fb-pixel Skip to main content

Richard Rubenstein, 97, dies; theologian challenged ideas of God

Rabbi  Rubenstein in the late 1960s.
Rabbi Rubenstein in the late 1960s.via Rubenstein family via The New York Times

Richard L. Rubenstein, the leading Jewish voice in the theological groundswell of the 1960s known as the “Death of God” movement, who argued that the Holocaust had invalidated the idea of an omnipotent, benevolent deity who safeguards Jews as the chosen people, died May 16 in Bridgeport, Conn. He was 97.

His daughter, Hannah Rubenstein, said he had been treated at a Bridgeport hospice and died of sepsis.

In the 1960s, as the world seemed to grow increasingly secular, several Protestant theologians began to undermine traditional conceptions of an all-powerful God who manipulates human behavior like a puppeteer wielding marionettes. Drawing on the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and Harvard philosopher Paul Tillich, theologians like Thomas J.J. Altizer, Gabriel Vahanian, Paul van Buren and William Hamilton more or less concluded that a view of a God who manages human history deprives humans of their free will.

Advertisement



Rabbi Rubenstein, a Conservative campus rabbi and academic who had studied at Harvard Divinity School as well as at Reform and Conservative Jewish seminaries, took this conversation to a starker level. In 1966, in the seminal book “After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism,” he also challenged the notion of a cosmos-controlling God, but he did so principally by raising the specter of the 6 million Jews, 1 million of them children, killed by the Germans and their collaborators.

“How can Jews believe in an omnipotent, beneficent God after Auschwitz,” he wrote. “Traditional Jewish theology maintains that God is the ultimate, omnipotent actor in the historical drama. It has interpreted every major catastrophe in Jewish history as God’s punishment of a sinful Israel. I fail to see how this position can be maintained without regarding Hitler and the SS as instruments of God’s will.”

“To see any purpose in the death camps,” he continued, “the traditional believer is forced to regard the most demonic, anti-human explosion in all history as a meaningful expression of God’s purposes. The idea is simply too obscene for me to accept.”

Advertisement



Rabbi Rubenstein was among the half-dozen theologians cited in a now-classic cover story in Time magazine that was trumpeted with bold red letters on a black background asking, “Is God Dead?”

While he contended that the God of traditional beliefs did not exist, Rabbi Rubenstein never renounced a belief in a God and attended synagogue every Sabbath, his daughter said. He saw God as “the Lord of all creation” who left human beings to make their own moral choices, said Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar who studied with Rabbi Rubenstein for his doctorate at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

“God is the ocean and we are the waves,” was a favorite metaphor of Rabbi Rubenstein’s.

“That doesn’t make human life meaningless,” Berenbaum said. “It gives us the opportunity to create meaning.”

Rabbi Rubenstein affirmed biblically prescribed rituals as binding Jews into a community while offering them tools for grappling with life’s difficulties. He looked upon a sacred day like Yom Kippur as a response, in Berenbaum’s words, to the human “need to face our own imperfections and our own capacity for change,” rather than as a day on which God sits in judgment of mankind.

Still, the rejection of the God who had promised in the covenant with Abraham to shape Abraham’s descendants into a great nation, a chosen people, infuriated many Jewish thinkers and led to a flurry of vitriolic personal attacks. One critic branded him an “accomplice of Hitler.”

Advertisement



Interest in the “Death of God” movement faded, yet Rabbi Rubenstein’s thoughts on the theological questions raised by the Holocaust worked their way into the Jewish mainstream and became a legitimate subject of debate, with credit given to him for initiating that debate. In time it engaged such Jewish theologians as Emil Fackenheim, Eliezer Berkovits and Arthur Green and writers like Elie Wiesel, who had already exposed his own doubts in his Holocaust memoir, “Night.”

Early on, Rabbi Rubenstein worked as a Hillel Foundation director and a chaplain to students at the University of Pittsburgh. He spent the bulk of his career, from 1971 to 1995, as a professor of religion at Florida State University. From 1995 to 1999 he was a professor of religion and president of the University of Bridgeport.

The university was then under the control of Professors World Peace Academy, an affiliate of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, which has been assailed by critics as a missionary cult. The church had rescued the university from bankruptcy and near certain closing with an infusion of $98 million.

Rabbi Rubenstein was insistent that the Unification Church had not influenced the curriculum or faculty staffing. “The idea that somehow the Moonies have come and taken over is not borne out by the facts,” he said in 1995. “This is a normal American university with a unique funding source.”

Advertisement



Although not a member of the church, Rabbi Rubenstein was drawn to supporting it because of Moon’s fierce anti-communism, Barenbaum said.

Richard Lowell Rubenstein was born Jan. 28, 1924, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Jesse and Sara (Fine) Rubenstein, nonobservant parents who chose not even to have their son called to the Torah for his bar mitzvah. His father worked for a produce company owned by his brother-in-law, and his mother was a homemaker with an intellectual bent who had studied at New York University, receiving a master’s degree in English literature.

Ambitious for her children, she persuaded her husband to move to a fancier section of town, the Upper East Side. Richard skipped three grades and went to the original Townsend Harris High School in Manhattan, one of the city’s finest. (His sister, Roberta Spohn, became the longtime deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Aging.)

In addition to his daughter, he is survived by a son, Jeremy, from his first marriage, to Ellen Vanderveen; three stepchildren from his marriage to Betty Rogers Rubenstein, an art historian — John H. Alschuler, Jean Reed and Liora Alschuler; and 10 grandchildren and step-grandchildren. A son, Aaron, from his first marriage, died in 2007.

After starting undergraduate work at City College of New York, Rabbi Rubenstein finished his bachelor’s degree at the University of Cincinnati while studying for the rabbinate at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He followed a venerated professor, Abraham Joshua Heschel, to the Jewish Theological Seminary, which ordained him a rabbi in 1952.

Advertisement



He earned a master’s in sacred theology from Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate in the history of religion in 1960 from Harvard University, where he studied with Tillich.

According to Hannah Rubenstein, a key impetus for her father’s groundbreaking book, “After Auschwitz,” was a meeting in 1961 at the Berlin Wall with Heinrich Grüber, theologian and dean of a Protestant church in East Berlin. Grüber was widely known for having saved Christian children of Jewish descent by negotiating with the Nazi authorities at his own peril; for his strong statements maintaining that the German people were collectively guilty for the Holocaust; and for his testimony in Jerusalem at the war-crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann.

Her father, Rubenstein said, was taken aback when he heard Grüber say, “It must be that it was God’s will that Hitler did what he did.”

Rabbi Rubenstein, she said, feared that if even someone like Grüber, a man so sympathetic to Jewish concerns, could hold such traditional conceptions of God, others might harbor them as well.

“My father,” she said, echoing his language, “felt that was obscene.”