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  • Lukas Bacho

Jewish Theodicy After the Holocaust: A Response to Hans Jonas’s “Becoming” God

For many people, Jews and non-Jews alike, the intertwined problems of evil and suffering gained particular force after the Holocaust. Although evil had been around as long as history itself, the scale and senselessness with which the Nazis operated was horrifyingly unique. As Hannah Arendt put it in a 1943 essay entitled “We Refugees,” “hell is no longer a religious belief or a fantasy, but something as real as houses and stones and trees.” [1] Accordingly, the felt need for theodicy — i.e., defense of God’s providence despite the existence of evil — intensified, even as the task seemed to have become more difficult. These anxieties were the impetus for Hans Jonas’s influential 1987 essay “The Concept of God after Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice,” in which he insisted that the horror of the Holocaust “added to the Jewish historical experience something unprecedented,” so much that it required “a new answer to the old question of (and about) Job.” [2] Jonas’s answer was an unconventional account of divine nature that sought to preserve God’s goodness in the face of evils as extreme as the Holocaust. I will argue that his attempt fails.


At the outset, it is important to elucidate what Jonas means by “a new answer to the old question of (and about) Job.” In context, he clearly means a new Jewish answer, having just distinguished “particular theodicy” from “general theodicy” in “its sharpening by the riddle of election, of the purported covenant between Israel and its God.” [3] General theodicy is the problem of evil writ large; particular theodicy is the problem of evil perpetrated against God’s chosen people. Although the Holocaust is profoundly relevant to the challenge of general theodicy, and even bearing in mind Jonas’s description of the unique senselessness of the Nazi execution machine—one theorized about at length by the likes of Hannah Arendt—particular theodicy is the problem that was decisively worsened by the phenomenon in question. This is not meant to diminish the evil of the Holocaust or its actors; quite the contrary. But evil is everywhere. Those who contend that a single event or era worsened the problem of general theodicy set themselves an impossible historiographic task. From Jonas’s Jewish perspective, then, the question is not simply, “what God could let it happen?”; but most immediately, “what Jewish God [i.e., God worshiped by Jews] could let it happen?” [4] Not only did God allow such a horrendous genocide to take place; God allowed it to be perpetrated expressly against God’s chosen people. It is this latter paradox that demands a new explanation.


In light of these considerations, I—a practicing Christian—must be careful to read Jonas on his own terms. His aim in the essay is to build a conception of God that is both consistent with Jewish tradition and palatable to contemporary Jews troubled by evil. The result, therefore, is not a generic perfect being theology arrived at by a priori reasoning, but what Jonas himself calls “a piece of frankly speculative theology,” drawing on sources within and outside the Bible to ground itself in the Jewish tradition. [5] If his argument resonates more with Jews than with non-Jews, that may be a sign of its success. Therefore, my argument is really a two-part question directed toward Jewish readers. Is a God like Jonas’s: a) what is required to address the problem of Jewish particular theodicy; and b) worship-worthy in a Jewish framework? Still, my hypothesis is that Jonas’s God fails on both counts.


Seeking an account of God consistent with Jewish thought yet unblameable for the Holocaust, Jonas proposes a Divine “ground of being” who at the beginning of time “chose to give itself over to the chance and risk and endless variety of becoming.” [6] If this already seems esoteric, bear in mind that Jonas is in a speculative rather than argumentative mood. He calls his own account a “myth,” for we are to inherit it without explanation, a bit like Plato’s cave allegory in the Republic. [7]


In the beginning, Jonas continues, the Divine exchanged its being for becoming so that the world he would create might “be for itself,” and gave humans free will—bounded by mortality—so that they might exercise knowledge and freedom. [8] Naturally, this includes the capacity to perform evil. Jonas highlights four aspects of the Divine on his account: God is suffering, caring, becoming, and notably not omnipotent. [9] Roughly, God suffers because God gives up God’s solitary, unimpeded existence for coexistence with beings who are (like God) changeable; so as the world suffers, God suffers. [10] God is caring by virtue of God’s intimate involvement with the world and its events, while also entrusting care of the world to beings other than Godself. [11] However, because Jonas does not fully explain what he means by “suffering” and “caring” with reference to God and instead focuses on the latter two aspects of aspects of becoming and omnipotence, I will also focus on these latter two aspects. In the process, I hope to demonstrate the grounding of the former two is shaky at best.


Why does Jonas deny omnipotence to God? He argues that God’s power must be limited by its relational dependence upon humanity, a relation characterized by suffering, caring, and becoming. [12] To be all-powerful, Jonas asserts, God would have to be the only thing in existence; and yet “by the act of creation itself,” God has “forgone being ‘all in all.’” [13] Here he seems to draw on G.W.F. Hegel’s famous master-slave dialectic, in which the master’s identity as such—i.e., his power over the slave—is dependent upon the slave’s submission. Jonas’s relational account of power suggests that God’s nonomnipotence is not only desirable to God, but necessary given the facts of creation, which include humans behaving autonomously. Thus, God does not bear guilt for human evil. Moreover, Jonas asserts that his nonomnipotent God accords with the Kabbalistic notion of tzimtzum—God’s self-contraction or self-withdrawal to make room for the world—and the Hebrew Bible, in which God is represented as being affected, frustrated, regretful, and occasionally even caught by surprise. [14] So Jonas gives up God’s power, and not a little of it.


