God, the Holocaust and a Pastor

Posted: May 28, 2008 12:01 AM
God, the Holocaust and a Pastor

Comments about God and the Holocaust made in a sermon 10 years ago by a leading evangelical pastor, John Hagee, have received a great deal of attention. They have led to Sen. John McCain severing ties with the pastor, whose support the presumptive Republican presidential nominee had originally solicited.

Pastor Hagee, a major supporter of the Jewish people and Israel, citing verses from Jeremiah, said: "How did it [the Holocaust] happen? Because God allowed it to happen. Why did it happen? Because God said 'my top priority for the Jewish people is to get them to come back to the land of Israel.'"

I am a God-believing, Torah-believing, religious (though not Orthodox) Jew, author of a book on Judaism and a book on anti-Semitism who does not agree with this theological explanation of the Holocaust.

But the notion that God willed the Holocaust is neither anti-Jewish nor even un-Jewish. There are, after all, only two possible explanations regarding God and the Holocaust:

1. God allowed it but did not will it.

2. God willed it.

This is simple logic.

Like most other people, I find neither explanation religiously or morally, let alone emotionally, satisfying. But both are Jewishly acceptable. There is a long tradition in Judaism that collective Jewish suffering is often God-willed. On the Jewish holy days, the central prayer (the Amidah) of the Jewish service contains a paragraph beginning: "Because of our sins we were exiled from our land."

The author of the biblical book Lamentations wrote, upon seeing the first destruction of Jerusalem and the accompanying mass slaughter of Jews: "The Lord is like an enemy; He has swallowed up Israel… He has multiplied mourning and lamentation" (Lam 2.5). And the Talmud, the holiest Jewish work after the Bible, says that that horrific event occurred because of "gratuitous hatred," i.e., Jews hated one another for no good reason.

As Rabbi Jakob Petuchowski, one of the greatest Jewish scholars of the 20th century, wrote: "Much of the national suffering of the people of Israel was explained by the biblical Prophets in terms of punishment meted out by God to a sinful people."

Regarding the Holocaust specifically, Ignaz Maybaum was a major 20th century Jewish theologian who identified "the Holocaust victims as vicarious sacrificial offerings for the redemption of humanity…"

We recoil at the thought of a just, good and loving God willing the mass murder of so many innocent people. But that belief is not necessarily anti-Semitic.

Moreover, the alternate view that God simply lets all this evil and cruelty go on isn't satisfying either. Whether God directed the Holocaust or just allowed it to happen, in either case, many Jews are angry with Him for that. Anger toward God (as well as love toward Him) has a long history even among devout Jews. Petuchowski cites a medieval prayer by 12th century Jewish poet Isaac bar Shalom, who, after a pogrom, changed one word in a Jewish prayer (from "elim" to "ilmim'). As a result, "Who is like you among the gods, oh Lord" became "Who is like you among the silent, oh Lord."

I have written my own beliefs about the reasons for the Holocaust and all of anti-Semitism in the book I co-authored with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, "Why the Jews? The Reason for Antisemitism" (Simon & Schuster, paper, 2003). They are, in short, that the Holocaust, like all Jew-hatred, is an inevitable result of the hatred by the evil of the world of God's Chosen People, who introduced to humanity a morally demanding God who judges the behavior of every individual.

Whatever one's views, however, what Hagee once said in a sermon is completely unworthy of the condemnation that it has received from critics who are obviously motivated by politics rather than by truth. Forcing the man to deny he is an anti-Semite is like forcing a kind and decent man to deny he is a bank robber.

Hagee is one of the most pro-Jewish Christians alive. No living Christian has devoted more of his life to combating anti-Semitism. He has received death threats from anti-Semites, and they have attacked his home. To accuse such a man of anything anti-Jewish renders both truth and anti-Semitism meaningless. Calling people who help Jews anti-Semitic is a gift to real anti-Semites. With no exception I am aware of, those who imply some anti-Jewish animus in Hagee do so in order to undermine an evangelical conservative and to manufacture a right-wing equivalence to the America-cursing, race-based Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

But as Bill Donohue, the head of the Catholic League, who had been very critical of Hagee for his strong criticisms of the Catholic Church -- for its historical treatment of Jews, no less -- said of Hagee: "I found him to be the strongest Christian defender of Israel I have ever met, and that is why attempts to portray him as anything but a genuine friend to the Jews -- one for whom the Holocaust is the horror of horrors -- is despicable."

Why God allowed the Holocaust and other evils is a mystery. What is not a mystery is why some people on the left, including some Jews who care far more about the left than about Jews, smear a courageous and good Christian pastor.