On God, Bob Dylan, and the Holocaust

I’m teaching a class on religious ethics at the moment. I couldn’t bring myself to cover the usual set of topics about sex and gender, abortion, euthanasia, and the various “real” life questions in between. There are a number of ethics classes that deal with these kinds of topics across the university curriculum. What concerned me, chiefly, in a religious ethics class, was the question of theodicy, i.e. “Is God ethical?” How can anyone even consider religious ethics after the Holocaust? In what sense is belief in a good, loving, all powerful God possible after the twentieth century? So, the course covers 10 different ways of thinking about this question from theologians, atheists, philosophers and the like. It begins with the book of Job from the Hebrew Bible, and continues on to Augustine, Kant, Luther, Kierkegaard, Arendt, Levinas, Bonhoefer, and Zizek, among others. I don’t teach to answer the question definitively (although a number of compelling approaches to the question are offered), but more to respond to a common complaint I hear concerning the presumed unwillingness of religious people to face the question, openly and honestly. As Ron Rosenbaum wrote in an interesting article for the Chronicle on Bob Dylan’s reference to Hitler in Tarantula

In those eight words—“hitler did not change history. hitler WAS history”—it seems to me, Dylan is not saying Hitler’s evil genius was unique, exceptional. He’s saying Hitler represents—embodies—a distillation of all the horrors routinely perpetrated by human civilization… “Our God problem,” I said, was the abject failure of post-Holocaust Jewish theodicy: The attempt to maintain a belief in a God who had given Hitler free rein to murder. For Jewish scholars and theologians, it seemed to me, post-Holocaust theodicy should be the first, if not only, subject of their study.

It seems to me Rosenbaum is right. What’s troubling is how difficult it is to speak adequately about these things, which is the real reason Ron writes. He gave a lecture which fostered a response that haunted him, troubled him to the degree to which he had to respond. He writes, I suppose, what all who ask these questions must write in the end: “I apologize.”

I believe my feelings were as legitimate as his feeling of faithfulness, my anger as legitimate as his desire to continue a lifetime of belief and consolation. But who knows what losses he endured and how he had continued to love God?…

…Hitler is dead, and I had nonetheless hurt the feelings of an undoubtedly good man to make a point about Hitler, God, and Bob Dylan. That wasn’t my purpose, nor is my purpose here to take pride in my newly awakened empathy for my questioner. It’s to register an honest evolution of feeling from an anger that was not sufficiently separated from a desire to hurt those religious figures who assumed some special authority if not holiness, and whom I felt had failed me and their followers. In a place for truth-telling—the academy—I feel remorse for my zeal to make the truth hurt.

And though he and I still may well differ, for that I apologize to him.

Ron Rosenbaum, “The Naked Truth,” The Chronicle - http://bit.ly/IuAvMw