The Paroxysm of Absence


Martin Buber wondered in the early 1950s how the survivors of Auschwitz, whom he called the « Job of the gas chambers », could understand the verse with which Psalm 118 begins and ends: « Pay homage to the Lord, for he is good, for his grace is eternal ».

Emil Fackenheimi noted that Buber did not actually answer the question.

Jean-Christophe Attias adds that this question can never die and will always haunt the descendants of the survivors and that « it is always possible to account for the genocide in any way, and to see in it a punishment or the effect of a voluntary veiling of the divine Face, leaving man totally free from his acts, and therefore free to accomplish absolute evil ».ii

If a silent or absent God deliberately gives man the most total freedom, and allows him to deploy « absolute evil » in the « irreducible singularity » of a historical event, then that same God could, in the future, allow this same « total freedom » to be deployed again in other equally singular historical events, setting free the possibility of paroxysmal evils in the future.

Job’s misfortunes could in no way prefigure or announce those of the Holocaust. Yet Martin Buber chose the figure of Job to ask a question that transcends the millennia.

The « singularity » of absolute evil in a certain historical context in no way prevents its repetition or aggravation in measures that exceed any human imagination.

Today it is necessary not only to live with the question posed by Buber, that of God’s silence or voluntary absence from the world scene, for reasons that are completely incomprehensible to us, but also to imagine the man capable of doing much worse.

In an overpopulated planet, deprived of a decidedly absent God, how many hundreds of millions of dead will the next « absolute evil » instigated by man cause in the apparent indifference of Heaven?

Can we then, in a devastated world, sing with faith: « Pay homage to the Lord, for he is good, for his grace is eternal »?

Again, Buber did not answer this question.

There are limits to human speech and intelligence that cannot be overcome. But absolute, paroxysmal evil, can quite easily surpass itself ever more easily.

And the Face of God can always become ever more veiled, ever more opaque.

Between this paroxysm and this absence, human intelligence falters.

iEmil Fackenheim. The Jewish Bible after the Holocaust. A Re-Reading. Manchester, 1990, p.26

iiJean-Christophe Attias, Les Juifs et la Bible, Paris 2014, p. 245