Richard L. Rubenstein

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2389

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.

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Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 thinkers’ contributions—especially Rubenstein’s—did not fade. Their outlooks posed questions and their testimonies raised issues too fundamental to disappear. Yet neither the labeling nor the clustering of these thinkers was entirely apt. None was atheistic in any simple sense of the word. Nor were their perspectives, methods, and moods identical. What they loosely shared was the feeling that talk about God did not—indeed could not—mean what it apparently had meant in the past. In that respect, the term “radical theology” described their work better than the more sensationalistic phrase “death of God.” Creating breaks with the past and intensifying discontinuities within traditions, they ventured to talk about experiences that were widely shared even though most people lacked the words or the encouragement to say so in public. Unlike his Protestant brothers, however, Rubenstein put the Holocaust at the center of his contributions to radical theology in the 1960’s. After Auschwitz provoked real soul searching about that historic catastrophe.

With controversy about After Auschwitz and the “death of God” movement still swirling, Rubenstein kept writing. Between 1968 and 1974, he published four important works. An award-winning study, The Religious Imagination: A Study in Psychoanalysis and Jewish Theology, drew on Sigmund Freud’s thought to interpret religion. It was followed by Morality and Eros; My Brother Paul, a work that discussed the differences and similarities Rubenstein saw between Saint Paul’s outlook and his own; and Power Struggle, in which Rubenstein offered instructive insights about his life and scholarly work. None of these works, however, would be as widely noted as After Auschwitz or a brief but pointed book called The Cunning of History: Mass Death and the American Future, which appeared in 1975.

The Cunning of History defended several disturbing propositions. First, far from being an aberration or a sign of the decline of “progress,” the Holocaust, Rubenstein argued, was an extreme expression of the mainstream of Western civilization. In no way did Rubenstein condone the Holocaust, but he held that key developments in modern society—overpopulation, technology, “problem-solving” calculation, and bureaucracy as well as nationalism and “scientific” racism—could make state-sponsored population riddance a “rational” policy. Rubenstein contended that Nazi Germany enacted such policies against the European Jews. In doing so, moreover, the Nazis revealed the functional inadequacy of morality and religion to prevent such destruction. As a result, Rubenstein affirmed, it no longer makes sense to say that human beings possess rights by nature. Human beings have rights as members of political communities or they do not have rights at all.

At first, The Cunning of History received limited attention, but one of its readers was novelist William Styron. He reviewed the work favorably in The New York Review of Books and then discussed it approvingly in Sophie’s Choice (1979), his best-selling Holocaust novel. By that time, a new paperback edition of The Cunning of History, introduced by Styron, had appeared, and the book’s prominence in Holocaust studies was assured.

Rubenstein relocated to Florida State University in 1970, where he became the Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of Religion in 1977 and taught until 1995. It was also in the late 1970’s that Rubenstein became interested in the work of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. This interest led to Rubenstein’s presidency of two institutions affiliated with the Unification Church: The Washington Institute for Values in Public Policy, a public policy research institute in Washington, D.C., which he led from 1981 to 1992, and the University of Bridgeport (Connecticut), where Rubenstein became president in 1995. Rubenstein’s links with Unification Church projects encouraged his interest in international relations and, in particular, Asian culture, economics, politics, and religion.

Rubenstein’s The Age of Triage: Fear and Hope in an Overcrowded World reflected his growing concern about international issues. Elaborating the ideas of surplus populations and population riddance introduced in The Cunning of History, Rubenstein linked modernization and mass death in a study that encompassed such apparently diverse events as the enclosure movement in England during the Enlightenment, the nineteenth century famine years in Ireland, and a variety of twentieth century events—a nonexhaustive list includes the Armenian genocide at the hands of Turks, the slaughter of Soviet citizens under Joseph Stalin, and the devastation of Cambodia, as well as the destruction of the European Jews.

