The Hiding of God

By Eliezer Berkovits

(Summary of the text: Angelika Matzka)

On the eve of April 28, 2022, Yom haShoah begins in Israel. This is the day of remembrance for the six million of Jewish women, men and children murdered in the Shoah. On this occasion, we present a condensed version of a text by Eliezer Berkovits “The Historical Context of the Holocaust—A Jewish Philosophy of History”. It is a chapter in his book “Faith After the Holocaust”, published in 1973 (pp. 86-113). The page numbers after the quotations refer to this publication.

Biographic remarks:

Eliezer Berkovits was born in Nagyvárad (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, today Oradea in Romania) in 1908. He studied in Berlin, at the orthodox Mir yeshiva in Jerusalem, and at the Hungarian rabbinate. In Berlin, he earned a doctorate in philosophy. In 1934, he received his rabbinical ordination at the Berlin Rabbinic Seminary. After his flight from Germany, he was as a Rabbi in Jewish communities in Leeds, Sydney, and Boston. From 1958 to 1975 he held the chair of philosophy at the Hebrew Theological Seminary in Skokie, Illinois. Afterwards, he settled in Jerusalem, where he died in 1992.

“Berkovits’ philosophy of Judaism places a heavy focus on the role of man in history. In his view, classical Judaism, as embodied in the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud, presents a coherent critique of Western culture and its ideas about man – a critique which can be applied to the most pressing questions of modern life. Building on both his philosophical training and talmudic background, Berkovits saw the task of Jewish philosophy to ‘make Judaism a significant philosophy of life in the intellectual climate of our age … [and to] equip it with the truth of God in relationship to the vital issues of present-day human existence.’”[1]

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“Never in the long history of the Jewish people has there lived a generation of Jews, having experienced so much degradation and humiliation as ours, that has also been granted such a rich measure of encouragement by the God of history as ours. The very same generation that has been compelled to drain “the cups of staggering” to the last drop has also been handed “the cup of consolation.” [Jer 16:7] The survivors of Auschwitz and Treblinka recovered in Zion and Jerusalem. They marched from the darkest pit of a man-made hell into the light of Jewish sovereignty in the state of Israel—but not to find peace there either.” [86-87]

Berkovits wrote this text in 1973, that means, still very close in time to the Six Day War of 1967. He had no illusion that “Never again” would really mean never again. “The possibility of another Auschwitz” cannot be excluded categorically. His view of the “international moral climate today” (at the beginning of the seventies of the 20th century) finds strong parallels to the time before World War II. He postulates:
“In order to meet the challenge to his very existence in the midst of universal chaos and disintegration what the Jew needs most of all is self-understanding. He must be able to appreciate the role which he plays in world history and to acknowledge the principle he represents in the human venture.”
But the only way to accept this role is
“by placing the threefold experience of this generation—Auschwitz, Jerusalem, and the new threat to Jewish survival—in the comprehensive context of the world history of the Jewish people, of Jewish teaching and of Jewish experience.” [87]

Therefore, “to deal with the holocaust in isolation” is the wrong way for him.
“The holocaust occurred after several millennia of Jewish history, and it cannot be considered independently either of that experience or of the teaching that accompanied the experience. Furthermore, the period after the holocaust coincides with the rise of the state of Israel. But neither must this event be seen in isolation […].”  [88]

“Is it possible to take cognizance of the European holocaust in the light of Judaism’s faith in a personal God? […] Not for a single moment shall we entertain the idea that what happened to European Jewry was divine punishment for any sins committed by them. It was injustice absolute. It was injustice countenanced by God. But if we hold on to our faith in a personal God, such absolute injustice cannot be a mere mishap in the divine scheme of things. Somehow there must be room for it in the scheme, in which case the ultimate responsibility for this ultimate evil must be God’s. It is a frightening thought, yet one of the great prophets of Israel did not shy away from acknowledging ultimate divine responsibility for evil in the world. It was Isaiah who let God reveal himself in the words: “I am the Lord, and there is none else; I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am the Lord that doeth all these things.”” [Isa 45:6-7] [88-89]

For Berkovits, the theological meaning of these verses is directed against the dualistic view of Manicheism. Whoever believes in God must therefore also see the existence of evil in God’s responsibility, just as Isaiah saw it. He is not to share Jewish philosophies of the Middle Ages that qualified the existence of evil as a lack of good. Ghettos, death camps, gas chambers are not a “lack of good”. But the problem of faith posed by the holocaust is not unprecedented in Jewish experience. Berkovits recalls the two destructions of the Temple, the scattering of Israel, the expulsion and elimination of the Jews in Spain, the Crusades with their massacres, etc. For him, the problem is as old as Judaism itself.

