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A 4 pages term paper on Reaction to Richard Rubenstein’s ‘After Auschwitz’

     Rubenstein writings have framed post-Holocaust religious discourse, defining its left wing, its right wing, and its center. Assuming that religious reflection intersects with reading. Rubenstein began to rework received notions about God and covenant by rereading traditional Jewish texts. In the process (and despite fierce disagreements among themselves), he articulated a uniquely post-Holocaust theological sensibility dominated by what we are about to call antitheodicy. Theodicy is a familiar technical term, coined by the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz to mean "the justification of God." We expand this to include any attempt to justify, explain, or find acceptable meaning to the relationship that subsists between God (or some other form of ultimate reality), evil, and suffering. In contrast, antitheodicy means refusing to justify, explain, or accept that relationship. Although it often borders on blasphemy, antitheodicy does not constitute atheism; it might even express stubborn love that human persons have for God. After all, the author of a genuine antitheodic statement must believe that an actual relationship subsists between God and evil in order to reject it; and they must love God in order to be offended by that relationship.

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     According to Braiterman, Rubenstein was one of the first Jewish theologians to respond to this literature, practically inventing post-Holocaust theology de novo in 1966 with the publication of After Auschwitz. At the time Rubenstein was a campus rabbi at the University of Pittsburgh. The enfant terrible of Jewish theology, Rubenstein would soon suffer what Michael Berenbaum called bureaucratic excommunication for advancing radical conclusions in the wake of catastrophic suffering. With the publication of After Auschwitz, Rubenstein found himself pilloried by the organized Jewish community and unable to find academic work. He eventually took a teaching post at Florida State University in Tallahassee. At present he is president of the University of Bridgeport--an academic institution associated with Rev. Moon's Unification Church. Rubenstein had dared to argue that the Holocaust radically sundered Jews from biblical and rabbinic ideas about God, covenant and election, suffering and redemption found. According to Rubenstein, the "Judeo-Christian" tradition posits belief in an omnipotent and just God, the ultimate author of history. Rubenstein argued that if such a God exists, the Holocaust had to represent divine will. Rejecting that theology, Rubenstein declared "the death of God." He argued that contemporary Jews who honestly confront the Holocaust could no longer orient their lives around cherished beliefs and texts. Instead, he advanced what he called an insightful paganism. In an absurd universe, the suffering person does not represent a figure of guilt and redemption, but a victim of tragic happenstance.

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     In stark contrast, Berkovits denied that the Holocaust posed any unique theological challenge to traditional belief and Jewish texts. Ordained at the modern Orthodox Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Germany, Berkovits taught Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Illinois, before immigrating to Israel. In Faith after the Holocaust (1973) and With God in Hell (1979), Berkovits argued that traditional Judaism retains its integrity after Auschwitz. He criticized Rubenstein for using Christian terms like "the death of God" and for addressing the Holocaust out of historical context. Berkovits was a self-styled champion of tradition, who sought to define and defend the nature of "authentic" Jewish faith. According to Berkovits, Jewish tradition had confronted the problem of evil throughout a long history of exile. At the surface, Berkovits argued that the notions of human freedom and messianic trust remain philosophically and theologically cogent after the Holocaust and Israel's military victory in 1967. In fact, the Berkovits was more complex than this quick sketch suggests. The traditionalism informing Berkovits's thought belied an edge no less With his own rhetoric of rupture and repair, Fackenheim assumed a position roughly betweradical than Richard Rubenstein's.

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     en Rubenstein and Berkovits. Like Berkovits, Fackenheim was born in Germany, where he was ordained (at the liberal Hochshule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums). Fackenheim escaped the war and settled in Toronto where he taught philosophy for many years. He now lives in Jerusalem. Fackenheim became best known for claiming that a 614th mitzvah commands the Jewish people after the Holocaust. In God's Presence in History (1970), he argued that "The Commanding Voice of Auschwitz" commands Jews to remember the Holocaust and survive as Jews without despairing of God, world, or "man." Fackenheim paradoxically asserted that post-Holocaust Jews must mend a radical rupture in Jewish life, belief, and tradition. Culling insights from Bible, midrash, continental philosophy, and contemporary Jewish narrative, he tried to orient post-Holocaust Jewish life and thought around precarious shards of moral good (Braiterman).

