Of all the painful reconsiderations of the meaning of Jewish experience to which the Holocaust has given birth in our time, that undertaken over the last decades by the theologian Emil Fackenheim is perhaps the most rigorous and, at the same time, the most moving. A survivor of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, Fackenheim is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and has published a half-dozen books (among them Quest for Past and Future, The Jewish Return into History, Encounters between Judaism and Modern Philosophy, and God’s Presence in History) which may be characterized as sustained philosophical meditations on the religious significance of Jewish historical experience, especially in our century.
As a thinker, Fackenheim is a unique hybrid. He is in the tradition of the great European system builders, and indeed he regards himself, with some justice, as alone among Jewish thinkers today in the pursuit of systematic explanations. His painstaking exegeses of Hegel, Spinoza, Rosenzweig, Heidegger, Buber, and others are aimed at uncovering their insights—and their misapprehensions—so that they can be made to contribute to a new philosophy of Judaism for today’s world.
Yet Fackenheim’s formidable powers as a professional academic philosopher have a quite explicitly acknowledged goal that lies outside the realm of metaphysics altogether, and that is summed up in the title of his latest book, To Mend the World.1 For this theologian is also an activist of a kind, intent on lending the strength of his intellect to the healing of the wounded Jewish psyche after the traumas of this century. In this particular endeavor, the positions worked out by Fackenheim the philosopher are at one, and are meant to be at one, with the intuitive feelings of the Jewish people at large in the post-Holocaust world. This Emil Fackenheim is the author of a now famous formulation concerning the Jewish vocation after Auschwitz that has, indeed, given new heart to many people who have sensed in it an echo of their own soul’s conviction: “Jews are forbidden to grant posthumous victories to Hitler.”2
While Fackenheim must ultimately be assessed in his full status as a systematic philosopher, I mean here to bypass some of the subtleties of his analysis, with its array of technical terms and its jockeying among the great figures of Western philosophy, and go straight to the heart of his position. To him, the basic human situation in our day, to which the thinker must address himself, is that of the denizen of a Nazi concentration camp. The Holocaust is, to him, a kind of revelation; it has revealed what the world is really like. In the baleful light of this revelation, mankind must seek to orient itself in the future. More correctly (since the creative role of time and history is important in Fackenheim’s thought), the Holocaust has revealed the world not as it always was, but as it must now forever be.
The Holocaust is thus, for Fackenheim, an entirely unique event, which marks a new epoch not merely in Jewish, but in human, history. It has revealed possibilities of evil that are quite beyond anything previously envisaged, and that cannot be contained or explained by previous categories, such as those of the Ninth of Ab, by which the destruction of the ancient Temple was accommodated to Jewish belief in the mercy and justice of God. No theodicy, he believes, by which God’s behavior may be vindicated, and no anthropology upholding the essential goodness of man, can survive this event. The Holocaust thus comprises a metaphysical confrontation with the abyss of evil, a meeting between man and reality on a scale of profundity hitherto adumbrated only in the great religious myths—the meeting of Abraham with God’s inexplicably cruel demand that he sacrifice his son Isaac, or the meeting of man, God, and the abyss of suffering at the crucifixion. From the event of the Holocaust can come only two things—either complete despair, and a decision to abandon the human experiment altogether, or a new commitment which amounts to a new dimension of living. In the case of the Jews, however, this new commitment may be found to have sufficient continuity with old ways of thought and life to be called a fresh stage within Judaism itself.
In this turning point between despair and continuance, Fackenheim finds two events which can act as the basis of a renewal of faith. One is on the level of the individual: it is the discovery by inmates in the concentration and death camps of Nazi Europe that in the worst extremity, under assault by behavior which aimed at depriving them of all self-respect and sense of human worth, they still found the strength to withstand such assault and, by understanding what was being aimed at, to nullify that aim. This was a revelation equal to the revelation on Mount Sinai, and one that could be set against that other revelation of the Holocaust, itself epoch-making in a negative sense—namely, that human beings could be reduced to a robot-like status in which all possibility of human choice had been obliterated.
The second great revelation was on the communal scale: it was the emergence of the state of Israel. A people that, having been rebuffed by man and God, should according to every rational consideration have turned its face to the wall, instead found within itself the vitality to create itself anew, to revive its ancient language and reconstitute itself in its ancient land. Here Fackenheim turns a tired and suspect platitude on its head: instead of saying that Israel is the compensation for the Holocaust, or the silver lining sure to be found in even the blackest cloud, he sees the emergence of Israel as the instinctive and creative response of an entire community to its apparently final engulfment by the forces of destruction. There was nothing in the least determined or inevitable or compensatory about this response, which had all the unexpectedness of the metaphysically real, i.e., what is not given but happens. (For Fackenheim, the hallmark of the real is precisely this quality of “surprise.”)
