In summer 2012 I enrolled at a JTS summer course: Holocaust and Post-Holocaust Jewish Thinking. The course enabled me to focus on several philosophical, historical, aesthetic and theological issues related to this complex topic. I wrote several papers examining some of these issues. This is the fourth essay – exploring the startling theological (and thealogical models) that examine Feminist theology in the context of the Holocaust.


June 13, 2012


The Presence of Absence: Another Theological Model



“And if God does not help me to go on, then I shall have to help God.”


Etty Hillesum (Etty: A diary. London, 1985)




Included in ‘Moments of Reprieve’, Primo Levi’s collections of short stories and essays, is a surprising short story entitled ‘Lilith’. Here, in his characteristically detailed and prosaic language Levi paints the picture of a single conversation he had with another prisoner, on a rainy day in Auschwitz, which happens to be the day on which both men were born, 25 years earlier. The conversation turns to mystical tales about the mythical Lilith, and Levi weaves this recollection with a startling theological suggestion: the presence of God, ‘represented’ by the Shechina, is right there with them.  Levi quotes ‘the carpenter’, an East European Jew who uses the short break they have from work to share ideas about the fate of God. The man describes the rabbinic and kabalistic traditions that portray God, so to speak, as comprised of two: male and female. The female counterpart is the Shechina, the Divine Presence. Levi writes: “The Shechina became he wife of God and therefore the mother of all peoples. When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans and we were dispersed and enslaved, the Shechina was angered, left God, and came with us into exile. Actually I must have thought this: that the Shechina also let herself be enslaved and is here around us, in this exile within exile, in this home of mud and sorrow.”


Levi recounts this conversation, but it is not at all certain that it spoke to him convincingly. He ends with the story by reflecting on their respective fates: “It is inexplicable that fate has chosen an unbeliever to repeat this pious and impious tale, woven of poetry, ignorance, daring acumen, and the unassuagable sadness that grown on the ruins of lost civilization.’


I am very moved by Levi’s story – and especially by the almost incidental mention of the Shechina and the suggestion of her presence in the camps.  The key word here is ‘presence’  – which is indeed the precise translation of the Hebrew word and kabalistic concept – “Shechina”. My own personal journey of faith is deeply connected to the concept of the Shechina and the discovery of a rich liturgical, midrashic and contemplative tradition that explores this theological-mystical dimension.  It is astonishing and inspiring to get a glimpse of this fragment of faith as expressed by one man and transmitted by another.


I have just begun to map the theological terrains that contend with the presence and/or absence of God in the Holocaust. Rubinstein’s ‘Death of God’ and return to ‘mystical paganism’ resonate to an extent – just as Facknehim’s insistence on the presence of God in the death camp and the emergence of a revelatory command from within the very furnace. The notion of a revised, broken covenant between God and Israel, as suggested by Greenberg, who proposes a new, humanly responsible attitude towards God, faith and practice is also deeply compelling to me. The attempt to reconcile reason and faith – facts and fiction – proves a daunting challenge to many who struggle with these questions at all times – and esp. in the context of the Holocaust.  Perhaps a fusion of many of these speculations and theological claims may serve as a more helpful and holistic model.


One such possible fusion is alluded to in Levi’s story. His mention of the Shechina reminded me of an essay I had begun to read last year in ‘Wrestling with God’, the excellent anthology of Jewish Theological responses during and after the Holocaust.  The only female voice in the book is that of Melissa Raphael, Professor of Jewish Theology at the University of Gloucestershire.  Raphael is the author of numerous articles and books, including Theology and Embodiment: The Post-Patriarchal Reconstruction of Female Sacrality (Sheffield Academic Press, 1996); The Female Face of God in Auschwitz:  A Jewish Feminist Theology of the Holocaust (Routledge, 2003) and Judaism and the Visual Image: A Jewish Theology of Art (Continuum, 2009).


Raphael combines feminist theory with a theological speculation, offering a startling model. In her essay ‘The Female Face of God in Auschwitz’ she writes:


“There has been too much asking “where was God in Auschwitz?” and not enough “who was God in Auschwitz?” An answer to the second question is also an answer to the first.

Jewish feminism has been asking “who is God?” for several decades and much of the movement wants to name the God of their experience Shekinah.”[1]


Like Rubinstein, Raphael suggests that God did die in the Holocaust. But in a manner more radical than even Facknehim’s she also proposes that another dimension of God was present – and emanated out of the ‘pits of the camps’ – the Feminine Face of God.


