The Theology of the Carrot and the Stick

Step aside Pat Robertson! You are not alone. You have Jewish friends who think just like you do! Rabbi Avi Shafran, no stranger to controversy, blames the Haitian earthquake on Eli Valley’s comic  that appeared in the Forward newspaper.[1] Writing for the Aggudat Israel, America’s premiere Haredi organization, Rabbi Shafran comments about the Japanese earthquake that leveled Tokyo and its suburbs on September 1, 1923. This earthquake killed over 100,000 people. So famous was this disaster, news about its destruction reached even the small Polish town of Radin, home of one the most pious rabbis of his era–Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, better known as the “Hafetz Hayim.” This rabbi was famous for his ethical tracts on the laws of gossip.  Now, according to Rabbi Kagan, this earthquake struck Japan because of the sin of gossip–plain and simple.

Like the saintly rabbi of the past, Shafran goes on to explain that whenever a natural catastrophe like an earthquake destroys human life, God is summoning His people to repent before it is too late. In fact, Shafran stresses that such  “Acts of G-d” always have a spiritual cause–and in this case are directly related to the sin of gossip.

Illustrating his point, Shafran unabashedly writes, “The very week of the recent catastrophe in Haiti, a national Jewish newspaper published a comic strip featuring grotesque depictions of religious Jews and aimed at disparaging Jewish outreach to other Jews. Those are examples of anti- Orthodox invective. But ill will and its expression, tragically, know no communal bounds – in fact, the offensive comic strip seized upon intemperate statements made by Orthodox Jews about others . . . Had we only eyes like the Chofetz Chaim’s, we would discern that hatred and the misuse of the holy power of speech are not small evils. We would understand that they shake the very earth under our feet.”

As we mentioned in previous posts, fundamentalists of several leading faiths often share a similar myopic perspective on how God interacts with the world.  Is it any small wonder why so many Jews across all denominations find it hard to relate to such a vindictive image of God? As mentioned earlier, Judaism teaches us to believe in a God of life and should not be confused with the Greek daemon Θάνατος (Thanatos, the personification of death). The God of retribution may inspire fear, but such an Imago Dei cannot inspire a sense of security and healthy relatedness.

Consider what Michael Shevack and Rabbi Jack Bemporad cleverly and comically dubbed this theological view of God as the “Marquis de God.” Wanted: Dominant deity for submissive person—must be into pain and bondage. Willing to inflict human suffering in pursuit of satisfaction—humiliation technique is a plus. Sense of humor not required. Inquire P.O. Box G.O.D . . .

Get out the whips, the chains, the earthquakes and pestilence. It’s time for some good old-fashioned fun with a good old-fashioned God. Yes, this is the proverbial God of wrath—the Marquis de God—ready to show you how much he cares by punishing you, for the Marquis de God is simply a god who hates. This is a deity who despises sins and sinners with such a passion that he’ll murder in order to exterminate them. He forces his noblest creation to dance like a trained poodle on the brink of annihilation.[2]

In summary, metaphors of God may inspire relatedness and love of God; or they may cripple or even destroy a life of faith by depicting the Creator in cruel and sadistic terms. Indeed, the metaphors we use to illustrate our relationship with the Divine are of crucial importance. The time has come for Jewish leaders to make a concerted effort in purging these dysfunctional images from our collective psyches. A God Who creates the cosmos out of love does not get pleasure from  seeing His Creation writhe in pain.


[2] Michael Shevack & Jack Bemporad, Stupid Ways, Smart Ways to Think About God. (St. Louis, MO: Liguori, 1993), p 18.

Why is Israel helping Haiti?

The recent Israeli intervention in Haiti gives everyone of us something to feel proud about Israel. Despite the relentless efforts of the international community to demonize Israel before the nations of the world, the State of Israel continues to act as a beacon of light and hope for so many impoverished peoples of the world. Nowhere is this more visible than in the ravaged country of Haiti.

Many folks may not realize that Israel always provides international relief to countries faced with the aftermath of a natural catastrophe. Whether it is an earthquake in Mexico or other parts of Central and South America, or in Turkey and in central China (which I personally experienced)—Israel is always there willing to lend its helping hand. These special disaster rescue units have always done exemplary work—whether the international community recognizes it or not. Then again, Israeli aid and medical teams were also call into action in Thailand and Sri Lanka following the 2004 tsunami there, when they set up a field hospital and also to help to find and identify victims of the tragedy, many of whom were decomposed beyond recognition.

