In the face of an atrocity, the comforts of prayer and piety can look not only empty but obscene. This was always true, but after the Holocaust it became a truism. Primo Levi, one of the best chroniclers of life and death at Auschwitz, was outraged by the sight of a fellow prisoner offering a prayer of gratitude just after others had been selected for immediate extermination:
I see and hear old Kuhn praying aloud, with his beret on his head, swaying backwards and forwards violently. Kuhn is thanking God because he has not been chosen. Kuhn is out of his senses. Does he not see Beppo the Greek in the bunk next to him, Beppo who is twenty years old and is going to the gas chamber the day after tomorrow and knows it and lies there looking fixedly at the light without saying anything and without even thinking any more? Can Kuhn fail to realize that next time it will be his turn? Does Kuhn not understand that what has happened today is an abomination, which no propitiatory prayer, no pardon, no expiation by the guilty, which nothing at all in the power of man can ever clean again? If I was God, I would spit at Kuhn’s prayer. (If This Is a Man)
Levi, though, did not believe in God. Those who tried to make sense of what happened in the camps by appeal to divine providence he regarded with suspicion or scorn. In “Catholics & the Shoah” (Commonweal, March 13), Peter Manseau develops a similar suspicion into an argument against theological interpretations of suffering, and Christian interpretations of Jewish suffering in particular. “There is a difference,” he writes, “between facing up to history and seeing one’s own theology play out at every turn. If the first frame of reference for the murder of 6 million Jews is the death of a Christian savior or saint, one can see how the dark spots of history might be forgotten beside the light of faith.”
The obligation to remember the dark spots of history is, as Manseau reminds us, a serious one, and it is all too easy for us to talk our way around it with a certain kind of God talk—the kind that vaguely invokes the Almighty’s hidden purposes or breezily promises eternal compensations. If a theological language makes knowledge of the Holocaust easier for us, it is almost certainly false. At the sight of someone else’s unspeakable suffering, we must be wary of all eloquence, including our own—and especially wary of our own eloquent prayers. Any alert believer will be shaken by Levi’s indignation in the passage above, for his interpretation of Kuhn’s faith is both plausible and damning. It is, Levi says, a faith that doesn’t know how to shut up when the only decent response is silence, a faith that tries to ward off despair with presumption. It may be fair to ask, with Levi, whether there is really any other kind.