“What do we do now?”, a review of “God on Trial”

Be warned that I do not withhold plot details in my reviews.

God is in the dock in Auschwitz, accused of breaking his covenant with the Jews, in Frank Cottrell Boyce‘s play, a coproduction by Hat Trick Productions and WGBH Boston for BBC Scotland.  God on Trial was broadcast on BBC2 on September 3rd, 2008.  The prosecutor shows no mercy, and the legal arguments are about as sound as Boyce, a Catholic, and two Rabbis who acted as consultants could make them.  I’ve already discussed Boyce’s comments on how this play affected his faith in God in another article.

This is a great play to watch.  It would be easy to let the Auschwitz setting overwhelm the arguments, or succumb to the mawkish sentimentality of Hollywood; Boyce resists the temptation and keeps the mind engaged, while not neglecting the human suffering of the witnesses.  It’s a very breezy 90 minutes.  Surprising for the subject matter, but the ensemble work by an excellent cast, and Boyce’s superb writing, make it look easy.  Not one ounce of fat.

The central question is dramatized by the father-son pair of Khun (Jack Shepherd) and his son Mordechai (Rupert Graves).  Mordechai, a young college-educated Jew, blames God for permitting the murderous tyranny of Nazi Germany to wipe out the Jews, betraying the Covenant.  Khun, a traditionalist, bewails his son’s waywardness in betraying the human side of the Covenant.  The twist is that the Nazis have held a selection that afternoon to prepare to make room for an unexpected influx of newcomers.  At the inspection Khun was sent in one direction, Mordechai the other.  It appears that Khun has been selected to die.

Interpretation of the killing are examined: punishment for straying from God’s law, purification as in the Flood, a sacrifice or holocaust, a test of faith, a consequence of free will, or God’s indifference as in Job.  Can we know the mind of God?  Perhaps not, but one does not need to know the mind of a person in deciding whether he has broken a contract.  Can the prediction that the Jews will prevail be used in defence of the accusation that God has broken the contract?  Lieble, who was asked by the Nazis to choose which of his sons to spare, argues that he had no free will to exercise there.

As the trial progresses, it becomes clear that the prisoners derive comfort from discussing their grievances.  They continue with the trial after an interruption during which some newcomers are shaved, washed, and have their valuables, including their gold fillings, removed by the Nazis.  When the Nazis start to round up prisoners from other huts, the prisoners press on.  The trial is unstoppable.

The physicist, Jacques (François Guétary), argues that God does not exist.  Lieble recoils from this, answering Jacques’ example of the Ichneumonidae with an argument from design based on the fig wasp.  Baumgarten, the presiding judge, reveals that before he was taken to Auschwitz he was a “Jew-hating German” who joined the Nazi Party and encouraged his sons to enlist in the Hitler Youth, until his hidden Jewish parentage was discovered by a bureaucrat.  He observes that the Nazis have deliberately deprived the Jews in the camp of everything they have, and argues that the only thing they have left is their God, “whether he exists or not.”  This strain of faith as a vital possession runs through the play.

It is left to the Rabbi, Akiba, to deliver the most damning evidence.  Using his knowledge of the Torah, he outlines the murderous and bloodthirsty actions of God.  “God was never good.  He was only on our side.  God is not good.”  He reminds them that now the German soldiers have on their belt the motto “Gott Mit Uns“.  “He is still God,” Akiba says, “but not our God.  He has become our enemy. He has made a covenant with someone else.”

And so God is convicted.

“What do we do now?”

“Now we pray.”

The denouement is something I’ll leave for you to watch.  It poses a question I don’t think we have yet fully answered: where does human goodness come from?

Do we want to know the answer?  Or do we want to lay it all at the feet of God, just as the trial lays all of human evil at the feet of God and condemns him for it?

I expected something good.  I didn’t dare to expect something as great as this play.  As good a philosophical dialogue as you’ll find anywhere since Hume, as excellent a trial play as you’ll see, well, ever.  A brilliant cast bring to life the work of a writer of extraordinary power.  At last a work about the big question of the Holocaust, to compare to the work of Primo Levi.  Go and watch it yourself.  Don’t walk, run!

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