Calling their regime the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party ruled Germany from 1933 to 1945. The Holocaust, Nazi Germany’s planned total destruction of the European Jews and the actual murder of nearly six million of them, took place during those years. More than a million Jews were gassed at Auschwitz. The catastrophe that befell his people, the Jews, during the Holocaust led Richard L. Rubenstein to write After Auschwitz. The first edition, published in 1966, assured Rubenstein’s significance in Jewish theology. Revised and expanded in 1992, this book remains required reading for anyone interested in post-Holocaust philosophy and religion.
Significantly, the Holocaust did not occur until the mid-twentieth century, although conditions necessary, but not sufficient, to produce it were forming centuries before. After Auschwitz helps to show how Christian anti-Judaism and its demonization of Jews were decisive antecedents of the Holocaust. It also discusses the importance of the post-Holocaust emergence of the State of Israel, but the book is best known for its emphasis on a collision between faith in the God of history—some Christian beliefs about such a God have produced Christian anti-Judaism—and the disastrous reality of the Holocaust.
The 1992 version of After Auschwitz is more a new book than a second edition of an old one. Nine of the original version’s fifteen chapters were eliminated; those that remain were substantially rewritten. Ten new chapters that had been published elsewhere were also added to the revised edition, which is the source for all of the quotations in this article.
In the 1992 edition of After Auschwitz, Rubenstein describes a meeting with Swami Muktananda of Ganeshpuri, a deeply religious man. “You mustn’t believe in your own religion,” the swami advised him, “I don’t believe in mine. Religions are like the fences that hold young saplings erect. Without the fence the sapling could fall over. When it takes firm root and becomes a tree, the fence is no longer needed. However, most people never lose their need for the fence.”
Rubenstein found the swami’s advice helpful because he received it at a time when he was feeling very pessimistic about humanity, a mood that included what he acknowledged as an intolerance toward people in his own Jewish tradition who apparently declined to face difficulties about the relationship between a God of history and the Holocaust. Rubenstein heard the swami saying something that spoke to him in ways that are reflected in the opening paragraph of After Auschwitz’s second edition. The first version, Rubenstein explained, contained a “spirit of opposition and revolt, which was an almost inevitable consequence of my initial, essentially uncharted attempt to come to terms theologically with the greatest single trauma in all of Jewish history.” Governing the second edition, he went on to say, was a “spirit of synthesis and reconciliation.” Rubenstein stated that he had kept his fundamental insights but had done so in the second edition “with a greater degree of empathy for those who have reaffirmed traditional Jewish faith in the face of the Holocaust.” Rubenstein discerned that Swami Muktananda had urged him not to give up his fundamental insights but to use them to look deeper and to see beyond their limited meanings.
Even before he received the swami’s advice, Rubenstein showed that he had already been practicing some aspects of it in the first edition of After Auschwitz. This book challenged some of the most fundamental beliefs held by Jews and Christians. Specifically, Rubenstein argued, the Holocaust calls into question the existence of a redeeming God, one who is active in history and who will bring the upheavals of human existence to a fulfilling end. In the late 1960’s, After Auschwitz provoked considerable controversy. One result was that Rubenstein found himself linked with three American Protestant thinkers—Thomas Altizer, William Hamilton, and Paul van Buren—and all four were identified as key players in what came to be known as the “death of God” movement.
At the time, the three American Protestants hailed the “death of God” with considerable enthusiasm. Optimistic about the human prospect, they celebrated the liberation that men and women could experience when they moved beyond an outmoded theological past to see that the whole world was no longer in God’s hands but solely in the hands of the people. Rubenstein’s outlook differed in important ways. He was not alone among those thinkers in denying that he was an atheist who literally believed “God is dead,” but Rubenstein made clearer than most his view that “the ultimate relevance of theology is anthropological,” a perspective reflected in his...
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