Welfare minister Isaac Hertzog of Israel announced today that Israel plans to adopt orphans from the Haiti earthquake. He observed, “Haiti was one of the countries that supported us on November 29, 1947, and now it’s our turn to support them.”

The urgency of the moment demands that other countries also get involved with providing new homes for these poor children. UNICEF warned that the orphans are especially vulnerable because of the dangers of trafficking minors and sexual exploitation.

One of the best things Israel did was set up the only functional hospital in Haiti—a feat not even the United States or the other Western countries managed to do.  Although this hospital consists of army tents with folding beds, the field hospital has advanced surgical facilities, X-ray and imagery machines, and a full staff of professional doctors and nurses from Israel’s top military and civilian hospitals.

Some critics will always take the attitude that Israel has an ulterior motive: it wishes to improve its public image; even if this may partially be the case, so what? Why not ask that same question regarding any country or individual that chooses to get involved?  In the final analysis, lives are being saved.  Isn’t that what counts? Judaism has always stressed the importance of deeds over creeds. We experience our faith–not by talking about it, but by living it.

As we study the book of Exodus this month, the experiences of our ancestors continues to shape our lives. Memory in the Bible is never something that is passive; it is a call to action. To remember the Exodus is to live by its lessons. You see, God demands that we too must become liberators and redeemers.  Biblical theology does not begin the higher academies of Jewish learning, it begins in the streets; the Torah is constantly exhorting us to remember what it was like to be a slave in an oppressive society without the possibility of hope.  From this perspective, a true theology of the Torah is inextricably related to acts that positively transforms the lives of its communities.  Ancient Israelite society was built on a concept of mutual aid where every citizen must take personal responsibility for the social condition of his or her world (Cf. Deut. 15:7-16).

Note that nowhere does the Torah explicitly promise an afterlife for those follow its precepts. Rather, the realization of the Heavenly Kingdom demands that its citizens do whatever it takes to create a social order that will look after the needs of each of its citizens. The world of Eternity and the temporal world we inhabit intersect in the realm of the interpersonal. Faith in God is never an abstraction; the hand of God paradoxically resembles the human hand. With each act of kindness to the stranger and the indigent, God’s own hand become enfleshed.

There is a charming rabbinic teaching that accentuates this point.[1]

Rabbi Akiba and Turnus Rufus, the Roman governor of Judea had a discussion. “Turnus Rufus asks Akiba, ‘If your God truly loves the poor, then why does He not provide for them? To cite a parable, suppose a human king became  angry with his slave, imprisoned him and ordered that he was not to be provided with food and drink; and then a person goes and feeds him and offers him to drink. When the king hears of it, will he not be angry with him?’ Akiba replied, ‘I will offer you a more appropriate parable: Suppose a human king became angry with his son, imprisoned him and ordered that he was not to be provided with food or drink; and then a person goes and feeds him and offers him to drink. When the king hears of it, will he not reward him?’ We are called God’s children, as it is said, ‘You are the children of the Lord your God’ (Deut. 14:1).”

Akiba then cites the following passage that illustrates this lesson:

Is this the manner of fasting I wish,
of keeping a day of penance:
That a man bow his head like a reed,
and lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;

Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

(Isaiah 58:5-8).

[1] BT Baba Batra 10a.

Beware of the “hardened heart”

Byline 4:00 PM Friday

There are six great “forests” in the 94, 189-square-mile region known as the Petrified Forest National Park of Northern Arizona. Virtually unknown until the late 1870’s, the 135-million-year-old “stone trees” had been killed by natural processes and deeply buried in mud and sand that contained silica-rich volcanic ash. The logs became petrified as the mineral, carried into the wood by ground water, eventually replaced the wood cells.  As the surrounding material eroded away, and the petrified logs and fragments and chips of varied colors became exposed. Its stone is of such hardness that it will scratch all but the hardest alloy steels.

It’s been said that the hardening of the heart is more serious than hardening of the arteries. Doesn’t this process describe  in detail what happens when our hearts become hardened?  This illustration takes us to theme of this week’s Torah portion. Pharaoh’s heart condition has puzzled many biblical scholars since ancient times. Simply stated: Why does God  prevent Pharaoh’s repentance?

Medieval rabbinic scholars suggest a variety of answers. For now we shall focus on only one exposition–Rashi. Rashi contends that Pharaoh alone is responsible for hardening his own heart. In fact, in the first five sets of plagues, Pharaoh hardens his own heart, and not God. This answer might suggest that the lost of personal freedom is not something that occurs overnight. Rather, each time Pharaoh refuses to free the Israelites, his decision desensitizes his humanity. For all practical purposes Pharaoh is like an automaton, a body without a soul. In other words, with each successive plague, God strengthens Pharaoh’s resolve (i.e, “heart” or “will”) not to release the Israelites (Ibn Ezra)–however, the choice is always Pharaoh’s.

