Paradigmatic Thinking and Holocaust Theology

in The Journal of Jewish Thought and Philosophy
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Using the example of the wartime writings of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Ehrenreich (Transylvania, 1863–1944), the author examines how traditionally oriented thinkers approached the problems posed by the Nazi persecutions of the Jews during World War ii. The author argues that the notion of paradigmatic thinking is helpful in describing ultra-Orthodox responses to the Holocaust as it aptly captures the fundamental premise behind the interpretive perspective that enabled these thinkers to uphold the traditional understanding of theodicy and the covenantal relationship between God and Israel.



Jacob Neusner, “Paradigmatic versus Historical Thinking: The Case of Rabbinic Judaism,” History and Theory 36 (1997): 368.


See Jacob Neusner, The Idea of History in Rabbinical Judaism (Leiden: Brill, 2004). David R. Blumenthal describes “a paradigmatic mode of interpreting historical data” as an approach characteristic of the rabbinical “Talmud Torah.” Blumenthal, “Where Does ‘Jewish Studies’ Belong?,” Journal of American Academy of Religion 44 (1976): 541–542. A similar point about the rabbinical understanding of history is made by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in his Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (New York: Schocken Books, 1977). Although in chapter 8 of his book Neusner presents a highly critical review of Yerushalmi’s work, I allow myself to use their descriptions of rabbinic attitudes towards history and historical narratives in the Bible jointly because, as Neusner himself notes, his criticism is not directed at Yerushalmi’s “characterization of the facts” but at “his incapacity to explain them” (The Idea of History in Rabbinical Judaism, 211), and this part of the argument between the two scholars has no bearing upon the present considerations.


Neusner, The Idea of History in Rabbinical Judaism, 133–134. I retain Neusner’s system of presentation of the text.


Neusner, The Idea of History in Rabbinical Judaism, 134.


Yerushalmi, Zakhor, 21.


Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, Esh Kodesh (Jerusalem: Va’ad Hasidei Piasetznah, 1960). Available in English translation as Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury, 1939–1942 (Lanham, md: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2000).


Yerushalmi, Zakhor, 51.


Cohen, “Esau as Symbol,” 245.


Cohen, “Esau as Symbol,” 249.


Greenberg, “Ehrenreich’s Religious Response,” 74–75.


David Kraemer, Responses to Suffering in Classical Rabbinical Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 22. In this work Kraemer provides a comprehensive description of the variety of early Jewish interpretations of suffering. Zachary Braiterman traces both theodicy and anti-theodicy in Jewish tradition in (God) After Auschwitz: Tradition and Change in Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought (Princeton, nj: Princeton University Press, 1998).


See Braiterman, (God) After Auschwitz, 47–57; Kraemer, Responses to Suffering, 27–35 and passim; Anson Laytner, Arguing with God: A Jewish Tradition (Northvale, nj: Jason Aronson, 1990).


Braiterman, (God) After Auschwitz, 31.


Greenberg, “Ehrenreich’s Religious Response,” 86.


Neusner, “Paradigmatic versus Historical Thinking,” 360.


Neusner, “Paradigmatic versus Historical Thinking,” 270.


Yerushalmi, Zakhor, 36.


Neusner, “Paradigmatic versus Historical Thinking,” 377.


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