Rav Yisrael Lau’s Approach to Hashem’s Role in the Holocaust – Part One by Rabbi Chaim Jachter


One of the great questions confronted by thoughtful Jews and non-Jews alike is the role of Hashem in the Holocaust. While many thinkers, both traditional and not so traditional, address this issue, a most powerful approach is articulated by Rav Yisrael Lau in his book Out of the Depths. Rav Lau, a Holocaust survivor, served as the State of Israel’s Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi during the 1990’s. The fact that Rav Lau experienced the Holocaust with all of its unspeakable horror lends great significance to his approach to this vitally important issue.

 This Shiur was delivered at Torah Academy of Bergen County on Book Day 2013 when a day was devoted to discussing various aspects of Rav Lau’s Out of the Depths. I thank the many students who participated, for sharing their insights and thoughts that have enriched this presentation.

 Introduction – Chazal’s Approach to Tzaddik VeRa Lo

 Before presenting Rav Lau’s approach to the Holocaust, we must present Chazal’s approach to Tzaddik Vera Lo (theodicy; explaining why the righteous suffer). Chazal, following the example of Tanach, courageously confront this issue. Just as the Tanach addresses his issue in many places such as Kohelet, Tehillim, Chabbakuk, and most of all Iyov, so too Chazal frequently address this central philosophical issue. Chazal present (Berachot 7a) that none other than Moshe Rabbeinu was deeply concerned about this issue and that a Tanna, Rabi Elisha Ben Avuyah, lost his faith due to a confrontation with a heartrending situation of Tzaddik VeRa Lo.

 Chazal present a variety of solutions to this issue. In Berachot 7a they suggest that the righteous suffer due to sins of their parents, based on Shemot 20:5 that Hashem punishes children for the sins of their parents (“Pokeid Avon Avot Al Banim”). The Gemara rejects this idea, arguing that “Pokeid Avon Avot Al Banim” is limited to when children repeat the parents’ misdeeds.

A variation of this rejected approach of Chazal, is Kabbalah’s teaching that one suffers for sins committed in another Gilgul (reincarnation). In fact, a striking portion of the Sephardic Yom Kippur liturgy is the inclusion in the Al Cheit (confessional list of sins) a group of sins committed in another Gilgul. The Gemara offers an alternative solution that the righteous are punished for their misdeeds in order for them to be punished in this world and receive unconstrained reward in the next world.

 Berachot 5a teaches that one who suffers should examine which of his activities requires rectification. This approach sees suffering as a call from Hashem to improve. In the absence of Nevuah (prophecy), one of the ways Hashem’s communicates with us is by having us experience challenging circumstances. Indeed, Chazal (Yoma 9b) offer reasons for why the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed – the first for violations of the three cardinal sins of idolatry, adultery/incest and murder, the second for needless hatred (Sin’at Chinam). By teaching us the cause for Churban, Chazal teach us the path for redemption and return by correcting these specific misdeeds.

 Kiddushin 39b presents the stunning approach of Rabi Ya’akov that Hashem does not offer reward in this world, as it is reserved for Olam HaBa. Hashem poses challenges and difficulties to develop our character (Nisayon) and merit an appropriate place in the World to Come. Thus, argues Rabi Yaakov, reward is appropriate only in Olam HaBa. This world is intended for growth, not for reward. Yet another alternative appears on Mo’eid Katan 28a that the death of the righteous atones for sins of others. Thus, the righteous might suffer in order to correct the misdeeds of the community, a topic which deserves far more discussion, especially in light of the apparent rejection of this idea in Shemot 32:33 (see Ramban ad loc.).

 Avot 4:19 – We Do Not Know

 The solutions we presented clearly demonstrate that Chazal offer a variety of solutions to the problem of Tzaddik VeRa Lo. Accordingly, the unchallenged teaching of Rabi Yanai, recorded in Avot 4:19 that “we are unable to explain the tranquility of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous”. Why does Rabi Yanai insist that there is no explanation for the suffering of the righteous, if Chazal offer a plethora of solutions?

 While it is possible that Rabi Yanai rejects the approaches stated above, one could reasonably answer that Rabi Yanai is teaching that Chazal’s solutions to the theodicy do not apply to every case. In other words, Chazal explain why the righteous suffer in some situations but not in all. Rabi Yanai does not mean that we never understand why the righteous suffer; rather, he teaches that there are certain circumstances that we cannot explain.

 One may compare this situation to a blanket that covers most but not all of one’s body. If it covers one’s toes, his chest is exposed but if he covers his chest with this blanket then his toes are exposed. Similarly, Chazal’s explanation can cover, so to speak, most situations of theodicy. There are, though, some situations for which there is no explanation and one must reach Rabi Yanai’s conclusion.

 Menachot 29b – Beyond Our Comprehension

 The powerful incident recorded in Menachot 29b provides an insight into the type of situations Chazal believe that we cannot resolve:

Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: “When Moshe Rabbeinu ascended to Heaven, he found the Holy One, Blessed be He, tying crowns onto the letters of the Torah. He said to God: ‘Creator of the Universe, who prevented You? [From revealing these secrets to man in the basic text of the Torah that You have to add on information through the addition of such crowns - (Rashi) What's more, You wrote the Torah in order to reveal it to man. These secrets are beyond man’s comprehension and therefore seem superfluous.]’

