Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Trial of God

At the young age of fifteen, Elie Wiesel lived in a horrible place called Auschwitz. In his memoirs about this “hell on earth,” Wiesel tells a fascinating story about a Talmud teacher who befriended the young Elie, took him to his barracks, and told him that he would witness one of the greatest trials in all of world history: The Trial of God. Three rabbis, all prisoners in Auschwitz and witnesses to the daily death machine of the Nazis, decided that it was time to place God on trial.

They formed a rabbinic court (Bet Din), and conducted the trial completely in accordance with Halakha (Jewish Law). They gathered evidence against God, building a strong case against the “Holy One Blessed Be He.” The trial lasted several days, with the judges giving all those who wished a chance to speak their minds. Witnesses were heard, painful personal testimonies were given, and in the end, young Elie remarked in amazement how none of the witnesses even remotely defended God.

It was time to issue a ruling, and the rabbinic court pronounced a unanimous verdict: “The Lord God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth – guilty of crimes against creation, against humanity and against His own Chosen People of Israel.” Soon after this painful judgment was pronounced, followed by a reaction from the people that Wiesel describes as an “infinity of silence,” the rabbi presiding over the rabbinic court looked up to the sky, saw that the sun had set, and that the darkness of night was upon the world. This rabbi, who had just indicted God and pronounced Him guilty of crimes, looked towards the silenced crowd and said “Come, my friends, we have a minyan – it is time to pray Maariv (the evening prayer service).” The other members of the rabbinic court, together with the witnesses and the onlookers, all gathered around the rabbi to join in their evening prayers to God. The fifteen-year-old Wiesel watched this perplexing scene with utter amazement.

For those who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, the “Trial of God” continues. They continue to recount the traumas of daily humiliation, subjugation and annihilation, wondering, with good reason “Where was God?” For them, no verdict will ever resolve this painful religious question, even as they recite Kaddish – a praise and exaltation of God – for their families and loves ones.

As we observe Yom Ha-Shoah (Holocaust Memorial Day), lighting candles with memorial prayers and Kaddish on our lips, we continue to contemplate the “silence of God” during the Holocaust, tormented at the same time by the “silence of good” during those dark years. “Where was God” is indeed a deeply religious question, but no less religious is the question “Where was humanity?”