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Did God save the Jews during the Holocaust?

June 9, 2011 – 6:12 pm47 Comments

A text relevant to the topic

Geoff Bloch was recently tasked with arguing the case for the affirmative at a debate put on by the JBD of Melbourne, on the topic of “Did God save the Jews during the Holocaust?”

This is not a debate about whether God saved individual Jews during the Holocaust. It is a debate about whether God saved “the Jews”. The definite article makes a significant difference. “The Jews” connotes the collective – Am Yisrael. Our focus must therefore be on whether God saved Am Yisrael during the Holocaust and I will present conclusive proof that He did.

However, before doing so, I would first like to explain why, in any event, it would be difficult, if not impossible, realistically to debate whether God saved individual Jews. The affirmative side could not possibly nominate which Jews may have been saved by God and which Jews may have survived by reason of their own wits, by the intervention of others or by sheer luck. How can anyone possibly know what role God played in any particular case? The negative side could harp on endlessly about the fact that God did not save millions of Jews. Even those naturally inclined to the affirmative side in this debate must acknowledge that God did not save six million individual Jews.

So let us therefore focus on the debate topic as stated and review the conclusive proof that God indeed saved Am Yisrael during the Holocaust.

The sheer scale and technology of the mass murder is what sets the Holocaust apart but it was not the first and only mass murder in Jewish history. Am Bnei Yisrael is first mentioned by our arch-enemy, Pharoah, after Joseph’s death. He issued an edict condemning Jewish males to be drowned in the Nile at birth and God knows how many more died from avodah kasha (slave labour). So from the very first moment we were referred to as Am Bnei Yisrael, we were targeted for annihilation. The destructions of the two Temples by the Babylonians and the Romans were accompanied by the murder of God knows how many more Jews. The list of our violent adversaries is a long one which also includes the Persians, the Greeks, the Crusades, the Inquisition, Chmelnitzky and many other pogroms. Throughout history, Am Yisrael has been targeted and Jews have been systematically murdered.

So our debate topic could just as well have been: “Did God save the Jews in Ancient Egypt?” or “Did God save the Jews during the Babylonian exile?” or “Did God save the Jews during the Inquisition?”. Our debate topic which relates to the Holocaust is therefore a variation on the same theme.

There is a very clear pattern of subjugation and survival over the broad sweep of Jewish history, of which the Holocaust is but the most recent example. We read on seder night: B’chol dor vador omdim aleinu lechaloteinu, v’hakadosh baruch hu matzileinu miyadam – In every generation they rise up to annihilate us, but God saves us from their hands. Every time a nation attacks the Jews, Jews die but Am Yisrael survives. Part of the pattern is that God always exacts midah k’neged midah (measure for measure) – Am Yisrael survives, but the attacking regime dies! Where is the great Babylonian empire? Where are the 127 Persian provinces? How about the once mighty Roman Empire? Or the Egyptian empire which was the great power in biblical times? The Third Reich was supposed to last a thousand years. They have all vanished. But Am Bnei Yisrael has remained and seen off all these antagonists, despite our tiny numbers. This miraculous pattern of subjugation and survival has been repeated over and over again for nearly 4,000 years. We are a part of that pattern and therefore part of the miracle!

Our survival defies all secular logic. We should have vanished thousands of years ago. But it is unarguable that our survival is consistent with God’s biblical promise that we will always endure. God has promised that we as a nation will never be utterly forsaken. What is the source of the biblical promise? It goes right back to the very beginning – to the days of Abraham.

Vahakimoti et briti beini u’veinecha u’ven zaracha achareicha l’dorotam livrit olam – I will establish an everlasting covenant with you and your descendants – lihyot lecha leilohim u’lezaracha achareicha – to be your God for all time. God then repeats the promise to the yet unborn Yitzchak: Vahakimoti et briti ito liv’rit olam l’zar’o acharav – I will establish an everlasting covenant with Yitzchak and his descendants (Bereshit 34).

There are many references to the brit olam, to God’s everlasting covenant, throughout our Scriptures.

I’m a barrister. I love a good circumstantial case. A strong circumstantial case is the best proof there is. If something fits a pattern, a modus operandi, it can be utterly persuasive beyond all reasonable doubt.

The divine promise that the Jews will always survive even in our darkest hour obviously does not confer invulnerability upon each and every Jew. But this does not constitute proof supporting the negative side in this debate. Jews being murdered is much more a problem for man than for God. God gave man the free will to build hospitals and schools or gas chambers and crematoria. The Holocaust is all about man’s inhumanity to man. It is not about God forsaking Am Yisrael. That is why the oft-heard question: “Where was God during the Holocaust?” is purely an emotional cry. It is not a logical question (as the social commentator Denis Prager has put it). The logical question is “Where was Man during the Holocaust?”

Could God have created a world in which the Holocaust could not have happened? A world without evil? An all-powerful God no doubt could have done so, but it would be a very different world indeed from the one we know. It would be a place where man did not have the free will to act as he chooses and would be reduced to behaving on instinct alone, like the rest of the animal kingdom. It logically follows that the great social polarities of good and evil could not exist in that world, just as they do not exist in the animal kingdom.

“Good” contemplates the possibility of “evil”. You cannot have the one without the other. So in order to have a world in which “good” is the divine paradigm to which mankind should aspire, that world must, by definition, also enable man to act unethically. So in this world, it is inevitable that there will be terrible episodes of evil. That is the world God created and why, perhaps, God does not intervene to prevent evil even though, from reading the scriptures, it is clear He abhors it.

Man’s ability to be taught the difference between good and evil is therefore ultimately what separates us from all other living creatures. Living in a society which values and esteems righteousness and goodness – concepts unknown in the animal kingdom – is what makes our lives worth living. We would NOT choose to live in a world in which those concepts were unknown, despite the superficial attraction of a world devoid of evil.

There is a powerful concept in the Torah known in Latin as imitato dei – imitating God. We are commanded to imitate God by the injunction Kedoshim tihyu, ki kadosh ani Hashem Eloheichem – You shall be holy because I am holy. It is one of the cornerstones of our obligations as Jews. That is why I have said that “good” is the divine paradigm to which mankind should aspire.

We can never know all the ways in which God may have brought about the defeat of Hitler and Nazism. Did God have a hand in Hitler’s inexplicable strategic error in advancing against Russia to the east rather than against England to the west when England was on her knees? Did He have a hand in ensuring that the USA did not maintain an isolationist policy but finally joined in the Allied military campaign which otherwise might not have prevailed?

It really doesn’t matter that we cannot be certain about precisely what measures God took to save the Jews during the Holocaust. We have all the proof we need. We have the strongest possible circumstantial case – 4,000 years of Jewish history! And even if that were not enough (and it certainly is), we can reflect on the miraculous fact that in barely 3 years, we, “the Jews”, moved from our darkest hour to the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty in the modern State of Israel after 2,000 years.

No other nation on earth has survived so long let alone re-established its homeland. No other nation on earth has been persecuted so relentlessly yet seen off all their enemies. But then again, no other nation on earth received the divine promise that they would always endure.

It is fitting to conclude with the timeless question posed by Mark Twain in 1899: “The Egyptian, the Babylonian and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed and made a vast noise and they are gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

In my eyes, that question is rhetorical because it suggests its own, obvious, answer, namely that our survival is due to the brit olam, to God’s eternal promise that Am Bnei Yisrael will always endure. And God kept that promise, yet again, when he saved the Jews during the Holocaust.

Geoffrey Bloch is a Melbourne based barrister.

For the podcast of the original debate, including Mark Baker‘s delivery for the negative, click here.

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