The heart is more than just a physical organ according to the Tanakh; it  is the source of human personhood. Without a heart, one can scarcely be considered “alive.” The heart not only thinks and feels, remembers and desires, but it also chooses a course of action. Its purity is always defined our choices. The heart is also part of the human psyche that has the unique ability to feel empathy for the Other. Repeatedly, the Torah warns us not to harden our hearts to the poor and indigent who cry out to God for help (Deut. 15:7–11):

If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. Take heed lest there be a base thought in your heart, and you say, “The seventh year, the year of release is near,” and your eye be hostile to your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and it be sin in you. You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging when you give to him; because for this the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, you shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in the land.

Note how the biblical text stresses the theme of “brother.” We are of one human family regardless of race. Our collective “heart” is the index of our humanity.  However, when we deny our innate capacity to feel for our neighbor who is suffering, we lose  the most important that makes us human. In doing so, we also deny our brotherhood and sisterhood.  Isn’t this exactly what occurs in our biblical story about Pharaoh? Pharaoh’s choleric personality, which is driven by his intense desire to control and manipulate his people, comes with a hefty price. For Pharaoh, human beings are like mere bricks–persons bereft of human rights. This would explain why Pharaoh’s heart is so “hardened.”

According to Ben Sira,  a “hardened heart” can also mean a closed mind as well as someone who is embittered and calloused (Sirach 17:6). The heart is the source of one’s consciousness and of intelligent and free personality, the place of decision-making, where the Torah is mystically written (cf. Eze. 36:26-27) and where the mysterious actions of God take place. As always, the human heart is defined by the choices we make.  Heart is always the home of conscience. Continue reading “Beware of the “hardened heart””

From Lisbon to Katrina to Haiti (Part 2)

Hello friends!

Here is the rest of the article I wrote on the theological implications of Hurricane Katrina. I hope the material will clarify our earlier discussion regarding the Haiti earthquake.


According to the religious leaders cited in the previous posting, God never left the Flood Business–despite the Scriptural verse that says the exact opposite! “WHEN the LORD smelled the sweet odor, he said to himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the desires of man’s heart are evil from the start; nor will I ever again strike down all living beings, as I have done” (Gen. 8:21).

On the other hand, had Jean Jacques Rousseau witnessed Katrina, I have little doubt how he would have interpreted the disaster.  Katrina illustrates how the various bodies of government (e.g., the City of New Orleans, the State of Louisiana, the Federal Government, FEMA, the Mayor, the Governor, the President, the local residents, and so on) failed to make maximum use of the resources available. Local officials knew in advanced that this type of storm was possible and that the levees could break. Why was nothing done about it? Why were the monies allocated for rebuilding the levees not utilized decades after they were collected from the government? Why was there no effective evacuation plan? Why did it take so long for the relief agencies to respond? How the local inhabitants compound the problem with their disregard for the law. Although the weather was fierce, the onus of Katrina’s damage did not come from the weather but from the systemic breakdown of government.

The Lisbon earthquake and Hurricane Katrina characterize  only one kind of theological dilemma involving theodicy. On December 26, 2004, an undersea earthquake measuring 9.3 100 miles off the western coast of Sumatra, Indonesia produced the second largest earthquake in recorded history and generated massive tsunamis. Over 230,000 people lost their lives in just a matter of hours. Given the destructive force of the tsunamis, would Rousseau agree with Voltaire, and hold God responsible for the tsunamis?

Not necessarily.

One could logically argue that given the technology, wealth, and information we possess of weather patterns and seismic conditions, nations can now take steps to help minimize natural catastrophes. Tectonic plates will continue to shift; magma from volcanoes will continue to explode with fiery force; the wind will continue to generate hurricanes and tornadoes (which incidentally, were also detected on the planet Saturn—a place far removed from human habitation). Natural law will not change; yet, when these disasters occur, people of good faith can bring tikkun (repair) through a tsunami of compassion.

When God enjoins Adam to, “Fill the earth and subdue it!” (Gen. 1:28), the biblical narrator may have had this type of thought in mind. “Conquering the earth” may very well involve fixing nature’s many imperfections. A mature faith in God requires that we be responsive to the various mishaps and flaws of creation through a covenantal co-relationship with the Divine.

