In summer 2012 I enrolled at a JTS summer course: Holocaust and Post-Holocaust Jewish Thinking. The course enabled me to focus on several philosophical, historical, aesthetic and theological issues related to this complex topic. I wrote several papers examining some of these issues. This is the third essay – exploring the choice to be silent in the aftermath of the horror – and the price of this silence.



June 6, 2012

Breaking the Silence

“…Perennial suffering has as much right to expression as a tortured man has to scream; hence, it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems.”

Theodor Adorno

“Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. “

Elie Wiesel

For many among those who survived and those who witnessed the Holocaust the only possible reaction was silence.  But even in this formless void, words stirred, and in reaction to the unspeakable horror, questions rose, silent accusations from the abyss, louder than all screaming.  Often, these questions were- are – targeting God  – whose presence was questioned during the years of the Holocaust and in the years that have followed it.  The questions were often silenced, feared, repressed.  Michael Wyschogrod in his essay “Faith and the Holocaust’ points at the risks found in exploring the theological ramifications of a catastrophe of these proportions: “It seems to me that nothing but blasphemy can be the result if we view the Holocaust from the human point of view.”

This attitude echoes the Biblical silence of Aaron, the High Priest who loses his two sons in a fatal, mysterious fire, and remains silent upon their tragic loss: Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD spoke of when he said: “‘Among those who approach me I will show myself holy; in the sight of all the people I will be honored.'” Aaron remained silent.” (Lev. 10:3)  Interestingly, and often ignored, at the end of the same chapter, at the end of a terrible day in which he lost two of his sons – Aaron does lash out, in a harsh question asked of his brother Moses but aimed at God: “Is this good enough in God’s eyes?” (Lev. 10:19) But this obscure, latter breaking is rarely recognized. It is Aaron’s initial silent reaction that is most often cited in Ultra-Orthodox and Chasidic reactions to the Holocaust, indeed to all matters related to grief, portrayed over and over again as the role model for noble silence in the face of tragedy.

A similar endorsement for silence is found in the Babylonian Talmud. A short legend in Tractate Menachot 29b describes Moses as a time traveler, witnessing the terrible execution of the greatest Talmudic sage, Rabbi Akiva, by the Romans. As Moses sees Rabbi Akiva’s flesh raked with iron nails he exclaims to God “ This is Torah and this is the reward!?” The answer that comes from God is, “ Be silent, thus the thought has arisen within Me”.

From these two important narratives, it seems that silence in the face of horror is a familiar and central form of Judaic theodicy, often evoked in classical and modern Jewish experiences. But I wonder: how helpful is this reaction to the pained, questioning soul of a survivor who is truly struggling with faith?  What happens when –if- the silence is broken?  Is it better to let silence prevail, putting a lid on painful memories – or can there be benefit in the voicing of difficult questions, even if no answers may be found?

Oftentimes, during the horrible years themselves, silence prevailed – the words themselves were too exhausted to be formulated. It took several years, and for some even less, but like Aaron, some Holocaust survivors eventually found the words with which to share their memories, express their anguish and begin asking hard questions of humanity – and of God.  In 1971, Emil Fackenheim, a Holocaust survivor and one of the most prolific and important voices addressing the legacy of the Holocaust from philosophical and theological aspects wrote: “Silence would, perhaps, be best even now, were it not for the fact that among the people the flood-gates are broken, and that for this reason alone the time of theological silence is irretrievably past.” [1]

Philosophers, theologians, psychologists and artists have been attempting to provide answers to human suffering from the earliest recordings of civilization. Sometimes the paradigms and responses offer solace and consolation. But sometimes they add fuel to flame, provoking anxiety, anger and frustration, more trouble than comfort.

