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October 21, 2014 / 27 Tishri, 5775
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Was the Holocaust Punishment for Sin?

Are we to believe that these Jews who were devout and pious were being punished?

Holocaust

For so many people religion is practiced out of a sense superstition. Like a furry rabbit’s foot, it wards off evil spirits. Fulfilling the word of God keeps you from experiencing bad things. So what happens when you’re religious and those bad things happen anyway? It must be because you sinned.

I continue to be amazed at how many people see God as “the great blackmailer in the sky,” a term I first heard from the atheist Oxford philosopher Jonathan Glover in a debate I moderated between him and my friend Dennis Prager. God threatens us with death and suffering unless we follow His will. Insofar as I have recently published a full length book refuting this idea, both Biblically and logically, I will not here address it, other than to focus on the most insidious permutation thereof. And that is the belief that the Holocaust was punishment for Jewish sin.

No doubt you’ve heard this argument before. It’s straightforward and it goes like this. The Jews of Germany didn’t want to be Jewish any more. They wanted to be more German than the Germans. They changed their names. They assimilated. They married out. The reform movement, which started in Germany in about 1820, expunged all mention of Zion and Jerusalem from its prayer book. Germany and Berlin were the new promised land. In short, the Jews of Germany abandoned God. Worse, they thought they could get away with it. So God decided to teach them a lesson. Just try and forget Me. Here, have a few gas chambers. Let’s see how independent you feel when you’re incarcerated behind barbed wire? Let’s see how much you love Germany when they collectively slaughter your children.

I’ve heard many variations on this theme. One is that it wasn’t assimilation and attachment to Germany that brought the Holocaust, but the exact opposite. The Jews were punished for secular Zionism and an attempt to return to the ancient homeland without divine assistance. Another variation, which I heard just recently and supposedly exists on a tape from one of the great Jewish scholars of the 20th century, was that the only way the Jews would ever give up their deep, emotional attachment to the great Torah centers of Europe, like Lithuania, was to see their neighbors shoot their own parents.

Whatever the variation on this theme of the Holocaust as punishment, let’s be clear. These theories are ignorant, repulsive, and wrong. Ignorant because no human being knows the mind of God. Repulsive because they take six million innocent martyrs – including 1.5 million children – and turn them into culprits responsible for their own deaths. Wrong because they ignore the most basic fact of all, which is this: the majority of German Jews survived Hitler, even though, of course, huge numbers perished.

In 1933 there were 522,000 Jews living in the Reich. By 1939 and the start of the Second World War, 304,000 had emigrated. Beginning in January 1933, when Hitler came to office in a torch lit parade down Unter den Linden, the Jews of Germany knew that they were in the hands of a monster. Almost immediately Jews were beaten in the streets, their businesses boycotted, their Synagogues attacked. By September, 1935 the Nuremberg race laws were enacted. By November 1938 the horrors of Kristallnacht defined the growing Nazi tyranny. And throughout, the Jews of Germany tried to get out. They knew they were otherwise doomed. And while the nations of the world closed so many doors to them, the majority managed to escape.

The people who did not escape were, among so many other millions, the Hassidim and ultra-religious Jews of Poland who had no idea that Hitler had signed a secret pact with Stalin to partition Poland. They had no inkling of Hitler’s plan to invade via blitzkrieg on 1 September, 1939 and that they would be caught in his web.

Are we to believe that these Jews who were devout and pious, with deeply sounding Jewish names, who observed the minutiae of Jewish law pertaining to kosher and the Sabbath and prayed thrice daily for the Jewish return to Zion were punished with extinction while the “sinful” culprits of German Jewry mostly survived? And what of the more than one million children who were gassed and cremated who were utterly innocent of every sin?

The theory of the holocaust-as-punishment is not just abhorrent. It is factually absurd.

But there is more.

Do those who argue that European Jewry were nearly wiped out by God as a consequence of sin really believe they are doing God a favor with this heresy? Do they believe they are defending His reputation? Let’s  say for a moment that they’re right. God bears no responsibility for the gas chambers at Auschwitz because the Jews of Europe had it coming. They earned death by virtue of their iniquity. They deserved to be turned into ash because they had abrogated God’s covenant.

Now, how many of you feel like praying to a God who could do that? How many of you feel like loving a God who enacts the death penalty for eating a cheese burger? How many people would want to worship a God who cremates children when their parents drive on the Sabbath?

No, this stomach-turning theory paints God, and the Jewish people, in the worst possible light, when, in reality, it’s the Nazis that deserve that opprobrium.

As to God and the question of where He was as the Jews of Europe were slowly exterminated, I will forever believe that we have the right, nay, the responsibility, to challenge and question God on that issue.

I don’t know why God allowed the holocaust. Nor do I care. Any explanation would not minimize the horror of it. Nor would it bring back my six millions murdered Jewish brothers and sisters. Indeed, asking for an answer is itself immoral insofar as it is an attempt to reconcile ourselves with the irreconcilable. What we want is for God to fulfill his promises to the Jewish people, that they might live a blessed and peaceful existence, like so man other nations that are not perennial targets for genocide.

True, God has sustained us, for the most part, and we alone have survived from antiquity. We are grateful to God for our longevity. But it should not take the deaths of innocent Israeli soldiers to guarantee our survival.

It is high time that God show Himself in history and bless a people who have been, for the past three thousand years, the most devoted and religious of nations, deeply faithful to God, practicing charity, promoting scholarship, fostering hospitality, and spreading light and blessing to all nations of the earth.