Back to the Future Redux

With respect to the earthquake victims of Haiti, it is vital that the Western nations helping see to it that no individual or organization, or government, profit from the help that is being sent there; strict accountability will help ensure that greatest number of people will  find the miraculous rescue they desperately need. When I saw pictures of the 85 metric tons airlifted to Haiti, the victims must have thought this was  manna from heaven. In a broken world, full of suffering, God calls upon his to act as His deputies and liberators.

Back to the Future: From Lisbon to Katrina to Haiti

Below is an article I wrote shortly after the Hurricane Katrina debacle; many of the issues regarding karma and theory of divine retribution could apply to the Haiti earthquake.


In Late Antiquity, the philosopher Epicurus fleshes out the cognitive dissonance people experience when contemplating the problem of theodicy:

1. Is God unable to prevent evil?

2. Is God unwilling to prevent evil?

3. If God is able and willing to prevent evil, then where does evil come from?

4. If God is neither able nor willing to prevent evil, then why do we call him “god”?

If God micromanages creation, as the Flood narrative seems to teaches, then why does the Creator tolerate natural evil? More to the point: Is all natural evil directly or indirectly due to moral evil? When the Lisbon earthquake struck in 1759, many skeptics wondered how God could allow such a devastating disaster to strike. From the modern critical perspective, the story of the Flood raises serious issues regarding the relationship between natural evil, commonly referred to as “acts of God,” and God’s justice.  In the case of moral evil, the impact felt by the victim is identifiable and with the help of the law, the perpetrator(s) can be brought to justice. But natural evil poses a different kind of problem. One cannot subpoena an earthquake or a fire, or a disease after they strike. When natural evil strikes, the effects leave for the most part, little positive benefits with nobody to blame—except God.

Back to the Future: From Lisbon to Katrina to Haiti

After the Lisbon earthquake, the French philosopher Voltaire articulated his own brand of Epicurean doubt. Voltaire wondered how religious people could still refer to God as “benevolent” or “loving” after the death of so many thousands of innocents. In response to Voltaire’s criticism, his fellow Frenchman, Jean Jacques Rousseau argued that human beings must take the primary responsibility for what happened during the Lisbon earthquake. Poorly designed structural buildings, along with a lack of thoughtful urban planning and human error, played a role in the corporate damage the earthquake caused. A superiorly designed city might have suffered much less casualties and death. [1] Continue reading “Back to the Future: From Lisbon to Katrina to Haiti”

Is God punishing the Hatians for its sins?

Is nature or God punishing the Haitians for its national sins? It all depends who one asks. Pat Robertson blames the Haiti earthquake on a pact the Haitians made with the devil sometime in the early 19th century:

Pat Robertson, the evangelical Christian who once suggested God was punishing Americans with Hurricane Katrina, says a “pact to the devil” brought on the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Robertson said on his “700 Club,” and that “They got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘We will serve you if you will get us free from the French.’ True story.  And so, the devil said, ‘OK, it’s a deal.’ ” Native Haitians defeated French colonists in 1804 and declared independence. “You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”

How accurate is Robertson’s theory? Well, the Haitians did not rebel against Napoleon I, but actually rebelled against his nephew Napoleon III, whose reign didn’t start until 1852. The story is a total fiction. Moreover, if God has such a short fuse, why didn’t the Creator bring on an earthquake immediately after the Haitians  made this alleged “pact” with the Devil?

Of course, if such a God is determined to expunge sin and sinners, why doesn’t God go after bigger fish to fry, e.g., Iran or North Korea? Robertson’s penchant for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time is hardly Christ-like, but instead reflects a hardness of heart worthy of Pharaoh; how can one witness so much human misery on such a mass scale and blame an impoverished nation for bringing upon itself the judgment of the Almighty? If the crime of blasphemy has any spiritual significance today, one could argue that Pat Robertson’s ill-timed remark may qualify because he sullies the Name of his Creator by portraying God as such a ruthless power.

