The Holocaust from the Viewpoints of Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity.
The Holocaust (Hebrew for “burnt offering”) is a word that describes the systematic annihilation of European Jews by Nazi Germany during World War II. It is estimated that around 6 million Jews were killed during this period, which was equal to about a third of the Jewish population worldwide and half of the Jews in Europe (Fisher 152). Because of the immense number of people affected by the horrors of the Holocaust, it might be considered to be the embodiment of evil in the twentieth century, and perhaps of all time. “The problem of evil is a touchstone of any religion.
Evil is present everywhere: in our society, in the environment, around us and even inside us… all religions have to give a proper answer regarding the origin, nature and end of evil” (Valea 1). The study of evil in religion is referred to as theodicy, defined as “a response to the problem of evil in the world that attempts logically, relevantly and consistently to defend God as simultaneously omnipotent, all-loving and just despite the reality of evil” (Grenz 112). Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity would each respond to the Holocaust as the ultimate example of evil in different ways.
It would be difficult to explain evil from the viewpoint of Buddhism in theological terms because Buddhism is not a theology in the same way that Christianity and Judaism are. Buddhism “is a process, an awareness, an openness, a spirit of inquiry – not a belief system” (Hagen 9). Buddhism is less concerned with believing a certain set of principles or following a particular doctrine, and more about practical ways of dealing with the reality we live in.
“The general pattern in Eastern religions is to consider evil illusory, derived from a wrong way of understanding reality… he first noble truth proclaimed by Gautama Buddha states that the only reality of human existence is the all-pervading reality of suffering… The only possibility to escape suffering is to know the true nature of things, or in other words, the impersonal Ultimate Reality” (Valea 3). Because of its ways of seeing the world, Buddhism offers little explanation of evil on such a scale of the Holocaust. By focusing on the concept of evil as nothing but an illusion, Buddhism does not really attempt to explain negative events as any more than part of the human condition, which is all about suffering.
Also, “in order to attain liberation, man has to ignore evil and suffering, which do not belong to the realm of true existence” (Valea 3). As expressed in the Old Testament, in Judaism, a traditional belief is that misfortune is the result of sin. This belief states that God only punishes those who deserve it. From this point of view, “It is tempting at one level to believe that bad things happen to people (especially other people) because God is a righteous judge who gives them exactly what they deserve. By believing that, we keep the world orderly and understandable.
We give people the best possible reason for being good and for avoiding sin” (Kushner 9). The Old Testament is full of illustrations of this belief. One example is in Proverbs; “No ills befall the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble” (Kushner 9). The book of Job poses the question, “Consider, what innocent ever perished, or where have the righteous been destroyed” (Kushner 9)? The view of God as one who rewards the good and punishes the evil may be acceptable on a small scale, but fails to explain an event as large as the Holocaust.
Also, from the Jewish perspective, it may be all the more confounding because of their long held conviction that they were God’s “chosen people” who would be protected by him. It could be said that the thoughts of many Jews on this subject changed after the occurrence of the Holocaust. As Kushner writes, “I cannot make sense of the Holocaust by taking it to be God’s will” (Kushner 82). He goes on to say that the occurrence of evil events is the result of humans’ freedom to choose.
“Man… is that unique creature whose behavior is not ‘programmed. He is free to choose to be good, which means that he must be free to choose to be evil” (Kushner 82). From this perspective of Judaism, although God created the world, he does not control the events that happen in it. By having the freedom to choose between good and evil, it is inevitable that some people will act in ways to hurt each other, while others will act in positive ways. In other words, “God does not cause our misfortunes. Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws.
The painful things that happen to us are not punishments for our misbehavior, nor are they in any way part of some grand design on God’s part. Because the tragedy is not God’s will, we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God when tragedy strikes. We can turn to him for help in overcoming it, precisely because we can tell ourselves that God is as outraged by it as we are” (Kushner 134). This viewpoint does not hold God accountable for horrific events such as the Holocaust. One response in the Jewish world to the Holocaust was the triumph of Zionism.
Soon after World War II, the state of Israel was formed as a homeland for the Jewish people. Though the formation of Israel is a relatively recent occurrence, “it is a movement with deep roots in Judaism and Jewish culture. The desire to end the centuries-long exile from Zion (the site of the Jerusalem temples) was a central theme in all of Jewish prayer and in many religious customs” (Fisher 154). The establishment of a Jewish homeland did not bring the “atmosphere of universal peace” that many had hoped for (154).
Many factors have led to the current situation of violence that is happening in the area around Israel today, and a “peaceful resolution of the conflicts in West Asia remains elusive” (155). Within Christianity, there is disagreement between those who believe more in free will or more in the ultimate sovereignty of God. There are a multitude of differing opinions between and even within denominations, but both viewpoints try to explain the existence of evil in the world, and speculate on its source. They try to answer the difficult question, ‘How could God create evil in the world? ‘
The concept of free will is defined as “the belief that human behavior is self-caused. The idea of free will assumes that there are no external causes sufficient to explain why a person acts as he or she does. Actions, according to free-will theory, are ultimately chosen, even if the person choosing knows that the chosen action may bring about undesirable consequences” (Grenz 54). Since most humans are able to differentiate between right and wrong, or good and evil, and are able to take action based on their judgments, otherwise unexplainable events can be explained by saying that they are the result of people choosing either good or evil.
From this viewpoint, the Holocaust was a human creation and the result of Nazis choosing to take the actions that they did. On the other end of the spectrum is the idea of a sovereign God. Sovereignty is “the biblical concept of God’s kingly, supreme rule and legal authority over the entire universe. God’s sovereignty is expressed, exercised and displayed in the divine plan for and outworking of salvation history” (Grenz 109). Those who believe in this idea believe that all happenings in the world are part of God’s ‘master plan’ and they have faith that God has a reason for all events, both good and bad.
People who believe in this might say that even an event as horrendous as the Holocaust has a place in God’s plan for the world. Although there are differing opinions on the idea of evil in the world in Christianity and other religions, it is for the most part universally agreed that the Holocaust was an appalling, inexcusable occurrence. Through their differing explanations, any reasonable person or group would condemn the entire period of oppression, domination, and cruelty that was the Holocaust.