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  • Reading the Hebrew Bible After the Shoah: Engaging Holocaust Theology
  • Jennifer L. Koosed
Reading the Hebrew Bible After the Shoah: Engaging Holocaust Theology, by Marvin A. Sweeney. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008. 287 pp. $29.00.

Marvin Sweeney has turned his prodigious powers from philological and historical-critical analysis of biblical texts to the theological and ethical dilemmas posed by the events of the Holocaust. The Hebrew Bible serves as his conversation partner not only because it is the foundational text in Judaism and Christianity, but also because most of the biblical writings are responses to events of world-altering violence and destruction—the Assyrian destruction [End Page 149] of Israel in 721 BCE, the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem and the first Temple along with the subsequent exile in 586 BCE, and the continuing threat of life under the rule of powerful and hostile empires. Sweeney is direct about the inadequacies of many traditional theological concepts, particularly those of "divine presence, power, and righteousness together with traditional notions of human guilt or sin in relation to G-d" (p. 1). In addressing these inadequacies, Sweeney "argues that the Hebrew Bible is in dialogue concerning the issue of calamitous evil in the world. . . . Given the theological problems posed by the Shoah and the debate concerning those problems, it is imperative that human beings take more responsibility as partners with G-d in creation—in dialogue with the Hebrew Bible and their respective religious traditions—to see to the establishment of justice and holiness in the world in which we all live" (p. 2).

Sweeney introduces his study with several brief surveys that provide vital context for his explorations. First, he looks at the response of Christian churches, Catholic and Protestant, to the Nazi antisemitic legislation and genocidal program. Then, he summarizes the major Jewish post-Holocaust theologians: Abraham Joshua Heschel, Leo Baeck, Martin Buber, Ignaz Maybaum, Richard L. Rubenstein, Emil Fackenheim, Eliezer Berkovits, Elie Wiesel, Arthur Cohen, and David R. Blumenthal. He observes that despite the central role of the Hebrew Scriptures in Judaism, there have been few sustained readings of the Bible in post-Holocaust theological thinking (some of Wiesel's work and Blumenthal's readings of the Psalms are notable exceptions). Finally, he surveys the field of Old Testament biblical theology, a primarily Christian enterprise that has ignored the Holocaust and the questions of theodicy it raises. Sweeney's own work, then, is positioned as Jewish biblical theology that foregrounds the experience of the Shoah.

Beginning with Abraham and ending with Daniel, Sweeney covers a wide array of biblical literature. His approach is fairly traditional, grounded in the fruits of historical analysis with forays into literary criticism. His synchronic approach is particularly important for his thesis since the theological implications of biblical stories emerge more from characterization and plot than source and form. Largely absent from his study are works of post-Holocaust biblical interpretation that emerge from more poststructuralist orientations. For example, Sweeney does not address Emmanuel Levinas's Talmudic readings, André Neher's From the Silence of God to the Silence of Auschwitz, or Timothy K. Beal's work on Esther, although he does draw on Blumenthal and Tod Linafelt, both of whom are conversant in poststructuralist approaches.

One of the strengths of Sweeney's work is his unwavering adherence to the dictum that victims should not be blamed for their own suffering, even if [End Page 150] such blame protects the power and justice of G-d. He is particularly pointed when he notes the complicity of biblical interpreters in protecting the character of G-d. Again and again, Sweeney questions the violent actions of G-d and the uncritical acceptance of these actions by even contemporary biblical interpreters. Why shouldn't the Hebrews during the exodus cry out for food and water in the wilderness (pp. 51–22)? Why should Gomer deserve to be beaten by her husband (p. 155)? Even though the tendency to blame the people for their own suffering is evident in the Bible itself (the prophets' attempts to justify the destruction of Israel and Judah, for example), Sweeney convincingly demonstrates that such a theodicy is not consistently present. There are...


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pp. 149-151
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