“When the Bible says: “See I have set before thee this day, life and what is good, and death and what is evil”, this is a philosophy of life, which at the same time represents a philosophy of history. And indeed the Bible continues: “… in that I command thee this day to love the Eternal Thy God, to walk in His ways, to keep His commandments and His statutes and His laws; that you mayest live and multiply, and the Eternal Thy God bless thee in the land wither thou goest to take it into possession.” But if you do not follow this advice, “I have announced to you this day, that you will quickly be ruined, ye will not prolong your days upon the land, …” [Deut 30:15-18] All this is presented as a law of history. […] It was meant to be a philosophy of history that was to be acted upon and was to guide the day to day policies of the Jewish people, determining their decisions in any crisis or in the face of a challenge.” [91]

But the matter is not that simple. For the question remains why evil succeeds, why the wicked hold the upper hand. May one argue with God? Based on Job 42:7 Berkovits concludes:
“God rejects his would-be defenders and takes sides with the one who contended with him. Him he calls “My servant,” and not the friends who were bent on seeing in Job’s suffering God’s justice.
Far from disregarding the facts of history, the teachers of Israel in the Talmud were the first to speak of God’s silence in history.”

Berkovits combines this with the biblical wording of God hiding his face. This expression has two meanings: on the one hand it is a divine judgment, a punishment; on the other hand, it is used when human shameful deeds cause suffering and God inexplicably hides from the lamentations of the innocent sufferers. Many psalms speak of this experience of God’s absence. For Berkovits, this is deeply about whether God is present in history or not.

“However, if the problem was seen so clearly, how was it met? […] the rabbis spoke of the silence of God as a historical fact, not of his absence. The one who is silent may be so called only because he is present. Somehow they are able to hold on to both ends of the dilemma. […] The same Jeremiah who contends with God because the way of the wicked prosper, also refers to God as “the righteous judge who examines the reins and the heart.”” [Jer 11:20] [99]

“Much more astounding, however, is the fact that even though the Jewish people were fully aware of the conflict between history and teaching, yet they staked their very existence on the original biblical proposition that life and the moral good were identical, as were death and evil; […] Flying in the face of all historical experience, they organized their own existence in history on the proposition that “the Eternal is nigh unto all of them that call upon Him, to all that call upon Him in truth.” [Ps 145:18] […] Fully aware of the facts, with open eyes, we contradict our experience with our affirmations.” [100-101]

Berkovits finds an explanation for this “Hiding” in the book of Isaiah (45:15) where it reads: “Verily Thou art a God that hidest Thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour.” To illustrate this tension, he reports a rather long Talmudic argument about the principle of the dialectics of creation.

“Rabbi Akiba expresses in ethical terms the significance of the dialectics of Rabbi Meir. God does not determine in advance that one person be a Sadiq [Righteous], and another a Rasha [Wicked ]. But unless the possibility existed for a man to be a Rasha, if he so desires, one could not only be a Rasha, one could not be a Sadiq either. For one can only be a Sadiq as a result of responsible choices made in the freedom of available alternatives. […] The ethical significance of Rabbi Meir’s “bad” dialectics is that being a Sadiq is conditioned by man’s freedom to choose the way of wickedness, just as being a Rasha presupposes his freedom to turn into the path of righteousness. […] Isaiah of course did not mean to say that God actually does evil. Rejecting Manichean dualism, the prophet maintains that God alone is the Creator. He created evil by creating the possibility for evil; He made peace by creating the possibility for it.” [104]

Man has the possibility to do the good, to seek for it. He has it because God gave him the freedom to do good or evil in personal responsibility. For Berkovits, freedom and responsibility are indispensable characteristics of being human. By using his freedom
“he will often use it wrongly; he will decide for the wrong alternative. As he does so, there will be suffering for the innocent.” [105]

Therefore, it is the wrong question to ask why there is undeserved suffering. The question that must be asked is: Why does man exist? The question behind the question about injustice in history is in fact: Why does the world exist, why does creation? But one could not argue about that with God. He just wanted to give it a try with men. And if God would want to eliminate the evil and suffering from the world, which arose from this try, he could only do it by eliminating men from the world, “by recalling the world of man into nothingness”.

In Hebrew, Berkovits says, there exists a term that describes God’s forbearance. This expression is a grammatical plural because—say the Rabbis—God is forbearing in many ways. On the one hand, we would like to see God as the merciful, the long-suffering one, who waits in patience that man turns to him again. But we would forget that the logical consequence is that injustice goes on and innocent people suffer a lot.

