Faith Facing The Holocaust - Lecture #18b: Esh Kodesh II – On Faith and Suffering (Part 2)
By: Rav Tamir Granot
C. Theological and religious thoughts about the weeping of the Master of the world
Is there anything new, then, in the philosophy of the Rebbe of Piaseczno – based, as we have seen, on the teachings of Chazal – in his description of God's sorrow or weeping? I believe that the answer is affirmative – and in the context in which his philosophy was forged, the innovation may be a radical one. In this regard, I offer some thoughts, ranging between theology and religious existence, concerning what we have learned from Esh Kodesh in these lectures.
Chazal describe Divine sorrow in two main senses: a. God is not apathetic towards the suffering of Israel, and exile or other punishment is not experienced because He is rejecting us; b. If God feels our pain, then He is surely destined to redeem us. Indeed, in almost every instance, salvation is mentioned immediately after the description of God's suffering.
In the thought of the Rebbe of Piaseczno, there is a further dimension. He focuses God's suffering on Himself. God's weeping does not help us in any way, and His awareness of our suffering does not ensure our salvation. On the contrary, our knowledge of His weeping is part of our reconcilement with the constant presence of the suffering. God is not able to redeem and to save – and this is precisely the reason why He weeps. The weeping is an expression of weakness, as it were. We speak about God not in metaphors of a ruler or powerful father, but rather in the image of a compassionate, weeping mother, reacting to the suffering just as we do – with helplessness, as it were, which leads to weeping.
The qualifying expression "as it were," which accompanies all of the images that we employ here, arises from our sense that we cannot express ourselves in this way on the theological level. When stripped of its imagery, the thought of God "weeping" or "helpless" is unimaginable, and it contradicts the fundamentals of our faith regarding God's perfection and omnipotence.
But it is here that we face the crux of the difficulty: it is impossible to create any real division between the theology and the religious language or unmediated perception of God. In other words, if my experience of God's closeness is based on the intimacy of our joint weeping, or on mutual sorrow and compassion (rather than, for example, on awe of His greatness and submission), then is it really possible to continue maintaining the traditional theology of His omnipotence? And is it possible to return, after the agony is over, to a religious relationship based on the traditional theology? Can there then be any real hope or real prayer for Divine redemption or salvation based on the belief that God is able – in practice, not only in our belief – to change and overturn everything: to crush the wicked, to save the righteous, to heal the sick, to halt the troubles, etc.? Or does faith in God then become an altogether different sort of relationship, whose essence is intimate partnership and mutuality, with fruits that are less grandiose and more low-key - consolation, meaning, listening - certainly without any concrete expectation of salvation and redemption?
Traditional theology demanded a choice between two possibilities: either God would, in His infinity and perfection, burden the world with all of His pain and sorrow over the evil and suffering going on, such that the world would return to chaos and void, or He would "weep in private" – hide His pain – such that we would remain alone, with no Comforter and with none of God's closeness. The Rebbe proposes a third possibility: the creation of "houses of weeping" – a space soaked with spiritual sorrow, out of which prayer and Torah are born, and where God could weep together with us. In order for His weeping to enter there, God would have to leave His infinity, His omnipotence, and His perfection outside. In other words, the immanent manifestation of the Master of the world weeping is, of necessity, an appearance in miniature, weakened form. Paradoxically, this situation creates special closeness and intimacy that could not have existed beforehand. At the same time, though, the naןve and optimistic assumptions of faith that existed previously might have to be relinquished.
I have something to add to this, although I do not mean it as a decisive statement or conclusion. I feel an intellectual and emotional need to set down some thoughts concerning this difficult issue, with the hope that they will find an echo somewhere, thereby leading us to even deeper insights and feelings of faith.
D. Small comfort
The following excerpt from one of the Rebbe's sermons describes, honestly and directly, the despair and heartbreak surrounding everything – including himself, and how he finds a source of consolation and some slight strength in the knowledge that God is still with us:
It is impossible to achieve prophecy in a state of depression. The Talmud (Shabbat 30b) says: "The Divine Presence rests upon a person only through simcha, and similarly in matters of Halakha (Law)." This also affects one's ability to take some homiletic teaching from the painful experience, for even this is impossible if a person is grief-stricken and spirit-crushed. There are even times when it is impossible for a person to force himself to say anything or to interpret events because of the immensity of the breakdown and decline, may the Merciful One protect us.
