Article abstract: One of the first Jewish thinkers to explore deeply the ethical and religious implications of the Holocaust, Rubenstein not only questioned the credibility of claims about God’s presence in history but also addressed overpopulation, modernization, bureaucracy, and the persistent threat of genocide in the modern world.
A 1940 graduate of Townsend Harris High School in New York City, Richard Lowell Rubenstein did not experience the Holocaust firsthand. While Nazi Germany’s “final solution of the Jewish question” destroyed European Jewry, he was a student at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he studied from 1942 to 1945, and then at the University of Cincinnati, where he took his bachelor of arts degree in 1946. Nevertheless, the Holocaust marked Rubenstein’s life profoundly. That disaster was a governing influence on his substantial body of philosophical writings about religion, theology, politics, and ethics.
Raised in an assimilated Jewish home, Rubenstein received strong parental encouragement to develop intellectually—so much so that his avid reading and disinterest in sports led to grammar school teasing that dubbed him “The Professor.” His family, however, was less than enthusiastic about Rubenstein’s eventual decision to become a rabbi, which led to his ordination when he graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in 1952. For the next four years, Rubenstein served Jewish congregations in Brockton and Natick, Massachusetts, but his academic interests proved stronger than his commitment to these rabbinical positions. Graduate study at Harvard University, where Christian theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich influenced him considerably, led to his master’s degree in theology in 1955 and to his Ph.D. in 1960. Rubenstein served as chaplain to Jewish students at Harvard from 1956 to 1958 and then as director of the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation and chaplain to Jewish students at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University from 1958 to 1970. During these years in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Rubenstein emerged as a Jewish writer whose thought would be even more significant than it was controversial—and Rubenstein’s thought definitely turned out to be controversial.
In 1961 in the Netherlands, Rubenstein planned to begin a research trip to West Germany on Sunday, August 13. That same day, the East Germans created a major Cold War crisis by hastily building a wall between East and West Berlin. Postponing his trip for two days, Rubenstein arrived in Bonn, the West German capital, and accepted an invitation from his hosts, the Bundespressamt (Press and Information Office) of the Federal Republic, to fly to Berlin to see the unfolding crisis. In an atmosphere charged with fear that nuclear war might erupt, Rubenstein took the opportunity to interview Heinrich Grüber, a prominent German Christian leader who had resisted the Nazis under Adolf Hitler, rescued Jews, and suffered imprisonment in a Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Earlier in 1961, Grüber had been the only German to testify for the prosecution at the Jerusalem trial of Adolf Eichmann, a leading Nazi perpetrator of the Holocaust.
With American tanks rumbling through the streets of Dahlem, the West Berlin suburb where Grüber lived, Rubenstein interviewed him in the late afternoon of August 17. When their conversation turned to the Holocaust, this meeting became a turning point in Rubenstein’s personal and intellectual life. Grüber affirmed a biblical faith in the God-who-acts-in-history. More than that, he held that the Jews were God’s chosen people; therefore, he believed, nothing could happen to them apart from God’s will. When Rubenstein asked Grüber whether God had intended for Hitler to destroy the European Jews, Grüber’s response was yes—however difficult it might be to understand the reason, he told Rubenstein, the Holocaust was part of God’s plan.
Rubenstein was impressed that Grüber took so seriously the belief that God acts in history, a central tenet of Judaism and Christianity. To Grüber, that belief meant specifically that God was ultimately responsible for the Holocaust. Although Grüber’s testimony struck him as abhorrent, Rubenstein appreciated the consistency of Grüber’s theology, and the American Jewish thinker came away convinced that he must persistently confront the issue of God and the Holocaust. The eventual result was Rubenstein’s first and immensely important book, After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism, which appeared in 1966. A second edition of After Auschwitz, so extensively enlarged and revised as to be virtually a new book, was published in 1992 with a different subtitle: History, Theology, and Contemporary Judaism.
After Auschwitz was among the first books to probe systematically the significance of Auschwitz for post-Holocaust religious life. Its second edition advanced its unsettling explorations. Rubenstein’s analysis sparked ongoing debate because it challenged a belief that many people have long held dear. After Auschwitz, Rubenstein contended, belief in a redeeming God—one who is active in history and who will bring a fulfilling end to the upheavals in the human condition—is no longer credible.
In the late 1960’s, the stir caused by After Auschwitz linked Rubenstein to a group of young American Protestant thinkers—Thomas Altizer, William Hamilton, and Paul van Buren among them—who were called “death of God” theologians. The popular media, including Time magazine, picked up the story, and the movement ignited public discussion for some time. Although the spotlight eventually moved on, these...
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