respond to tragedy by trying to reaffirm God’s presence in history. Roth shows how Fackenheim believes that God was not a saving presence at Auschwitz (as some may have originally thought). Yet, despite this, we mustn’t give Hitler a posthumous victory by letting him take away God: “we are forbidden, to deny or despair of God, however much we may have to contend with Him or with belief in Him, lest Judaism perish” (‘Jewish Values in the Post-Holocaust Future’, Judaism, 16 (3), 1967). Roth also explains the influence Fackenheim’s interpretation of the Holocaust has had on Judaism and Jewish philosophy. Fackenheim allows people to have faith after Auschwitz and states that those who abandon God are the biggest destroyer of Jews.
Finally, Roth discusses the ideas of Emmanuel Levinas, who did not explicitly write about the Holocaust often, although his reflections on it appear in traces in his work. He argued that to try to justify the suffering of the Holocaust in a religious, ethical, or political way is “the source of all immorality” (“Useless Suffering”, Entre Nous: On Thinking-of-the-Other, Columbia University Press, 1998). Ultimately, Levinas rejected all forms of theodicy and affirmed that suffering cannot be comprehended in any manner.
The main points Roth makes throughout this book are firstly that the Holocaust targeted a particular group of people (Jews) and tried to annihilate them. Roth also argues that the Holocaust has the power to raise the right questions—the questions we need to ask to pursue a life worth living, and more importantly to clearly perceive that the Holocaust ultimately signifies a failure in ethical, religious, and political frameworks, and shows how individuals are responsible for their actions and the consequences that follow. Roth concludes by stressing that the Holocaust did not need to happen, and for this reason we should always use it as an example of what not to repeat. It is a warning and a much-needed compass to guide our future moral behavior. And so, we should not take anything for granted (258-259). Overall, Roth’s comments on the Holocaust are both insightful and helpful to the reader. He highlights and addresses people’s views clearly and precisely, which makes the text easy to navigate through and understand.
Paige Simpson is a graduate student at Manchester Metropolitan University.Paige SimpsonDate Of Review:June 30, 2022