“This is the inescapable paradox of divine providence. While God tolerates the sinner, he must abandon the victim; while he shows forebearance with the wicked, he must turn a deaf ear to the anguished cries of the violated. This is the ultimate tragedy of existence: God’s very mercy and forebearance, his very love for man, necessitates the abandonment of some men to a fate that they may well experience as divine indifference to justice and human suffering. It is the tragic paradox of faith that God’s direct concern for the wrongdoer should be directly responsible for so much pain and sorrow on earth.” [106]

Therefore, Berkovits concludes:
“he who demands justice of God must give up man; he who asks for God’s love and mercy beyond justice must accept suffering.” [106]

According to Berkovits, God’s dilemma is that his patient waiting for the return of the sinner means, at the same time, for the others that he hides his face from the suffering and the injustice in the world. In order to grant man his freedom, he must, as it were, stay out of everything. But in order that man does not perish from his many wrong decisions, from his turning away from what is good or right,
“God must remain present. The God of history must be absent and present concurrently. He hides his presence.” [107]
From this dilemma Berkovits derives:
“God’s presence in history must remain—mostly—unconvincing. […] how can one prove an unconvincing presence convincingly?” [107]

Berkovits refers to the Talmud talking about Ezra and the “Men of the Great Assembly” who restored “the old glory of the divine crown”. This refers to Deut 10:17 where Moses calls God great, mighty and awful. These attributes of God were questioned by Jeremiah and Daniel because their experiences did not confirm them. But Ezra and the Men of the Great Assembly said:
“That indeed is his mightiness that he subdues his inclination and grants long-suffering to the wicked. And this in itself is a proof of his awesomeness; for were it not for the fear of him, how could one people (i.e., Israel) survive among the nations?” [108]

This means, says Berkovits, a radically new interpretation of what God’s might and awesomeness mean. This new interpretation results from the fact that otherwise the freedom of man and with it essentially his existence as it is wanted by God would be reduced to absurdity. History could not be the place of an obvious physical power of God. It rather applies:
“History is the arena for human responsibility and its product. […] The rabbis in the Talmud saw the mightiness of the Almighty in that he controls his inclination to judge and to punish and behaves in history as if he were powerless. […] God is mighty, for he shackles his omnipotence and becomes ‘powerless’ so that history may be possible.” [109]

This renunciation of his power enables God to be lenient with men. The fact that he is nevertheless present in history is evident for Berkovits in the continued existence of the people of Israel. It is true that the Talmud concludes correctly: God remained silent, and he remained so too often.
“But it is even more true that seen in the light of the generally observed facts and processes of history, the very idea of a people of God, of constituting a people on the basis of a commitment to do the will of God and to the belief that life and death are determined by the ethical categories of good and evil, was a fantastic proposition. […] The people of God did come into being.” [110]

Berkovits calls it a “mysterious survival power” of the people of God. In its existence it is a “unique and absurdly irregular historic fact”. Despite all experiences, despite all counteractions, and the more the general circumstances and developments in the world contradict it, the people of Israel are a historical fact up to now. Because of this “absurdly irregular historic fact” one could almost think there were “two histories” – the one of the peoples and the one of Israel. For the history of Israel is not to be explained from itself like the history of all the other peoples which takes place in the categories of power and economy and can be explained therefrom. A “supra-natural” dimension protrudes into the history of Israel. Both histories together form the history of mankind. 

“The history of the nations is enacted mainly in the realm of the Is. […] The history of Israel belongs chiefly into the realm of the Ought; it is faith history, faith that what ought to be, what ought to determine and guide human life, should be and will be. […] As long as Israel lives the Ought holds on to reality be it only by the skin of its teeth. […] As long as Israel is, the Ought to, is; the Supernatural has acquired a footing in the Natural. As long as this is so there is hope for both—for there is hope for the ultimate merger of the two realms. […] In the meantime the conflict obtains […] between fact and fact; between the powerful reality of the Is and the meaningful and mysterious reality of the Ought. Since it is a conflict between fact and fact, history and history, reality and reality, the conflict is clash, a battle accompanied by untold human suffering.
Why has it been so arranged by the God of history?”

Even if an answer to this question might not be found, the insight remains that the truth may not be abandoned, no matter what answer is found. This truth is witnessed through the reality of the people of Israel. In all the contradictions, in all the experienced silence of God, in all that is not understandable
“we would still be left with the only alternative with which Job too was left, i.e., of contending with God while trusting in him, of questioning while believing, inquiring with our minds yet knowing in our hearts! And […] praising Him as the rabbis of old did: who is like you our God, mighty in silence”! [113]

[1] From: