Lecture #16a: "Hester Panim" and God's Presence in the Holocaust Part 1
A. Rabbi Barukh Rabinowitz, author of Binat Nevonim: "Hester Panim"
In the previous shiur, we examined Rabbi Rabinowitz's inspiring description of Jews who experienced the revelation of God's Presence in the midst of their hellish reality during the Holocaust. However, Rabbi Rabinowitz never claims that this reflected the general experience of believing Jews at that time. On the contrary, he admits that the dominant feeling – and he notes this as an autobiographical comment, as well – was one of loneliness and abandonment, as a result of "hester panim," the "hiding of God's Face." He describes this sense of hester panim as a powerful experience which, despite all efforts, could not be successfully suppressed or overcome:
"My God, my God – why have You forsaken me, remaining far from saving me [and from] the words I shout" (Tehillim 22:2).
However, although we knew all this, and although we knew that it had all come to us from God, and although we were ready, like Iyov, to declare, "Shall we then accept the good from God, but not accept the bad?" (Iyov 2:10), nevertheless, in our hearts we were not reconciled to this. For while we could accept God's decree, we could not reconcile ourselves to the feeling that we had been cast out before Him, to be ownerless and trodden upon. [It was] as though He had turned His face from us and did not wish to know what was happening to us; as though after handing us over to our enemies, He had turned His back on us, without looking back to see what those enemies were doing to us. Our prayers were not accepted; all of our cries remained unanswered.
Such a feeling of being cast out from before Him was altogether impossible for us to overcome. Even King David, in the psalm cited above, after declaring his faith and cleaving to God after all that has befallen him, cries out and says, "Why do You hide Your face, forgetting our destitution and suffering?" (Tehillim 44:25). How is this possible, we cried out in our hearts. Our prayers are not being accepted, the best among us are being struck by the destroyer; the righteous ones and the scholars among us were turning into ashes in the crematoria, as though they had never existed; masses of Jews were fluttering between life and death, "outside the sword brings death, and inside there is terror" (Devarim 32:25).
Every day the Jewish nation was diminishing by thousands and tens of thousands; entire towns were emptying of their inhabitants, holy communities were disappearing one by one, from day to day, leaving no remnant or survivor. Jewish communities that had been fortresses of Torah were falling and collapsing; they were the first to be destroyed. Specifically because they were people of Torah; specifically because the image of God could be discerned upon them, in their manner and in their dress, in their beards and their pe'ot, their tzitzit and their tefillin, they were the first to die with strange deaths, with cruel blows. Our Sages teach that Rav Yosef wept and said: Are the righteous ones really considered so insignificant – that it is specifically they who are the first to die? (Bava Kama 60a).
All this gave us the feeling that the Holy One, blessed be He, had hidden His face from us and removed His thought from anything that was being done to us. [It was as though] He was not following at all (heaven forefend) what the destroyers, who had been given license, were inflicting on us. To all of this we could not reconcile ourselves at all. We were terrified to our very bones when we read in the Torah, "My anger will burn against them on that day and I will abandon them, and I will hide My face from them and they will be for consumption, and many evils and troubles will befall them, and on that day they will say: 'Is it not because God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us?' And I shall surely hide My face on that day, for all the evil that they have done" (Devarim 31:17-18). (Binat Nevonim, pp. 131-133)
Rabbi Rabinowitz locates the difficulty in the existential experience of hester panim. He does not question Divine justice, nor express any questioning of Divine Providence. As we saw in the previous shiur, he attempts to explain why the Holocaust was decreed for the Jewish nation. Even his faith in redemption is not undermined:
Concerning the future, there was no doubt in our heart. We were certain that God would reveal Himself as deliverer, savior, and redeemer of Israel. We were certain, as stated above, that what was happening to us was not some exceptional event, but rather that all of this was a continuation of the "covenant between the parts," and that all of the exiles are simply a continuation of the archetypal Egyptian exile, as taught by my grandfather, the saintly author of Benei Yissakhar, may his merit protect us. We were certain of deliverance, for so it had always been, and so it would also be in future generations, until the end of days – that decrees come, and in the end the Holy One, blessed be He, retracts them and has mercy for His nation, Israel. And as mentioned above, in every generation there are those who arise to destroy us, but God saves us from their hand." (ibid.)
Even if God's decree is just, and even if we believe that we will be redeemed, how can God abandon us to such degradation and affliction? Is He not interested in us? Is He not here at all?
This is not a theological question. It is obvious that God watches over His world and guides it. Likewise, it is not a matter of theodicy – that is, the justification of God's actions. Obviously, God is righteous and we are wicked, or alternatively, we do not understand Him. But even if God is watching His world, and even if He is righteous – it is not sufficient. The question is: Does He love us? Are we precious to Him?
