Lesson
Duration:
One 50-minute class period

Jewish Theological Dilemmas After the Holocaust

Where to Insert this Lesson

This lesson follows Lesson 21: Justice and Judgment after the Holocaust in Teaching Holocaust and Human Behavior. After this lesson, you will proceed on to Assessment: Adding to Evidence Logs, 3 of 3.

Essential Questions

What does learning about the choices people made during the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?

Alternate Jewish Ed Unit Essential Question:

How is our Jewish identity tied in with the history of the Holocaust?

Guiding Questions

  • What have been the different responses to faith and God in Jewish thought after the tragedy and trauma of the Holocaust?

Learning Objectives

  • Students will reflect on the complexities and range of responses with regard to questions of faith and remaining Jewish after the Holocaust.

     

Overview

The concept of “theodicy,” or why a just God would permit evil in the world, entered the conversation among scholars and rabbis after the atrocities of the Holocaust. There is no easy answer to the question, “Where was God during the Holocaust?” but the resources in this lesson are meant to provide structure and language for teachers and students to enter this continuing conversation. We often hear from teachers from different Jewish educational settings that their students wrestle with the notion of God during the Holocaust, at a time when they are trying to make sense of God in their lives today. Although there is a temptation to provide comforting answers to our students when they ask the difficult “why” questions, it is important to allow students to reflect on the complexities of the question, “Where was God?”

In this lesson, students will compare and contrast a painting by artist and Holocaust survivor Samuel Bak that grapples with this same question and Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel , with which Bak’s painting is in dialogue. This comparison invites students to explore the theme of the absence or presence of God during wartime. Then students will close-read quotations from six theologians, writing on the topic of faith and God after the trauma and tragedy of the Holocaust. Through these activities, students explore the themes of faith and doubt after the Holocaust and have opportunities to reflect individually on how they might respond to the question, “Where was God during the Holocaust?”

Context

Elie Wiesel, in his memoir Night, writes about the High Holidays in Auschwitz:

In days gone by, Rosh Hashanah had dominated my life. I knew that my sins grieved the Almighty and so I pleaded for forgiveness. In those days, I fully believed that the salvation of the world depended on every one of my deeds, on every one of my prayers. But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. 1

Many of the central figures in Night, including Wiesel himself, were people for whom faith, religious study, and ritual observance were at the heart of their lives. Among the many conflicts and tragedies in Wiesel’s story is the way that the Holocaust unsettled, and even destroyed, their religious identities and beliefs. For believers, the Holocaust raised and continues to raise painful questions: How could a good and all-powerful God allow this to happen?

While Elie Wiesel reflected on his relationship with God in his writing, Samuel Bak has posed questions of faith and doubt in his paintings. Bak was born in 1933 in Vilna. He was eight when the Germans invaded in 1941, and he began painting in the ghetto. His father and his four grandparents were murdered by the Nazis, but Bak survived with his mother in a forced-labor camp, as well as by hiding in a convent. The painting in this lesson, The Creation of Wartime III, is one of a series that centers around questions of faith and doubt.

Citations

  • 1 : Elie Wiesel, Night, trans. Marion Wiesel (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), 68.

Notes to Teachers

  1. Understanding the Images for This Lesson

    This lesson requires viewing two paintings, Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam and Samuel Bak’s The Creation of Wartime III. Students will first examine each one individually and then look at them side by side. For this reason, there are three images in the Materials section: Michelangelo’s painting, Bak’s painting, and the two paintings side by side. To learn more about Samuel Bak’s history, you can watch the video Illuminations: The Art of Samuel Bak (41:35), in which the artist talks about his life and his art. For more paintings by Samuel Bak, see the Illuminations: The Art of Samuel Bak Gallery.

  2. Preparing for the Big Paper Activity

    The last activity of the lesson involves the Big Paper teaching strategy. The activity uses six passages from the reading Faith Despite a Broken World, in which different theologians respond to the role of faith after the Holocaust. Before the lesson, you should familiarize yourself with the teaching strategy and prepare the “big papers” for the activity.

Materials

Activities

  1. Analyze Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam
    • Pass out or project Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam. Explain to students that this piece has iconic status and is located in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. It is a small piece of the fresco painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, so the bodies around the central image are not meant to be halved.
    • Use the Analyzing Images strategy to guide students through a close analysis of the painting.
    • Then ask students to discuss the following questions with a partner and, afterward, with the class:
      • How is God depicted in this painting?
      • How is the relationship between God and Adam depicted in this painting?
      • What questions does this image raise for you?
  2. Analyze Samuel Bak’s The Creation of Wartime III
    • Pass out and read aloud the reading Samuel Bak’s Biography to provide students with a brief background on artist Samuel Bak.
    • Project or pass out the image The Creation of Wartime III and use the Analyzing Images strategy to guide students through a close analysis of Bak’s painting.
    • Then ask students to discuss the following questions with a partner and, afterward, with the class:
      • How is God depicted in this painting?
      • How is the relationship between God and Adam depicted in this painting?
      • What is the significance of the title of this painting?
      • What questions does this image raise for you?
  3. Compare and Contrast Bak’s The Creation of Wartime III and Michelangelo's The Creation of Adam
    • Pass out the handout that compares Bak’s and Michelangelo’s painting and ask students to discuss the following questions in pairs, small groups, or as a class:
      • How is Bak’s painting in dialogue with Michelangelo’s painting?
      • How can we interpret the empty spaces in the painting?
      • What questions does Bak ask by recreating and reinterpreting the iconic Michelangelo painting?
    • Then have students work in pairs to name Bak’s perspective on God—for example, “God is unknowable” or “God of Protest.”
  4. Learn about Post-Holocaust Theology
    • If they are not familiar with the Big Paper teaching strategy, explain the steps to students. Remind them that the first part of the activity is done in silence.
    • Then tell them that they will be examining theological responses from a reading called Faith Despite a Broken World. In this reading, six theologians grapple with complex questions that, like the questions Bak poses in his art, explore our understanding of God, faith, and religion after a tragedy like the Holocaust. Follow the steps of the teaching strategy to have students engage in the Big Paper silent discussion.
    • With their groups at their original paper, have students come up with a name for the scholar’s perspective (for example, “God is unknowable” or “God of Protest”) and write it on the bottom of the paper. Have each group share the perspective with the class.
  5. Reflect Individually on Faith and Doubt after the Holocaust
    • Allow for personal reflection on this lesson’s complex questions by providing time for students to respond to the following questions in their journals. Let them know that they will not be sharing these responses.
      • What image or quotation most resonated with you in this lesson, and why?
      • How do you answer the question: How could a good and all-powerful God allow the Holocaust to happen?

Assessment

  1. To assess their understanding of the theologians’ responses, ask students to choose the response that resonates most with them and explain in a journal or paragraph why they chose this response.
  2. Review students’ comments from the Big Paper activity to assess their understanding of each theologian’s ideas about faith after the Holocaust.

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