Only in the last five years have Emil Fackenheim’s writings become known to more than a small group of interested Jewish theologians. Articles on individual themes had appeared, especially in COMMENTARY and Judaism, since the late 40’s, but the lack of a single collected volume made any integrated study of his work difficult. He was overshadowed by such established and prolific writers as Mordecai Kaplan and Abraham Heschel, and for a time by even such a relative outsider as Will Herberg, who had formulated his ideas within the covers of a book and set out to propagate them with public lectures. Then, too, American Jewry in the postwar period was occupied with discovering the European-Jewish thinkers, Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, and, indeed, Fackenheim himself contributed much to the transplantation of their ideas.

Yet in the years after his escape from Nazi Germany to Canada, Fackenheim successfully created an essential prerequisite for his work as a Jewish thinker: he established his credentials as a professional philosopher. His first writings, dealing with medieval Arabic scholasticism, drew him into contact as well with its Greek sources and with the medieval Jewish philosophy it influenced. At the same time, he pursued an abiding interest in German idealism that produced successive studies of Schelling, Kant, and Hegel. This wide-ranging philosophical competence, combined with the rabbinical education he received during the last days of the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin, has lent Fackenheim an authority enjoyed by few contemporary Jewish theologians.

With the recent appearance of three volumes of his work and the reissue of two of them in paperback form,1 Fackenheim’s thought is now attracting the wider attention it has long deserved. No doubt it is also the emphatic insistence Fackenheim has lately placed on the relevance of the Holocaust for Jewish theology which has carried interest in his work beyond the circle of theologians to the larger group of Jews—and Christians—trying to confront what may well be the most shattering event of our time. Yet in endeavoring to comprehend Fackenheim’s Jewish thought as a whole, it would be an error, I think, to begin with the significance of Auschwitz. The point of departure must rather be with responses to the much earlier challenge of modern secular thought: those which Fackenheim criticizes as well as his own. Only once the Holocaust is seen in the perspective of Fackenheim’s thinking in all of its aspects does its crucial place in his theology become apparent.




Fackenheim first appears in the 50’s as a severe critic of the prevalent tendencies in liberal Jewish thought. With equal vigor he attacks the religious idealism taken into Judaism by the 19th-century German-Jewish liberals and transferred to America by Reform theologians such as Kaufmann Kohler, and the religious naturalism (or as he prefers, immanentism) indigenous to America and introduced into Judaism by Mordecai Kaplan.

The first of these, religious idealism, was a theological position most congenial to the political and cultural context in which it first entered Jewish thought. Its assertion that the essential content of Judaism was universal ethical monotheism relieved it of the scandal of particularity; its generality effectively removed the necessity of applying moral imperatives to the specific social problems of German society. Since idealism dominated German philosophy through much of the 19th century, it could also appear as the eminently modern interpretation of Judaism. Internally as well, idealism had distinct advantages. It offered a raison d’être for continued Jewish existence as long as other religions did not yet share Judaism’s purified conception of God and as long as messianic morality had not yet been established on earth. Moreover, in its Kantian form, the generalized moral imperative could be linked with the traditional notion of Divine command, thus providing a modicum of continuity with the Jewish past. Finally, by positing an essence of Judaism, idealism was able to deal with the increasingly bothersome problem of biblical criticism. Sinaitic revelation could be sifted according to its approximation of the religious ideal progressively manifest to all mankind, but especially through the special “genius” of the Jewish people.

Fackenheim consistently and radically rejects all forms of Jewish idealism and essentialism. In each of them he finds that the concept of God has come to replace the existing God, the former unable to act except through the consciences of men. The modern Jew himself becomes the final arbiter over the character and divinity of Jewish tradition. Jewish sources are transformed from documents of revelation into “great books,” important steps in the development of the human spirit. They become products of the religious history of the people, but no longer records of divine-human encounter which can speak directly to the present. Abraham and Moses must appear as men of primitive religious conceptions compared to their latter-day descendants. In addition, such a progressive view of religious belief leads to a cultural optimism and a conception of moral progress which, Fackenheim argues, may have been appropriate to the early 19th century, but hardly fit the realities of the 20th.

