Jewish existentialism includes a variety of works addressing the horrors of the Holocaust, the term used to denote the German Nazi party’s state-engineered genocide of approximately 6 million European Jews and approximately 1 million other ‘undesirables’ (including homosexuals, Romani, the mentally and physically disabled, and Slavic peoples) during World War II.
The paradox of theodicy has been of interest to theologians and philosophers (Jewish and gentile) for centuries. Theodicy, or the problem of evil, is a branch of theology/philosophy which explores the logical contradiction of the existence of evil in the world with an all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful (omniscient and omnipotent) God. Talmudists and mystics in the rabbinic tradition explained evil as an absence or distance from God, rather than the opposite of God’s all-powerful goodness. Examples include Job complaining to his friends about God causing him suffering, Maimonides’ explanation of evil and suffering being the result of man’s actions against God rather than God’s actions or ill-will towards man, and Spinoza’s emphasis on the impersonal nature of the universe and the efficacy of human reason in avoiding evil and suffering. Generations of pre-Holocaust Jewish scholars were able to come up with satisfactory explanations for the existence of both evil and an all-powerful, all-good, and infallible God in the universe.
These convenient logical arguments could not provide sufficient solace for a Jewish people emerging from the horrors of the Holocaust. Many scholars contend that the enormous tragedy of the Holocaust represents an entirely new category of evil that one could not explain with traditional Jewish theology. The preeminent survivor-novelist Elie Wiesel (b. 1928) raises a variety of unanswerable questions about the Holocaust in his novels, such as the best-selling Night (1958). Many Jews, whether they were survivors or not, experienced a loss of faith in the Jewish concept of God and even in the power of human goodness. Wiesel often repeats the sentiment that “God died in Auschwitz,” which may be an allusion to Nietzsche’s famous contention that "God is dead," and is representative of the theme of loss of meaning in life for a generation of Jews who experienced and witnessed the Holocaust. However, some Jewish theologians have come up with responses to the Holocaust without denying the existence of God entirely.
Emil L. Fackenheim was a Reform-movement Rabbi and well-known Jewish theologian who wrote on post-Holocaust theology and coined the term "the 614th commandment." For Fackenheim, Judaism “attempts to supersede the Holocaust” by founding the State of Israel. The creation of the State of Israel by Jews committed to the renewal of Judaism and the welfare of their fellow Jews and ‘the Jewish nation’ represents for Fackenheim the emergence of a “muscular Judaism" not present in other generations of Jews.
Fackenheim’s best-known work is To Mend the World: Foundations of Future Jewish Theology (1982). In it, he coined the term “the 614 commandment” (which he also called the “commanding Voice of Auschwitz”), “forbidding the post-Holocaust Jew to give Hitler post-humous victories.”Fackenheim encountered some criticism for his contention that it is worthwhile to maintain one’s Jewish identity solely for the purpose of making sure that Hitler’s genocidal plans are not fulfilled after Germany’s defeat in World War II.
Richard Rubenstein is a Jewish theologian whose work on Holocaust theology is considered foundational to the subject. His basic thesis in his most famous work, After Auschwitz: History, Theology, and Contemporary Judaism (1966) is that the Jewish conception of God must change in the post-Holocaust era. According to Rubenstein, Jews can no longer believe in an all-powerful, all-good, and omnipotent God; the contradiction inherent in such a God allowing the Holocaust to occur is too great. Rubenstein writes about “God’s guilt” for allowing the Holocaust to happen. He affirms God’s all-powerful nature, but suggests the possibility that God is not the all-good force of love that rabbinic Judaism has made him out to be. Rather, God may be an all-powerful enemy of the Jewish people, who has damned them to an eternal "Chosenness" of suffering.
Rubenstein also discusses in After Auschwitz the significant role that Christianity and various Christian churches (for example, the massive and politically powerful institution of the German Catholic church) had in allowing the Holocaust to occur. Rubenstein makes the point that it was not just the political and social trends of Nazism that allowed the Holocaust to occur; German Christians endorsed Hitler’s aims both passively and actively.