Finding the Face of God in Auschwitz: International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 2014

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marked to note when the largest of the concentration camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated in 1945.  There is so much one could say, and so many others who could say it better than me, so today I will channel the voice of Melissa Raphael, a Jewish Feminist theologian and professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Gloucestershire.  There is so much she offers in the text I will quote from, The Female Face of God in Auschwitz, but those unfamiliar with theological approaches to the Holocaust will need to know a few things:

First, Raphael utilizes the word “Auschwitz” in a theologically significant and quite powerful manner. “Auschwitz” signifies many things: the physical concentration camp, the entirety of atrocities perpetrated by Hitler and the Nazi Party, and all the unnamed effects of the atrocities in the political, scholarly, religious, and secular worlds.  When Raphael speaks of “God’s redeeming presence in Auschwitz,” she is speaking of the challenge of identifying God not only in the physical location of Auschwitz-Birkenau, but in the entirety of the horrors of the Holocaust, temporally located in the 1930’s and 1940’s and ideologically located in the worldview perpetrated by Nazism but ones that is always on the verge of spilling over in the modern day.  One need only look at the current atrocities in the Central African Republic to be reminded of the precipice of evil on which we stand.

Second, and related to the last definition of “Auschwitz,” the Holocaust was a directed act of horrific anti-Semitism that changed the very core of how we see ourselves in the developed Western world.  In 1925, we looked in the mirror and saw a victorious if bruised people, having gloriously survived the greatest war ever known.  We saw a modern world on the verge of perfection in the sciences, humanities, and politics.  We had built and flown airplanes.  We had discovered reason and evolution, thereby ridding the world of the necessity of religion.  Through Einstein, we had begun to crack the code of the universe.  Conversely, in 1960, we looked in the mirror and saw a disfigured humanity borne of the backs of millions of Jews in the Holocaust and millions of Russians under Stalin.  We–now, in 2014–have still been forever changed.  Who can deny what the the Jewish philosopher Walter Bejamin wrote: “there is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as a document is never free of barbarism, so barbarism taints the manner in which it was transmitted from one hand to another”?1 

In this corrupted human existence, Raphael finds God seeking after God’s own image in the midst of a nearly-destroyed humanity.  Beautifully and astoundingly, Raphael seeks to find redemption within the horrors of Auschwitz through a reconstruction of God’s image which the Holocaust worked so hard to destroy.  She writes:

“Auschwitz all but extinguished the human spark that was once the illuminating glory of creation so that there God could hardly known creation as her own.  Auschwitz sought to dis-appear God’s image in creation by hunger, fire and mud.  It would take generations of spiritual restoration–begun by those within Auschwitz and continued by those outside it–before God would know that the image was God’s and could contemplate it with joy.  That is what is meant by the eschatological end: the completion of God’s work; the moment when it is finished and God and all those who have shouldered the (re)creative task with her can rest and enjoy the sabbath that also returns us to the new beginning.  Auschwitz was an end but not the end.  Wherever Jewry, living or remembered, was restored within its fences, it could also motion towards a beginning, for a restore image is one which is revealed in its original clarity.”2

Whereas Christian theology sees Christ as the new Adam and the eschatology as already-having-been-started through the incarnation of Christ within the world, Raphael’s Jewish theology sees our call as people of God to return creation to the original perfect image of Godself within the world: “A mirror to the beauty of divine holiness, the world was once, visibly, very good.  God saw God in creation so the expressive purpose of creation was fulfilled.  In her emanation as a creator, God could touch the world and the world was touchable to God.”3

In short, Raphael’s point is that one need not question why God allowed the Holocaust to happen, but where one can find God within the atrocities of Auschwitz. Christopher Pramuk’s recent book, Hope Sings So Beautifultranslates this image into the perhaps more easily understandable Christian notion of grace: when one finds the horror of racial segregation in the 21st century, when one finds persecution of people for the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, their religious practices, do not ask why such things existed–instead, ask God to help you see the grace incarnate within such horrible instantiations of humanity.4

Whether in the language of Christian grace or the revealed image of God in daily life, Raphael sees God working in creation to envision Godself perfected in the image of the world. “If Auschwitz meant that God could no longer behold God on earth then her being and her reason for creation was close to destruction.  She would become blind to herself. This was the case when God seemed to dispersed by absolute atrocity to have disppeared altogether.  But if God could behold her image even in the smoke blackened mirror of Auschwitz, then God’s original creative purpose was not utterly thwarted.  In those moments when God could behodl God in the midst of Auschwitz, through the thick scale of Jewry’s profanation, these were moments of tikkun–the restoration of God’s first vision and sight of the world in the days when it was new.”5

Reading Raphael, I think we are not too far apart, we Christians and our Jewish sisters and brothers.  Yet it was precisely within the veil of Christian Anti-Semitism that the Holocaust was perpetrated.  So, my wish for you, reader, is to let yourself be destabilized today in the hope of incarnate grace for the ability to see moments of tikkun, so that you and I may participate in God’s recreation of the world.

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1. Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” in Walter Benjamin-Selected Writings, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings, vol. 4 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 392.”On the Concept of History” in , vol. IV, p. 392).
2. Melissa Raphael, The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Jewish Feminist Theology of the Holocaust (New York: Routledge, 2003), 158.
3. Raphael, 159.
3. Christopher Pramuk, Hope Sings, So Beautiful: Graced Encounters Across the Color Line (Collegeville, Minnesota : Liturgical Press, 2013), 105-122.
4. Raphael, 158.

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