Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik: Suffering and the Holocaust


As many are aware I often write about the holocaust. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement contains in the liturgy a section dealing with suffering. I was one of the chaplains helping those who lost love ones during   9/11 ten years ago. In viewing the interviews of those who lost love ones and friends, I notice the same passion for remembering and never forgetting as I have for the holocaust.  Some say that I repeat the holocaust message and complain that I should be silenced. My question is quite simple, should those who ever loose love ones ever be silenced or should their suffering be heard.?

Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Rav served as guide, mentor and advisor, as well as role-model for generations of Jews.  He is regarded as a major influential figure by Modern Orthodox Judaism.  Over the course of almost half a century he ordained almost two thousand Rabbis. He stressed a synthesis between Torah scholarship and Western secular scholarship. He was a descendant of the Lithuanian Jewish Soloveitchik rabbinic dynasty.

He served as an advisor, guide, mentor, and role-model for tens of thousands of Jews, both as a Talmudic scholar and as a religious leader. He is regarded as a seminal figure by Modern Orthodox Judaism. Joseph B. Soloveitchik was born into a family recognized for its Torah learning. His grandfather and father, emphasized a thorough analysis of Talmud, and it is using this method that Rav Soloveitchik studied and taught his own students at Yeshiva University where he served as Rosh HaYeshiva. He was awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Berlin.

In all faiths, cultures, and communities, the question of evil plays a prominent role in that specific group’s philosophies. What is evil, and how does one comprehend it in our lives? In Judaism, the question of evil and suffering is expressed in the following statement “Tzadik ve ra lo- A righteous person, and bad to him, rasha vetov lo- a wicked person, and good to him.”  The question is why do righteous people suffer and experience hardship, while others who are “wicked “do not experience pain and suffering?

After the Shoah, the Holocaust, one would have expected the Rav to analyze and lecture on this unique tragedy and period of Jewish suffering. Although the Rav  refers to the Shoah he does not provide his students with a comprehensive explanation of this horrific period.   To explain the Rav’s understanding of the evil of the Holocaust one must read the Rav’s views on evil and suffering in Jewish history, and extrapolate from these writings, lessons for the Holocaust.

In his most extensive work on suffering, “Kol Dodi Dofek:It is the Voice of my Beloved that  Knocketh,”( Theological And Halakhic Reflections On The Holocaust, edited by Bernhard H. Rosenberg, Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1992),  the Rav says that one can not comprehend the nature of evil, because individuals do not have the full understanding of the world. He provides an example of one who cannot see the full beauty of an ornate rug, because he is viewing it from the wrong side. He unequivocally affirms that evil, does exist. Any effort to romanticize evil, is not intellectually honest.

 The Rav writes:

“Judaism, with its realistic approach to man and his place in the world, understood that evil could not be blurred or camouflaged, and that any attempt to downplay the extent of the contradiction, and fragmentation to be found in reality will neither endow man with tranquility, nor enable him to grasp the existential mystery. ..Whoever wishes to delude himself by diverting his attention from the deep fissure in reality, by romanticizing human existence, is naught but a fool  and a fantast.“ (page 53)

“When the impulse of intellectual curiosity seizes hold of a person, he ought to do naught but find strength and encouragement in his faith in the Creator, vindicate G-d’s  judgment , and acknowledge the perfection of his work.” (page 63).  People have an obligation to recognize that evil exists, but understanding its essence, is beyond human intellectual capacity.