In this way she echoes the theodicy of ‘hester panim’ – but only partially, ‘dimly glowing as when the face of the moon is eclipsed by passing clouds in the night sky.’ (p. 656)

“God’s patriarchal face disappeared and his power was extinguished,” She writes. “ But the metapatriachal God was also, differently, numbered with those in the pit for she never left their side.” (p. 651)


Raphael is basing some of her theory on the research of the memoirs of female Holocaust survivors. She describes several incidents in which women’s kindness to each other even in the most extreme conditions was a personification of compassionate, motherly – divine love. The divine presence was thus ‘present’ through the actions of humans, a reminder of the divine image, the immanent presence of a power greater than even the oppressors. ‘It may then be the case that God’s presence in the camps was hidden only in that it was not ordinarily perceptible. In a religious feminist context the phrase hester panim could connote not so much the hiding of the face as its disguise, and one which brought God deep into the broken heart of Auschwitz. She remained among us, perhaps unknown, unknowable, but not hidden. “ (p. 653)


Raphael focuses a lot on women’s experience of God – or spiritual sustenance – in the Holocaust. Her claim is that women were more susceptible to discern this form of divinity – and less surprised by the absence of the ‘familiar, father God figure’. After all, they have been excluded from direct contact with that God for most of traditional Jewish history. In this way, they had less of a disappointment from men at having been abandoned by God in the camps:  “The assumption of the masculinity of God has further acclimatized them to experience him at one remove.” (p. 652)


She also discusses examples of kindness and compassion by men, towards men, women and children. In this way she elevates the narrative from that of women’s religious experience to that of the human experience. The Shechina, as is often depicted in Jewish sources, is present everywhere, for everyone. Although distinctly feminine in her attributes and attitude, representing the qualities that we often associate with ‘women’ or ‘females’ – this sense of divinity is definitely not to limited to the religious domain of women.  In fact, one of the most interesting things about Raphael’s theory is connected to the fact that only in the last few decades has the concept of the Shechina ‘resurfaced’ – in many Jewish circles and contexts, not limited to feminist or women’s religious contexts only.  Although she does not write this in the essay (she may be writing this in the longer book by the same title, I had not yet read it.) she seems to indicate that that the Shechina’s presence in the camps indicates a tangible presence and perhaps even a return of this consciousness to the greater Jewish mindset. In some way, it may be said that while the God the Father died there – God the Mother resurfaced, and is with us now in more visceral ways than previously in history. Certainly, Feminist Jewish attitudes have had considerable impact on Jewish learning, liturgy, worship and ritual since the 1940’s. The possibility of a Divine presence, which is feminine – or at least not exclusively masculine, is no longer an obscure concept. I think we’re only just witnessing the early phases of this important shift. I also believe that this shift has dramatic ramifications to the life of faith and to the very continuity of Jewish life and spirit.


Raphael indicates that this shift may have begun in the camps themselves, subtle, understood and seen by only a few:

“If the face of the of the monarchial God was turned from Israel, might the face of an-Other God have been turned toward it, even it were one Israel could not recognize? Rabbi Barukh of Mezibizh told that God hides himself, but no one wants to seek him. Similar could be said of God-she. “ (p. 652)


There are many legends about the Shechina, recorded in the Talmud, Midrash, Zohar and Chasidic writings. In many of the legends, as recorded by Levi in his story, she is depicted as a lonely woman, a mother moaning for her children, always with them, in thick and thin. It is assumed that one day the exile  – hers and theirs – will end. There are various speculations as to what that happy end may look like.  But all of them have in common the sense that the Shechina is not removed from the people- that Shechina IS the people. In this way, it is up to people to embody the presence of kindness, support, faith and compassion. God is not, in this view, a remote concept – God is ever-present in our very actions, hopes and dreams.


Perhaps in some way this is where Raphael’s theory meets that of Fackanehim. If indeed, as he suggests, The Shoah was not just an ‘epoch making event’ but an actual ‘root experience’ – then the presence and voice of the Divine from within the camps is an important and radical moment in Jewish history. The building of Israel and the continued existence of the people is directly related to that revelatory moment. Could one suggest that the Shechina’s descent among the people at the time of most need be carried through to the next phase of Jewish rebirth in the land of Israel? Is this the beginning of the fulfillment of the ancient prayer for the  ‘Shechina’s return to Zion”?


There is much more here to explore. On a gut level I am very interested in this discourse and attracted to Raphael’s theological premise.  I hope to pursue it in greater depth in the future.

[1] Melissa Raphael, The Female Face of God in Auschwitz; in “Wrestling with God” Ed. Katz, Biderman, Greenberg. Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 650

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