A surplus population, Rubenstein explained, is “one that for any reason can find no viable role in the society in which it is domiciled.” Rubenstein recognized that population redundancy exists partly because of sheer numbers but even more because the dominant intentions that energize modern society tend to be governed by the belief that money is the measure of all that is real. More than any other, he claimed, that belief drives the modernization process, which has been under way and intensifying over the last five centuries. One effect of this process is that the intrinsic worth of people diminishes. Their worth is evaluated functionally instead. Hence, Rubenstein contended, if persons are identified as nonuseful—they can be so regarded in any number of ways, depending on how those in power define their terms—a community may find it “sensible” to eliminate the surplus. In modern times, that action has been facilitated, indeed instigated and promoted, by governmental power. As Rubenstein understood it, then, triage entails state-sponsored programs of population elimination: through eviction, compulsory resettlement, expulsion, warfare, and outright extermination, roughly in that order. This winnowing process, more or less extreme in its violence, enables a society to drive out what it does not want and to keep what it desires for itself.


Rubenstein’s wide-ranging scholarship also includes Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and Its Legacy—coauthored with John K. Roth in 1987 and one of the first studies of the Holocaust jointly written by a Jew and a Christian—as well as additional books and many articles about the global connections between religion, ethics, and politics. These writings typically analyze how violence is provoked—and might also be checked—by religious commitments and institutions. They provide further evidence that Rubenstein’s influence derived from his unflinching and unrelenting attention to the “dark side” of human existence: violence, genocide, the Holocaust. In his writings, he also affirmed that humankind’s persistent ways of destruction and death may be limited, if not checked completely, by the best religious, ethical, and political commitments that human beings can muster. If Rubenstein’s incisive writings are more sobering than optimistic, his readers recognize that humankind cannot afford to ignore his thoughts.

Additional Reading

Braiterman, Zachary. God After Auschwitz: Tradition and Change in Post-Holocaust Jewish Theology. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998. Braiterman thoughtfully interprets and assesses Richard L. Rubenstein’s contributions to debate about God’s relation to history and to the Holocaust in particular.

Cohn-Sherbok, Dan. Holocaust Theology. London: Lamp Press, 1989. Surveying various theological responses to the Holocaust, this book contains a good introductory chapter about Rubenstein’s thought written by a well-qualified interpreter of his work.

Cooper, John Charles. The Roots of Radical Theology. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967. Provides early perspective on the “death of God” movement as it emerged in the 1960’s.

Haynes, Stephen R., and John K. Roth, eds. The Death of God Movement and the Holocaust: Radical Theology Encounters the Shoah. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Rubenstein joins other scholars, including Thomas Altizer, William Hamilton, and Paul van Buren, to discuss retrospectively the Holocaust’s impact on the “death of God” movement in theology.

Jacobs, Steven L., ed. The Holocaust Now: Contemporary Christian and Jewish Thought. East Rockaway, N.Y.: Cummings and Hathaway, 1996. This work features significant essays on post-Holocaust theology that frequently address Rubenstein’s concerns and theories.

Katz, Stephen T. Post-Holocaust Dialogues: Critical Studies in Modern Jewish Thought. New York: New York University Press, 1983. In this noteworthy study, an important Jewish philosopher and Holocaust scholar includes a critical discussion of Rubenstein’s work and its implications.

Kliever, Lonnie D. The Shattered Spectrum: A Survey of Contemporary Theology. Atlanta, Ga.: John Knox Press, 1981. Provides useful insights about Rubenstein’s role in the upheaval and development of post-Holocaust religious thought.

Murchland, Bernard, ed. The Meaning of the Death of God: Protestant, Jewish and Catholic Scholars Explore Atheistic Theology. New York: Random House, 1967. Important scholars comment on the “death of God” movement, including Rubenstein’s relation to it.

Roth, John K., ed. Ethics after the Holocaust: Perspectives, Critiques, and Responses. St. Paul, Minn.: Paragon House, 1999. In a dialogue format, Leonard Grob, Peter J. Haas, David Hirsch, David Patterson, Didier Pollefeyt, and John K. Roth discuss post-Holocaust ethics in ways that often draw on Rubenstein’s thought.

Rubenstein, Betty Rogers, and Michael Berenbaum, eds. What Kind of God? Essays in Honor of Richard L. Rubenstein. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1995. This valuable book contains extensive biographical and bibliographical information about Rubenstein as well as significant essays about his work by important Holocaust scholars, philosophers, and theologians.

Sontag, Frederick, and John K. Roth. The American Religious Experience. New York: Harper and Row, 1972. Rubenstein’s work is discussed in a chapter on “The Death of God in American Theology.”

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