In America Fackenheim discovered two newer tendencies which had found Jewish exponents: psychological utilitarianism and religious naturalism. The first of these was, and still is, a widespread phenomenon, seldom adopted by serious writers, but prevalent in popular works. Its exponents stress the social and psychological usefulness of Judaism and, as Fackenheim says, make it into “a wholesome pill rather than the opiate of the people.” But for Fackenheim faith can never be a means to any external end, least of all the soothing of anxieties.

The second tendency, represented by Reconstructionism, presents the graver challenge as it claims a theological foundation. Fackenheim, following Eliezer Berkovits, has been at pains to point out that Reconstructionist theology is not in fact merely a religious extension of naturalism. Its commitment to moral values renders it discontinuous with the natural order; its faith in a Power making for salvation puts it beyond the sphere of scientific verifiability. Were it not for such a faith, nature would remain barren of human values and aspirations. Yet to believe God is completely manifest within a single order of reality requires either radically diminishing the concept of God’s power or assuming, in the teeth of contemporary history, that the world is nearing the point of redemption. For Fackenheim, Reconstructionist naturalism is thus in actuality a form of immanentist faith which projects human values upon the cosmos. It does not allow for a God who exists independently of man, transcends history and nature though He reveals Himself in them, and is, insofar as man can know Him, totally personal. Yet it is the avowed purpose of Fackenheim’s thought to uphold each one of these tenets. His starting point is the incommensurability of the two orders, human and divine.

Though over the years some of his emphases have changed, Fackenheim has been from the first and still is today a religious existentialist. In his earliest writings the influence of Kierkegaard is readily apparent and freely acknowledged. Toward the beginning of one of his first essays2 (not included in the recent collection) Fackenheim wrote:

No modern man, then, can start his theology with God and God’s revelation, and work his way down to man. The procedure must be the reverse: we must start with man and see whether there is not something in his existence leading up to God—in other words, whether a profound enough self-understanding does not lead to the point where one must make the leap into faith.

Human existence without God is tragic; with God it is at least partially redeemed. Man the finite creature stands in need of a supernatural God whom he can reach only when he takes the risk of faith. Suspending the decision is not possible; one must choose either the leap into faith or the contradictoriness of human existence without it. The agnostic, too, makes an existential decision if not an intellectual one: he chooses to live his life without the redeeming presence of God. Intellectually, he may decide to remain a “spectator” rather than commit himself to theism or atheism, but he is unable to suspend his own existence. And as long as he persists in his attitude as spectator, he eliminates all possibility of discovering God. For God reveals Himself only to the man who listens, waiting to hear.



While remaining a supernaturalist, Fackenheim in the course of time retreated from this stark polarizing of the two orders and the need to leap from the secularist stance into faith. He came to see that confidence and despair can exist both within faith and outside of it and that the theologian cannot legitimately force commitment upon the secularist. Increasingly, he occupied himself rather with the relationship between faith and reason and in his work on Hegel critically analyzed the grandest endeavor of all to build a philosophical bridge between them. At the same time, his thought moved more into the orbit of the specifically Jewish. To be sure, from the beginning he quoted Jewish sources, biblical and rabbinic, as illustrations for his theses. In fact he made his readers aware of how one-sided was the prevalent tendency to choose only optimistic dicta from Jewish tradition, those which supported the conception of moral progress, and to neglect sources which expressed a contradictory view. But his existentialist analysis of faith, taken as it was from a non-Jewish source, stressed that the act of faith corresponds to perennial human problems and that it has its origins in the tragedy of the finite human condition. Even Abraham appeared as “the awe-inspiring representative of an existence not essentially different from the existence in which all men live.” But as he ceased to make a polemical argument for faith and began to discuss its character and dynamics, Fackenheim’s thought took a more particularist turn and the influence of Martin Buber, present from the beginning, became dominant.




