For some years now, there has been a major debate among religious thinkers over whether the Holocaust should be seen as divine punishment. Pointing to the Torah’s warnings that divine curses would come true if widespread violations of the Torah’s laws were committed, some thinkers maintain that the Holocaust is clearly the result of the Jewish people’s transgressions.
After looking into these verses and reading their midrashic comments, it would indeed be difficult to deny the marked similarity between the Torah’s predictions and what happened during the Holocaust.
Nevertheless, this position could be challenged and is, in fact, dangerous.
Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, z”l, one of the greatest halachic authorities of our generation—and popularly known by the name of his multi-volume magnum opus of Talmudic halachic works, Chazon Ish—discusses the problem of heresy and deliberate violation of Jewish law, and its halachic consequences in today’s society.
In the old days, people guilty of holding heretical views, or deliberately violating Torah law, were penalized and prohibited from joining some of the community’s religious ceremonies and fulfilling certain religious functions. Today, however, according to Rabbi Karelitz z”l, such halachic rulings can no longer be applied without great hesitation:
[Such laws] only applied at times when the divine presence was clearly revealed, such as in the days when there were open miracles and a heavenly voice was heard and when the righteous would operate under direct divine intervention, which could be observed by anybody. Then, the heretics were of a special deviousness, bending their evil inclination toward immoral desires and licentiousness. In such days, there was [the need] to remove this kind of wickedness from the world, since everybody knew that it would bring divine retribution to the world [including] drought, pestilence and famine. But at the time of “divine hiding,” in which faith has become weak in people, there is no purpose in taking such action [harsh measurements against heretics and violators]; in fact, it has the reverse effect and will only increase their lawlessness and be viewed as coercion and violence [by religious fanatics]. And therefore we have an obligation to try to bring them back with “cords of love.” (Hoshea 11:4.).
This unprecedented statement, made by a major ultra-Orthodox authority, is, we believe, of great importance. The Chazon Ish maintains that we cannot compare earlier (certainly not biblical) periods with our own days. In former times, faith was strong and people didn’t doubt its foundations. Divine intervention was clear, so there was no reason for anyone to doubt God’s existence and the truth of His will as stated in the Torah. Therefore, heresy and violation of the Torah’s precepts could only be the result of deliberate rebellion. People knew that they were violating the words of the living God, since there was no doubt concerning His existence and will. Thus, there were legitimate reasons to take action against those who broke the covenant and spoke heretically. They knew that they were falsifying the truth. It was purely their earthly desires that made them travel down that road.
This, however, is no longer the case. God’s presence is not manifest as it once was, and much of what happens to humankind seems to be random, with no indication that it is the work of the Lord of the Universe. Therefore, one can no longer call heretical views the result of deliberate viciousness. These views may, in fact, be the honest consequence of careful deliberation that is clouded by confusion; by not knowing how to view and understand the workings of history, and events such as personal tragedy.
For several centuries, so-called “academic studies” of the Torah have undermined its authenticity, convincing a great number of well-meaning people of ‘proof’ that the Torah does not reflect God’s will. Therefore, there was no reason to live by its precepts.
This is no longer deliberate heresy. It could rather be called intellectual/religious perplexity.
As such, it is difficult to argue that the Holocaust was caused by divine anger for the violations of Torah precepts and deliberate heresy. The curses in the Torah are meant to come down on those who, against better judgment, and with the full understanding that they are violating God’s will, decide to do so; but not on those who are confused by or are the victims of others’ misunderstandings. This, I believe, is the implication of the words written by Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz, z”l, in relation to the question of whether the Holocaust should be seen as divine retribution.
Whatever the religious meaning of the Holocaust may or may not be, it is clear that it cannot be seen in terms of divine retribution.
 See: Vayikra 26: 14-43; Devarim 28: 15-69.
 Chazon Ish, Yoreh Deah, Hilchot Shechita 2:16.
Questions to Ponder from the DCA Think Tank
1) Rabbi Cardozo refers to the tochacha or rebuke set out in Vayikra and Devarim, which describe the divine curses that will befall us if we sin. These punishments apply as much to the righteous and innocent as they do to the wicked; the nation is punished as a whole.
How do you relate to the concepts of collective punishment and collective responsibility in today’s day and age, with its emphasis on individualism? Would you ever interpret your own personal suffering as part of a collective punishment or rebuke?
2) Certain rabbinic authorities have attributed natural disasters and tragedies to divine retribution. For example, Rav Ovadiah Yosef claimed that Hurricane Katrina was a punishment for the disengagement from Gaza.
Do you believe these natural disasters and tragedies can be viewed as divine retribution? Is it possible to find alternative religious meaning in such events?
3) If we reject the premise that natural disasters represent divine retribution, must we then not also reject the corresponding notion that God works miracles and gives rewards? Or, indeed, the entire premise of Divine Providence? As orthodox Yeshayahu Leibowitz writes:
And if you perceive our victory in the Six Day War as the action of “Divine providence” then you must perceive it also in the deaths by choking and burning of 1.5 million Jewish children. There is nothing more mindless or presumptuous than to lug out the ‘Divine Providence’ card from one’s pocket when it’s convenient, yet not to when it isn’t.
Perhaps we simply need to accept Rabbi Cardozo’s statement in this essay: “God’s presence is no longer manifest as it once was, and much of what happens to humankind seems to be random, with no indication that it is the work of the Lord of the Universe”?
4) If indeed “God’s presence is no longer manifest as it once was”, what effect does this have on us individually and on a communal level? Does this make us more susceptible to what Rabbi Cardozo calls “intellectual confusion”? Or, on the contrary, do we perhaps take on more practices in an attempt to get closer to God?
5) Do you agree with Rabbi Cardozo that deliberate heresy no longer exists, and there is only “intellectual/religious perplexity”? Doesn’t this deny atheists their agency and choice, in a way that seems patronizing?