There is much in Fackenheim’s reaction to the Holocaust that is both true and moving. More than any other writer, he brings out the uniqueness of the Holocaust, and refutes the attempts that have been made to assimilate it to other horrific massacres, such as the Turkish massacre of the Armenians, or the sufferings of Hiroshima. These events can be explained on the basis of rational political motivations (the Armenian claims to independence were a genuine nuisance to the Turks, for example). Only in the case of the Jews was a people chosen for extermination not because of anything they did or claimed, or were thought to have done or claimed, but simply because they were, a people whose very existence was considered an evil which it was meritorious to annihilate, in an action analogous to the eradication of malaria.
Moreover, the uniqueness of the Holocaust is shown in the desire not only to kill the victims, but to demoralize, degrade, and humiliate them in every possible way. The ingenuity applied to this end was astounding. Nothing in history has been like a Nazi death camp, with its creation of a vast community of suffering and its proliferation of techniques—including covering inmates in excrement—by which the victims’ torture could be protracted and concentrated. Here the analogy between killing Jews and killing germs breaks down. No one wants to torture a germ before killing it. Rats may be massacred, but no one would force them to live through an ordeal of filth and emaciation before they die. There is only one possible analogy in human experience, or rather in human imagination, and that is with the supreme place of torture: Hell, as created by Dante and other Christian writers and preachers.
Fackenheim, however, does not draw this analogy, and the fact that he does not may be linked with certain weaknesses of comprehension in his otherwise unsparing facing of the horror.
Why did the Nazis so faithfully and painstakingly recreate on earth the Inferno that has long engaged the Christian imagination? The answer lies in the Christian background of the Holocaust. This is an aspect that Fackenheim, with all his bravery, does not truly confront. He sees the Holocaust as an upsurge of previously unimagined evil, and thus neglects to place it in its historical context. While one may applaud Fackenheim’s existentialist philosophy of surprise, insofar as it leads him to reject all facile deterministic explanations—such as the attempts to interpret the Holocaust in terms of economics, or xenophobia, or the vicissitudes of German history—one must protest when this leads to the abandonment of historical explanation.
What we have to understand is the special kind of hatred that motivates anti-Semitism, and which found its ultimate expression in the Holocaust. What kind of enmity is it that cannot even be satisfied by killing, but must search for a complex form of mental, spiritual, and physical torture, in which the victim is reduced below the level of the beasts and dies in a condition of despair and self-loathing? One SS man, questioned at Nuremberg, gave an answer: it was necessary to reduce the Jews to a contemptible state so that the killers could proceed without qualms.
Fackenheim rightly rejects this answer as specious. It was, on the contrary, the hatred itself that motivated the procedure. Transformed into a loathsome, gibbering, excrement-covered creature, the Jew was revealed in his true form, just as he appeared in the anti-Semitic vision—the form which he was usually cunning enough to disguise through the pretense of culture and civilization. It was like the transformation of Lamia, by which a beautiful witch suddenly assumes her true serpent form; or like the stories of handsome strangers who, by the correct magic formula, are compelled to show their essential shape as devils with forked tails. It is true that the killing could then proceed without moral qualms, but only because its essential correctness had now been made plain: to kill Jews was a moral duty, a proof of virtuousness.
Of course there are other, supplementary explanations. There was obviously much opportunity for sadism, and the perverted personality was given license beyond his wildest fantasies. And the particular forms of sadism that were employed owed much to a specific German psychology, with its obsessive tidiness and cleanliness hiding an extreme preoccupation with excrement (shown also by the peculiarly German genre of cloacal jokes). But again, it was the received idea of the evil of the Jews that enabled the Germans to turn them into the image of their own vision of evil, based, naturally, on their own specific pattern of secret desires. While the special disgrace of the German nation can never be obliterated, there was a wider, more general, disgrace in which the Germans formed only a subsidiary part. The Germans contributed some characteristic touches of their own to the idea of the Jews as evil, but they did not invent that idea.
