Wednesday, 1 May 2019

The Female Face of God in Auschwitz - A Yom HaShoah Address


In the run up to Yom Hashoah I look over my bookshelf and search desperately for something to help me have a relationship with this awful event in human history.

I’ve some great writers to turn to; the Warsaw Ghetto Rebbe, Reb Kalonymous Shapiro Epstein, who offered comfort to those in the Ghetto. I look across the great work of the survivors; Primo Levi, Eli Weisel, Viktor Frankl. There are the brave thinkers who have wrestled with the awfulness of even having, themselves been spared the worst of the horrors , personally - Emil Fackenheim – who was ‘merely’ – and I use the word advisedly – held for three months concentration in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, Emanuel Levinas, ‘merely’ held, despite his Jewish status as a Prisoner of War imprisoned by the Nazis from 1940-45.

And then I look at those whose bravery in engagement with this issue owes nothing to their personal narrative – Yitz Greenberg, Richard Rubenstein, and the list continues.Those of you who have heard me speak on the previous anniversaries of this sacred and awful day will know how much these writers and thinkers have inspired influenced provoked and even at times comforted me.

But the thing that struck me, this year, was that all these thinkers, brave as they are – they are all men. I know, of course, I know of brilliant women who have written memoirs, spoken of their experiences, inspired and educated – and I salute them all – and particularly Hannah Lewis, who is here today. I know, of course of brilliant women historians, Lucy Davidowocz and Deborah Lipstadt among them who have documented with care and skill the horrors that took place. But when I look for a religious response to the Holocaust – and I’m a Rabbi and we are all at a Synagogue – I had to ask around for help.

And from a number of sources I was recommended to a book, a writer, and an approach to the Holocaust that I have found hugely powerful and inspiring, even on this dark day. With your permission, I would like to share it with you.

Dr Melissa Raphael teaches at the University of Gloucester and her most important work on the Holocaust, The Female Face of God in Auschwitz, was shortlisted for the Koret Jewish Book Awards. Raphael suggests that most of the time we - by which she means the male Jewish theologians who engage with the Holocaust – ask the wrong question. We ask the question, ‘where was God in the Holocaust.’ And what we should be asking is ‘Who was God in the Holocaust.’

The answers to the first question – the male question – where was God are fundamentally bleak. For Buber, God was in eclipse. For Weisel, God was hanging on the scaffold. For Rubenstein, God is dead. For untold numbers of those who survived or those who have come after the Holocaust asking the first question, where was God, results in a denial of any kind of God at all. If this could happen, so many of us have responded, then there is no God. There is no judge, there is no justice.
But Raphael’s point is that those bleak answers to that bleak question are predicated on the wrong notion of what God might be, they are predicated on a male notion of God that was the wrong notion to have in the first place.

Raphael goes about her investigation of God in Auschwitz very, it seems, inspired by Fackenheim’s work, To Mend the World. She starts by collecting stories, by collecting truths, she’s not interested in looking away, downplaying or belittling the awfulness of what happened in Auschwitz. But when she looks at the behaviour, in particular, or the women in that place of darkness and horror, she sees something remarkable. She sees acts of love.
In a review essay on Raphael’s work the Christian theologian, Christopher Pramuk records the following;

Raphael tells the story of a woman who, torn from her husband and children by SS guards immediately after arriving at the camp, falls weeping on the frozen ground “with the flaming crematoria before her,” when she suddenly feels two hands lay a garment around her shoulders. An old Frenchwoman had stepped forward, wrapping her in her own cloak, whispering [words of comfort] She recalls another now-iconic story of an old woman who is remembered “for holding in her arms a motherless 1-year-old child as she stood at the edge of the communal pit, about to be shot with the rest of her village by Nazi troops. The old woman sang to the child and tickled him under the chin until he laughed with joy. Then they were shot.”[1]


For Raphael these, and there are countless other, tales of tiny acts of kindness and comfort in the midst of awful tragedy, acts performed by men as well as women, non-Jews as well as Jews and even, it should be admitted, Germans as well. For Raphael there is something godly in these acts, and the god they define is a god of kindness, and bravery in the face of great contrary powers of chaos and cruelty. God is defined relationally – in relation to human beings. God is not some aloof distant deity lurking all mighty behind an eclipsing shadow, but rather found and experienced in the most tiny of acts. God arises and is shaped by us, relationally.