Before evaluating how divine nonomnipotence affects Jonas’s project of theodicy, I would like to consider how orthodox or heterodox the position is in Judaism. When philosophers predicate omnipotence of God, they take God to be all-powerful, maximally powerful, or perfectly powerful. The conviction is at least as old as the Bible; though many have argued that omnipotence is not philosophically asserted in Tanakh, gestures toward it abound. In promising that the aging Sarah will bear a child, God asks Abraham, “Is anything beyond the power of the LORD? ”(הֲיִפָּלֵא מֵה' דָּבָר)" [15]; and again God asks Jeremiah, using the same verb form, “Is anything too difficult for me? (הֲמִמֶּנִּי יִפָּלֵא כָּל־דָּבָר)." [16] Even Job, in the depths of his suffering, confesses to God, “I know that you can do everything (ידעת [יָדַעְתִּי] כִּי־כֹל תּוּכָל). [17] The Middle Ages saw some of the first philosophical defenses of divine traits like omnipotence in all three Abrahamic religions. The Christian theologian Anselm of Canterbury insisted that if God had the capacity to do things that would not make God better, it would be through the capacity not of power but of impotence. [18] Although some Jewish theologians produced their own defenses of omnipotence, on the whole they seem to have been more willing than Christians to cede divine omnipotence. As previously mentioned, Jonas’s account of God’s surrender of power in Creation accords with at least some interpretations of Kabbalistic cosmogony. [19] And Moses Maimonides and others warn against literal readings of Scripture, even denying that one can predicate any positive attributes of God. Maimonides would have called “omnipotence” one of our “amphibolous terms” for divinity, dismissing the concept’s theological utility. Recognizing that the notion of a nonomnipotent God—or a God whom it does not make sense to call “omnipotent”—is not foreign to Judaism, I acknowledge that nonomnipotence in itself may not incapacitate God’s worship-worthiness for Jews.


However, Jonas central idea—that God chose to transform from “being” into “becoming”—gets him into trouble by making God’s apparent nonomnipotence a moral issue. Jonas admits that his God, by choosing becoming over being, “has ‘temporalized’ himself.” [20] It is unclear how an atemporal being could become temporal; but whatever Jonas’s rationale may be, it allows him to speak of God’s surrender of power in unambiguous, before-and-after terms. Creation was God’s “self-renunciation of limitless power,” to such an extent that God “has divested himself of any power to interfere with the physical course of things,” including the Holocaust. [21] Thus, God chose to radically limit God’s formerly maximal power through the act of creation, with the knowledge of “possibilities” that such a limitation would allow for an incomprehensible quantity of evil and suffering to take place until the end of time. [22] And though God suffers with creatures, God’s suffering is distinct from ours; at best, it is that of a compassionate yet complicit voyeur. Jonas holds that leaving the world up to chance in this way allows God to discover God’s essence. Yet Jonas goes further than he must, strangely insisting that creatures’ pain and cruelty “deepens the fullness of the symphony” and “is the deity’s gain.” [23] What could God possibly discover about Godself in the presence of evil, unless God is, like humans, not wholly good? If, on the contrary, God is indeed wholly good, God could have chosen not to create, and the problem of evil would be avoided at no cost to God’s essence. On Jonas’s picture of a God nonomnipotent by choice, the problem of evil seems to have been pushed back to creation rather than put to bed.


Having applied some pressure to the explanatory power of Jonas’s “becoming God” with respect to the problem of evil, I find that the worship-worthiness of such a God is questionable quite apart from issues of theodicy. Even if Jonas’s God is not a Deus absconditus — a God whose intentions and presence are unknowable — it does seem to be a God who has absconded, somewhat like an absentee parent who cares for their child despite leaving them to their own devices. [24] It does not improve anything that the parent provided those devices in the first place. Through this hands-off approach, Jonas speculates, God is “trying out his hidden essence and discovering himself” [25] — but so is the neglectful father addicted to gambling. For God to embark on a journey of self-discovery at the expense of letting creaturely suffering accumulate unchecked seems irresponsible, perhaps even selfish. [26] And then there are ontological concerns. Jonas’s caring God is not only the Jewish “Lord of History," [27] but bounded by history—suffering, becoming, risking, and above all changing. When Jonas admits his is “an endangered God," [28] I do not think he means ontologically endangered, but such is the felt effect of a God who “has ‘temporalized’ himself.” [29] Maybe my Jewish peers feel differently, but I would be very reticent to worship a God whose very essence has undergone change.