With what can he strengthen himself, at least a little, so long as salvation has not appeared? And with what can the spirit be elevated, even the tiniest bit, while crushed and broken like this? Firstly, with prayer and with faith that God, Merciful Father, would never utterly reject His children. It cannot be possible, God forbid, that He would abandon us in such mortal danger as we are now facing for His blessed Name's sake. Surely, He will have mercy immediately, and rescue us in the blink of an eye; but with what shall we gather strength over those, the holy ones, who have already, God protect us, been murdered - relatives and loved ones, and other, unrelated Jews, many of whom touch us like our very own soul? And how will we encourage ourselves, at least somewhat, in face of the terrifying reports, old and new, that we hear, shattering our bones and dissolving our hearts? With the thought that we are not alone in our suffering; God, blessed be He, bears it with us, as it were, as it is written (Tehillim 91:15): "I am with him, in distress."
And not with just this thought, but with another, additional reflection: There is suffering we endure individually for our sins, or pangs of love that soften and purify us. In all of this, God merely suffers with us. But then there is suffering in which we merely suffer with Him, so to speak - suffering for the sanctification of God's name. In the liturgy for fast days and High Holy days, we say, "Our Father, our King, act for the sake of those who were murdered for Your Holy Name." They are murdered, as it were, for Him, and for the sanctification of His blessed name. In the Hoshana liturgy of the Sukkot Festival we say, "Hoshana, save the one who bears Your burden, Hoshana," because Jews are carrying His burden. The chief suffering is really for God's sake, and because of Him we are ennobled and exalted by this sort of pain. With this, we may encourage ourselves, at least a little. (ibid. pp.333-334).
The mutual compassion and suffering free us from the loneliness of the suffering, and at the same time elevate and broaden the suffering itself: the experience of suffering is no longer focused on me and my suffering, but rather on world or cosmic suffering, or the suffering of the Divine Presence. It thereby assumes value and meaning that are foreign to egocentric suffering.
E. A question mark
For the Rebbe of Piaseczno, as we have seen, the faith that God is present and revealed in everything (immanent theology) is central to the experience of faith – in normal times as well as in times of crisis. In his sermon on Parashat Chukat (5702) he explains that we must experience every phenomenon as a Divine manifestation; our actions, our words of Torah, even our sins, all reveal some aspect of Divinity in the world:
Every Jew has faith that there exists nothing else but God. As is explained in sacred literature, when the Torah says, "There is none but Him" (Devarim 4:35), it does not simply mean that there is no god but God; it means that nothing exists but God. The universe and everything in it is the Light of God. Therefore, we must grasp everything in the world, not as something individual unto itself, but as a revelation of God's Light. Even our Jewish children must not be seen as just another category of persons, just our children; Jewish children, in addition to being the permanence and existence of the Jewish people, are Creation and Renewal, the revelation of God.
Likewise, the Torah that we teach to school-children, or that one person teaches his friend, even if he merely gives him a word of caution or guidance, should not be seen as events unto themselves but as tremendous revelations of God. Each instance is a renewal and a birth, for each learning event is a creation and renewal. Before studying and learning, the person may not have been a Torah student or a principled person, and now, through learning, he has undergone a renewal and birth. As we said above, any person who teaches Torah to another is considered by the Torah to have given birth to him, and every birth and renewal is a revelation of God, because there is nothing else, and nothing else but God exists in the world. (ibid., p.327)
It follows then, that everything a Jew does or says is actually an expression of his inner soul, which is always acting for and talking to God, because the soul knows that there is nothing but God. His soul knows that everything is Godly and every action or world is directed toward God. We ourselves may be unconscious of this because the physical body, besides blocking our awareness of the sanctity of our soul and its yearning for God, also blocks our awareness that whatever we are doing is actually for God. Though a person may think that he is acting or speaking on his own behalf, as for example when a Jew asks his friend for a favor, in reality his soul knows that the one of whom the favor is being asked has merely been designated as the agent of God in the granting of this favor. While a person may think that he is begging a favor from another, his inner soul is begging God all the time for help, because God is omnipotent, He is the Merciful Father, and He will show mercy and save us. (pp. 327-328)
Our children, our Torah study, our actions and requests – all are a manifestation and revelation of God, for "there is none (i.e., nothing) besides Him" (Devarim 4:35). The more inward the manifestation, the more readily apparent its Divinity. But this profound religiosity, insisting that God fills all the world and is revealed in everything, intensifies the difficulty of accepting the terrible suffering that surrounds us. The cry of those who are tortured, burned, murdered – that, too, is a Divine cry; it is a cry from God and to God. Had it been only the cry of suffering creatures, we could perhaps still somehow shut them away in some cupboard, stuff them behind an iron wall, etc. But these cries are, of necessity, heard by the Master of the universe, too. Not only are they heard by Him, but He echoes them, since "there is nothing besides Him."