The wider cultural unit, in which the image of the Jew as demonic had been developed over many centuries by a systematic program of indoctrination, was Christendom. Hardly anything in the Nazi vilification of the Jews was new; indeed, some medieval accusations against the Jews as subhuman vampires were even viler than Nazi propaganda. True, the individual cruelties of the Nazis were unimaginably horrific; but were the individual cruelties perpetrated during the Polish massacres of the 17th century—when, for example, the Cossacks slit open the bellies of Jewish women, put in live cats and sewed the bellies up again—any less horrific? Was the hatred behind such conduct, though admittedly less organized, any the less intense? The Nazi episode was not some sudden ahistorical explosion of evil, or an atavistic return to a forgotten barbarism; pogroms and blood-libel accusations show an unbroken historical connection in Christendom, linking the Nazis to the massacres at the time of the Crusades and the Black Death.
At the same time, Christendom was the only area in which such things took place. The anti-Jewish activities of Islam were of an entirely different order, while in India and China, the substantial Jewish communities never experienced anti-Semitism at all, and lived completely at peace with their neighbors, who showed none of the “resentment against Jewish exclusivism” which has been so often adduced to explain anti-Semitism, but merely regarded the Jews as one more religious group with the usual differentiating rites, food taboos, and festivals.
Thus the belief of Fackenheim and others that the Nazi Holocaust is a problem and a crisis for humanity as a whole is wrong. It is a problem and a crisis for Christendom alone; the area of responsibility is not smaller than Christendom (i.e., not exclusively Germany) but also not greater than Christendom.
If we consider the anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust as a Christian phenomenon, we must ask what it was in Christianity that conduced to such a result. Fackenheim does not entirely ignore this question. He clearly agrees with the “supersessionist” theory of Christian anti-Semitism, most powerfully expressed in Rosemary Ruether’s book, Faith and Fratricide. According to this theory, it was the desire of the Christian Church to supersede Judaism that gave rise to the anti-Jewish passages found in the New Testament and in the literature of the Church. The rejection of Jesus by the Jews was regarded as a wicked act of betrayal, and the previous history of the Jews, as described in the more censorious parts of the Old Testment, was invoked to show that the Jews had always been a wicked people, who had killed all the prophets sent to them by God. Thus the prophets of Scripture could be appropriated for Christianity as proto-Christians (their Jewishness being thereby denied), while the term “Jew” became identified with everything evil denounced in the Old Testament.
The remedy, according to Ruether and others, is very simple: Christianity must cease to assert its exclusive claim to truth, and must acknowledge that Judaism is a valid religion that has a right to continue; it was not “superseded” by Christianity. Since many Christians nowadays are prepared to concede this, the problem of Christian anti-Semitism is in principle solved. The anti-Jewish sections of the New Testament, once they are recognized as part of the supersessionist tactic, will be quietly ignored or even, eventually, excised. Meanwhile, Judaism must repay the compliment and acknowledge the validity of Christianity as a separate revelation, with its own theology centered on the mystery of the crucifixion. Judaism and Christianity (and Islam) are parallel streams of revelation, which, so long as they eschew “fanaticism,” and cease to vilify each other, can continue to work out their destinies in peace.
Fackenheim is so sure of this that he spends very little time on the Christian origins of anti-Semitism, and clearly does not consider this angle of much importance for the study of the Holocaust. On the contrary, he is most sympathetic toward the theological problems posed to the salvation doctrine of Christianity by the “radical evil” of the Holocaust. His aim in his latest book is to approach the possibility of a tikkun, a “mending,” of the universe in the circumstances of cosmic disaster or “breaking of the vessels” brought about by the Holocaust (Fackenheim’s use here of kabbalistic terminology is a new feature in his thinking); the dilemma, Fackenheim thinks, affects Jews and Christians alike.
All this, in my opinion, is naive. Christian anti-Semitism involves far more than the question of supersessionism. If that were the whole matter, there would be no difference between Christianity and Islam with regard to anti-Jewish feeling. For Islam is just as much a supersessionist religion as Christianity—with the difference that Islam is doubly supersessionist, since it claims to supersede both Judaism and Christianity. Certainly, hostility to the Jews in Islam has not been negligible, beginning with the Koran itself. Muhammad fought against the Jewish tribes of Arabia; and the Jewish refusal to accept Islam, which was much resented, was later repaid in a policy of deliberate humiliation. But this hostility was no greater than that expressed by Muslims toward Christians, and did not result in the demonization so characteristic of Christian anti-Semitism. There was an understandable rivalry between conflicting religious claims, but none of the metaphysical hatred of Jews that is endemic in Christendom. It is true that in recent years Muslims, out of political motives, have begun to demonize the Jews, but in doing so they have had to draw their material from Christian sources—for example, the Protocols of the Elders of lion and the blood-libel accusations.