The importance of this question should not be underestimated. This is the most profound problem of the believing Jew in the face of the Holocaust. If all of this is happening, and it means that He is not here, then apparently He does not love us. When a father punishes his child, the child is able to continue believing in his father's relationship with him and to justify to himself the punishment that he has received. However, if he feels that his father is simply not interested in him, that he evades him, then even if the father is correct, the child feels unbearable abandonment. If I know that my father is here, thinking about me, hearing me, then even when he refuses to accede to my requests, I can live with it. But if I feel that my screams and cries are simply carried in the wind, unheard, then my situation is unbearable.
Rabbi Rabinowitz finds no comfort in the explanation offered by the commentators for "hester panim" – that God will refrain from delivering us in order to cause us to think that He is not in our midst, although in reality He is with us. For him, the tension between the hypothetical possibility of abandonment and the existential experience of it is too great:
Of course, we are aware of what the commentators have said (Seforno, ibid.) concerning the words, "I shall surely hide My face": "Not as they thought, in asserting that He was not in their midst, for wherever they will be, My Presence will be with them, as Chazal taught: 'Wherever they were exiled, the Divine Presence went with them' (Megilla 12b). Rather, 'I shall hide My face' - from delivering them." In other words, they will think that there is no God in their midst, but in truth God will be in their midst, and the whole manifestation of the "hiding of His face" finds expression only in the fact that their prayers are not answered. The same idea would appear to arise from Rashi, who writes: "I shall hide My face from them" – "as though I do not see their trouble"; in other words, in reality God does see, but He pretends not to, as it were. The same idea is conveyed in the words of Ibn Ezra, who comments: "The meaning of 'I shall surely hide' is, 'If he calls out to Me, I will not answer.' God compares Himself to a person who does not see – meaning, He does not accept their prayers; in human terms, so as to make this intelligible, He [claims He] "does not see," as it were. But in truth, the Holy One, blessed be He, knows what is happening. Rashi explains the matter thus in the Talmud (Chagiga 5b): "'I shall hide My face from them' – they cry out because of the troubles about to befall them, but their prayers that the troubles not come are not answered." And there the Gemara tells about Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanania, who came before the Roman Caesar.
We knew all of these interpretations, but it did not help. The feeling was one of great abandonment: "Zion said: the Lord has abandoned me; God has forgotten me" (Yishayahu 49:14). We had a feeling – which we could not overcome – that God had abandoned us, despite the strong faith in our hearts that all of this was a heavenly decree; nevertheless, the feeling was that once this had been decreed, God had handed us over to the gentiles and left us on our own. [We felt that] He hid His face from us without watching and checking what was happening to us.
That feeling of having been cast and abandoned among the nations was the worst of all the suffering and all the anguish that we experienced. The loss of contact with God, to Whom we cleaved, was more difficult to bear than all the losses and deaths, for it brought unbearable loneliness and orphan-hood. We had to find a way to transcend the despair that surrounded us. We had to find a way to the living God, to know that although He was not answering us at our time of distress, He continued to watch all that was happening to us, collectively and individually, despite the hiding of His face, for He knows everything and sees everything… Despite everything, the Holy One, blessed be He, is close to us not only at a time of deliverance, but also at a time of trouble, and even in a time of trouble when He does not answer His nation. (ibid. p. 133)
This painful account speaks for itself. Did Rabbi Rabinowitz find answers to his questions? Did he experience any emotional healing? Several chapters of the book are devoted to the answers, and readers are invited to study them in the original. The main approach that he adopts is a strengthening of faith in Divine Providence for every individual based on analysis of the concept and its ideological necessity. In other words, it is possible to become convinced that faith in Divine Providence is one of the foundations of the Jewish faith. When a person finds himself in existential distress, he may sometimes go back to his most primary beliefs, re-examine them, consult the sources, and then – based on intellectual analysis and reinforcement of this awareness – perhaps alleviate his suffering, banish his doubts, and know that even that which is not actively felt is nevertheless true (see ibid. pp. 141-150).
However, it would seem that this path represents Rabbi Rabinowitz's way of dealing with his experiences retroactively. He does not go back to the experience of the Holocaust, but rather attempts to find a way to deal with the emotions after the fact. Can intellectual study really convince a person to believe something that appears, existentially speaking, to be completely absurd? This is an important question for cultural and religious existence. Faith – and certainly Chassidic faith – contains a dominant existential element. It is not only ideology, but also a reality of life. It would therefore seem that to the extent that the tension between the existential experience and the intellectual ideology grows (and there can be no doubt that, subjectively, Rabbi Rabinowitz experienced his situation in this way), the possibility of intellectual analysis influencing the experience in any way grows more remote.
Next week we shall compare the response of Rabbi Rabinowitz (who relinquished the title of Rebbe of Munkacs) to that of another Chasidic leader, the Rebbe of Klausenberg.
Translated by Kaeren Fish
 See also Rashi on Chagiga 5b.