In speaking of faith within a Jewish context, Fackenheim had to combat the prevalent doctrine that theology, however conceived, was not indigenous to Judaism. Jewish scholarship and practice of the halakhah were both regarded as legitimate forms of Jewish expression, but speaking of God’s relation to man or to the Jewish people was not. Perhaps the unsettling character of such issues made it preferable then—and still today—to dispose of them lightly, as essentially peripheral to Judaism. Those strictures, however, which were directed against the theological enterprise for insufficient attention to the particular character of Judaism had to be seriously considered. It thus became apparent to Fackenheim that any specifically Jewish theology would have to be anchored in the sources of Jewish tradition understood as the reflection of a unique relationship between God and Israel, not merely as examples of a universal religious response to the human condition. As a Jewish thinker, he therefore had to develop a doctrine of revelation which was mediated through the Bible and succeeding rabbinic literature, even while as a liberal Jew he could allow the sources to possess authority only insofar as they still conveyed God’s act and word to the present.

Fackenheim has as consistently rejected all modern efforts to reduce revelation to human inspiration as he has those which reduct the supernatural God to a God-idea or to a Force contained within nature. Revelation, in his view, is nothing less than God’s descent into time, the incursion of the supernatural into the natural, of eternity into a present moment. In the biblical account it took the form of “a succession of overwhelming religious experiences.” Though at first Fackenheim held that asserting the actuality of such a specific revelation required a leap no less radical than that he had claimed necessary for belief in God, it was just here that his thought led most apparently from the language of Kierkegaard to that of Buber. The latter’s understanding of revelation, both biblical and present-day, came to form a central and permanent element of Fackenheim’s thought.

Belief in biblical revelation, Fackenheim came to hold, depends upon whether revelation is also available to the individual. The modern Jew will not declare the truth of God’s incursion into the human realm at some time past unless he himself encounters His presence. Not being an Orthodox Jew, and like Buber unable to accept the records of revelation except as they speak fragmentarily to the modern Jew himself, Fackenheim had to begin with Buber’s concept of the I-Thou by which God’s presence manifests itself potentially to everyone and not alone to those who stood at Sinai. Buber’s division of all knowing into the scientific mode which reduces every Thou to an It and the religious mode through which God—the eternal Thou who can never become an It, an object—can alone be encountered, furnishes Fackenheim, as it does Buber, with a formidable defense against subjective reductionism. Dialogues with God appear as merely disguised monologues only when they are examined with the tools of I-It. But God, reduced to an It, is no longer God, merely a God-hypothesis. Revelation thus exists in a separate metaphysical realm accessible only to the kind of listening which rules out philosophical, psychological, or any other kind of analysis. The former requires commitment, the latter detachment.

Fackenheim does not avoid asking two obvious questions: what of the man who seeks to achieve revelation but doesn’t succeed, and what of the possibility that the supposed revelation of an Other turns out to be no more than an illusion, as the subjectivist claims? In dealing with the first question, Fackenheim again borrows a term from Buber: “the eclipse of God.” God may, as the Psalmist put it, “hide His face.” The failure to relate to God does not prove His nonexistence, but only either that the attempt was not genuine or that He does not choose to reveal His presence. Whether God will manifest Himself to a particular individual or withhold Himself even from an entire age must, of course, be God’s decision, not man’s. Man is therefore left not knowing whether to regard the absence of God he experiences as an eclipse of God’s presence or as the final exposure of an illusion. Only if at some time he has received an intimation of God’s presence can he believe that its rarity and the failure of his fellows to testify to it forces only the admission of God’s concealment, not His non-existence. The second question is no less grave in its consequences. False prophets, too, have been sincere, and the actions their words have prompted have all too often been devastating for mankind. The religious believer, who is convinced that God revealed His presence to him, takes the risk that his experience was illusory, that it revealed only an interior projection in the form of a false god outside himself. Fackenheim does argue that here tradition may be a guide, at least negatively with respect to the rejection of false content. But the reality of God’s presence for the individual cannot be validated from any source outside the sphere of faith. Certainty is contained in the relationship itself, which remains impervious to detached analysis.

Once the I-Thou relationship with God has become a fact of the individual’s own life, he may presume its existence for biblical man as well. But it still remains to appropriate the biblical revelation and make it one’s own. For it is the specific content of that revelation, not God’s presence alone (which must be taken as universal) that constitutes its continuing relevance. Somehow the modern Jew must be able to relive the religious experience of his ancestors. This is possible, according to Fackenheim, when the documents recording that experience are approached neither as the literal and fixed word of God nor as mere human inspiration, but as the human record of divine encounter through which revelation of another time may be actively appropriated for the present. Yet how is this to be done?