Now, the members of the 700 Club aren’t the only ones coming out with such pronouncements of prophetic doom and gloom. Earlier this morning, I read an article that appeared in the Washington Post, where a Vodou priest named André Pierre, blames the earthquake on the Haitians lack of reverence and mistreatment of  Mother Nature. Pierre explains:

“The first magician is God who created people with his own hands from the dust of the earth. No one lives of the flesh. Everyone lives of the spirit.” We humans live in the material world, and other spirits–called lwa, or mystères, “mysteries”–dwell in the unseen realm. God created the spirits to help govern humanity and the natural world. The ancestors and the recently dead are with them. Unfortunately, there are far too many recently dead crossing over to join the spirits this week. When you cut a tree, in Vodou, you are supposed to ask the tree first, and leave a small payment for the spirit of the tree. For years nobody has asked, or listened, or paid the land when making policies or laws in Haiti. Farmers have given up since imported rice undercut their local prices. Whole villages left the provinces, and migrated to the capital, leaving the land behind and swelling the capital city to bursting. The people running the country–from within and from without–have abused Our Mother. She is doing what is natural, like a horse throwing a rough rider.”

Similar to Robertson, Pierre believes that the Nature (instead of the biblical God) is punishing its inhabitants for a variety of environmental sins. Frankly, both approaches seem to overlook the fact that God does not control everything that happens in this world. Natural law operates in a capricious manner, but God does expect us to ethically act on behalf of those who suffer.  In a world that often experiences brokenness on a global scale, we are each responsible for the welfare of our neighbor. The old KJV translation of the Bible still says it best:

“The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29). In other words, human beings are better off focusing on what is directly in front of them; speculating about hidden matters is not something anybody should engage in.  The ancient Judaic philosopher Ben Sira (ca. 2200 B.C.E.) offers prudent advice to those who think they understand the mind of God:

“What is too sublime for you, seek not, into things beyond your strength search not. What is committed to you, attend to; for what is hidden is not your concern. With what is too much for you meddle not, when shown things beyond human understanding. Their own opinion has misled many, and false reasoning unbalanced their judgment. Where the pupil of the eye is missing, there can be no light; and where there is no knowledge, there is no wisdom” (Sirach 3:19-24).

The Human Face commands: Save Haiti!

We had a class Shabbat program last night at the synagogue, followed by a dinner. All the classes participated in the service. Here is a short talk I gave to the  children and their parents.

In Judaism, there are many blessings that are said over many different kinds of mitzvot. One might ask, why isn’t a blessing said before giving tzedakah? The simplest answer that comes in mind is because the poor person might die by the time a giver gets around to saying the blessing. In other words, when people are in need of dire help, one must act–and not pray!

As we read this week’s Torah portion, the idea of getting involved in the rescue of others is a recurring theme throughout much of Exodus. For those of us reading the beginning chapters of the book of Exodus, this anecdote has an important message–especially as we honor the memory of the great civil rights leader, Martin Luther King. King–who perhaps more so than anyone else–inspired me to choose the rabbinate as my life vocation.

Judaism teaches us that we have a duty to assist those in need. Our response has ultimate consequences on those around us. We can choose to be part of a solution, or by not acting, we become part of the problem.  As Jews we know this very well, for this is the way we have been treated by civilizations since the dawn of our history beginning in Egypt over 3000 years ago.

Yes, this point is the scarlet thread that permeates every chapter of the Exodus story. Last week, we read about  the young prince of Egypt, who saw an Egyptian taskmaster whipping the Hebrew slaves; at that moment, Moses made a decision. He decided to get involved and so he killed the Egyptian assailant.

As the descendants of those who preserve the memory of the Exodus, how can we do anything less? Memory of the Exodus is never something that is passive; it is active. To preserve and continue the message of Exodus, we honor our tradition’s values by living an ethical life when it comes to helping others. The Torah beckons us to be liberators whenever it comes to the aid of those living on the ragged edge of life. Granted, the story of the Exodus deals with human oppression, but its spiritual and ethical message applies no less to the victims of a natural catastrophe as well. When you take a look at the world today, we witness the devastating earthquake that has killed over 50,000 people in Haiti a couple of days ago. For these poor people, the ten plagues came all at once.

As soon as Israel heard about the tragedy, it sent its best workers and scores of doctors to help provide relief, just like it has in other catastrophes.  Sure enough the Israeli newspapers reported the story: “Israel sends aid as Haiti braces for massive death toll in quake. The Israeli Foreign Ministry on Wednesday prepared a rescue team for departure to the disaster-stricken country. The rescue team includes elite army corps engineers and medical corps ready to deploy field hospital, the Israeli consulate in New York reported.”

Israel has always helped out whenever a catastrophe occurs—it does so because its ethics demands that it live by the principles of the Torah; indeed, one of the most important Hebrew words we find in the Bible is hineni– “here I am,” I am ready to help; I am ready to respond. In the face of so much death, our tradition also teaches us to “choose life,” whenever possible.  Lastly, we also have an imperative never to stand by the blood of our fellow human beings that is being threatened by danger—whether human or natural evils like the one we are witnessing today. Saving one life is like saving an entire world.

