Was the Holocaust Punishment for Sin?

May 21, 2013 2:27 am 9 comments

The death train from Iaşi. Photo: Unknown Journalist.

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 G-d. 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 Chassidim 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.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whom Newsweek and The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 29 books, and will shortly publish “The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging G-d in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” His website is www.shmuley.com. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

Was the Holocaust Punishment for Sin?

By Rabbi Shmuley Boteach
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 G-d. 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 Chassidim 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.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whom Newsweek and The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 29 books, and will shortly publish “The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging G-d in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” His website is www.shmuley.com. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

Was the Holocaust Punishment for Sin?

By Rabbi Shmuley Boteach  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 G-d. 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 Chassidim 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.  Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, whom Newsweek and The Washington Post calls “the most famous Rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 29 books, and will shortly publish “The Fed-up Man of Faith: Challenging G-d in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” His website is www.shmuley.com. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.

9 Comments

  • The real question is why would you Shmuley Boteach bring this to mind to a people that truthfully don’t care and really want to know why and understand that reciprocity is a part of nature. In the most simplist terms of the Tanakh Genesis 15;14 “And that Nation That They Serve I will Punish/Judge”, there are no people on the face of this earth that have served another than you know who, there are no people on this planet that have benefited from another peoples labor than you know who, directly or indirectly. Lesson learned would be more befiting and gratitude in a people that have had so much. German Jews were the richest people on both continents, the U.S. and Europe from the days of the Founding Fathers of America. In the 17th Cent. American Jews are congrajulating George Washington 1rst. U.S. president of British Germanian stock as were the Dutch, Mormons, Amish, Mennonites, Quakers, Puritans, any I left out,,,, all this before a Hitler was even conceived. Most of us should always asked and wonder why “bad things happen to good people” and Genesis 15:14 helps,,,, a lot.

  • Robert Lipschitz

    We as Jews believe we (with God) are the masters of our own fate and destiny. What happens to us as a people is – at its very root – our doing. Yes, we take responsibility. Yes, the Nazis were evil and will be punishment. But the Nazis did not determine our fate – God forbid. We did. God did. This is the fire that is missing from the sentiment in this article.

    R B’s point is that we don’t know the Holocaust was an instance of the above – execution of a curse for turning away from God – because that is unconscionable: how could we then love God?

    The notion that G-d would treat His nation harshly is explicit in His Torah. The “curses” G-d says will be inflicted upon Israel if they turn away from him are extremely harsh and humbling. And our Torah sources are full of instances where He meted out this punishment. So whether the Holocaust is an instance of this, or not, R B still has to confront that this is how God sometimes – may we never see it again – does Act.

    God DID allow the Holocaust to happen. That IS the position of any Rabbi. R B says it was not because of a punishment. That seems like not being able to confront the hard facts. If THAT (the holocaust) was not punishment – which is God turning his face from Israel and letting our enemies destroy us – I dont know what is.

    Yes, we dont know the reason. And yes, we should tell God – I dont understand. We should scream out: How could you do this?

    There are basically two authentic Torah views. The first is that everything that happens in the world is for a purpose and is ultimately just. Therefore, while we dont understand the Holocaust, in the ultimate future we will see that all suffering was for the ultimate of goals. Yes, all suffering.

    Another view is that, in the next world, God settles the scores – and while an act may have been unjust (caused by a man) in the future, all will be in perfect justice and recompense.

    Put simply, while people struggle to understand that Holocaust, and while the Holocaust may mount a personal challenge for a Jew’s relationship with God, it does not amount to an inch of a theological challenge. It is intellectually easy to explain it within what is written explicitly in the Torah and in light of the above two Torah views. Intellectually easy, not emotionally easy. But then again, any Jew who reads the harsh curses in the Torah does not get up from the reading having had an emotionally easy time.

    Please God we should all know no more suffering.

  • V. Ben Hazaqen

    Those “are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked” (Kohelet 8:14). I.e. Rabbi Akiva son of Yosef the ger tzedek was too a descendant of converts and had the soul of a gentile. Those of pure Jewish blood, like Rashby, managed to escape.

  • God wanted his people. He is building his army. Only the good die young. Including my baby brother. I would rather be in heaven than on this earth. They may have suffered, but now they are in paradise. God is building his army against evil. I have to belive this in order to get through my pain. Or maybe there is no god at all. I hope they are at peace.

  • V. Ben Hazaqen

    Also the Jewish souls of Chassidim and the ultra-religious (but also Moroccan Jews etc.) were saved. The only difference is that among them was a majority of converts and descendants of converts with non Jewish souls, whose non-Jewish blood was spilled…
    The majority of Jewish souls managed to escape, not only the majority of German Jews!

  • Also the Jewish souls of Chassidim and the ultra-religious (but also Moroccan Jews etc.) were saved. The only difference is that among them was a majority of converts and descendants of converts, whose non-Jewish blood was spilled. The majority of Jewish souls managed to escape, not only the majority of German Jews!

  • 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

  • Considering the concept of sin as a an action against God’s laws, or a crime against God is a man-made concept, no the holocaust was the culmination of a campaign by Hitler to eradicate the Jews and other “undesirables” in Germany and, eventually the world. It was based on ethnic hatred born from Catholicism.

  • Nadene van Staden

    Dear Mr.Shumley,I enjoyed your article on the holocaust.I have been a scholar of both old and new testament for 40yrs and have followed the progress of the jews and their land.My understanding of the sriptures is that we all sin and fallshort of the glory of God.At the time of the Roman occupation of Jerusalem many christians suffered the most horrific deaths for their faith.
    There will come a time of peace and security for Israel and all mankind there is a saying from the Old Testament that God made man upright but man follows many evil devices.I do believe and am sad at the same time that Israel is in for a very tough time but God will intervene and destroy all the nations that come up against Israel.
    I pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

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  • Education Israel First Ever: Turkish Academics to Visit Israel Holocaust Museum for Seminar

    First Ever: Turkish Academics to Visit Israel Holocaust Museum for Seminar

    Some 15 Turkish university professors and lecturers will take part in a first of its kind seminar at Holocaust museum Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies starting next week. The trip is especially significant as Holocaust denial is rampant in the Arab world. A Palestinian professor was recently forced to resign after he led a trip to the Nazi extermination camp Auschwitz. Participants in the week-long program at Yad Vashem will experience in-depth tours of the museum’s archives and [...]

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