It’s an important and fascinating way of reframing the entire theological endeavour. No longer are we to start with the classic propositions of a masculine-framed theology; God is the first cause, the unmoved mover and so on. But rather God is a dwelling of mercy and kindness in a fractured shattered world. God is created as women, and men, make themselves visible to one another as human beings –Levinas is a major influence. If one of the goals of the Nazi oppressors was to dehumanise Jews, strip us of our names, our clothes, our bodies, our lives even – we were to be turned into a factory output; instead Raphael recounts and records the acts of visibility of humans acting humanely.

Here is Raphael expressing this idea in her own words;

God could hardly find her way through the darkness—but the darkness was not her disappearance. However momentarily, the spark generated between the seeing and seen face was analogous to a Sabbath candle inviting God’s presence—Shekhinah—into Auschwitz. Even the most infinitesimal spark of light was enough to illuminate—if only momentarily—the grey face of the other and so refract God into the toppling world.[2]

As she says, ‘God, in Auschwitz, was knowable in the moment of being seen in the face of the seen other.’[3]

One of the most remarkable stories Raphael uses to make her case is a war-time diary, by the Dutch woman Etty Hillesum who was murdered in Auschwitz at the age of 29. Like Anne Frank her writings survived, but she is that much older, and her voice deserves to be heard far more than is the case.

Two weeks before her arrest and deportation, Hillesum wrote the following,

Sunday morning prayer. “Dear God, these are anxious times. Tonight for the first time I lay in the dark with burning eyes as scene after scene of human suffering passed before me. I shall promise You one thing, God, just one very small thing: I shall never burden my today with cares about my tomorrow, although that takes some practice. Each day is sufficient unto itself. I shall try to help You, God, to stop my strength ebbing away, though I cannot vouch for it in advance. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. . . . You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last.”

Let me do that last sentence again, ‘You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last.’

Raphael isn’t interested in the classic games of theodicy – justifying God’s omnipotence and beneficence. Like Rubenstein and Fackenheim, she thinks there is simply no point in such male pursuits. Rather she wants us to think of a God that only exists as we help God. We become partners. Abraham Joshua Heschel, who considered himself a brand that escaped the fire of the Holocaust when he escaped Nazi Germany to come, first to London then New York, spoke of God in Search of Man. Raphael articulates a God who is formed by the response of Woman – and man.

For Raphael, the God to whom Hillesum prays “is a God who does not rescue the lives of the victims, but one who sustains the sufferers in their struggle to maintain, as long as possible, a life of dignity and self-respect.”[4]

Hilllesum’s last known writings were scribbled on a postcard thrown from the train the delivered her from some other staging post to Auschwitz. ‘We left the camp singing’ she wrote. She wasn’t stupid. She knew. But she still sung. Adorno – another man – who said that could be no more poetry after Auschwitz is proved wrong by a poet who sung her way into Auschwitz.

As Raphael puts it;

Even more than her diary, this textual fragment that is delivered to us over on the “safe” other side of the Holocaust is the means by which Hillesum sends the ineradicable humanity of that “we” back to us. As the Torah does for God, Hillesum’s text—her inked words on paper—establish both her eternal presence and, as a surrogate for presence, her absence. Essentially, if not materially, her presence, like her postcard, will forever flutter toward us like a butterfly on the fresh breeze of a Dutch field in early autumn somewhere near Westerbork. And it is when the theologian kneels in the grass to retrieve that card that history and theology begin to unite—a process already underway in Hillesum’s own writing.

It’s not over. The Holocaust was awful. We stand today mourning. But God isn’t gone. I’m not sure I believe in the God that could ever be gone. Rather, God is there is the acts of kindness done by one human to another, in the face of the evil. God is formed by our witnessing that human beings are creatures of decency and kindness. The power of evil is overwhelmed when we stand and celebrate such acts, even through our tears.

Shlomo Carlebach tells a story of meeting a road sweeper on the streets of Tel Aviv with the tattoo of a camp survivor on his arm. He pleads with the man to tell him where he came from before the horrors of the Holocaust, and the man admits to having studied with the man who became the Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto - the Piasescna Rebbe, the Rabbi I first spoke of at the beginning of this talk. What did he tell you? Carlebach wants to know, what was Torah . Simply this, the man replies,’ The most important thing is to do something kind for another human being.’ Even there. Even today. And in this way we not only make the world kinder, but we also make the world a little more godly.



[1] file:///C:/Users/rjere/Downloads/10144-Article%20Text-17897-1-10-20170905%20(1).pdf. I’m very grateful for Pramuk for his direction in allowing me access to this important work.
[2] P. 61
[3] P. 88
[4] P.117

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