The liberal Jew reading the Bible has not decided in advance that it is the literal word of God. Quite to the contrary, the text of the Torah is the human reflection of a divine revelation, but it is not itself divine. It is no more than a response to God’s incursion into history. Hence the words themselves possess no authority; their significance is limited by the understanding of finite men. Yet God speaks to the present through the Torah when it is read with the question: What content does the biblical response to revelation transmit to me, though I may formulate it differently for myself? Necessary above all is openness, willingness to listen to the testimony of the text. Thus the commandments regarding animal sacrifices may be understood as a time-bound response to God’s commandment of faithfulness to the covenant. But that faithfulness, though variously to be expressed, is as binding upon the modern Jew as it was upon his forefathers. To Fackenheim, as to a circle of like-minded theologians, the concept of covenant asserts the truth of a supernatural and specific revelation which commits Israel to God, without elaborating what that revelation must mean in terms of individual commandments. Through encounter with the biblical text the modern Jew relives the experience of Sinai, but he comes away from it with different words. And yet the modern content, though individually appropriated, is not so far removed from the traditional commandments. Following Franz Rosenzweig, Fackenheim holds that those laws which can become commandments personally addressed to the individual are as binding upon the liberal Jew as they are on the traditionalist. He does not merely “select” from the past what seems meaningful or valid by some external criterion accepted prior to confronting the sources, let alone by what appears convenient. His selection appears as such only after it is done. The process itself occurs within the I-Thou confrontation with God via the text. It is thus God’s doing as much as his own. Whoever approaches the text in this fashion risks being radically changed by the encounter.




While Fackenheim has not been alone in struggling to define the possibility and the authority of revelation, he has been unique among American-Jewish thinkers in realizing the significance which modern man’s historical outlook has for religious faith. Ever since 19th-century thought seriously called into question the permanence of human nature, man has been understood as a being who constitutes himself by his own actions. The consequences of this notion for philosophy and religion have been considerable. Once the historicity of man’s being is acknowledged, it has been argued, there can be no timeless truths which exist beyond history. Metaphysics may lay claim to permanence, but in fact it represents only a historically determined understanding of reality. Metaphysical systems become no more than a sequence of historically relative Weltanschauungen. The effect on religion is equally devastating. Like metaphysics, revelation lays claim to permanent truth existing in a realm beyond history. If the individual is totally circumscribed by his position in time, revelation can only be interpreted as a temporally limited understanding, not an absolute one. He may ascribe divinity to the historical process or the symbol of particular values which men have discovered, but he cannot claim the perception of permanent truth. For the historicist, to whom the historicity of all truth has become unshakable dogma, historical reductionism performs the same role that subjective reductionism does for the empiricist.

It would not be too much to say that the most fundamental theme in Fackenheim’s thought taken as a whole, whether general or Jewish, is his many-sided endeavor to argue for the validity of trans-historical truth. In his philosophy as in his theology, Fackenheim has sought to assert the reality of a realm of permanence above the flux of time and the finitude of human existence. He well realizes that historical change cannot be ignored and that it must be taken most seriously with regard to Judaism. But he has consistently held, against the dominant view in philosophical circles, that metaphysics is not merely a sequence of world-views expressive of the ages which produced them; and against most liberal Jews that Jewish theology is not a progression of God-concepts advancing from the primitive to the more sublime.

This recognition of the implications of historicity for philosophy and religion was bound to lead Fackenheim sooner or later to a confrontation with Hegel. No philosopher before Hegel had been so conscious of the naturally and historically situated character of human existence. Yet none asserted as emphatically that in art, religion, and above all in philosophy man is capable of transcending his situation. Like other existentialists before him, Fackenheim was forced to deal with the Hegelian system as the grandest attempt to encompass religion within the bounds of a historically conscious philosophy. He came to regard Hegel as “the greatest modern religious philosopher,” though in the end he finds his philosophy unacceptable for the very reason that it is too much tied to one particular period of history.