     The astonishing examples of Jewish and gentile resistance to the Nazi onslaught, and above all the State of Israel, were said to represent God's uneven presence in the midst of history.

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     Braiterman critically examine the theological positions staked out by Rubenstein, Berkovits, and Fackenheim.  Braiterman argue that post-Holocaust Jewish thought has hinged on unexamined understandings of "tradition," "reading," and "rhetoric." These hermeneutical foci lead directly to postmodern critical theory. Now obviously, Rubenstein, Berkovits, and Fackenheim display neither the same ironic self-consciousness nor sense of play shared by so many of their postmodern contemporaries. Nor (by and large) do postmodern theories show the communal solidarity or ethical urgency that dominate post-Holocaust literature. However, postmodern theories illuminate post-Holocaust thought on at least two counts. First, they provide analytical tools with which to identify and evaluate the play of difference that permeates tradition. Rather than search for uniform messages or meanings (what Martin Buber called Botshaft), postmodern theories allow us to critically assess the deep tensions that rend traditions. Second, postmodernism has come to shape the very same thematic horizon occupied by post-Holocaust Jewish thinkers. Braiterman refer primarily to the work of Emmanuel Levinas, Edmond Jabes, and Edith Wyschogrod. One would also include the writings of Jacques Derrida, Jean-Fran‡ois Lyotard, Maurice Blanchot, and Mark Taylor. Together, they have identified: [1] the unstable field that constitutes historical consciousness, [2] the experience, memory, and threat of catastrophe and rupture in the twentieth century, [3] the impotence of language and reason before this "tremendum," and [4] the potentially reorienting significance of the supplement, the trace, and the fragment. These are the postmodern topoi reflected in this study. Braiterman propose that postmodern and post-Holocaust thinkers inhabit different sectors of style, mood, and sense within the same mental and cultural universe.

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     Postmodern theory also facilitates our own attempts to undo the hegemony of theodicy and "meaning" in the philosophy and sociology of religion. Braiterman showed how catastrophic suffering generates a vast, and heretofore unexplored, cluster of religious problems. He further argued that God does not represent the sole religious figure requiring justification in the face of catastrophe. Religious thinkers must also justify social institutions and textual canons. The Holocaust has threatened the physical community of Israel, its Torah, and the motif of covenant that runs throughout its religious life. In this light, theodicy does not represent the privileged preoccupation in post-Holocaust Jewish thought. Braiterman argued throughout that the reconstruction of Jewish religious life and thought after the Holocaust has depended on rebuilding community and rereading texts--particularly the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic midrash. Justifying God barely enters into the equation.

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     It is not coincidental that post-Holocaust Jewish thinkers make little to no such use of theodicy--explicit or implicit. The collapse of theodicy in their work speaks to vexing questions surrounding the Holocaust's historical and theological uniqueness. Rubenstein argued that the Holocaust represented a unique and radical evil in human history that has ruptured traditional theological categories like theodicy. Against Rubenstein and Fackenheim, other scholars maintain that the Holocaust was only one of many catastrophes in Jewish history; as such, it neither requires nor has generated any unique theological response. Braiterman disagree with both positions. On the one hand, the Holocaust and post-Holocaust thought occur within broader historical and theological contexts. One cannot properly understand the Holocaust outside of the larger context of modern mass death. Nor can one understand contemporary Jewish response to catastrophe without reflecting upon the shape of classical and modern Jewish thought. At the same time, Auschwitz represents a theological point of no return. A uniquely modern catastrophe with uniquely modern implications befell the Jewish people in the twentieth century. In turn, this catastrophe and its memory have profoundly reshaped the given theodic and antitheodic contours of its religious culture.