As a people of the Exodus, we are commanded no less. We are all a part of the human family and God expects us to follow His example in rescuing innocents. According to philosopher and theologian Emmanuel Lévinas, the human face commands us to respond ethically without words; God’s voice can be heard from the survivors of the Haiti disaster, calling us for help and participation. As with every story of Divine redemption of the Bible, God requires human participants to do their part. For there to be an Exodus, God needs a Moses, an Aaron, and a Miriam. For the millions of people living in the earthquake ravaged country of Haiti, God needs us to help…

Here is contact information for some of the better known organizations involved in the relief effort.

American Red Cross National Headquarters
2025 E Street, NW
Washington, DC 20006

88 Hamilton Ave.
Stamford, CT USA 06902

American Jewish World Service
45 West 36th Street, 11th floor
New York, NY 10018-7904

Aspects of Holocaust Theology: The Metaphor of “God as Surgeon” (Part 2)

In the previous article written by Prof. Bauer, he refers to a correspondence with late Chaika Grossman, a leader of the underground in the Bialystok ghetto, who survived the war and served as a Knesset member for several terms. She went on to publish her correspondence with the Lubavitcher Rebbe on August 22, 1980, quoting Schneersohn and expressing some pointed criticism toward the Rebbe that created shock-waves at the 770 world headquarters in Brooklyn.

Within a week, the Rebbe sent her a reply on his personal stationary.  This letter has been reprinted in the Likutei Sichot Vol. 21, pp. 397-398. What is significant is that the Rebbe does confirm the gist of what he had originally written about the role of Hitler as that of a “new Nebuchadnezzar.” God merely used Hitler as His instrument much like he used Nebuchadnezzar in the days of Jeremiah.

As a proof text, he cites the passage, “Behold! I will send for and fetch all the tribes of the north, says the LORD (and I will send to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, my servant); I will bring them against this land, against its inhabitants, and against all these neighboring nations. I will doom them, making them an object of horror, of ridicule, of everlasting reproach” (Jeremiah 25:9). As additional scriptural support, the Rebbe cites the verse, Woe to Assyria, My rod in anger my staff in wrath!” (Isa. 10:5).

After citing these passages the Rebbe further explains that whereas the massacres described in Jeremiah were clearly because of a punishment, as the prophet forewarned they would be, the Rebbe insists that the Holocaust cannot be understood in this way. However, the Rebbe insists that his metaphor of the “operation,” does not even remotely suggest the idea of “punishment,” for as in the case of person undergoing an operation, its purpose is only curative—even though we as mortals cannot comprehend the magnitude of the Divine design.

Apologists for the Chabad movement go to considerable lengths to illustrate that the example of surgery is brought only in order to illustrate how something as horrible as an amputation—although beneficial—can seem criminal to the uninitiated. It is by no means brought in order to imply that those that perished were amputated for the benefit of the survivors. Moreover, such an operation serves as a tikkun for a greater good that cannot be intellectually imagined. If Hitler is actually the instrument  of God’s retribution, then Jewish suffering is because of their backsliding and sinful ways.

Of course, we reject such a fundamentalist theology.

When comparing the Rebbe’s text to that of his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the Rebbe’s response seems hollow at best—unless he is refuting the attitude expressed by the previous Rebbe before him. For the sake of clarity, let us reiterate the scolding words of Rabbi Yitzchak Schneersohn once more. I will stress his points with bold-faced lettering.

Schneersohn writes in his Likutei Dibburim:

“Question: Who is punishing the Jewish people, and why? And every individual must himself arrive at the real answer: The current predicament is the same as it has always been, in every instance in which the Jewish people “did evil in the eyes of G-d.” Each such case was followed by a famine or an epidemic or a wartime crisis — until the people returned to G-d and were saved…

Is it conceivable that people who desecrate Shabbos and eat treifos and so on, will overpower (so to speak) the Will of G-d, Who constantly desires that Eretz Yisrael should be a land of Torah and mitzvos, and that Jews in all other lands too should observe Torah and mitzvos? Realize that life and death are in your hands. And we must all keep in mind that “the hearts of kings and states¬ men are in the Hand of G-d.” The Jewish people will be saved not by statesmen nor by presidents nor by kings, but by G-d’s Will, which will act only when we return in teshuvah. It is commonly observed that when a freethinker or even a G-dless individual stands at the bedside of a desperately ill husband or wife or beloved only child, and the doctors say that G-d alone can help, the latent Jewish spark is awakened and this individual too turns to Him in prayer. Jewry is a desperately ill patient in need of great mercy. No Jew in any country can be certain of his life, and of course not certain of his property. American millionaires and bankers and prosperous businessmen would do well to draw a lesson from the current state of the migrants: they,too, were once millionaires and bankers and prosperous businessmen . . .