Because he is at odds with the tendency of most modern philosophers to limit severely the scope of their discipline, Fackenheim’s approach to Hegel is far more sympathetic than most. Like Hegel, he too has been tempted by the desire to arrive at a systematic body of thought which could encompass, in dialectical unity, idea and actual world, transcendence and immanence, revelation and freedom. For both, the task of philosophy must be more ambitious than the mere analysis of language or the clarification of concepts. It extends to the search for unity, purpose, and direction. Fackenheim addresses himself particularly to the place of religion within Hegel’s philosophical system. Does religion, which for Hegel reaches its highest stage in Protestant Christianity, in the end lose its distinctiveness in the perspective of philosophy? He argues that it does not. Philosophy adopts the content of religion, supplying it only with a new form. In a masterful effort Hegel’s philosophy “makes peace with religion” by preserving the reality of the divine-human relationship while at the same time overreaching religious life and encompassing it in transfigured philosophical form.

Fackenheim’s critique of Hegel is therefore not, for the most part, an internal one. His ultimate rejection of Hegelianism is based less on philosophical grounds than it is on the significance of subsequent history. While it may be false that Hegel regarded the Prussian state as the embodiment of the absolute philosophy, let alone that his system can be associated with totalitarianism, he did possess a remarkable confidence in reason and in modern man’s constructive use of his freedom. Events since his time have severely undermined that confidence. Recent history has given such striking evidence of the incommensurability of the order of God with that of man as to tear asunder Hegel’s peace between faith and philosophy. “Indeed, such are the crises which have befallen the Christian West in the last half century,” writes Fackenheim, “that it may safely be said that, were he alive today, so realistic a philosopher as Hegel would not be a Hegelian.” Fackenheim, the opponent of all historicism, thus disposes of Hegel on grounds which, if not historicist, at least amount to a form of historical reductionism: Hegel’s philosophy was adequate, but only for its own age.

This turn in Fackenheim’s thought toward an even greater awareness of the consequences of history for philosophy and religion must be connected with a shift in his specifically Jewish thought occurring at the time he was writing his book on Hegel. To be sure, as a Jew, Fackenheim had all along been unable to accept Hegel’s consignment of Judaism to a one-sidedly transcendent stage in the history of religions. But it was. not until the mid-60’s, and due largely to the personal influence of Elie Wiesel, that Fackenheim first became aware, as a Jew, of the radical consequences which the Nazi Holocaust must have for any philosophical system, and especially for Hegel’s. Concluding a recent essay dealing with Hegel’s famous assertion that “what is rational is actual, and what is actual is rational,”3 Fackenheim clearly expressed the notion that such an equation between thought and historical reality in today’s world has become a moral impossibility. Abstract philosophy simply cannot encompass the Holocaust:

Can the historical conditions producing the actuality of the rational (and hence the rationality of the actual) pass away? The religious incursion into the world of God in Christ may or may not leave room for subsequent eruptions of demonic evil in the world which produce genocidal industries with by-products including human skin made into lamp-shades, human hair used for pillows, human bones turned into fertilizer. Hegel’s actuality of the rational leaves room only for world-historically insignificant evils to be disposed of as relapses into tribalism or barbarism. In their post-Enlightenment optimism all but a few modern philosphers have ignored or denied the demonic. Hegel’s philosophy—which unites Christian religious with modern secular optimism—is the most radical and hence most serious expression of this modern tendency. . . . Any inquiry into its truth must confront its claims with the gas chambers of Auschwitz.




Until the mid-60’s, the Holocaust possessed no special significance for Fackenheim’s religious thought. It served merely as an illustration of the manifestation of evil in our time and was used to strike at optimistic theologies. No religious meaning was contained in it. Nor did Fackenheim relate it in any fashion to Jewish survival. The secular Jew who regarded continuing Jewish existence as a duty, he then held, either persisted in something unintelligible or else postulated, however unconsciously, the possibility of a return to faith in a living God.

Even today Fackenheim is convinced that Auschwitz allows of no theological explanation, certainly not as punishment for sin. But he can view it no longer as simply another instance of man’s continuing propensity for evil. If taken seriously, it is an event which threatens to shatter the traditional Jewish understanding of God if not to signify His death for the modern believer.