When we hear the shrieks of the tortured, old and young, screaming Ratevet, Ratevet["Save us, save us"], we know that they are not crying out to us. Their souls are screaming, as all our souls scream out to God, "Merciful Father, Rateveh Rateveh [Help, help]," for as long as we have a breath of life within us.
We learn in the Talmud (Berakhot 32b): "R. Elazar said: 'Since the day the Temple was destroyed, a wall of iron has separated the Jewish people from their Father in Heaven.'" Why is an iron wall necessary? Because prayers of the Jewish people can break down stone walls, and so an iron wall was erected. But against screams like these, how can even an iron wall remain standing? It is impossible to comprehend. For we are certainly not alone in our prayers. Our fathers and our mothers, all the prophets and prophetesses, all the righteous men and women are not at rest, they are not silent while we suffer. They are surely turning the whole Garden of Eden and all the holy palaces upside down, on account of our suffering. It is certain they take no consolation in saying, "Despite everything, one way or another the Jewish people will survive," because in order to save one individual Jew who is in danger, one is even obliged to desecrate the Sabbath. The souls of the righteous, when they were in this world, did not just pray for the whole congregation of Israel in general, they prayed for each private individual Jew. Certainly now they are all still praying and storming this same way on behalf of every Jew. "…My welfare is not Your charge. For the holy who are in the earth, for the heroes in whom all my longing dwells" (Tehillim 16:2-3). (ibid., pp.328-329)
Here, the Rebbe abandons the precise, pedagogic style of homiletic teaching in favor of a sermon that is a lamentation and a cry: a lamentation for the dead and the tortured, and a cry of perplexity and bewilderment. Thus far we have presented God's weeping as silent, taking place in His inner sanctuaries, so as to prevent the destruction of the world. But what of the real, audible weeping and cries of our Jewish brethren – is this something that the world can bear? We believe that if God were to burden the world with His weeping and sorrow, the world would cease to exist. But, asks the Rebbe of Piaseczno, the cries of the children who are tortured and starving and murdered on the streets of Warsaw, in Auschwitz, or facing firing squads in the forests of death – are these not also the cries of the Master of the world? Is this cry of Your suffering nation, Israel – which is, of necessity, also Your cry - not sufficient to destroy the world?
The truth is, it is a marvel how the world exists after so much screaming. When the Ten Rabbis martyred by the Romans were suffering, the ministering angels cried out, "Is this Torah, and this its reward?" A voice from heaven responded, "If I hear one more cry I will turn the whole world back to water." Yet now, immaculate children, purest angels, together with the greatest, holy Jews, are murdered and butchered just because they are Jews, who are greater than any angels, filling the whole vast emptiness of the universe with their screaming, and the world does not turn back into water? It remains standing, steadfast, as though God is untouched by events, God forbid? (ibid., p. 328)
The Rebbe never for a moment abandons the great faith that "there is nothing besides Him," nor the faith that God is suffering and weeping with us. But the enormous perplexity that arises specifically because this faith is maintained in all its solidity cannot be denied, hidden, or suppressed. The children, who are a manifestation of God, are crying out God's own cries to Him, and they are murdered and slaughtered, and evil goes on, and life continues – and there are no words, even for those who use them freely.
This great question mark that the Rebbe of Piaseczno leaves in his sermon cannot be washed away even with all the words that I have quoted in the name of great Torah scholars,gedolei yisrael, or that have been proposed by others, or that will ever be written. For as long as people live in this world and believe in God Who is full of compassion, Who dwells with them, his cry will continue to challenge any theological or ideological statement – and, in fact, any statement at all.
Translated by Kaeren Fish