Sermons, essays, articles, arguments and thought pieces from a Liberal Jewish perspective.
“O God, Source of the breath of all flesh! When one man sins, will You be wrathful with the whole community?”
These words from our Torah portion, uttered by Moses and Aaron as they fell on their faces, express a central tenet of Judaism – that God must act justly. Faced with God’s threat to annihilate the whole community because of the sins of Korach and his followers, Moses and Aaron protest, demanding that those who were innocent of sin would be spared. And God, despite causing Korach and the ringleaders to be swallowed by the ground as well as killing the 250 men who had followed them with heavenly fire, God does indeed heed to Moses and Aaron’s plea sparing the rest of the community.
While the story of Korach raises many questions, at least there seems to be no problem here with God acting unjust or excessive, killing the innocent along with the guilty.
I am sure most of us agree that the idea of a just God is an incredibly attractive notion. If we are to believe in a divine being who is all powerful, we hope that the divine is also good and acts justly.
At the same time, these theological notions present us with enormous problems. If God is indeed just and all powerful, how do we explain that bad things happen to good people – be it personal tragedies, such as ill health, or communal tragedies, such as the Holocaust.
Richard L. Rubenstein, who just died at the age of 97, was the first Jewish theologian to systematically confront the problem of evil after the Holocaust. The title of his book published in 1966, “After Auschwitz”, had the effect of riveting readers’ attention on the Holocaust. In the opening chapter of the book, Rubenstein describes a meeting in 1961 at the Berlin Wall with Heinrich Grüber, a theologian and dean of a Protestant church in East Berlin. Dean Grüber was widely known for having saved Christian children of Jewish descent by negotiating with the Nazi authorities at his own peril; for his strong statements maintaining that the German people were collectively guilty for the Holocaust; and for his testimony in Jerusalem at the war-crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann. The conversation pushed Rubenstein to a theological point of no return, when he heard Dean Grüber say, “It must be that it was God’s will that Hitler did what he did.”
This conclusion seemed obscene to Rubenstein but he acknowledged – and I quote: “Traditional Jewish theology maintains that God is the ultimate, omnipotent actor in the historical drama. It has interpreted every major catastrophe in Jewish history as God’s punishment of a sinful Israel. I fail to see how this position can be maintained without regarding Hitler and the SS as instruments of God’s will.” – end quote – Faced with this realization, Rubenstein asks, “How can Jews believe in an omnipotent, beneficent God after Auschwitz?” and proclaims in response “the death of God.”
While he found fame among the half dozen theologians cited in a now-classic cover story in Time magazine from April 1966 that was trumpeted with bold red letters on a black background asking, “Is God Dead?,” Rubenstein’s book infuriated many Jewish thinkers and led to a flurry of vitriolic personal attacks. One critic even branded him an “accomplice of Hitler.”
His theological challenge to established Jewish thought was perceived as transgressive as Korach’s challenge to Moses and Aaron: “The whole community is holy — all of them! Why do you, Moses and Aaron, raise yourselves above them?”
While Rubenstein was not literally swallowed up by the earth or burned in heavenly fire, as was the fate for Korach and his followers, in many respects, he was banished from the Jewish community – despite being an ordained Rabbi, following the publication of “After Auschwitz,” he never served a congregation again but instead spent his career in academia.
It was only in the last twenty years or so that Rubenstein was somewhat rehabilitated to give him the credit he deserved for initiating the debate of the theological questions raised by the Holocaust, which engaged such Jewish theologians as Emil Fackenheim, Eliezer Berkovits and Arthur Green and writers like Elie Wiesel.
As the scholar Zachary Braiterman notes in his book on Rubenstein, the hostility toward Rubenstein was with but few exceptions marked by mischaracterisations of his work. Much like the hostile response that Hannah Arendt received when she declared the “banality of evil”, Rubenstein was judged for the rhetorical slogan that he utilised.
While he declared the death of the God of traditional beliefs, Rubenstein never renounced a belief in God, publishing numerous articles throughout his career on “God after the Death of God” as well as maintaining a personal religious observance, attending synagogue every Sabbath.
I remember encountering Rubenstein’s work for the first time as a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College and thinking that I could not quite see what was so offensive about postulating a view of God as “the Lord of all creation” who left human beings to make their own moral choices. While it does not reflect my personally theology, I recognised this belief as one held by a significant number of Liberal Jews. I certainly appreciated the importance of theologically challenging Rubenstein’s suggestion that God is dead but it also seemed to me important that his voice be heard rather than vilified.
And so, it is rather auspicious that the news of Rubenstein’s death was shared in the New York Times and Washington Post in the week of Parashat Korach. Like Korach, Rubenstein challenged a fundamental tenet of belief regarded at the time as beyond the pale. In neither case, were their contemporaries able to hear the theological challenges presented with the generosity that the rabbis of the Tosefta (Sota 7:12) demand when they suggest: Make yourself a heart of many rooms, and enter into it the words of Beit Shammai and the words of Beit Hillel, the words of those who declare a matter impure, and those who declare it pure.
We live in an age of deep division enflamed by social media, where we are constantly asked to take sides and vilify those with whom we disagree. And yet, as we reflect on Richard L. Rubenstein’s work and its reception, may we be reminded of the importance of listening not just to those voices with whom we agree but also to those voices that challenge us. May we rise to the challenge to make ourselves a heart of many rooms.