In God’s Presence in History, Fackenheim has developed the related concepts of “root experiences” and “epoch-making events.” The former are, for example, the salvation at the Red Sea and the commandments of Sinai; the latter, for example, the destruction of the first and second Temples, the Emancipation, the Holocaust, and the State of Israel. Root experiences were those revelations of God’s presence to Israel which first constituted it as a people. They were public historical events which legislate to the present because they remain accessible through allowing of reenactment as present reality. They may be essentially manifestations of saving Presence or of commanding Presence, though commandment is not entirely absent in either. Epoch-making events, in contrast, do not produce a new faith; they make a new claim upon the existing faith as that faith is tested by contemporary experience. In the modern period the Emancipation produced the ongoing challenge of secularism and required a rethinking of Jewish faith. It struck at the root experiences via biblical criticism and empiricist philosophy. As we have seen, Fackenheim himself responded to that challenge with Buber’s doctrine of encounter. But the challenge of the Holocaust is considerably more severe. It represents an epoch-making event in Jewish history which strikes directly at God’s relation to history and hence at the presence of God without which there could have been no root experiences and hence no Jewish faith. The Midrash, which Fackenheim regards as “the greatest theology ever produced within Judaism,” does indeed concern itself with the dialectical contradiction inherent in God’s involvement with history and the evil which exists within it. But can Auschwitz be incorporated into a Midrashic framework that, while allowing contradictions to remain presently unresolved, nonetheless depends upon faith in their ultimate resolution? Or does it finally burst that framework and cause a turning away from the God of history?

Fackenheim even sharpens the difficulty of assimilating the Holocaust by stressing its uniqueness. Never before was the Jew singled out for destruction according to racial criteria which made fateful his great-grandparents’ decision to remain Jewish and not his own. As a historical event it remains qualitatively different from the Belgians’ murdering millions of Congolese and from the Turkish massacre of the Armenians. These other genocides were individually and collectively no less tragic, yet in each case there was some rational purpose, economic or political. But Auschwitz represents the sole example of “evil for evil’s sake,” the eruption of a demonic evil which contravened rational self-interest. Trains needed for the German war effort were diverted to bring Jewish victims to the death camps; murdering Jews became not the means to an end but an end in itself.



For the believing Jew Auschwitz, seriously considered, must therefore present the severest test of his faith. The eclipse of God appears so complete in the present that all comprehension of His presence to Israel in the past and all hope for it in the future seem to be cut off as well: “If all present access to the God of history is wholly lost, the God of history is Himself lost.” The only possible course would be declaring either God’s radical powerlessness and hence actual death or that God Himself relates to the Jewish people in a fashion wholly unreconcilable with the moral commandments He has revealed. Theism for a Jew would seem no longer possible—unless in some unprecedented fashion God Himself were speaking to His people out of the midst of the slaughter. It is the most striking, radical, and original element in all of Fackenheim’s thought that he has affirmed this possibility. There emerges a revelation addressed to all Jews: “The Jewish secularist, no less than the believer, is absolutely singled out by a Voice as truly other than man-made ideals—an imperative as truly given—as was the Voice of Sinai.”

The imperative is to hand Hitler no posthumous victories. It is a positive command to survive as a people and to remember the victims. It is a prohibition against despair of man and his world, lest the world be handed over to the forces of Auschwitz; a prohibition as well against despair of the God of Israel, lest Hitler have succeeded in destroying the Jewish faith. The voice is real; it has been heard by secular and believing Jew alike, accepted absolutely and with holy resolve. Especially has this been true for the Jews of Israel whenever they were threatened by a second Holocaust, whether in the War of Liberation or in May and June of 1967.

Because the Voice of Auschwitz possesses commanding power it most resembles the Voice of Sinai. Yet to biblical Israel God was present also at the Red Sea, where He appeared not to command but to save. If the Voice of Auschwitz can be likened to the Voice of Sinai, can 1948 or 1967 be likened to the parting of the Red Sea? And if not, can the Jew after Auschwitz celebrate the Passover? Unlike some other Jewish theologians, Fackenheim has been most hesitant to discern God’s hand in the victory of Israel’s army. If there was “abiding astonishment” at the sudden salvation in June 1967, it was because the Voice of Auschwitz was heard. “Solely because of the connection of the events of May and June with Auschwitz did a military victory (rarely applauded in Judaism and never for its own sake) acquire an inescapable religious dimension.” Nowhere does Fackenheim say explicitly that the Six-Day War was an incursion of God’s saving presence. Celebrating the Passover is thus made no easier by the saving events of our time. If nonetheless there is reason for hope, it can only be because of the commandment to hope, and that emerged out of the tragedy, not from the victory of arms.

