In the course of overlapping careers as rabbi, professor of philosophy, and theologian, Emil Fackenheim has produced a shelf of books that must be considered among the most important works of serious Jewish religious thought in the second half of this century.

Some of those books are technical in nature, devoted to specific issues in Jewish theology. Others, however, are addressed to a wide general audience. Such is Fackenheim’s most recent book, which is also his most personal, accessible, and comprehensive, What is Judaism? An Interpretation for the Present Age.1 And we are also fortunate to have just now a large anthology, The Jewish Thought of Emil Fackenheim,2 containing a judicious selection ranging from unpublished student pieces from the late 30’s to extracts from Fackenheim’s latest work of technical theology, To Mend the World: Foundations of Future Jewish Thought (1982). Together, these two books offer a good occasion for a look at Fackenheim’s lifelong bid to sustain Jewish faith against the onslaught of modern philosophical thought, and to define an “authentic” Jewish existence in the post-Holocaust age.



In 1977, the late Gershom Scholem, the great historian of Jewish mysticism, brought out a small book of personal reminiscence with the title From Berlin to Jerusalem. Emil Fackenheim’s memoirs, were he ever to write them, would also describe a journey from Berlin to Jerusalem, but by a different route.

Born in Germany in 1916, Fackenheim experienced the rise to power of the Nazis when still in high school in Halle. Whereas Scholem became a Zionist in his youth, and went to Palestine directly from Germany in the mid-1920’s, Fackenheim, who abandoned the anti-Zionist stance of his family for “non-Zionism,” entered the Reform rabbinic seminary (the illustrious Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums) in 1935. In the aftermath of Kristallnacht in 1938 he was seized and sent to the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen. Among the fortunate few who were subsequently released, Fackenheim found refuge in England and then in Canada where he served as rabbi in Hamilton, Ontario, and then as a longtime member of the philosophy department of the University of Toronto. In 1974 he settled in Israel with his family.

Gershom Scholem’s spiritual road to Zion ran through the “cultural Zionism” of the essayist Ahad Ha-Am and by way of Jewish historiography, especially the philological and literary study of the Kabbalah. Emil Fackenheim’s ran by way of Sören Kierkegaard and dialectical theology, Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber, medieval Arabic philosophical texts and modern German philosophers from Immanuel Kant to Martin Heidegger. The results, in Fackenheim’s case, have been quite as revisionist of the Jewish intellectual mainstream as Scholem’s work. Scholem used to insist that he was only a disinterested historian and not a theologian, but his regard for the continued vitality of Jewish religiosity is evident in a subterranean way in any number of his scholarly writings and overtly in his “Reflections on Jewish Theology” (1974), one of the most perceptive articles on the subject in recent decades. Conversely, Fackenheim, a philosopher and a theologian, has found himself forced to wrestle openly and continually with the problems posed by a modern understanding of history and modern historical methodologies for what has been called (occasionally by Fackenheim himself) “postmodern” Judaism.

The term “postmodern” has been applied—in a vague, polemical, and sometimes pejorative sense—to a variety of cultural tendencies. In the arts, the postmodern style is marked by the deliberate employment of traditional elements discarded by the avant-garde: tonality in music, for example, or pictorial representation in painting, or classical columns and Romanesque arches in architecture. Not infrequently these elements are “quoted” in an eclectic, whimsical, stylized manner within works whose methods and structures are themselves modern in the larger sense. Likewise, postmodern theology does not so much repudiate modernity as aim at a self-conscious synthesis of the modern mentality with reappropriated classical values, sacred texts, and traditional ways of interpreting those texts. In Fackenheim’s thought, the stress has fallen on the interplay between a living present and the immediacy of what he calls the “root experiences” of Judaism in the Exodus from Egypt and the covenant at Mount Sinai.

Postmodern theology does take decided issue with certain aspects of modernity, however. In his earlier writings, Fackenheim sought to expose the tendency of Jewish religious modernists to make man, in effect, the arbiter of the divine and to be excessively optimistic about human progress. In contrast to the medievals, he wrote, modern Jewish philosophy presupposed rather than proved that “human reason could dissect without remainder texts that claimed to be divinely inspired” and restricted the realm of the divine commandments to the categorical imperative of the “moral law.” He, by contrast, unabashedly took his stand on a personal and transcendent God (rather than on a God-idea immanent in history); on an appreciation of authentic Jewish styles of worship and direct encounter with Jewish texts (rather than relying on scientific-historical criticism); and on a commitment to the irreducible particularity of the Jewish people (rather than an emphasis on the universal essence of Judaism).

Fackenheim has written that Kierkegaard was an early inspiration (and we would probably have to add such figures of crisis or dialectical theology as Karl Barth), but equally influential was the Jewish religious existentialism pioneered by Franz Rosenzweig and Martin Buber. Fackenheim’s belief that truth is acquired in and through personal commitment follows Rosenzweig’s “new thinking,” itself a bridge between the older philosophical idealism that had dominated modern Jewish thought up to World War I and the more tradition-oriented mode of Jewishness that came to be increasingly prevalent thereafter. And Fackenheim similarly provides a crucial connecting link between the Jewish thought of pre-Holocaust Europe and the first post-Holocaust generation of American Jewry, whose attitudes toward the Jewish religion, knowingly or not, have been more influenced by Rosenzweig than perhaps by any other figure.