Fellow Jews! Things are grim. This is the dense and gloomy darkness that precedes the dawning of Jewry’s sun, with a complete Redemption through our righteous Mashiach. In the meantime it is dark. The one ray of hope is teshuvah — observing Shabbos and the laws of Family Purity and the other practical obligations, and bringing up one’s children in kosher Talmud Torah schools and yeshivos. Fellow Jews! Vigilantly observe the laws of Family Purity, and Family Purity  will vigilantly watch over your children.” [1]

Now, if Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn’s theology is consistent with that of his father-in-law, whom he routinely quotes at every opportunity, then the real reason why God amputated a limb from the Jewish body was to preserve it from the contagion of sinfulness that characterized the spiritual lifestyle of European Jewry. I do not recall the exact place where I first read this thought, but Rabbi Y.Y. Schneersohn once asked the question, “If God is punishing the Jewish people with the Holocaust, why is it that only the pious and religious Jews are the primary victims and not those who have gone astray from the world of Torah and mitzvot? The Rebbe replied, that when a father punishes a child, he always smacks the child in the face, and the righteous Jews are indeed “the face” of Jewry.”

Despite efforts of Lubavitcher scholars to exonerate their Rebbe, not one of them has yet to deal with the theological legacy left by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn. The student is merely reformulating the thinking of his master… Rabbi Schneersohn’s attitude is no different from that of the Christian evangelist Pat Robertson who routinely interprets mayhem and destruction to God’s retributive nature. Simply put, God hates sinners and He is willing, so we are told, to wipe them out–whether by flood, earthquake, pestilence, or even genocide.


[1] Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn and Uri Kaploun (trans.), Likkutei Dibburim Vol 5, (Brooklyn, NY: Kehot Publication Society, 2000), 317-325.

Aspects of Holocaust Theology: The Metaphor of “God as Surgeon” (Part 1)

Now after reading this article and comparing it to the Likuttei Dibburim material, one can easily see that the son-in-law’s theology is completely consistent with that of his father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn. An examination of the latter’s Hassidic discourses also bears this out, but we will save this for another discussion.

However, the Rebbe’s position appears to be inconsistent with an earlier position he once made.  Consider the following citation made at the Chabad “Ask Moses” website:

“There are those who wish to suggest that the Holocaust was a punishment for the sins of that generation. The Lubavitcher Rebbe rejects this view. He writes, “‘The destruction of six million Jews in such a horrific manner that surpassed the cruelty of all previous generations, could not possibly be because of a punishment for sins. Even the Satan himself could not possibly find a sufficient number of sins that would warrant such genocide! There is absolutely no rationalistic explanation for the Holocaust except for the fact that it was a Divine decree … why it happened is above human comprehension – but it is definitely not because of punishment for sin.

On the contrary: All those who were murdered in the Holocaust are called “Kedoshim” – holy ones – since they were murdered in sanctification of G–d’s name. G–d will avenge their blood, as we say on Shabbat in the Av Harachamim prayer, “May the All-Merciful… remember with mercy… the holy communities who gave their lives for the sanctification of the Divine Name … May G-d remember them with favor together with the other righteous of the world, and avenge the spilled blood of His servants, as it is written in the Torah of Moshe … for he will avenge the blood of his servants…” G–d describes those who were sanctified as His servants, and promises to avenge their blood.’” [1]

Now, when comparing this statement to the other citation mentioned by Prof. Bauer, it appears that Lubavitcher Headquarters may have felt the embarrassing implications of the Rebbe’s back-peddling on such an important topic. In forthcoming articles on the Likkutei Dibburim material, we will examine why Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn and his son-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn  refused to participate in the famous Washington D.C. rally when 400 Orthodox rabbis marched to the White House on October 6, 1943 in an attempt to confront the President about opening America’s borders to the Jewish refugees of Europe.

