An Anxious Peace: ‘God’ After Auschwitz

This is the first of a series of posts under the same general title.

*     *     *     *     *     *

“On the fifteenth of September last year I watched twenty thousand Jews being executed—women, children and old men. That day I understood that God could not allow such a thing and that therefore he did not exist.”

—Ikonnikov, a character in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Faith, Part One: 4 (trans. Robert Chandler, Great Britain: The Harvill Press, 1985)


Sometimes what happened at Auschwitz seems to mean to me that God requires a love that entails no promise on his part. Thought can stretch that far. The meaning of Auschwitz would be a suffering devoid of any promise, totally gratuitous.

—Emmanuel Levinas, “Judaism and Christianity,” from In the Time of the Nations (Continuum, 2007), p. 150


God has been very good to us. That we won the Revolution was extraordinary. The Battle of Midway was extraordinary. I think one of the reasons God has been good to us is that we have done him honor. Unlike the other countries of the world that do not even invoke his name, we do him honor. In presidential addresses, in Thanksgiving proclamations and in many other ways. There is nothing wrong with that and do not let anybody tell you that there is anything wrong with that.

—Supreme Court Justin Antonin Scalia, speaking at a Catholic high school in Metairie, Louisiana, on January 2, 2016 (AP report)




Everything is wrong with that.

To borrow a way of speaking from Kierkegaard, if the word ‘God’ is to name anything at all truly worthy of any belief today, a day that comes well after Auschwitz, then ‘God’ must simply mean a love that entails no promises. And today, this day well after Auschwitz, any believing in God—God as God, and not as some bloody idol—any believing in God that does not deserve scorn must consist of just this: loving, without any promises.

Today, after Auschwitz, the only command that can even be imagined to command universally—the only command that might truly command all human beings without exception, regardless of whether they were Jews, Palestinians, Christians, Germans, Muslims, Hindus, Americans, Confucians, Zimbabweans, Buddhists, Slovaks, Wiccans, Aleuts, pagans, African-Americans, people who think themselves “white,” or whatever—would be the command to love. Just to love. To love neither in answer to any promises kept or even any promise just given, nor in expectation of any promises to be made in answer to love, and without love itself promising anything in turn, beyond just loving.

Against the idea of any other sort of God than one whose love entailed no promises, every moral person (to use one of Jean Améry’s ways of speaking) after Auschwitz is duty bound to rebel. After Auschwitz, anyone who should not be ashamed to call herself or himself “moral” must rebel against any theodicy that would try to justify any other sort of God. One must rebel against any such theodicy, just as Levinas says that he does, right after uttering the lines above in a dialogue with the Roman Catholic Bishop Hans Hermann Hemmerle of Aachen at a conference in 1986 addressing the significance of the work of Franz Rosenzweig.

Levinas proclaims his own continuing rebellion against any idea that God could have intervened in order not to let such horror as Auschwitz happen, yet chose not to do so. Every moral being is duty-bound to join Levinas in rebelling against any such idea of God, “thinking it too costly—not just to God, but to humanity,” as Levinas says—a divine “kenosis of powerlessness,” which is to say a self-humbling, self-emptying renunciation of the exercise of coercive power, that “costs man [sic!] too much.”

Any God in whom any moral being has any right to believe any longer after Auschwitz must be a God who was no less powerless to stop what happened there than were the millions who died in Auschwitz and all the other Nazi camps. Any God who could have intervened at Auschwitz should have intervened—and would have done so, had any such God ever existed. The right to believe in any God who could have stopped it all, but chose not to, surely died in Auschwitz, along with all those murdered there. After Auschwitz, to believe in any such God is actually blasphemous.

Today, more than seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops, nothing has changed any of that.



Though theodicy died at Auschwitz, along with the God who needed it, love itself did not. Nor did the command to love—surely a divine command, if any command is divine. What is more, if ‘God’ today, after Auschwitz, just means an ongoing love void of all promises, then to have faith in God today just means to love in turn the same way, with no promises. Faith is just loving as God loves, without any eye to the merits of those who are loved or any expectations of a return from them, but also without making any promises to those who are loved, promises that go beyond love itself, the promise simply to love, to cherish.