Even as consciousness of the Holocaust brings together secular and religious Jew in common concern, so it may come close to severing the bond with Christianity. Fackenheim does not hold Christianity responsible for Auschwitz, but he does argue that Christian teaching was a contributing factor, even if Nazism be defined as anti-Christian. What has been most shocking is the failure of most Christians to accept that fact even today. In May 1967 the Christian community “failed to recognize the danger of a second Holocaust because it has yet to recognize the fact of the first.” And yet, so Fackenheim holds, to allow the gulf between Jew and Christian to widen is also to hand Hitler a posthumous victory. It was the Nazis, after all, who succeeded so well in splitting Christians off from Jews and making them oblivious to any concern for Jews as human beings. Only insofar as the Christian can join the Jew in a common effort to prevent future Holocausts can the long-standing rift, widened by Hitler and not yet closed, at length be bridged.

Finally, Auschwitz has also made the Jew shudder at certain forms of secularism and Christian atheism. Remembering the Holocaust, he cannot wholeheartedly celebrate the freedom of man in his secular city; he remains personally too aware of man’s potentiality for evil. Even less can he believe with Christian atheism that God is fully immanent in the world and that therefore prophetic wrath is wholly misplaced. Out of his firsthand experience with Nazism the Jew of all men is called upon to be especially wary of modern idolatries. In the wake of Auschwitz he needs to affirm again and above all the transcendence of God and that the messianic end does not lie in the purview of man.




Up to this point I have deliberately refrained from offering a critique of Fackenheim’s thought in the conviction that a sympathetic understanding must come first. At this stage, however, it seems necessary to raise some rather hard questions.

In a most insightful study of Buber’s concept of revelation,4 Fackenheim suggests two possibilities. The first is that one take seriously Buber’s statement that philosophy can only be I-It knowledge. But in that case Buber’s argument for revelation springs entirely from the presumed reality of the I-Thou dialogue which cannot be substantiated by philosophy. His doctrine of revelation, then, rests not on philosophical argument but on unargued commitment to the dialogue with God that the reader is called upon to share. If so, Fackenheim holds, Buber emerges not as a philosopher but as “a Hebrew sage in modern garb.” The alternate possibility which Fackenheim raises, though it seems far less likely, is that Buber himself recognized a kind of philosophical thought which, while detached rather than committed, transcends the realm of I-It which it criticizes and points beyond that realm to the I-Thou. Philosophy thus comes to be the mediator between I-It and I-Thou knowledge, and for Fackenheim it is only this kind of philosophizing that properly belongs with existential thought.

Fackenheim’s own work depends largely upon the validity of such philosophizing. Unless it is granted—and most thinkers would refuse to do so—then most of his writings become a combination of philosophical critique and testimonies of faith without a bridge between them. Insofar as Fackenheim speaks of revelation, he too becomes a sage in modern garb who can speak to those who share his vision but remains powerless to convince those who do not. His endeavors to bring philosophy into the logic of Midrash continually come to grief because in the end an understanding of religious discourse does require commitment; and philosophy, as Fackenheim reiterates, is detachment. Can an uncommitted philosopher really understand the dynamics of prayer or the concept of God’s love and grace even if he does suspend judgment as to their truth? Doesn’t it need the theologian, i.e., the man who has abandoned detachment? Recently, as Fackenheim has taken his stance increasingly within “the circle of faith,” he has made it considerably more difficult for those not sharing his position to comprehend fully the course of his thought.