How can one  struggle with the question of suffering?  The Rav elaborates further on the idea of evil in his work Fate And Destiny From Holocaust to the State of Israel.  (Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Introduction by Rabbi Walter Wurzburger, Ktav Publishing, 2000). The Rav states that the distinction between the two is where the answer to suffering lies. Rabbi Dr. Walter S. Wurzberger, a prominent disciple of the Rav, writes, “The Rav employs this distinction in discussing the problem of evil.  He maintains that it is senseless to raise the metaphysical question of why there is evil in the world.  The human mind is simply not equipped to tackle this problem.  To engage in theodicy is an exercise in futility.  Instead of looking for an explanation of our fate—for example, why a particular evil has struck us—we should ask ourselves how we can respond to evil in a manner that will enable us to emerge from this experience as better moral and spiritual beings.” (page VII)

Fate, the Rav says, is an existence of compulsion –‘Against your will you will live out your life’.(Avot 4:29, page 52,Kol Dodi Dofek, Theological and Halakhic Reflections on the Holocaust).  The man (or woman) of fate has no free will, nor ability to choose his own life’s path. Things happen to this person, without his involvement. The fated existence is passive, and arbitrary. 

Destiny, however, is a different form of existence. The Rav characterizes it as “Against your will you are born and against your will you will die, but you live of your own free will.”  (page 54, Kol Dodi Dofek, Theological and Halakhic Reflections on the Holocaust) .An existence of destiny is a life of choice, innovation, strength, and action; one engages with his surroundings.

The Jewish approach, says the Rav, is to transition from a fated life, to a destined life.  (page 54 Kol Dodi Dofek, Theological and Halakhic Reflections of the Holocaust). In our “fated lives”, evil happens to us. We suffer, and we have no control. In a life of destiny we do not focus on the tragedy that befalls us. “What must the sufferer do, so that he may live through his suffering?” is the Jewish legal question the man of destiny asks. “What obligation does suffering impose upon man?”  “We do not inquire about the hidden ways of the Almighty, but rather about the path wherein man shall talk when suffering strikes,” says the Rav. This reaction to suffering and evil is extremely unique. It seems that the Rav is suggesting that people have an obligation, when bad things happen to them to use their suffering in a productive manner.  The Rav tells us ,”We do not inquire about the hidden ways of the Almighty but, rather, about the path wherein man shall walk when suffering strikes.  We ask neither about the cause of evil nor about its purpose but rather about how it might be mended and elevated.  How shall a person act in a time of trouble?  What ought a man to do so that he not perish in his afflictions? The Halakhic answer to this question is very simple. Afflictions come to elevate a person, to purify and sanctify his spirit, to cleanse and purge it of the dross of superficiality and vulgarity, to refine his soul and to broaden his horizons.  In a word, the function of suffering is to mend that which is flawed in an individual’s personality. The Halakha teaches us that the sufferer commits a grave sin if he allows his troubles to go to waste and remain without meaning or purpose.” (page 56 Kol Dodi Dofek). The Rav therefore maintains that it is a uniquely lonely experience to be a man of religious faith.  The individual who suffers and keeps his religious faith has the obligation to respond in a positive fashion to repair the world.

 In the Story of Job, this is the answer that G-d responds to Job, a righteous individual who has suffered tremendously. In the Biblical narrative, Job struggles, trying to understand why all terrible things happen to him. Eventually, G-d comes to him and informs him how to productively use his suffering.  

In Days of Deliverance,(Days of Deliverance : Essays on Purim and Hanukkah,by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, edited by Eli D. Clark, Joel B. Wolowelsky and Reuven Ziegler, Ktav Publishing House Inc. 2007) the Rav states, “We have lost many; not too long ago we lost six million Jews, one third of our population. But, on the whole, we have emerged victorious. We still maintain our identity; we are still committed to the same goals to which our ancestors were committed millennia ago…” ( page 188) He references the suffering (the Holocaust) by mentioning the six million that perished.  By commenting on the strength of Jewish identity and the fortitude of the Jewish nation, the Rav implies that the fate of the Jewish people and its destiny are linked to the lessons learned during the Holocaust.

In the publication, The Rav, The World of Rabbi B. Soloveitchik, Volume 2, by Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff, (Ktav Publishing House, Inc., 1999) the Rav maintains that Anti Semitism was at the core of the Nazi agenda, and that those who say that Hitler was more interested in other pursuits are foolish. ( Page 108) He goes on to say that Hitler taught the world how to destroy and dispose of all  the Jews but was not successful. ( Page 133) The Rav is emphasizing the revitalization of the Jewish people in the aftermath of the Holocaust- the destiny aspect of life, rather than the fate. The Rav discusses anti-Semitism during the time of Egyptian slavery. As in the Shoah, the goal was to oppress the Jew and discredit him in the eyes of the world.