For all the problems with Jonas’s picture, it demonstrates a compelling metatheological point: What Jonas calls “absolute goodness,” “absolute power,” and “intelligibility” are logically irreconcilable in God, such that one of them must be ceded for the other two to hold. [30] If I want to unequivocally affirm God’s omnibenevolence and God’s omnipotence at once, I will reach the limit of what I can say about God’s action before Jonas does. Still, in hopes of avoiding the issues Jonas aggravates, I am inclined to compromise divine intelligibility rather than goodness or power, especially when considering the Holocaust; but Jonas disqualifies a hidden God as “a profoundly un-Jewish conception” given the historical importance of revelation to Judaism. [31] However, Jonas’s banishment of the problem of evil to the time of Creation is itself enabled by a glaring unintelligibility: God created, God became, “for unknowable reasons.” [32] As I see it, God’s reasons for creating should be no more unknowable than the parameters of God’s power or the mechanism of God’s action. But here, even Jonas succumbs to the theological copout of divine unintelligibility. Is there a way to preserve God’s intelligibility to the greatest possible extent without discarding goodness or power wholesale?


Jonas’s problem seems to be that he sees the contradiction between these three divine attributes as a zero-sum game, where preserving God’s goodness and intelligibility in in the face of evil requires him to deprive God of any power. According to Jonas, one must hold that God “could not intervene” in events like the Holocaust. [33] But there is a robust philosophical tradition, following in the footsteps of Anselm and others, that has developed highly intricate accounts of how divine power might be “limited” without compromising its perfection. For example, a “top-down” perfect-being theist might hold that God is not required to possess or exercise absolute power to be God (defined as the greatest possible being); rather, it is sufficient for God to be perfectly powerful, meaning powerful “in all the ways that count,” provided God is more powerful than anything else. (Yujin Nagasawa and Jerome Gellman are two contemporary proponents of this view.) True, if one affirms both that God is powerful enough to have been able to prevent the Holocaust and perfectly good, one will have a formidable explanatory knot to untangle, especially in the case of particular theodicy. This knot might be no gnarlier than the one Jonas finds himself in, though it demands an attitude many would deem clinical or insensitive. Personally, I find it painful to even articulate—much less make sense of—views that insist either on the Holocaust and our reckoning with its evil as eventually redemptive, or on God’s allowance of the Holocaust as necessary for the preservation of human free will. Others might be more capable. Alternatively, perhaps God could be extremely powerful without being able to interfere with the events of the Holocaust. My point is that if one wants to preserve God’s goodness and intelligibility, one is not necessarily obliged to give up God’s power to the extent Jonas does.


Once again, I invite readers to consider whether the conception of God that Hans Jonas advances in “The Concept of God after Auschwitz” makes any progress on answering the problem of evil, particularly evil perpetrated against Jews. Jonas’s is a God who freely chose to change its own essence from being to becoming through the act of creation, despite the knowledge that doing so could give rise to unspeakable evil that God himself would be powerless to stop. Surely such a God would be not only culpable for evil, but also—much like an absentee parent—unworthy of praise, much less worship.


At this point, one might be tempted to give up hope of ever reconciling the tragedy of the Holocaust with the existence of a worship-worthy God. But I, as a practicing theist, feel that consideration of this kind of theological quandary is precisely what is required for my faith to be substantial and my worship meaningful. Theodicy may be theoretical, but it is never impractical, unless one is content to compromise God’s goodness. On our refusal to do so, at least, Jonas and I agree. However, unlike Jonas, I provisionally commit myself to the concept of a God whose power is a little limited, and whose intelligibility is a little limited, but whose essence is eternally and unequivocally good. The task of philosophical explanation remains, as does the question of whether such a God would be acceptable to my Jewish peers. But for what it’s worth, this is a God-concept to which I could, and indeed do, devote myself.



 

Notes:

1. Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees,” in International Refugee Law, (London: Routledge, 2010), 254.

2. Hans Jonas, “The Concept of God after Auschwitz: A Jewish Voice,” The Journal of Religion, vol. 67, no. 1, 1987: 1–13. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1203313.

3. Jonas, 2.

4. Ibid., 3.

5. Ibid., 1.

6. Ibid., 4.

7. Ibid., 3.

8. Ibid., 4-5.

9. Ibid., 6-8.

10. Ibid., 6.

11. Ibid., 7-8.

12. Ibid., 8–9.

13. Ibid., 8.

14. Ibid., 6; 12.

15. Gen. 18:14.

16. Jer. 32:27.

17. Job 42:2.

18. Proslogion §7

19. Medad Lytton pointed out to me that the interpretation of tzimtzum as entailing a forfeiture of divine power is not uncontroversial. For a fascinating primer on the concept and its interpretations, see Paul Franks’s 2021 essay “The Midrashic Background of the Doctrine of Divine Contraction: Against Gershom Scholem on Tsimtsum.”

20. Jonas, 7.

21. Ibid., 9-10.

22. Ibid., 4.

23. Ibid., 5.

24. While Deus absconditus (“hidden God”) is a Christian concept, it is said to derive from Isaiah 45:15 (“Truly, you are a God who hides himself, Oh God of Israel, the Savior”).

25. Jonas, 5.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid., 3.

28. Ibid., 8.

29. Ibid., 7.

30. Ibid., 9.

31. Ibid.

32. Ibid., 4.

33. Ibid., 10.

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