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"The Holocaust was born and executed in our modern rational society, at the high stage of our civilization and at the peak of cultural achievement, and for this reason it is a problem of that society, civilization and culture."(Cited by Braiterman).   Indeed, catastrophic suffering belongs to the entire twentieth century--a century in which mass murder and mass death marked the convergence of modern organization, modern technology, and human propensities for violence and apathy. The Holocaust, two world wars, the Armenian genocide, the Stalinist gulag, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Maoist purges, killing fields in Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda, along with the specters of nuclear apocalypse, global environmental, disaster and the spread of AIDS all combine to haunt the Western imagination. To be sure, this all-too-familiar litany has already become rote, piously intoned, then easily ignored. But these names still work to different effect on those who take the time to linger over them. The litany retains its power to undermine the value of the human person, the meaning of history and modernity, and the significance of human cultural practice and social organization (along with belief in God). The endemic suffering that has riddled the entire twentieth century confronts theologians, philosophers, artists, novelists, and poets with the dilemma of orienting human life and thought around the experience and memory of profound negativity and broken cultural traditions (Braiterman).

     Judaism was made to accord with modern intellectual and cultural trends while calling the hegemony of Enlightenment reason into question. The Holocaust, however, has exacerbated extant questions about God, Torah, Israel, mitzvah, and covenant by placing them before the historical presence of monumental horror. By the end of the twentieth century, European history has undermined modern Jewish life and thought more thoroughly than did nineteenth century German Geistesgeschichte.

     Modern Jewish religious thinkers like Buber, Heschel, Soloveitchik, and Kaplan made only haphazard and oblique reference to the Holocaust immediately after the war. Some scholars and critics have suggested that they suffered from a state of psychological shock--like mourners and terminally ill patients who undergo a transitional period of denial and disbelief. In this view a prolonged psychic distress rendered modern Jewish theologians mute (Braiterman).

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     Despair, anxiety, and disillusionment had already begun to mark the theological literature of the 1950s and early 1960s. In the face of tragedy, Buber, Heschel, Soloveitchik, and Kaplan sought to affirm guardedly optimistic appraisals of God, the ultimate direction of providence, the human person, society, Jewish destiny, and the abiding relevance of traditional texts. They ignored neither tragedy nor the Holocaust. Instead, Auschwitz represented a silent but as yet unnamed presence in their postwar writings (Braiterman).

     Richard Rubenstein and Eliezer Berkovits, juxtapose the horrors of the death camps and the character of Nazi fascism with the traditional problem of evil. The issue here is one of approach and method. How each approach the death camps and Nazi extermination is grounded in who they are and where each stands prior to his confrontation with Auschwitz (The Crisis of).

     The 1963 Eichmann trial, the testimony it generated, and Hannah Arendt's formulation of the "banality of evil" constituted central moments in its formation. The work of Elie Wiesel played a pivotal role, providing Jewish theologians images of hunted, hanging, and burning children, death marches, concentration camp life, the figure of the survivor, a language of witness, and an anti-aesthetic of bitter despair and resistance. Primo Levi left Jewish theologians with the figure of the "Musselmann"--the camp denizen broken by what Jean Amery called the Nazi "logic of destruction." Alexander Donat used the term "Holocaust Kingdom" to designate a specific place in the history of human suffering. The critic Terrence De Pres in his study of Holocaust memoirs suggested the image of "excremental assault." In addition to memoirs and literary representations, the 1960s and 1970s saw the historical studies of Lucy Dawidowicz and Raul Hilberg, and the psychological reflections of Elie Cohen, Viktor Frankl, and Bruno Bettelheim (Braiterman).

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Works Cited

Braiterman, Z.  After Auschwitz:  Tradition and Change in Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought.  Dec.7, 2001

The Crisis of Objectivity. The Problem of Objectivity.  Before and After Auschwitz.  Dec.7, 2001

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