Richard Rubenstein, 97, Dies; Theologian Challenged Ideas of God

Richard L. Rubenstein, the main Jewish voice within the theological groundswell of the 1960s generally known as the “Death of God” motion, who argued that the Holocaust had invalidated the thought of an all-powerful, benevolent deity who safeguards Jews because the chosen individuals, died on May 16 in Bridgeport, Conn. He was 97.

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

In the 1960s, because the world appeared to develop more and more secular, a number of Protestant theologians started to undermine conventional conceptions of an omnipotent God who manipulates human conduct like a puppeteer wielding marionettes. Drawing on the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and the Harvard thinker Paul Tillich, theologians like Thomas J.J. Altizer, Gabriel Vahanian, Paul van Buren and William Hamilton kind of concluded view of a God who manages human historical past deprives people of their free will.

Dr. Rubenstein, a Conservative campus rabbi and tutorial who had studied at Harvard Divinity School in addition to at Reform and Conservative Jewish seminaries, took this dialog to a starker stage. In 1966, within the seminal e-book “After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism,” he additionally challenged the notion of a cosmos-controlling God, however he did so principally by elevating the specter of the six million Jews, a million of them youngsters, 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.”

ImageIn this groundbreaking 1966 e-book, Dr. Rubenstein challenged the notion of a cosmos-controlling God by elevating the specter of the six million Jews, a million of them youngsters, killed by the Germans and their collaborators.Credit…MacMillan

“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.”

Dr. Rubenstein was among the many half dozen theologians cited in a now-classic cowl story in Time journal that was trumpeted with daring crimson letters on a black background asking, “Is God Dead?”

While he contended that the God of conventional beliefs didn’t exist, Dr. Rubenstein by no means renounced a perception in a God and attended synagogue each Sabbath, his daughter stated. He noticed God as “the Lord of all creation” who left human beings to make their very own ethical decisions, stated Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar who studied with Dr. Rubenstein for his doctorate at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

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

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

Dr. Rubenstein affirmed biblically prescribed rituals as binding Jews right into a neighborhood whereas providing them instruments for grappling with life’s difficulties. He regarded upon a sacred day like Yom Kippur as a response, in Professor Berenbaum’s phrases, to the human “need to face our own imperfections and our own capacity for change,” slightly than as a day on which God sits in judgment of mankind.

Still, the rejection of the God who had promised within the covenant with Abraham to form Abraham’s descendants into a terrific nation, a selected individuals, infuriated many Jewish thinkers and led to a flurry of vitriolic private assaults. One critic branded him an “accomplice of Hitler.”

Interest within the “Death of God” motion pale, but Dr. Rubenstein’s ideas on the theological questions raised by the Holocaust labored their means into the Jewish mainstream and have become a official topic of debate, with credit score 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 uncovered his personal doubts in his Holocaust memoir, “Night.”

Early on, Dr. Rubenstein labored as a Hillel Foundation director and a chaplain to college students on the University of Pittsburgh. He spent the majority of his profession, from 1971 to 1995, as a professor of faith at Florida State University. From 1995 to 1999 he was a professor of faith and president of the University of Bridgeport.

The college was then underneath the management 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 college from chapter and close to sure closing with an infusion of $98 million.


Dr. Rubenstein in 1993 at Florida State University, the place he was a professor of faith. In 1995 he was named president of the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, at a time when it was managed by an affiliate of the Unification Church. Credit…by way of Florida State University

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

Although not a member of the church, Dr. Rubenstein was drawn to supporting it as a result of of the Rev. Moon’s fierce anti-Communism, Professor Barenbaum stated.

Richard Lowell Rubenstein was born on Jan. 28, 1924, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Jesse and Sara (Fine) Rubenstein, nonobservant mother and father who selected not even to have their son referred to as to the Torah for his bar mitzvah. His father labored for a produce firm owned by his brother-in-law, and his mom was a homemaker with an mental bent who had studied at New York University, receiving a grasp’s diploma in English literature.

Ambitious for her youngsters, she persuaded her husband to maneuver to a fancier part of city, the Upper East Side. Richard skipped three grades and went to the unique Townsend Harris High School in Manhattan, one of the town’s best. (His sister, Roberta Spohn, turned the longtime deputy commissioner of the town’s Department of Aging.)

In addition to his daughter, he’s survived by a son, Jeremy, from his first marriage, to Ellen Vanderveen; three stepchildren from his marriage to Betty Rogers Rubenstein, an artwork 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 beginning undergraduate work at City College of New York, Dr. Rubenstein completed his bachelor’s diploma on the University of Cincinnati whereas learning for the rabbinate at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He adopted a commemorated professor, Abraham Joshua Heschel, to the Jewish Theological Seminary, which ordained him a rabbi in 1952.

He earned a grasp’s in sacred theology from Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate within the historical past of faith in 1960 from Harvard University, the place he studied with Professor Tillich.

According to Hannah Rubenstein, a key impetus for her father’s groundbreaking e-book, “After Auschwitz,” was a gathering in 1961 on the Berlin Wall with Heinrich Grüber, a theologian and dean of a Protestant church in East Berlin. Dean Grüber was broadly recognized for having saved Christian youngsters of Jewish descent by negotiating with the Nazi authorities at his personal peril; for his robust statements sustaining that the German individuals have been collectively responsible for the Holocaust; and for his testimony in Jerusalem on the war-crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann.

Her father, Ms. Rubenstein stated, was stunned when he heard Dean Grüber say, “It must be that it was God’s will that Hitler did what he did.”

Dr. Rubenstein, she stated, feared that if even somebody like Dean Grüber, a person so sympathetic to Jewish issues, might maintain such conventional conceptions of God, others would possibly harbor them as effectively.

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