“Hashem answered: ‘There will be a person several generations from now and Akiva Ben Yosef is his name. He will extrapolate innumerable Halachot from each of the crowns.’ Moshe responded, ‘Master of the Universe, let me see him!’ God said, ‘Take a step back.’ Moshe thereupon went and sat at the back of the eighth row - and when he listened to Rabi Akiva’s class, he did not understand the content of what was being discussed. He became exasperated. At one point during the class, however, a student asked Rabi Akiva: ‘What is the source for that law?’ To which the teacher responded: ‘It’s a Halachah transmitted from Moshe on Mt. Sinai.’ Moshe was relieved.

“Moshe Rabbeinu then asks, “Why did You choose me to present the Torah when there is a man so great as Rabi Akiva who should have done this job.” Hashem instructed Moshe Rabbeinu to be silent, since this is what He decided to do.

“Moshe further stated: ‘Master of the Universe - You have shown me his Torah - now please show me his reward.’ Moshe was then presented with an image of the Romans weighing Rabi Akiva’s flesh in the market after murdering him by raking Rabi Akiva’s flesh with hot combs. Moshe reacted: ‘Master of the Universe - this is Torah and its reward?’ Hashem responded: ‘Be silent; this is what I have decided to do!’”

 This extraordinary anecdote teaches that despite the great heights in which a human being can scale in comprehension of the words of Torah and despite the great authority Hashem has ceded to us in interpreting the Torah (see Bava Metzi’a 59b which records the celebrated Tannur Shel Achnai incident), there are nonetheless certain aspects of the world which we cannot comprehend. Specifically, this passage teaches that certain extraordinarily difficult situations are beyond our comprehension. The astonishing suffering and degradation of Rabi Akiva, despite his exceptional piety and devotion to Torah and the Jewish community, is a poignant example of an extreme situation in which Chazal proclaim to be beyond our ability to comprehend.

 Our approach is further strengthened by the fact that it fits exceptionally well with Sefer Iyov. Sefer Iyov concludes with Hashem explaining to Iyov (Perakim 38-42) that there are certain situations of Tzaddik VeRa Lo that are simply beyond human ability to comprehend. The extreme suffering of Iyov (as described in Perakim 1 and 2) certainly may be classified as an exceptional circumstance for which we have no explanation.

 Application to the Holocaust – Rav Soloveitchik

 Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik consistently opposes any attempt to explain the Holocaust, to a great extent because he believed that the Holocaust was an event that cannot truly be understood.[1] One may ask, however, did not Chazal offer explanations for the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash? One may answer that Chazal were of the spiritual stature to offer explanation, whereas we are not. However, the Tosafot Yom Tov is reputed to have attributed the events of Tach VeTat (the Khmelnitsky led pogroms of 1648-1649) to Jews conversing during Tefillah.

 One may explain that the Holocaust differs, as a devout Jew who is a child of Holocaust survivors once asked, what we could have possibly done wrong to deserve the unparalleled degree of suffering experienced during that period. The Holocaust is similar to Rabi Akiva’s fate in which we must follow Aharon’s example of silence upon losing his sons Nadav and Avihu (Vayikra 10:3), as mandated to Moshe Rabbeinu by Hashem.

 Chazal (Sanhedrin 56b) teach that among the three Mitzvot Hashem presented to us as introductory Mitzvot was Parah Adumah (the other two were Shabbat and Jewish civil law; an alternative version is honoring parents). Shabbat, civil law and honoring parents are all very appropriate introductory Mitzvot to the Torah. Parah Adumah seems to be an odd choice for an introductory Mitzvah.

I heard Rav Yehuda Amital explain that the message was to teach us that we cannot understand every action of Hashem, just as we do not fully comprehend the Mitzvah of Parah Adumah, the paradigmatic Chok (Mitzvah we do not completely understand). In fact, Rav Amital would advise people embarking on a life of Mitzvah observance to begin with one Mitzvah between us and Hashem (corresponding to Shabbat), one interpersonal Mitzvah (similar to civil law and honoring parents), and one Mitzvah for which one does not understand its reason (parallel to Parah Adumah). Adjusting our mindset to accept what Hashem sends even when we do not understand it is basic to the Jewish religious experience.


 Rav Lau adopts Rav Soloveitchik’s approach as well, as expressed in his Out of the Depths, that we cannot understand why Hashem permitted the Holocaust to occur. Next week, B”N and IY”H, we shall present Rav Lau’s important contribution to this discussion.­­

[1] For a full expression of Rav Soloveithchik’s approach to the Holocaust, see his important work “Kol Dodi Dofeik,” translated to English as “Fate and Destiny.”

Rav Yisrael Lau’s Approach to Hashem’s Role in the Holocaust – Part Two by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

An Analysis of an Essential Sukkah Story by Rabbi Chaim Jachter