Masterpiece Theatre recently aired a conspicuously brilliant episode entitled "God on Trial." It was set, as all too often, in Auschwitz, or more specifically and accurately in Birkenau, which is where the real methodical Nazi killing took place. The drama is intercut with scenes of visitors to the modern day museums which now stand where Auschwitz-Birkenau were located. One of the visitors is an old man.
November 21, 2008
Birkenau was the combination work camp and murder factory run by Germans in the south of Poland. I have visited Auschwitz and Birkenau. The evil of the places seeps into your bones. For a long time after visiting I was in a kind of daze, and afflicted by a malaise akin to a physical sickness. I suppose that anyone who can do so should visit Auschwitz once, but it comes with this caveat: you will never look upon your fellow human beings in quite the same way again. The simple truth is that Homo sapiens, as a species, is capable of evil on a scale that dwarfs any other force in the history of our planet Earth. It is not even reasonable or fair to claim that humans can be "bestial," because other beasts do not carry on like humans when on a murderous rampage. The true horror of the Third Reich was the application of cold human intelligence, that most evolved of all human traits, to the systematic extermination of other human beings.
In destroying its German Jewry, Germany destroyed itself, of course. The Nazis were indiscriminate in their choice of annihilation: doctors, lawyers, judges, physicists, artists, composers, writers, rabbis, the educated elite of German society. All dehumanized and spared or killed on the basis of superficial physical attributes: could they do menial work for a short duration before starving or freezing to death? The Jewish prisoners in the long house in "God on Trial" have just been through the initial evaluation process. Stripped naked and shorn of their hair, they have trotted down the length of a room where a "doctor" waited at a small table. This judge of their fitness, distracted and indifferent, indicated whether the prisoner was to go left or right. Those to the left were condemned. All of the men return to the long house and wait, their assignments now clear. New arrivals wearing regular clothes are pushed into the long house to wait with them, then they too are put through the process of "selection."
To pass the time while they wait for the "selected" to be led away to their deaths, they decide to put God on trial. Among them are lawyers, theologians, physicists, and a judge -- brilliant men who have been deprived of their wives, children, possessions and dignity. Yet they can still argue and reason, their minds are still their own. And so they posit the question: did God break His covenant with his Chosen People? Is God guilty of breach of contract with the Jews?
In their delirious pain and fear, the arguments advanced have a stark and terrifying immediacy. There is no time for trivial ruminations or cavils. Some, of course, are bitter about God's betrayal: how could He permit His own people to be rounded up and shipped like cattle to death camps? How could He countenance the Holocaust, the murder of innocent children, the destruction of a culture? Others do their best to remain philosophical and "objective:" God moves in mysterious ways, this is a trying of Jewish faith in God, much as God tested Abraham with Isaac. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple and in so doing acted as an "agent" of God; wasn't Hitler in the same role? In the end one can be assured that Hitler and the Nazis will be destroyed by God's wrath, and those among them awaiting death must see themselves as martyrs in this dramatic confrontation of Good and Evil. A physicist notes the existence of the billions of stars in the Milky Way, the billions of suns with planetary systems, and argues for the extreme unlikelihood that God actually designed all of the Universe with just the fate of one people on one small planet in mind, that it is all a case of human presumption to imagine that God is real or created any of this. These condemned Jews are alone, and it is the folly of believing in any God at all which has contributed to their helplessness.
It is left to Akiba, one rabbi with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Torah and the singular odyssey of the Israelites to place all in perspective and to provide the answer which none of the others either could refute, or under the exigent circumstances of the imminent arrival of the Nazi killers, had time to refute. Akiba, calling on the great knowledge of other rabbis and scholars in the long house, takes the prisoners through the many instances of God's retributive justice: the Great Flood and the annihilation of almost all humankind. The Ten Plagues and then the killing of the first born of the Egyptians. Not Pharoah, but the innocent children of his kingdom. Of the mass killing by King Saul and his legions, and how Saul had "killed his thousands," but King David was greater because he had killed "tens of thousands." Of the brutal and horrific massacres of the Ammonites, close relatives of the Israelites. The thousands of enemies of the Israelites who were forced to lie on the field of battle where one was spared and two chosen for death. Of David's lust for Bathsheeba, and his manipulation of her husband into death in a distant battle. Of the parting of the Red Sea, how God had not only made passage safe for the Israelites, but timed the inundation of the soldiers who pursued them for maximum destructive effect.
At the end of this explication, Akiba prepares the ground for his conclusion with a simple observation: the Nazis who came to take him away wore belt buckles inscribed with the legend "Gott mit Uns." God with Us. And who could really say He was not? So at the end of his closing argument, Akiba, this rabbi of great piety and deep erudition, electrifies his rapt audience with another simple observation: It was not that God was good; He had simply been "on our side." And now He was on someone else's side, and the Jews in that long house selected for gassing knew what it was like to be an Egyptian first-born, or an Ammonite, or a Philistine, or a soldier drowned by the closing waters of the Red Sea.
The drama ends in present time, with visitors leaving Birkenau and reboarding buses to take them away. The old man tells a young woman that the prisoners, in fact, found that God was guilty. He had breached his covenant with the Israelites and the Jewish people. In their extremes of terror and desolation, who knows why men would resort to a moot court to question their own faith? Out of bitterness and despair? Of course that goes a long way toward explaining everything. Yet Akiba, to my way of thinking, unlocked the door to a simple truth. A wrathful, jealous, destructive and partisan God may be a fickle ally in one's hour of greatest need. Maybe what we have called "God" in the blood-soaked histories of Judeo-Christian holy books is a rationalization for our very own worst instincts, for our own intolerance and murderous proclivities and insatiable greed. Perhaps God did not create Man; maybe Man created God as a personification of his own evil shadow.