Last Saturday, Naomi and I had the entirely unusual and entirely pleasant experience of an entire day in Vancouver without the kids (some friends had generously offered to let them have a sleepover from Friday to Saturday). After a leisurely morning where we could actually sleep in and have an enjoyable breakfast at a cafe on Main Street, we went to Pacific Theatre and saw the Canadian Premiere of The Quarrel by Joseph Brandes and Joseph Telushkin.
The play is about two Jewish childhood friends who meet in Montreal on Rosh Hashanah in 1948 after surviving the Holocaust. Chaim Kovler (played by Nathan Schmidt) is a Yiddish writer whose experience in WWII confirmed his previous disavowal of any belief in God and justified his pursuit of a thoroughly secular life of a creative writer; Hersh Resseyner (played by Dan Amos) is an Orthodox rabbi for whom similar experiences has led to solidify and entrench the faith of his youth.
The two men were the best of friends in the yeshiva school of their childhoods, but separated as a result of Chaim’s desire to leave the school and abandon his religion. Both men lost their families in Auschwitz. Both were left alone, with nothing but faith, on the one hand, and bitterness, on the other to accompany them as they struggled to come to terms with the horrors they had witnessed and lived through. For eighty minutes we witnessed the combination of bitter disagreement, unmitigated anger, stubborn faith and deep friendship which the horrors of Auschwitz produced and confirmed in the lives of these two men.
The problem of evil obviously figures prominently in the story. For Chaim, Auschwitz represented nothing less than the God of the universe breaking covenant with his people. Indeed, the subtitle on the program reads: At Sinai, God made a covenant with Jewish people. At Auschwitz, he broke it. Chaim will countenance no justification of God’s behaviour. There is no adequate theodicy for what is symbolized by Auschwitz. At one point in the play, when Hersh argues that we can’t possibly know God’s ways, Chaim explodes in anger, shouting “If I knew God, I’d put him on trial!” For Chaim, if God exists he is a liar, and he is morally culpable for the deaths of six million of his “chosen people.”
For Hersh, on the other hand, Auschwitz has only intensified his devotion to Judaism—indeed his crowning accomplishment, the one in which he takes the most pride, is the opening of a yeshiva school in Montreal. His traditional Jewish worldview remains firmly in place; however his theodicy seems, to put it bluntly, pathetically inadequate if not offensive. “We must have done something to deserve what happened at Auschwitz… God must have had a reason… We can’t expect to understand…” The viewer gets the sense that Hersh is desperately grasping at something, anything to exonerate God for the monstrous evil that his people have experienced. Side by side with Chaim’s eloquent and devastating indictment of the God of Israel, Hersh’s explanations seem rather meager.
Those of us who are “wiser” and more philosophically sophisticated would say that any theodicy which persists in linking the kind of suffering symbolized by Auschwitz with human fault is grossly irresponsible, not to mention intellectually unpalatable. And in The Quarrel, there is not much doubt about which of the two views is seen to be more compelling. At the same time, the play does reveal a kind of fault line—one which has grown to be symbolic of the impermissibility of a certain kind of theodicy in much the same way that the Lisbon earthquake was two hundred years earlier. At Lisbon, it is said, the sheer destructiveness and horror produced by nature forced people to lose faith in facile notions of divine providence. If Lisbon represented the loss of faith in religion, Auschwitz represented the loss of faith in reason. If reason can lead to Auschwitz, then… well, then what? Hersh’s “inadequate” theodicies seem to represent a rather bewildered recircling of the wagons. Religion can’t explain evil of this magnitude, reason can’t explain it… what do we do? Just keep going around and around? Susan Neiman’s argument that Auschwitz leaves us “more helpless than Lisbon” because “our conceptual resources are exhausted” seems just about right…
This certainly seems to be the case at the end of The Quarrel. At the end of a lengthy rehearsal of familiar arguments and non-arguments, two lonely men remain, neither of whom is able to explain the evil they have experienced. The only thing they can agree on is that they need one another’s friendship. Neither one is convinced by the other’s arguments—there is no silly postmodern affirmation that they are both “right” in their own way—but they are drawn back to one another as human beings. The problem of evil simply remains the omnipresent and maddening enigma that it has always been. In the end, the only answer provided is not a logical solution to a philosophical problem, but a moving account of the ways in which evil can, however partially, be redeemed through restored relationships. It was a very moving production, and I am glad to have seen it.