Fackenheim and the Shoah in Contemporary Jewish Thought

Daniel Korobkin Tradition Online | February 2, 2021

Emil Fackenheim

REVIEW: Kenneth Hart Green, The Philosophy of Emil Fackenheim: From Revelation to the Holocaust (Cambridge University Press, 2020), 416 pages

How central of a role should a singular historical event play in the life of Jew? Of course, the Exodus and Sinai events were root historical experiences, seminal for our formation as a people. But what about subsequent events, where there was no Divine revelation? What about modern historical events? Specifically, how central of a role should the Shoah play in how a Jew formulates his or her theology and reconciles the existence of evil in the face of the all-benevolent God of the Torah? For Emil Fackenheim (1916-2003), there was no role too large. The Shoah became his life-long project – some would say, his obsession – in formulating a post-Holocaust theology for the modern Jew. 

Fackenheim’s most oft-quoted teaching about the Holocaust was his “614th Commandment”: A Jew may not give Hitler a “posthumous victory” in allowing the Jewish people to dissipate or be diluted in any way as a result of the Shoah. As an outgrowth of that commandment, Fackenheim would slowly become more enamored with Zionism, especially in light of the 1967 Six Day War, realizing that the State of Israel was an outgrowth of the Shoah and was the only hope for the Jewish people’s future. He made aliya in 1984.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Kenneth Hart Green to discuss his new book, The Philosophy of Emil Fackenheim: From Revelation to the Holocaust (Cambridge University Press, 2020). [Read the book’s introduction here.] Green is a disciple of Fackenheim, having studied under his tutelage in the 1970s at the University of Toronto where he now teaches in the Department for the Study of Religion and the Centre for Jewish Studies. (Full disclosure: Green is my friend and congregant.)

Fackenheim’s emphasis on the central role of the Shoah in modern Jewish ideology was met with controversy both from liberal and conservative interpreters of Judaism. For many, Fackenheim over-particularized the Jewish experience of suffering, and in the process, incorrectly downplayed other forms of genocide and human suffering. Others simply thought he made too much of the Holocaust: he put it in the center of Judaism, substituting the Holocaust for traditional religion. Eliezer Berkovits, for example, certainly admitted the novelty of the Holocaust in historical terms, but claimed that this did not challenge traditional Jewish theology in any fundamental way: it can still deal with evil, even radical evil on an unprecedented scale, in the same way as it always did.

(Read some of the treatments of Fackenheim’s thought published in the pages of TRADITION over the years.)

Green is not bothered by either of these criticisms. He feels that Fackenheim’s writings have been oversimplified or simply misunderstood. In part, his reason for writing his new book is to clarify some of the more controversial pronouncements of his teacher. He believes that Fackenheim’s is the most important thought on the Shoah, and it deserves to be preserved for future generations of Jews and non-Jews. 

Have there not been multiple iterations of evil that have tortured, maimed, and murdered Jews throughout history? What made Fackenheim believe that the Holocaust was unique and different from all other historical events? What of the Temples’ destructions at the hands of the Babylonians and the Romans and subsequent exiles, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and countless pogroms? Fackenheim spoke of a great “rupture” that was created by the Holocaust. This is not the same “rupture” referenced by Haim Soloveitchik in his essay on “Rupture and Reconstruction,” which may be better known to readers of TRADITION. Whereas Soloveitchik was referring to a social rupture in how religious tradition is interpreted and transmitted, Fackenheim was referring to a rupture of Jewish theology, and, more specifically, the belief in a providential God, as well as the belief that man, who is created in God’s image, is inherently good. 

The reason why the Shoah presents such a categorically unique rupture – not only to Judaism, but to mankind in general – is because it demonstrated for the first time in human history a new type of radical evil that he is capable of perpetrating. An expert in Midrash, Fackenheim failed to find rabbinic descriptions which conceive of evil of this variety. Hazal, along with any pre-20th century thinkers, simply lacked the experience of human depravity witnessed during the Shoah. 

Emil Fackenheim

For Fackenheim, among the “unprecedented” features of the Holocaust was the Nazi determination to exterminate every single Jew – men, women, and of course, 1.5 million children – regardless of their political or religious affiliation. Instead of simply relocating or interring Jews, the Nazis were ideologically committed to genocide. Furthermore, Jews were not even accorded the “luxury” of martyrdom, since martyrdom is only relevant if a Jew sacrifices his own life for the sake of his faith. The Nazis didn’t care what our religious beliefs were but rather viewed the Jewish people as a eugenically inferior race. This and other features of Hitler’s project showed that mankind was capable of a new level of “Satanic evil” that had not been manifest in generations prior.

Fackenheim believed there were four imperatives for all future Jews inherent in the “614th Commandment”: (1) Jews must remain Jews; (2) they must remember the Shoah victims; (3) they must not despair of man; and (4) they must not despair of God. This is no short order, neither for we who come after, and certainly not for the survivors themselves. 

Where was God during the Shoah? Fackenheim doesn’t provide a clear answer, because he felt that we are too close to the events to see the hand of God writ large during that dark period. But he does find points of light, “tikkunim” as he calls them, moments of both religious and physical resistance to the great evil that faced the Jewish people. He considered himself a disciple of the rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, Rabbi Klonimus Kalman Shapira, the holy Aish Kodesh, who inspired Fackenheim to find these tikkunim in the midst of the darkness. 

Fackenheim was himself a survivor. He was arrested in Germany on the night of Kristallnacht in 1938, and was interred in a concentration camp. His older brother refused to escape with him and was eventually killed by the Nazis. Unquestionably, he shared the common trauma of an entire generation of Jews, perhaps more acutely so than others. One might therefore not be surprised at Fackenheim’s preoccupation with the Holocaust as playing a uniquely central role for the Jews of the 20th century and beyond. 

But has Fackenheim’s thought aged well? As our survivors are slowly leaving this world, and our children become less imprinted with a memory of the Holocaust, to what degree does Fackenheim’s theology continue to be relevant for the 21st-century Jew? 

Green’s answer to this question is that until 9/11, he was tempted to believe that Fackenheim’s thought might have lost some of its relevance. But upon witnessing the human malevolence, mass murder, and atrocities of the 21st century, Green concluded that Fackenheim must be studied and reviewed by the new generation. Many people deal with trauma by trying to bury it, but modern psychology tells us this is unhealthy, and this is why Fackenheim’s bringing this trauma to the fore may be the best prescription for the 21st century human psyche. 

The topic of modern and post-modern philosophy is a bit of a departure for Green, who is best known for his studies on Leo Strauss’ interpretation of Maimonides. But Green observes that his own love of Maimonides began by studying under Fackenheim, who exposed his student to the philosophy of the medieval Jewish classics before endeavoring to initiate him into his own theology. It was Fackenheim’s struggle with the medieval greats that informed his modern theology of contending with extreme evil.

I asked Green how Fackenheim, who was a self-described liberal Jew, and who had once worked as a rabbi in a Reform Temple, became his guiding religious inspiration. How did Green emerge as a devoutly Orthodox Jew from under Emil Fackenheim’s tutelage? He answered that what many people don’t realize is that despite his liberalism, Fackenheim lived his life mostly as an observant Jew. Fackenheim also believed that it is supremely vital that Jews remain unified, and should not be divided based on their levels of observance or denominational affiliations. Fackenheim’s emphasis on unity and his faith in God are what inspired Green the most and actually further impelled him to devote his life to Orthodox Judaism. 

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin is senior rabbi of Beth Avraham Yoseph of Toronto Congregation (“The BAYT”) and president of the Rabbinical Council of America.

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