Because of their sin, every generation asks a question: does sin always bring suffering; is suffering always because of sin?
The Talmud was not prepared to say yes to either part of the question.
It saw that life does not work that way. If it did, we would never be exercised by the age-old issue of tzaddik v’ra lo, rasha v’tov lo – “the righteous who suffers, the wicked who prospers”.
The Adam and Eve question is classical; it is also modern. It is asked, by implication at least, by all who seek to find meaning in the Holocaust.
The way they put the question is, were the victims of the Holocaust sinners, and was the Holocaust their punishment?
In a major essay in the Jerusalem Post, Pinchas Peli addresses this question and asks some questions of his own.
If, he says, the Holocaust is – only hypothetically – to be seen as punishment, “does there exist a sin enormous enough to justify such a punishment?”
He points out that the victims shared one characteristic – they were Jews. Therefore if there was a “sin”, it must have something to do with their Jewishness.
Some, like the Satmar Rebbe, postulate that it was the “sin” of Zionism, and that the Zionist movement wrongly anticipated the redemption.
Others, such as Rabbi Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal in his Em HaBanim S’mechah, say the “sin” was anti-Zionism; Jews had the opportunity of returning to the land of Israel and missed it.
An alternative view is that the “sin” was assimilation; the argument runs that in Germany, where the decrees of destruction began, Jews were on the way to spiritual annihilation and to prevent it they suffered physical annihilation first.
But using the Adam and Eve story to explain the Holocaust creates more problems than it solves.
Eliezer Berkovits tells us in his Faith After the Holocaust to “stand in awe before the memory of the k’doshim“.
He is adamant: “Not for a single moment shall we entertain the idea that what happened to European Jewry was divine punishment for any sins committed by them. It was injustice absolute… The idea that all this has befallen us because of our sins is an utterly unwarranted exaggeration.
“There is suffering because of sins; but that all suffering is due to it is simply not true. The idea that the Jewish martyrology through the ages can be explained as divine judgment is obscene” (pp. 89, 94).
Perhaps the most important warning in the many versions of Holocaust theology is that in the end some questions are simply too big, and none of the simplistic answers is adequate.
We must and will continue to ask the questions, chipping away at the rock, as the Midrash puts it, but accepting that that may be as far as we in our generation will be able to go.