Clearly, there is no ‘one size fit all’ answer when it comes to attempted answers to the perennial question – ‘why does evil exist in the world?’ Some are comforted by the varied list of responses elicited by religious leaders and thinkers. There are many religious Jews who hold on to the notion of the Holocaust as a punishment for the sins of prior generations. For some, incredibly, those sins include the assimilation and turning away from Judaism, or the pursuit of Zionism. These are difficult positions to accept and are often rejected. For many others, this type of theodicy point at the uselessness of the project – these attempts at making sense of it all are simply futile. And yet for others – not only is the questioning of God an act of heresy – so is, sometimes, the silence in the face of the horrors – the silence that admits doubt.  For Fackenheim, silence in the wake of the Holocaust may lead to the greatest defeat, and the 614th commandment that he adds to our collection is to defeat this possible spiritual defeat at all costs:   “Thou Shalt Not Give Hitler a Posthumous Victory.” Fackenheim’s view of God’s voice speaking from Auschwitz compels the survivors to attest to God’s presence – and to be present with God – even in this great pain:”… We are forbidden… to deny or despair of God, however much we may have to contend with him or with belief in him, lest Judaism perish. We are forbidden, finally, to despair of the world as the place, which is to become the kingdom of God, lest we help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted. To abandon any of these imperatives, in response to Hitler’s victory at Auschwitz, would be to hand him yet other, posthumous victories.” [2]

Rabbi Irving Greenberg, writing in response to the holocaust since the 1970’s, is also of the opinion that silence is not an option in this case: In “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire” he writes: “So evil is the Holocaust and so powerful a challenge to all other norms, that it forces a response, willy-nilly: Not to respond is to collaborate in its repetition.”[3] But although Greenberg endorses the questions – and the dialogue – he is also keenly aware of the fragility of words and their rare adequacy in addressing the matter at hand. He writes about the terrible tension between the need to voice and express our feelings and thoughts – and the inability of these expressions to get at the core of the issue and truly console us or provide us real answers. After examining several contemporary theological responses he writes: “The Holocaust offers us only dialectical moves and understandings – often moved that stretch to the limit and torment us with their irresolvable tensions.”

Greenberg uses an incredibly powerful image to symbolize his quest for a God of meaning in the face of tragedy. He returns to the classic iconography found in the Bible, guiding the steps of the survivors of the Egyptian slavery, on their path to freedom. He uses this same imagery to imagine the divine providence that can likewise guide us in these post Holocaust years as we try to make sense of what happened and move on: “…the cloud of smoke of the bodies by day and the pillar of fire of the crematoria by night may yet guide humanity to a goal and a day when human beings are attached to each other; have so much shared each other’s pain, and have purified and criticized themselves, that never again will a Holocaust be possible. “

Greenberg is outlining the roadmap of healing and resolve – but he’s careful to note that this is a vision for the days to come. Like many others, he too, at this point, suggests:  “perhaps then, but for now silence.”

Greenberg wrote this particular essay, one of many he has written on this topic, in 1987. Twelve years later his beloved son was killed in a tragic accident.  In later years he has reflected on the silence in the face of tragedy – personal and collective, the death of one or the murder of multitudes. He still calls for carefully articulated questions, whether there are answers to be found or not. But he is also still an advocate for humble, respectful silence in the face of loss.

Greenberg’s wife, Blu Greenberg, an important writer and teacher, echoes this sentiment. She recently wrote about the silence of Aaron, the bereaved Biblical parent, sharing but a glimpse into the reaction that she and her husband have had to their son’s sudden death:

“The deeper human religious response is to be silent, to live with the contradiction, and to affirm that we need not force meaning into tragedy. Sometimes, the deepest response of love is to be silent.”[4]


[1] Emil Fackenheim, ‘Faith and the Holocaust’ Judaism 20 (Summer 1971) p. 286

[2] Emil Fackenheim: The Jewish Return into History: Reflections in the Age of Auschwitz and a New Jerusalem (New York: Schocken Books, 1978), pp. 23-4.

[3] Irving Greenberg, Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity and Modernism After the Holocaust, from Auschwitz: the Beginning of a New Era K’tav Publishing House)

[4] Blu Greenberg The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).