Orthodox Judaism & the Holocaust

Orthodox Jews with their distinct appearance were early targets for the Nazis.
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When Nazis began targeting Jews in pre-war Germany at the outset of the Holocaust, the Orthodox Jews' conspicuous black garb, beards and side locks made them visible targets and they were hit first and hardest. The Holocaust nearly wiped out the European population of Orthodox Jews, and saw their neighborhoods and religious institutions destroyed. For many Jews and people of many other faiths, the Holocaust poses a painful question: how could God let this happen? But for some in the Orthodox community, the question answers itself: The Holocaust was God’s plan and the priority for Jews, they say, is not to question God but to continue on mission that God gave them.

1 The Theological Dilemma of the Holocaust

Rabbi Irving Greenberg (3-L): God ended the covenant with the Jews in the Holocaust.
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Some Jewish thinkers conclude that the Holocaust proves God does not exist, or that God exists but is essentially powerless. Orthodox Judaism can’t go that far. Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits has proposed that God is all-powerful but hides from humanity, allowing humans free will, for good or evil. Modern Orthodox scholar Irving Greenberg believes that the Holocaust was God ripping up the covenant with the Jewish people. But Jews, says Greenberg, choose to renew it anyway.

2 Ultra Orthodox View of the Holocaust as Punishment for Sin

Other Orthodox Jews, especially among the so-called Ultra-Orthodox, take a darker view. They say that the Holocaust was God’s punishment for sins of the Jewish people. The extreme Neturei Karta sect takes the position that it is not the place of Jews to seek justice against the Nazi perpetrators. Instead, Jews must seek to rectify the sin that enraged God in the first place and resulted in the Holocaust. For the extremists, that sin is the creation of the state of Israel, which they say should never happen before the Messiah comes.

3 The Belief That Jews Should Remain Separate

Still other Orthodox thinking identifies the sin as Jewish assimilation into non-Jewish society. The Reform and Conservative movements, they say, repudiated God’s covenant with the Jews. In this Orthodox world view, humanity is split into two irreconcilable factions, the Jewish people and everyone else. Attempts to adapt Judaism to the non-Jewish world -- such as Reform Judaism for example -- were doomed. The result was the Holocaust, which serve as proof to the Orthodox Jews who hold this view that Jews must alienate themselves from the rest of the world.

4 Keeping the Faith as Victory Over Evil

Despite these harsh assessments of self-blame, many Orthodox Jews are less interested in figuring out why the Holocaust happened than they are in surviving and keeping their religion alive. Though their people were murdered and their spiritual institutions leveled, they not only lived, but kept their faith. They say that true heroism was not fighting back against the Nazis, because the Holocaust was the will of God. The real heroes, they say, are the Jews whose religious devotion never wavered no matter how bad the atrocities became. In the words of Orthodox Rabbi Benjamin Kovalsky, “we deliver a slap to Hitler with the very fact that we are here."

Jonathan Vankin is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He has written for such publications as "The New York Times Magazine," "Wired" and Salon, covering technology, arts, sports, music and politics. Vankin is also the author of three nonfiction books and several graphic novels.