Incidentally, several leading Jewish leaders at that time blasted the rally as an “undignified publicity stunt” and even persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to snub the rabbis. How wrong these leaders were! While a reader might assume that many of the march’s critics were liberal rabbis, this is not completely true! Rabbi Yitzchak Schneersohn and his protege held a disparaging view about those religious leaders who worked through political channels instead relying on God’s supernatural redemptive power. What is more amazing is that Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn considered his father-in-law to be the Moshe Rabbanu–the incarnation of Moses himself–of that generation!


[1] Sefer HaSichot 5751 Vol.1 p.233.

Aspects of Holocaust Theology: The Theology of Retribution–Part II

Byline: Feb. 15, 2010 4:00 PM

In the previous section we examined a selection of texts from the Likuttei Diburim literature; like his father-in-law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn wrote that the Holocaust in essence was a “necessary surgery” in order to save the Jewish people.  Here is an article that appeared in the Israeli paper, HaAretz, which bears this out.

“God as Surgeon”

By Yehuda Bauer

The panel discussion on “Haredim and the Holocaust” recently aired on Channel 1 should have included the views of the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Chabad’s so-called “King Messiah”), Rabbi Menachem Schneersohn. On the subject of the Holocaust, the Rebbe wrote as follows: “It is clear that ‘no evil descends from Above,’ and buried within torment and suffering is a core of exalted spiritual good. Not all human beings are able to perceive it, but it is very much there. So it is not impossible for the physical destruction of the Holocaust to be spiritually beneficial. On the contrary, it is quite possible that physical affliction is good for the spirit.”[4]

Schneersohn goes on to compare God to a surgeon who amputates a patient’s limb in order to save his life. The limb “is incurably diseased … The Holy One Blessed Be He, like the professor-surgeon…seeks the good of Israel, and indeed, all He does is done for the good…. In the spiritual sense, no harm was done, because the everlasting spirit of the Jewish people was not destroyed.”

The Rebbe’s stance, therefore, is clear: The Holocaust was a good thing because it lopped off a disease-ravaged limb of the Jewish people – in other words, the millions who perished in the Holocaust – in order to cleanse the Jewish people of its sins. There is logic in this theology: If God is indeed omnipotent, knows everything and controls the world (“God presides over the trials of 4 billion people all day long, every day without a moment’s rest”), which implies divine supervision on an individual and collective basis, then the Holocaust took place not only with his knowledge, but also with his approval.

Schneersohn does not accept the idea of  “hester panim,” or God’s face being turned away, to explain why He was not present when 1.5 million Jewish children were murdered. According to some religious Jews, this hester panim was a consequence of man’s sins, and, above all, the sins of the Jewish people. Schneersohn says that God was there, and that he wanted to Holocaust to happen. But because it is inconceivable, in his view, for God to commit evil, he portrays the Holocaust as a positive event, all the more so for the Jews.

After this text was published in the summer of 1980, kicking up a storm, Chabad claimed it was based on an inaccurate Hebrew translation of talks that the Rebbe delivered in Yiddish. The Rebbe, they said, had no idea his remarks were being published. It seems hard to believe Schneersohn would not go over every word published in his name, let alone a text put out in Hebrew by Machon Lubavitch in Kfar Chabad.

In fact, there is a document written by the Rebbe himself, in Hebrew, which bears his statements about the Holocaust. The late Chaika Grossman, a leader of the underground in the Bialystok ghetto, who survived the war and served as a Knesset member for several terms, published an article in Hamishmar newspaper on August 22, 1980, quoting Schneersohn and expressing her profound shock at his words. On August 28, 1980, the Rebbe sent her a reply on his personal stationary. The letter, apparently typewritten, contains a number of corrections in his own handwriting, and is signed by him. In it, the Rebbe confirms everything in the published text.

His remarks, Schneersohn explained, were based on the Torah. Hitler was a messenger of God in the same sense that Nebuchadnezzar is called “God’s servant” in the Book of Jeremiah (chapter 25). The “surgery” he spoke of was such a massive corrective procedure that the suffering (i.e., the murder of the Jews) was minor compared to its curative effect.

I was invited to take part in this television debate, but my appearance was canceled at the last moment, perhaps because of my opinions on the subject. The truth is, there are no “Haredim.” There are Haredi groups and Haredi individuals, and their conduct during and after the Holocaust took different forms. Since the Holocaust, Jews have wrestled with this issue and continue to do so. Rabbi Schneersohn’s views are one of many.

But Chabad is a large and influential Hasidic dynasty. It has a messiah who lived and died, and many look forward to his resurrection. In this respect, Chabad is a kind of semi-Christian movement. Therefore it is important to know what its leader said. The “King Messiah” did not deny the Holocaust. He justified it.

(More to follow)