The fact that Fackenheim and his ecumenical precursors (like Franz Rosenzweig) are unable to face is that Christian anti-Semitism derives not from some accidental and inessential layer of Christianity but from its central doctrine and myth, the crucifixion itself. It is not that Judaism and Christianity are rival religions seeking to discredit each other in the eyes of possible clients. It is not even that they are rival theologies or rival philosophies. It is something much deeper than that. The Jews play an important, even a vital, part in the Christian myth. Without them, the dramatis personae of the Christian cosmic story would not be complete. Arid the important thing about Christianity in this respect is not its theology (as Jewish theologians want to think) but precisely its element of myth, perhaps the most powerful myth the world has ever known. We need to appreciate Christianity not as an existentialist essay on the problem of suffering, but as a breathtaking drama designed to lift the burden of fear and guilt from those who believe. When we understand Christianity as such a drama, we begin to become aware of psychological forces that were strong enough to help lead to the Holocaust, and we also become aware of a possible therapy that might nullify or combat those forces without the adoption of a philosophy of resistance to incomprehensible evil—a philosophy very close to despair.
It is often said, inaccurately, that the Jews act as “scapegoats” in Christianity. But in the Christian myth it is Jesus himself who is the scapegoat, taking upon himself the sins of the world. The role of the Jews in this drama is a different one: that of bringing about the necessary death of the scapegoat. To grasp the meaning of this role of betrayal and execution, we have to look back into the history and prehistory of mankind, where we find many parallels in early religion to the role played by the Jews in the Christian myth.3 From prehistoric times, a tribe faced with disaster resorted to the killing of its best and most innocent man to avert the anger of the god. In Christianity, the crisis which makes the sacrifice necessary is not a plague or famine or military threat, but the condemnation of all mankind to hell by an angry Father-god. This is a Pauline misinterpretation, influenced by Gnostic dualism, of the Jewish story of the fall of Adam, and it reflects a deep pessimism (possibly resulting from the dislocation and disorientation caused by the militaristic empires of Macedonia and Rome). Judaism itself never regarded the world as evil, or as in the thrall of Satan, and thus never required a sacrificial Savior to save mankind from crisis. For Christianity, the cruel sacrificial death of Jesus was a necessity, and the Jews were the evil instruments by which this was brought about.
The Jews in the scheme are thus the earthly agents of the cosmic powers of evil. They are the deicides who by their wickedness unwittingly save mankind, but who are thus doubly damned, both because the death of Christ is not efficacious for them and because they have crowned a long career of sin with the greatest of all sins. The mark of Cain is on them, and they are condemned to the loss of their land and Temple, to long wanderings and other sufferings. They excite awe as well as hate, for they are the representatives of a semi-divine figure, Satan. It is this combination of awe and hate that is the hallmark of anti-Semitism, distinguishing it from all other forms of xenophobia.
All this is quite remote from Fackenheim, who sees the crucifixion in theological terms as a symbol of the condition of man, never as an urgent technique of redemption from hell through vicarious suffering, a device by which the believer can relieve himself of the unbearable burden of responsibility for his deeds. As for Christian anti-Semitism, Fackenheim is content to explain it as the outcome of religious rivalry and “fanaticism.” I have called this naive, yet the naiveté is of the kind that only sophisticated people display. Unsophisticated people, whether Christians or Jews, know well why the Jews are hated in Christendom. After World War II, when people in Europe were asked why they did not protest the massacre of the Jews, time and again they gave the answer, “They are the Christ-killers, aren’t they?”
In one wish-fulfilling Christian legend, that of the Wandering Jew, the Jews accept their role willingly until the time of their release at the Second Coming. Mostly, however, the Jews were regarded as obstinately unrepentant, always longing to repeat their crime; the blood libel was the most horrific version of this idea. In general, the Christian picture of the Jew became more demonized as time went on; it took many centuries of constant indoctrination, especially by the lower clergy, for this picture to become ingrained in the popular consciousness. (The appalling diatribes of St. Chrysostom against the Jews, for example, were motivated by the fact that at that time, in the 4th century, the common Christian people still persisted in treating Jews with friendliness.) The role of the Jews was such that any sign of happiness or prosperity among them gave rise to intolerable anxiety among Christians, for if the Jews did not suffer, who would bear the guilt of the sacrifice of Jesus? The survival of the Jews despite their sufferings was regarded as miraculous proof of their role as deicides; for the long, God-protected life of the sacred executioner, as in the case of Cain (to whom the Jews were constantly compared by Christian theologians) was one of his essential features.
