Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1987
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 long-standing use of psychoanalytic insights in his discussion of religion. What Rubenstein meant was that whenever people speak about God, they are talking about what they believe about God, which is not the same as talking about God directly. Therefore, it can make sense to say, as Rubenstein did in After Auschwitz, that “we live in the time of the death of God,” but, as Rubenstein explained further, we cannot say whether “the death of God” is more than an event within human culture.
Rubenstein’s emphasis on the anthropological dimensions of theological discourse did not mean that he was indifferent about the nature of ultimate reality. One place, for example, where he parted company with the Christian “death of God” theologians involved his impression that they “’willed’ the death of the theistic God” with very little regret. In contrast, Rubenstein found himself unwillingly forced to conclude that the idea of a God of history lacked credibility after Auschwitz and felt saddened by that outcome. He recognized that history had shattered—at least for him—a system of religious meaning that had sustained people, especially Jews and Christians, for millennia. The destruction of such meaning was no cause for celebration. On the contrary, it suggested to Rubenstein the melancholy prospect that human existence is ultimately absurd and meaningless.
That conclusion, however, was not to be Rubenstein’s last word on the subject. Seeking an alternative that could work for him and for others who might share his outlook about the God of history, Rubenstein went on to write movingly and positively about his vision of “God after the death of God,” as the final chapter of the revised version of After Auschwitz is titled. Instead of “faith in the radically transcendent Creator God of biblical religion, who bestows a covenant on Israel for His own utterly inscrutable reasons,” Rubenstein affirmed that “an understanding of God which gives priority to the indwelling immanence of the Divine may be more credible in our era.”
Drawing on both Eastern and Western mystical traditions, including strands from his Jewish heritage, Rubenstein amplified the idea of divine immanence by speaking of God as the Holy Nothingness. Submitting that “omnipotent Nothingness is Lord of all creation,” he used that concept to refer to “the ground, content, and final destiny of all things,” adding that “God as the ’Nothing’ . . . is not a thing” but “no-thing.” Beyond distinctions between the masculine and the feminine or human understandings of good and evil, Rubenstein’s Holy Nothingness is not the “absence of being, but a superfluity of being . . . a plenum so rich that all existence derives therefrom.” The best metaphor for this concept, he suggested, is that “God is the ocean and we the waves. Each wave has its moment when it is identifiable as a somewhat separate entity. Nevertheless, no wave is entirely distinct from the ocean, which is its substantial ground.”
This perspective’s advantages, Rubenstein argued, include “a judgment on the overly individualistic conception of the self which has predominated in the Western world.” Emphasizing the interdependence of all things, Rubenstein insisted that “the world of the death of the biblical God need not be a place of gloom or despair. One need not live forever for life to be worth living. Creation, however impermanent, is full of promise.” Granted, if omnipotent Nothingness is Lord of all creation, we can ask but never really answer the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Far from reducing the horror of “ethnic cleansing” and the Holocaust, that outcome may make human life more tragic than ever. However, it does remove the theological “problem of evil” that intrudes when such devastations are interpreted as part of a world created and sustained by a powerful biblical God of history whose providential purposes are supposedly governed by goodness, justice, and love.
The concerns that drove Rubenstein to reject the traditional God of history, however, were never directed by unsatisfactory attempts to solve a dilemma whose dissonance had been reduced to the abstract question, “If there is radical evil in the world, how can God be omnipotent and completely good?” His issue was far more concrete, particular, and historical. After Auschwitz, how could sense be made of a Jewish tradition of covenant and election, a perspective in which Jews interpreted themselves to be specially chosen by God, bound to God in a covenant that entailed God’s blessing for faithfulness and God’s judgment against infidelity? Common to that tradition’s self-understanding was the belief that “radical communal misfortune,” as Rubenstein called it, was a sign either that God found the Chosen People wanting and dispensed punishment accordingly, or that God called on the innocent to suffer sacrificially for the guilty, or that an indispensable prelude for the messianic climax of Jewish history was under way, or some combination of such outlooks. In any case, the Holocaust, an event in which Nazi Germany was hell-bent on destroying Jewish life root and branch, made Rubenstein collide head-on with the biblical tradition of covenant and election, which seemed to him to lead consistently to a positive answer to the question “Did God use Adolf Hitler and the Nazis as his agents to inflict terrible sufferings and death upon six million Jews, including more than one million children?” Such an answer Rubenstein could not accept. He wrote After Auschwitz instead.
Rubenstein had to decide whether to affirm the logical implication that he found belief in the God of history to entail, namely, that God was ultimately responsible for Auschwitz. Finding that affirmation obscene, he looked elsewhere to make sense of his Jewish identity. Rubenstein’s developing religious perspective led him to reject a providential God and to emphasize instead a sense of the sacred in which “creation and destruction are part of an indivisible process. Each wave in the ocean of God’s Nothingness has its moment, but it must inevitably give way to other waves.” Nevertheless, Rubenstein affirmed, we have considerable freedom to direct the journey we take during our limited time on earth. That journey can be joyful and good.
After Auschwitz was a crucial departure point for Rubenstein’s distinctive journey. Decades later he returned to that work and saw that “no person writing about the religious significance of contemporary history can rest content with what he or she has written at a particular moment in time. As history is an ongoing process, so too is theological writing concerning history.” As the second edition of After Auschwitz made clear, however, Rubenstein consistently followed his conviction that theology’s basic relevance is anthropological—what it tells us about humankind. Thus, the accent of his work fell increasingly on history, politics, economics, and sociology—always with reference to religious thought and practice but with emphasis on the conditions that produce human conflict and the safeguards that must be shored up to limit that conflict’s destructiveness.
Important though they are, none of Rubenstein’s other books is likely to eclipse the significance of After Auschwitz. Particularly in the United States, its sustained impact has rightly been considerable in Jewish circles and on many Christian audiences as well. Rubenstein’s reflections were among the first to probe the significance of Auschwitz for post-Holocaust religious life. Few, if any, have better stood the test of time.
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