All Rabbis hear variations on the following questions: "How can anyone believe in God after the Holocaust? How can a supposedly loving God stand back and let such a horrible thing happen? How can you reconcile the death of even one innocent child with the existence of a just God?" For many, these questions are proof that a personal God does not exist.
The question of why good people suffer and wicked people prosper is not new or rare, and is certainly not limited to Judaism. It is pondered by most intelligent children, and was noticed by philosophers thousands of years before the Holocaust. There is, in fact, a theological field of inquiry called "theodicy", which investigates the basic question: If God is all powerful (omnipotent), all knowing (omniscient), and all-good, (omnibenevolent) how can evil and injustice exist?
It seems that one of these variables must not be correct, and various solutions have been proposed: Perhaps God is not all-powerful, and is bound by the rules of physics and nature; Perhaps God is not all-knowing, and can not see what we will do and the consequences; Perhaps God is not all-good, and simply created the Universe but is not involved in what happens; Perhaps there is a force that opposes God that is responsible for the evil that occurs; Perhaps it only seems that the good suffer and the wicked prosper, but if we could know the whole picture we would see that there is justice in the long term.
While many of the solutions form the basis for different theologies, none get to the heart of the matter. In fact, the very question of "How could God have allowed the Holocaust?" represents a profound misunderstanding of the nature of God, creation, and the spiritual dimension, because it is based on very faulty assumptions. It posits God as a being who is totally separate from us, who observes our behavior, preventing harm from coming to those who follow certain rules (usually written in books), and punishing those who do not. And it sees humans as helpless children.
But God is much more than that, and we are much more than that. This image of God and humans, frankly, is childish and primitive, and from this perspective there is no God, just as electrons are not tiny balls orbiting bigger balls. In order to reframe the conversation we must understand the nature of creation, and address the most essential question of our lives; Why are we here?
The Universe, it seems, had a starting point, when space, time, and matter began; when physicality exploded in to being from nothingness. This, though, is an impossibility. How can some thing come from no thing? And yet here we are, so there was a mechanism of some kind that allowed this to happen. Most religions postulate that the beginning was caused by a non-physical Creator (who I will call "God", but you can use the words "Universe", "Ground of Being", or "Pure Love", if it feels better) who deliberately created physicality for a purpose.
Of course one can ask the question, "who created God?" but this too is a misunderstanding of the nature of God. God, by definition as that which nothing greater than is possible, is uncreated - that has no previous state or cause. Even if one does not accept the existence of God, one must grapple with the question of something that is uncreated. This is either the material that came through in the Big Bang, or an eternal Universe that has no beginning. Either way, there is an uncreated element
From a theological perspective, prior to creation there was only God; undifferentiated, timeless, pure consciousness, irrevocably alone. And yet God's greatest yearning is for connection - for something in which to be in relationship and to experience love. But there was no possibility of anything to connect to because no thing could exist, as the only existence was the completely indivisible God. This yearning, though, led to the paradox of creation, as God removed "His" presence from a point, making physicality possible. This was the Big Bang, and long before it was discovered by Edwin Hubble in 1929 it was seen by mystics from many traditions, especially by those in northern Israel in the 16th century.
The Universe was therefore set in motion with the purpose of developing creatures who would arrive at self-consciousness - the awareness of being aware -, see the obvious design in creation, feel the presence of a loving Designer, and reach out in gratitude. This connection in love is both ours and God's greatest pleasure and delight (and, I believe, also for countless beings on planets scattered throughout the Universe).
The purpose of creation, then, is to be in a loving relationship with its Creator.
In order to have a true relationship, though, there must be absolute free will, because a programmed or coerced being cannot experience true love. Free will, then, is a universal constant, built in to the fabric of creation like gravity and the speed of light. Free will to choose love means that there must be the possibility to choose not-love - to choose indifference and hatred. So while the world may seem unfair, it must be exactly as it is in order for consciousness to emerge, and I am in complete agreement with the 17th century German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz, who wrote that this is the best of all possible worlds. (The very sound theological move "Bruce Almighty", in which a man who is angry at the unfairness of life is given god-like powers only to make things worse, presents this point.)
This does not mean that God is not omniscient. God does know the choices that we will make because our consciousness is in constant connection to God, and for God time is not a limitation, so our future choices are not hidden. Yet God deliberately does not interfere - not out of indifference, but out of great love. God must "watch" in pain as we commit atrocities, because to interfere would negate free will, terminating the relationship and hence the very purpose of creation. This is the reconciliation of Rabbi Akiva's famous paradox, "All is foreseen, yet free will is given".
This is the great gift and responsibility of creation: We can do something God cannot; we can elevate physicality by our choice to act in love. The end of time will occur when physicality is so elevated by consciousness that it returns to God as pure Love. Then, just as physicality was born in a male orgasmic explosion of outward giving, physicality will return to its Source and reunite in a female orgasmic spread of inward receiving. Presumably, the cycle will then begin again.
Where was God in the Holocaust? As God knew the terrible choices made by too many, and wept at the horrific consequences, those who chose love and service in the face of this horror were strengthened and consoled. Good eventually did win over evil, by our own hands.
We can be mad at God for the Holocaust or for other human tragedies, but this is like a teenager who begs you to let him drive a car - promising to be responsible -, gets drunk, crashes in to a telephone pole, and then blames you for giving him the keys. If we agree that humanity must have free will, we must accept the consequences of its decisions. As Elie Wiesel wrote, "After the Holocaust I did not loose faith in God. I lost faith in mankind."