About the Author: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi” whom the Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 29 books, including The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.


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11 Responses to “Was the Holocaust Punishment for Sin?”

  1. Alana Ronald says:

    Thank you, Rabbi Boteach, but irrespective of your arguments, there will always be those who seek to slander and smear with whatever arguments they can muster, however outrageous.

  2. I asked my father why we din't defend our self, we were more and less much people, we could make high damages to the germans, it was better to fight and not to get murdered, my father told me thanks to the Holocaust we Eretz Israel!,

  3. Also my father has commented that we survived the Persians, Egiptsians, Gregs, Romans, Spaniards, Progromm, Nazis, etc:, and we will stand allways.

  4. Anonymous says:

    The recurring questions which haunts survivors and their children echo through the halls of time. “Why didn’t they fight back? Why did they enter the chambers of death like sheep to the slaughter?” By our standards, such actions as placidly lining up against a wall to be shot or walking silently into the gas chambers or standing nude and obedient at the edge of a ravine filled with blood-covered bodies awaiting one’s own turn to die, defy all understanding. Indeed, anti-Semites would suggest that Jews were different, somehow not quite as brave, not quite as courageous as the average person. Our enemies will even conclude that the Jews were guilty of the crimes they were accused of, and hence with heavy conscience and accepting the punishment for their “crimes,” the Jews quietly submitted to their deserved punishment.

    Nothing could be a greater falsification of the truth. The hopelessness seen in their faces was not a reflection of guilt; rather it was a realization that they had been completely deserted and betrayed by humanity. The light of morality, conscience and brotherhood had been completely extinguished and for them life became a terror-filled abyss. Responsibility for their death clearly lies with the Nazis and their collaborators.

    Warsaw Ghetto uprising lasted as long as France’s resistance against Germany…Until a Jew is convinced that he or she is going to die anyway, armed resistance is suicide and suicide is not a goal. That applies to all Jews, regardless of religious leanings…dying with a weapon in your hand had meaning…The overwhelming majority of the resisting Jews were not trained soldiers, with almost no weapons and very little information, and had no idea what they were doing, yet, what they accomplished is incredible, if you think of the sabotage they carried out and other things, in all respects, not just in military terms.

    מרד גטו ורשה נמשך כמו ההתנגדות של צרפת לגרמניה.. עד שיהודי היה משוכנע שהוא או היא הולכים למוות בכל מקרה, התנגדות המזוינת היא התאבדות וההתאבדות היא לא המטרה. זה חל על כל היהודי, ללא קשר לנטיותיו הדתיות… למות עם נשק בידך יש משמעות… הרוב המכריע של היהודים שהתנגדו לא היו חיילים מאומנים, כמעט בלי נשק ומידע מועט מאוד, ולא היה להם מושג מה שהם עושים, ובכל זאת, מה שהם הישיגו היה מדהים, אם אתה חושב על החבלה שבצעו ועל דברים אחרים, מכל הבחינות, ולא רק במונחים צבאיים.

    Not all Jews went "as sheep to slaughter," as they engaged in uprisings and breakouts at camps, death pits and mass murder sites, as well as attacks on the German military. Rabbi dr. Bernhard Rosenberg

  5. No on knows the Unknowable. That alone should end the discussion. But Reformed movement is as (if not more) repulsive then the argument decried in the article.

  6. The holocaust was the act of humans residing on this planet as to god I’ll ask him once he agrees to see me….

  7. The holocaust was the act of humans residing on this planet as to god I’ll ask him once he agrees to see me….

  8. Nmcva Mata says:

    This is the answer: '' http://geulamessages.blogspot.co.il/2013/05/message-for-week-of-parshat-behar.html '', x-tians and others, please do not respond to my message, this is a Jewish press.

  9. Anybody looking for a more cogent, less demagogic approach to.
    the subject is invited to hear Rabbi Dr. David Gottleib's take at the.
    following link:

    http://www.simpletoremember.com/media/a/explainingtheholocaust/

    Rabbi Gottleib took his PhD. at Brandeis University and was.
    Professor of Philosophy and Logic at Johns Hopkins University.
    Since 1982 he has been Senior Lecturer at Ohr Sameach Yeshiva.
    in Jerusalem.

  10. it is such sadness that you have such difficulty reading the Torah. HaShem promised that if we follow His ways there would be blessings and if we didn't there would be chastisement. all we need to read is Lev 26 & Deut. 28. How hard is that to do. If we believe that TORAH is true then we see that it was He that allowed hell to happen because we did not follow. One need only to read the account of Avraham speaking with HaShem about Sodom and its destruction. Avraham asked if there were ten in the city and HaShem said no He would not destroy it. Only 6 were found to be righteous. Now we look at the judgment of the Hebrews in Germany. Is not HaShem in charge of all things. the answer is yes. He is in charge of all the blessings He gives to us and the punishment like walking in the desert 40 years. so was the Holocaust a judgment YES. Now turn back to Torah and follow His ways so it does nt have to happen again. and yes both sides of my family were in 3 of the camps.

  11. Anybody looking for a more cogent approach to the subject is invited to hear Rabbi Dr. David Gottleib's take at the following link: http://www.simpletoremember.com/media/a/explainingtheholocaust/.
    Rabbi Gottleib took his PhD. at Brandeis University and was Professor of Philosophy and Logic at Johns Hopkins University. Since 1982 he has been Senior Lecturer at Ohr Sameach Yeshiva in Jerusalem.

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