Jewish Life Network/Steinhart Foundation. He is also president emeritus and cofounder of CLAL--the National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership. He recently spoke to Beliefnet senior editor Alice Chasan about his latest book, "For the Sake of Heaven and Earth," which touches on the question of God's omnipotence.Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, an ordained Orthodox rabbi and a Harvard Ph.D., is president of
In your book, "For the Sake of Heaven and Earth," you write that the Holocaust was a "revelation" for Judaism and Christianity. It represented a rebuke, a challenge, and an opportunity to heal.
Your theological perspective is controversial: You seem to be saying that God withheld Himself--held back from involvement either to restrain the unfolding of the Holocaust or to protect the victims in any way. You say that God allowed the Holocaust to unfold as an object lesson in the failure of humans to uphold the human side of the covenantal relationship.
There is no explanation for the Holocaust, and I remain deeply troubled, in fact, angry about God and with God for not intervening. I want you to understand that that first statement governs everything else I'm about to say. The second thing I want to say is-this is, to me, the revolutionary theological implication as I reflect on the Holocaust: There is no explanation.
I came to conclude that in the covenant with Israel, God self-limits, to use a kabbalistic term-and He repeatedly self-limits, as humans are called to greater and greater responsibility. Only self-limit can explain to me why God did not intervene; if there were ever a time when God was going to intervene, this was the time. And since it didn't happen, either you think God doesn't care, or there is no God, or God is dead, à la [Jewish theologian Richard] Rubenstein, or you claim, as I believe, that this is a further, radical expression of acceptance of human freedom and God's self-limitation.
Humans have the freedom, and now they have the technology, to kill not just all the Jews but everybody. And God will not intervene to stop them. God will instruct them not to do this, God will judge them, God will rebuke them, but God will not miraculously intervene.
And to me, that in turn suggests that in the history of the covenant there is a greater and greater maturity. And in retrospect, I feel this was the goal-a way for humans to become more and more responsible for the covenant, including for what were historically projected as miracles--God will send the Messiah, the Redeemer. Human partnership with God will accomplish this.
This is again the explosively positive upside of modern and post-modern culture. For example, if the prophetic dream is to overcome sickness, there's been incredible breakthroughs in human medicine. Done properly, in partnership with God, these could be victories for life over death, in messianic terms.
So what the Holocaust showed is what happens when humans gain total power: they turned demonic, and they turned into killers. When humans try to become idols in themselves, think they're gods--that's what Hitler was about, absolute authority, total control, religious and spiritual as well as political--they turn into idols. Idolatry is the religion of death. That's what happened in the Holocaust.
It's shocking on many levels. It certainly challenges traditional Judaism, including my own, but I think it forces us in a positive way, if we respond positively, to interpret it not that God has abandoned us-because I think that God suffered every bit as bitterly and as totally as Jews in the camps, infinitely more so because God has infinite consciousness. The suffering of every Jew and every person is multiplied in the divine experience.
So it's not that God didn't care, not that God didn't suffer. [In my book "For the Sake of Heaven and Earth"] I said that I held back from saying that God suffers, because I was so busy saying we're not Christians. Of course, I came to realize that that's foolish. It's foolish because it's a great, classic Jewish idea, and it's foolish because the need to say "I'm not Christian" prevents you from saying what you should have said in the first place.
So if God suffered, why didn't God stop it? My answer is that God was calling upon humans to stop it, and the truth is that the Holocaust could have been stopped 10 times. At the beginning of Hitler's career, when the war broke out, during the war. So that's my point. Humans are called to take full responsibility, not only to stop the Holocaust but to build and complete the redemption that both Judaism and Christianity are about.
To make existence possible--to use a kabbalistic image now--God had to self-limit to make room for existence. And God does so out of love..There's a magnificent Talmudic passage that says, "If the person is worthy, the Torah is a potion of life," it's a healing medicine. If the person is unworthy, and uses it wrong, it's poison. And another Talmudic comment, the line between heaven and hell is as thin as a hair's breadth.