Questions may also be raised regarding Fackenheim’s relation to Jewish tradition. It is the Midrash, not the legal literature, which provides him a link with the past. Yet Midrash, which he regards as the authentic Jewish theology, is the collective product of generations of rabbis whose views frequently stand in complete contradiction. Over the years Fackenheim has chosen to quote a relatively limited number of Midrashim which illustrate the dialectical relationship between God and Israel. He may argue that these selections alone are true to the spirit of Judaism, but to do so is to fall back upon the essentialism he repudiates. One may also ask whether Fackenheim has succeeded in solving the dilemma of liberal Judaism as he posed it. Granted that the Jewish sources must be read with an open mind and not merely to confirm preconceived notions, but as long as there is a possibility of rejection, selection does occur and authority remains ultimately with the present. Moreover, it remains with each individual, for if the weight of the Jewish people’s traditional understanding were to become determinative, then Fackenheim would have to deal at length with halakhah in its specifics, a theme almost totally missing from his work. And even if the process be deemed not selection but appropriation of divine command, the question arises—perhaps Fackenheim would deem it unanswerable—why God’s commands should be so variously appropriated.

It seems also that Fackenheim’s critique of religious, and specifically Jewish, idealism is not as devastating as it may first appear. Though absolute, the moral ideal need not paralyze action; it merely places all moral acts in the perspective of humility. Nor need the admission that decision rests ultimately with present consciousness of the right imply that ideals expressed in the Jewish past have lost their significance. As long as they have been only comprehended as ideals, not actualized, they urge to a distant messianic future and radically call into question the moral state of the present. Most importantly, idealism need not imply cultural optimism, though to be sure the two were closely linked in the 19th century. It certainly does not require the notion of inevitable moral progress. Could there not be a new form of Jewish idealism, fully conscious of human and Jewish tragedy, fully realistic with regard to the present, yet asserting its commitment to the prophetic goal despite its distance and accepting it as command? After the Holocaust it seems no longer possible to say anything meaningful about the God of history, but the messianic ideal emerges as even more imperative.



Fackenheim has recently argued at length that faith in God is not a hypothesis that allows of empirical tests.5 Once made, the commitment of faith is not called into question by any event of history. The Jewish survivor of even a nuclear holocaust, he writes, would only conclude that God had abandoned the world, but he would not therefore abandon God nor the task of beating swords into plowshares. And yet would not God have lost all relation to history? And did He not lose it to Jewish history at Auschwitz? How can Auschwitz be taken with full seriousness unless the God of history is also cast into the crucible?

Although the suffering of the righteous has always weighed heavily upon the religious man, the magnitude and proximity of the Holocaust make the issue unavoidable for Jews in our generation. It addresses itself with crucial import to any Jewish theologian who, like Fackenheim, takes history seriously. Can it really be that the God, whom Fackenheim with Buber terms “sole Power,” should have allowed the destruction of one-third of the Jewish people and this same God have commanded Jewish survival? My own response is to agree with Fackenheim that a command does indeed issue from Auschwitz, and in general terms I can also agree with its content: to survive as Jews, continuing to hope and to act in an unredeemed world. But I would understand it as the command of a God who is the source of the distant but urgent moral ideal glimpsed by Israel’s prophets and sages. For his part, Fackenheim would no doubt reject such a theology as mere “idealism” because my command, like that of the Israeli secularist, is in a sense self-imposed. For him, the source of the imperative can only be the God of history.

Fackenheim thus maintains a position which must have appeal for certain traditional Jews no less than for some liberal ones. While he has been more radically open to the religious significance of present-day, and not alone ancient, Jewish history, his profound concern with the challenge of contemporary “epoch-making events” has in the end not undermined the commitment to a supernatural and revealing God which his earlier writings set out to justify. As a faithful and believing Jew, Fackenheim has not allowed even Auschwitz to rob him of his transcendent faith.



1 The Religious Dimension in Hegel's Thought (Indiana University Press, 1967; Beacon Paperback, 1970); Quest for Past and Future: Essays in Jewish Theology (Indiana University Press, 1968; Beacon Paperback, 1970); God's Presence in History: Jewish Affirmations and Philosophical Reflections (New York University Press, 1970).

2 “The Modern Jew's Path to God,” COMMENTARY, May 1950.

3 The Review of Metaphysics, June 1970.

4 In The Philosophy of Martin Buber, Schilpp and Friedman, eds., Open Court, 1967.

5 “Elijah and the Empiricists,” in The Religious Situation, ed. Donald Cutler, Beacon, 1969.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link