The Holocaust and the Problem of Evil

I just spent a few days in Washington D.C., mainly visiting the U.S. Holocaust Museum. What an amazing place--both extremely informative and extremely horrifying. Before going, I read Elie Wiesel's memoir of surviving the Holocaust, Night. From a philosophical perspective it's an especially interesting book because of the way Wiesel's experiences lead him to thoughts about God.

I went through the museum thinking a lot about Wiesel and people like him. Distant relatives of mine were also pious Jews in Eastern Europe. So I walked through the museum thinking about them, and about their religious outlook.

Before the Nazis arrive, Wiesel is a devout 15 year old boy studying the Torah and Kabalah. His piety is smashed out of him by the horrific things he soon witnesses and experiences. The Holocaust Museum puts these things on display with total candor. (Wiesel was one of the founders of the museum.)

On the floor devoted to the "Final Solution" the museum displays live footage of the "mobile killing units" that killed hundreds of thousands of people in the Soviet Union. The museum has tastefully hidden video monitors behind high walls, so the visitor can choose to look or not look. I made myself look at Jewish men, women and children lining up naked next to a long, deep ditch of naked corpses, being shot, and toppling over into the pile.

Wiesel's stance is not exactly disbelief, but close to it. Hitler kills his parents and his sister, but also undermines his faith. Sometimes he seems to express anger at God, sometimes outright non-belief. But the constant is that he thinks there's no explanation why God permitted the Holocaust.

I think it ought to be a rule that no one should be allowed to debate the so-called "problem of evil" without first spending 2-3 hours in the Holocaust Museum. Not that 2-3 hours immersed in another genocide (Darfur, Rwanda, Cambodia) won't do, but the Holocaust Museum does such an incredible job of putting all the facts on display.

Let's see--a good God was watching over this depravity and could have stopped it, but treasured the free will of the perpetrators too much to do so. That might fly if you're sipping tea in a philosophy lounge somewhere, but just doesn't make sense as you watch that video behind the wall. Um, what about the victims? Did torture and then death just maybe limit their free will?

Then there's the silliness about how God allowed six million deaths because of all the virtue that was prompted as a result. The Holocaust Museum doesn't try to sugarcoat anything. We all know of the heroism of a small number of people who responded to these atrocities, but the museum makes it clear the heroes were in a very small minority. Mostly the world just stood by and watched.

Then we get the Christian-flavored story about how the suffering of the Jews gave rise to the "resurrection"--the redemptive creation of the nation of Israel. But would we really see Israel's existence as such a great good if it hadn't become necessary as an outcome of the Holocaust?

The Holocaust Museum obliterates facile stories about why God must permit evil. But then, I'd also recommend the trip to anyone who thinks the problem of evil is a one-way ticket to atheism. It fascinates me the way Elie Wiesel comes so close to saying flatly there is no God, but never quite says it. The Jews of Eastern Europe found joy and cohesion in their religious experience. Can I really say the survivors should have allowed Hitler to claim their parents and children and friends and their faith as well?

Again, there's the philosophy lounge answer--yes. The problem of evil is insuperable. There can be no God. Then there's the answer that people come to from their own personal experience. Elie Wiesel's writing is full of tension. Belief is impossible for him, but non-belief is impossible. There's no easily-defined religious outlook that can entirely satisfy him.

I came out of the museum with an armful of books, including one about Elie Wiesel and theology, but if I understand him correctly, his stance is one I have to respect.

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On a lighter but still-Jewish note: I discovered a cool website by reading Normblog today.

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