"Why did God not blow out the fires of the furnaces of Auchwitz? For a person of faith, that is an agonizing question."
For the man who posed the question at the Interfaith coalition's symposium on the Holocaust earlier this week, it was a particularly compelling inquiry, for, as Rabbi Joshua Haberman explained, "I come not merely as a rabbi, nor merely as a Jew, but as one who witnessed the first chapter of the Holocaust.
"I was there when the Nazi troops marched into my native Vienna," he continued.
"When I think of the Holocaust, it is as though I enter a vast, surrealistic landscape," he continued, a landscape where "the most fiendish and the most noble of human beings exist side by side.
"Who can explain it? Was God still in command? Was God involved? That's a tough question you have asked me," he mused.
Rabbi Haberman and the Rev. Evans Crawford, dean of the chapel at Howard University, had the task of setting the stage for the daylong consideration by nearly 100 religious leaders of such vexing issues as the Holocaust, racism, genocide - and God.
For his part, Dean Crawford drew the parallel between the Holocaust under the Nazis and black slavery, as dramaization by Alex Haley in "Roots."
Recalling the TV portrayal of death aboard the slave ships, Dean Crawford said, "We believe that on that middle passage (of the slavers) millions died. That history in the background of black Americans gives us an affinity with Judaism."
Rabbi Haberman observed that for Jews, the Nazi Holocaust was a replay of the captivity of the Jews by the Egyptians 3,000 years ago. "Pharaoh, no less than Hitler, aimed at genocide," he said, and again posed the question: "Where was God when the bodies of Hebrew children floated down the Nile?"
His response, he said, must start with his belief that "there is a god."
Central to his belief, he said, is "God's gift of freedom" - the freedom of the individual to choose between right and wrong. In giving man the knowledge of right and wrong, the rabbi said, "God ran the risk of letting the man grow into saint or a monster." But he added, "The man who abuses his freedom to do evil must be overcome by those who use their freedom to do righteousness . . . God will not do for us what we can and must do for ourselves."
At the same time, he denied the assertion that "God turns us loose to turn earth into hell . . . I cannot cling to my faith in God and assume God is on leave or in retirement . . .
Admittedly, he went on, not all war criminals were punished, while millions of innocent children died. Yet out of the Holocaust, the Jews "went on to create the State of Israel . . . To the present generation, Israel is as much of a miracle as was the historical promised land" to which God led the Jews in the Old Testament accounts, he said.
One of the "mysteria," Rabbi Haberman continued, is the existence throughout history of love, even in the face of evil.
"The turning point in Egyptian oppression of the Old Testament Jews was an act of love . . . when an Egyptian princess found an infant Moses . . . How marvellous that the beginning of salvation was an act of the love of an Egyptian," he said, referring to the biblical account of rescue from the bullrushes of the infant Moses, who was ultimately to lead his people out of slavery. "How marvelous; how strange; how ironic - or was it?" he mused.
So, where was God when evil seemed to reign? Rabbi Haberman concluded: "He was with his creatures in his sharing of freedom - freedom to hate or freedom to love; freedom to kill or freedom to save."