God on Trial at Auschwitz puts the divine on the docket

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

From beginning to end, “God on Trial” is an invigorating, infuriating, inviting drama sure to get every viewer’s dander up and brain cells racing. The premise is based on what might be an apocryphal story of a trial that occurred at Bergen-Belsen.

In this instance, a group of prisoners in Auschwitz awaits word on who among them will die. A new shipment of prisoners has arrived ahead of schedule, and room must be made for them. While the prisoners anticipate their own mortality, one angry prisoner demands that God be put on trial.

Simple in premise, yes, but at the same time complex, with arguments bordering on talmudic. This is an eclectic group of men, young and old, learned and not, religious and not. The group includes a couple professors at prestigious universities who considered themselves more German than Jewish, an Orthodox glove maker and two rabbis. One of the rabbis is so virtuous that many thought him to be one of the 36 just men who inhabit the Earth, “secret saints who carry us on their shoulders.”

Ultimately, a version of a rabbinic court is set up. The charge of murder is not accepted, since God is technically not responsible for the Holocaust. But God is put on trial for breech of contract, breaking the covenant with the Jewish people.

One argument is that the Jews have always suffered. Then again, those who imposed their will on the Jews — the Babylonians, the Romans — are long gone. One of the characters says, “The Torah and the Jewish people have survived the destruction of the Temple and other tragedies.”

Perhaps, as someone suggests, “some great good can come of this, the Messiah will return to the land of Israel.”

Another says, “Maybe He needs us to make him whole.”

A professor who married a non-Jewish woman, and thought he was immune from persecution, finally says the Nazis have taken so much already. “Don’t let them take your God, too,” he says.

The counter-argument is that God has failed to keep certain promises made to Abraham. Moreover, it is silly to assume that, as one person posits, “with a hundred thousand million planets out there that God would care about us. Why didn’t He fill the universe with Jews?”

Without revealing what the judges decide, it can be said that in the end, even non-believers marked for death leave the room in prayer, hands covering their heads.

As a perfect end to this drama, there is a fascinating and moving juxtaposition of the trial with a modern tour group visiting the camp. This is a show not to be missed.

“God on Trial” airs 9 p.m. Nov. 9 on KQED Channel 9.

Curt Schleier
Curt Schleier

Curt Schleier is a freelance writer and author who covers business and the arts for a variety of publications. Follow him on Twitter at @tvsoundoff.