To promise to cherish is not to promise to protect from all harm. Nor is it to expect such protection from those one cherishes. It is just to promise to cherish: Therein lies all its promise.



In the “Author’s Foreword” to In the Time of the Nations, the same book that contains his dialogue with Bishop Hemmerle, Levinas writes of those who, like himself, are animated by “the desire for a peace that is no longer the repose of a self within itself, no longer autonomous self-sufficiency,” but is, instead, “an anxious peace, or love for one’s fellow man.” It is just such a peace that is at issue in Levinas’s dialogue with Hemmerle toward the end of the same book, under the title “Judaism and Christianity.” In that dialogue, Levinas speaks first, ending his opening remarks by saying that he had “a very positive reaction to Nostra Aetate, the decree of the Second Vatican Council,” which Council took place from 1962 to 1965. In Nostra Aetate the Catholic Church officially rescinded the old and common Christian doctrine that held Jews as such and as a whole responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, a doctrine used to justify all the centuries of violent Christian anti-Semitism that laid fertile soil for the eventual growth of Nazism and the Holocaust.

With regard to just that all too Christian heritage, Levinas says that for him Nostra Aetate “is a logical consequence and proof of the fact that an attempt has been made to overcome certain things from the past”—in effect, an act of Christian repentance for its own long and bloody anti-Semitic past. “I am pleased,” he adds, “to accept the parallelism [with his own Judaic heritage and thought] in the [Christian] theory of kenosis, and in the idea of an omni-human universality and a ‘for all men’,” that is, the Christian commitment “‘to live and die for all men.’” He then goes on to address how “Christians attach great importance to what they call faith, mystery, sacrament,” and offers the following “anecdote on that subject,” one which greatly illuminates the nature of any faith worthy of the name—especially after Auschwitz.

“Hannah Arendt,” says Levinas, “not long before she died, told the following story on French radio. When she was a child in her native Königsberg, one day she said to the rabbi who was teaching her religion: ‘You know I have lost my faith.’ And the rabbi responded: ‘Who’s asking you for it?’”

Auschwitz had not yet happened when Hannah Arendt was still a child, and had that exchange with her rabbi. But if even before Auschwitz God did not ask for any such “faith” as Arendt had already lost as a child, then certainly no God who remained after Auschwitz would ask for it. Indeed, such a request would itself be blasphemous—after Auschwitz! If any legitimate request for faith in God is possible at all after Auschwitz, it would have to be a request for that sort of faith that Levinas himself goes on to suggest in his own gloss on the anecdote from Arendt.

“The response [of the rabbi] was typical,” says Levinas—typical of the kind of response worth making to any profession of the loss of faith. “What matters,” he says, “is not ‘faith,’ but ‘doing.’” What matters, most especially after Auschwitz, is not “faith,” if by that word all one means is no more than some sort of verbal or notional assent to some formula, the sort of thing one might check off in some opinion poll. What counts is no such merely propositional affirmation, but rather “doing.” What counts is action, not mere words.*

“Moreover,” as Levinas himself then asks, “are believing and doing different things?” After all: “What does believing mean? What is faith made of? Words, ideas? Convictions?” Is belief or faith just a matter of what we “think,” of our personal “opinion,” what we give assent to merely “mentally”? As Levinas asks pertinently: “What do we believe with?” Is it just with our “minds” that we believe? Rather, says Levinas in answer to his own question: “With the whole body! With all my bones (Psalm 35:10)!” He then concludes: What the rabbi meant was ‘Doing good is the act of belief itself.’ That is my conclusion.”

The faith for which God asks—most especially any God who retains any right to ask for faith at all today, this day more than seventy years after Auschwitz—just is loving: loving everyone in their “omni-human universality” with no promises. Today, only such love is love “in God’s name.”

Whoever does not love in God’s name can go to hell—and will, no matter how often he invokes God’s name “in presidential addresses, in Thanksgiving proclamations and in many other ways.”

*     *     *     *     *     *

To be continued.

* Such action can and should also include ritual action, as Levinas clearly notes by going on to say: “Doing, which means moral behavior, of course, but also the performance of ritual.” That aspect of the matter is itself deserving of the most serious attention, as I want to note here, although I will address it no further in today’s post.

Published in: on January 7, 2016 at 9:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , ,

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s