The Long View
God on trial
THE other night I watched a film, “God on Trial,” It tells the story of a trial – the trial of God. The trial was held in a concentration camp, Auschwitz, by Jews – members of God’s Chosen People – half of whom were due to go to the gas chambers the next day. One of the prisoners, a young man, denounces God and those entreating him not to give up hope, or faith. “God should be here, being gassed,” and insists“We should put the bastard on trial” then maybe he’ll hear us.”
Some of the elder prisoners are shocked; denounce him for impiety, for blasphemy; but a rabbi points out that indicting God is part of their tradition: Jacob wrestled with an angel, and for that, he and his descendants, were given the name Israel – Struggling with the Lord. There was Job, who was subjected to an inquisition by his friends over his stubborn faith, just as Job’s sufferings were due to a wager between God and the Devil as to whether Job’s faith was due to his good fortune and thus, purely dependent on God’s continued good favor.
Asking questions of God, a young scholar-prisoner points out, can be a form of prayer. So, why not a trial? But on what charges?
A jurist asked to head the three-man tribunal says God cannot be indicted for murder but rather, for breach of contract. He has a covenant with the Jews, does He not? Here are Jews about to face the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Where, now, is that solemn covenant with God?
Witnesses are called. In one instance, the rabbi is asked, here is one of our fellow prisoners, a good and observant Jew all his life; forced to bury his mother, who was a pious Jew all her life. Even if God can inflict punishment on the Jews for those who turned their backs on his religious commandments, what sense can be made of her “undeserved” death? As well as that of her son, who will go to the gas chamber in the morning?
The rabbi says, when God demands a sacrifice, a holocaust, isn’t that sacrifice, according to the holy laws, supposed to be of the finest, the purest, of what is to be sacrificed? For only then is it worthy of being a holocaust to God.
The Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel says the story of the trial is a true one, in that there really occurred a trial of God held by rabbis who were in anguish over their suffering in Auschwitz and unable to understand how it could happen. Elie Wiesel wrote a book, “The Trial of God,” but set it in Medieval Europe, where three traveling actors subjected God to a trial because of a pogrom taking place.
According to Wiesel: “Why should they know what happened? I was the only one there. It happened at night; there were just three people. At the end of the trial, they used the word chayav, rather than “guilty.” It means “He owes us something.” Then we went to pray.” One of the actors in the film, in an interview, said he met Wiesel some years earlier, after a performance in which the actor (Antony Sher) played the role of another famous Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi: “I knew that he Wiesel was still a practicing Jew; so I asked to meet him. I said: “Despite it all, your faith remained intact.” And he replied: “Not quite. I have a wounded faith.” And I thought that was a very eloquent way of explaining what it would be like, as a religious Jew, to have gone through Auschwitz and faced that question.”
For as Karen Armstrong wrote in “History of God,” if one believes in “the idea of a personal God, like one of us writ large,” then this raises a problem – fraught with difficulty. If this God is omnipotent, he could have prevented the Holocaust. If he was unable to stop in, he is impotent and useless; if he could have stopped it and chose not to, he is a monster. Jews are not the only people who believe that the Holocaust put an end to conventional theology.”
Others have had their faith so shaken by the question of suffering that their faith crumbled away. The biblical scholar Bart Ehrman, in his book, “God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question “Why We Suffer,” recounts how trying to reconcile humanity’s suffering with the Christian idea of God extinguished his faith, leaving him an agnostic (though not an atheist).
The night I watched “The trial of God” was the day I’d received the card of thanks from the family of Jose de Santos Orosa (Sept. 3, 1939 – Jan. 27, 2009). When he passed away, I was in the hospital. Unable to personally condone with his family, I found myself alone with my thoughts and memories of him. Those thoughts revolved around how his being a good man didn’t spare him or his loved ones from suffering. If, as the Jews say, every life is a miracle, a universe, then the question of his passing and suffering is one that can’t be swept aside, simply on the pretext that his was a full, and rich, life; or that his illness can’t be compared to holocausts or great crimes or tragedies.
One doesn’t have to meditate on the senseless death of a child, or lives condemned to perpetual poverty, to have a sense of this sort of alienation from the Divine – or the corresponding resignation that for others, comes close as an approximation of faith.
A couple of years ago, in one of those small huddles in which critics of the current dispensation so often find themselves, one notably secular-minded academic was asked, “but why is the President still here?” To which the academic replied, in all seriousness, “Perhaps because it is God’s way to test us, to teach us.” This provoked a skeptical response: “And to teach us what?” wry smile, from the academic: “To teach us change should never come easily.” (To be continued)