Given this extraordinary campaign of hate, incessantly sustained over long ages, and fueled by a psychological and soteriological need, the “mystery” of the Holocaust ceases to seem such a mystery. There are good historical reasons for the Holocaust. The situation of the Jews as the pariah nation of Christendom; the existence of a limitless fund of paranoia about them, always ready to be tapped by demagogues in search of power; the continuance into the post-Christian era of deeply-implanted fantasies about the Jews—these factors only required the trigger of circumstances to activate a huge outburst of violence. And a further factor, it must be noted was the release afforded by Nazism from all vestiges of the restraint imposed by traditional Christian morality, which had hitherto acted as a counterweight to Christian mythology.
The conditions thus all existed to make a Holocaust possible. The historian Yehuda Bauer is correct in saying (in The Holocaust in Historical Perspective) that the Holocaust was unique not in any metaphysical sense but only in the sense that it had not yet happened in world history. I am surprised that Fackenheim, though he quotes Bauer with great respect, shows no sign of agreeing with, or even grasping, Bauer’s point here.
To see the Holocaust as the natural (though not the inevitable) outcome of previous religious history in Christendom leaves room for action in the way of remedy. If there is to be a campaign of reeducation, it needs to be led above all by a return of the repressed, i.e., by a real understanding of Christendom’s irrational prejudice against Jews, its determination always to think the worst of them, and (we may add, in the light of the world response to the Beirut massacre) to react to any putative dereliction of duty on the part of some Jews by instantaneous reversion to a demonic theory of the Jews as a whole. The Christian doctrine of atonement, in which the Jews play the role of cosmic villains, needs to be fully explained in its own mythological terms, not tarted up as respectable-sounding theology. No program of Jewish-Christian ecumenism should compromise with this doctrine by allowing its theological validity, since its historical results have been appalling. Here Jews need to exercise more “fanaticism” (to use Fackenheim’s term), not less.
Such a program of reeducation is not only appropriate for Christians; it is also appropriate, perhaps even more so, for post-Christians, those who have discarded Christian dogma but unconsciously retain Christian demonology. Both the Nazis and the anti-Semites of the New Left come under this heading, as do many well-meaning humanists who show otherwise unaccountable prejudice against Jews.
In Fackenheim’s view of the Holocaust as an ineffable, inexplicable event there is no plan for such gradual, probing remedies, based on the broadening of historical understanding (the “history” involved being primarily not political or economic, but the history of a myth or of a cultural pattern). Fackenheim demands that the Holocaust be understood philosophically, as a manifestation of radical evil that is part of the metaphysical fabric of Being itself. What alternative is there, he asks, to such an understanding? Has not the Holocaust shown us a depth of evil previously unimagined? We must therefore think in terms of an entire universe in need of tikkun, a labor incumbent upon Judasim and Christianity alike.
Such a theology can indeed be found in the more extreme forms of (Lurianic) Kabbalah, but it represents a break from classical Judaism, the teaching of which is that evil is not an independent metaphysical principle but a psychological tendency or “inclination.” If the Holocaust can be shown to have human causes, historical and psychological, a dualistic theology of this kind is not forced upon us. For it is natural and understandable, without resort to new theological patterns, that the free will with which man is endowed can have, as one of its results, a perverted communal program of indoctrination by which human beings, over a long period of time, become desensitized to morality in a given area, or suffer a reversal of moral values. When a community has been taught over centuries that it is weakness to be kind to Jews, and that it is virtuous to persecute them, it is only a step (albeit a large one) to Himmler’s notorious speech to SS officers in which he lectured them on the moral imperative of stifling their feelings of nausea about the mass killings.
To see the Holocaust, as Emil Fackenheim does, as a revelatory event, exposing the basic situation of humanity, is to give it far too much centrality. The Holocaust is not a revelatory event, but on the contrary the end product of a false turn taken by one sector of humanity; and that wrong turn must not be elevated into a metaphysical ingredient of the universe. Rather it must be historically analyzed and corrected.
1 To Mend the World: Foundations of Future Jewish Thought, Schocken, 352 pp., $22.50 (hardcover), $12.95 (paper).
2 “Jewish Faith and the Holocaust,” COMMENTARY, August 1968.
3 For a fuller explication, see my forthcoming book, The Sacred Executioner (Thames & Hudson).