During the historical period of the Maccabees and the rule of Hellenism, the Hebrew word “kesheamdah” which means, “that rose up”, appears. This specific word in Hebrew connotes deciding an action, and then following through. The Rav compares this Hellenistic time period with the Holocaust. Hitler wanted to destroy the Jewish people, and then did his best to eradicate each and every Jew.

The Rav writes, “ During the terrible Holocaust when European Jewry was being systematically exterminated in the ovens and crematoria, the American Jewish community did not rise to the challenge, did not act as Jews possessing a properly developed consciousness of our shared fate and shared suffering as well as the obligation of shared action that follows therefrom, ought to have acted.  We did not sufficiently empathize with the anguish of the people and did very little to save our afflicted brethren.” (page 97 Kol Dodi Dofek)

The opinions expressed in this essay are based upon my personal understanding of what has been written regarding the Rav’s statements.  I do not maintain that these are the exact sentiments of the Rav, but I have attempted to explain his position regarding the Holocaust as I understand them. As a child of Holocaust survivors, of blessed memory, and as one whose Smicha, ordination, is signed by the Rav, I have always wanted to explore how the Rav theologically regarded the Holocaust. I entered the rabbinate because of the Holocaust. Hineni, is the expression we all should use. We should be here to make a difference in the world.  Never again should we allow the world to stand idly by while innocent human beings suffer torture, starvation and death. Never again should anyone be an innocent bystander. I fear the world has not learned this lesson. Will they ever?


About Bernhard Rosenberg

Rabbi Dr. Bernhard H. Rosenberg, is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth-El, Edison, New Jersey. He received his ordination and Doctorate of Education from Yeshiva University in New York. He also possesses A.A., B.A., M.A., and M.S. degrees in communication and education. He possesses a Doctor of Divinity from The Jewish Theological Seminary, New York. He teaches at Rutgers University in New Jersey and Yeshiva University in New York. Rabbi Rosenberg’s book, “Theological and Halachic Reflections on the Holocaust” is now in its second printing. He is the author of “A Guide for the Jewish Mourner”, “Contemplating the Holocaust”, “What the Holocaust Means to Me: Teenagers Speak Out” and “Thoughts on the Holocaust-Where Was God Where Was Man–Teenagers Reflect on Major Themes of the Holocaust and “The Holocaust as seen Through Film”. His newest book is “Public Speaking – A Guide for Study”. He recently received the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr Humanitarian Award. He also received the Chaplain of the Year Award from The New York Board of Rabbis for his efforts during and following 9-ll. On June 10, 2002 Rabbi Rosenberg was presented with the annual Rabbi Israel Mowshowitz Award by The New York Board of Rabbis. Rabbi Rosenberg appears frequently on radio and TV and has published hundreds of articles regarding the Holocaust. HE IS CHAIRMAN OF THE HOLOCAUST COMMISSION OF THE NEW YORK BOARD OF RABBIS AND SERVED AS ASSOCIATE EDITOR FOR THE NEW JERSEY STATE HOLOCAUST MANDATED CURRICULUM. HE IS ALSO PUBLISHING THE ROSENBERG HOLOCAUST SIDDUR. My lecture topics include; 1. “Why did the Holocaust Happen-Can it Occur Again?” 2. “Teaching the Holocaust to Teenagers” 3. “Anti-semitism and the Holocaust” 4. “What did the World know and when did they know it.” 5. “One Cannot Not Communicate” ( Please note I teach Public Speaking at Rutgers University.} 6. “The Holocaust as Seen Through Film” Full day seminar He can be reached at Phone: 732-572-2766 Cell: 908-510-2300 Fax: 732-572-4674 E-Mail chaimdov@aol.com
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