Michael L. Morgan’s anthology contains an early essay illustrating the influence on Fackenheim, while still a rabbinic student, of Rosenzweig’s distinction between mitzvah—that which has come to have for one the force of a divine commandment—and Halakhah, mere law which has not yet been internalized as religiously binding. Thus we find the young Fackenheim declaring that “the task of the present generation is to be ready for faith, i.e., ready to let the Other as Demanding enter into its very midst.” Admitting the riskiness of faith, the young Fackenheim nevertheless effectively calls the bluff of the atheist, the agnostic, and the radical empiricist who, by their existential decision to remain spectators, cut themselves off from the very possibility of discovering God and thus of transcending their essentially tragic, unredeemed view of the human situation.



The influence of Martin Buber is quite as evident as that of Rosenzweig in Fackenheim’s early writing. For Fackenheim, Buber’s conception of the I-Thou relationship provided the key to revelation as the primordial experience of ancient Jews recorded in the Bible and as an eternal potentiality in the present. Revelation for Fackenheim is God’s “incursion” into the present, an incursion which of course presupposes the willingness of human beings to open themselves up to the distinct and separate ontological realm in which such revelatory events happen. There is no “It” at all in the moment of revelation, when every It becomes either the partner to whom God speaks or a symbol through which God speaks. Although the moment of encounter cannot be adequately captured in writing, it can be remembered and has been recorded by human beings as their personal response to having been divinely addressed.

Such a concept of revelation leads to the question of the religious significance of history. In 1961 Fackenheim delivered the Aquinas Lecture at Marquette University on the theme “Metaphysics and Historicity.” Here he contended that all philosophizing, ancient, medieval, and modern, is tied to its historical situation. The “predicament of history” is that “timeless truth” is somehow always a reflection of the age in which it is articulated. Yet although man “constitutes himself” in time, beyond such self-constituting action there is another reality, “other than man,” that has a share in the shaping of human existence. In a brief epilogue Fackenheim remarks that he holds this other-than-human reality to be God.

These and other themes in Fackenheim’s writing were developed mainly in the period between 1945 and 1967. They are prologue to the original turn his thought took in the latter year.

Fackenheim was not alone in requiring the passage of two decades after the end of World War II to gain sufficient perspective on the Holocaust to be able to confront it theologically. Only in the middle 1960’s was the Nazi Final Solution given a Jewish name and widely perceived as a historical event of such singularity that it could not easily be assimilated into the conventional historical or Jewish categories—that it could not, in Fackenheim’s view, be assimilated into them at all. And only after Israel’s miraculous victory in June 1967—a victory preceded by weeks and days in which it seemed, incredibly, that the Holocaust was about to be reenacted on Middle Eastern soil—were the energies released to inquire deeply into the meaning of the Holocaust for Jewish survival.

Since 1967, Fackenheim has repeatedly insisted, using powerful and telling illustrations, that the Holocaust was a “novum,” something drastically new, an instance of “radical, unprecedented evil.” In the merciless light of Nazi bestiality, with its determination to murder the whole Jewish people, the issue for the theologian became one of saving Jewish religious faith. That issue was compounded by the agonizing question of why a survivor of the Holocaust—and all contemporary Jews are in some sense its survivors—should have children and raise those children as Jews.



The project upon which Fackenheim embarked, and in which he is still engaged, brought together the earlier themes of his work—Jewish particularity, the ever-present accessibility of revelation, the spiritual meaning of history—while leading him in new directions. Martin Buber had coined the phrase the “eclipse of God” to describe the apparent negation of God’s presence in the face of a historical abyss like Auschwitz. To Fackenheim, such a way of putting it ignored the evidence that, in the midst of the Holocaust and thereafter, God’s will had been grasped by some—indeed, that God’s voice was and is heard by amkha, the ordinary Jewish people.

The celebrated principle in which Fackenheim formulated the response of amkha to the divine voice was “the 614th commandment.” (According to traditional teaching there are a total of 613 commandments incumbent upon every Jew to perform.) As he wrote in an essay first published in COMMENTARY (“Jewish Faith and the Holocaust,” August 1968) and has elaborated many times over, a “commanding voice” issued from Auschwitz. According to that voice,

Jews are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories. They are commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. They are commanded to remember the victims of Auschwitz, lest their memory perish. They are forbidden to despair of man and his world, and to escape into either cynicism or otherworldliness, lest they cooperate in delivering the world over to the forces of Auschwitz. Finally, they are forbidden to despair of the God of Israel, lest Judaism perish.

The Buberian idea of revelation as an ineffable encounter between an “I” and a “Thou” gives way here to an instruction for action. For Fackenheim, mere intellectual vision is inevitably blurred, shot through with unresolvable tension. But in the biblical tradition, vision is secondary, hearing God’s word is central. If, after the war, Jewish theologians were unable to formulate a coherent theodicy reconciling God’s goodness and power with the naked fact of Auschwitz, in retrospect it appears that amkha had already responded to the divine command. First, there were the acts of resistance in Nazi-occupied Europe, acts more varied, more intense, and more widespread than had at first been believed. Second, there was the visceral, ongoing determination of ordinary Jews to rebuild Jewish life in and through the state of Israel. To Fackenheim, all this suggested that the vital core of the Jewish people had reaffirmed its continuing witness to Judaism’s place in history—and this “stubborn fidelity” of the Jews in turn reaffirmed, “as it were,” God’s place in history as well.

In his notion of amkha as the (unconsciously) willing recipient of revelation after the Holocaust, Fackenheim accomplished a major revision of the theology of Franz Rosenzweig. A religiously liberal Jew, Rosenzweig had nevertheless placed at the heart of Judaism the traditional Jewish way of accepting the Bible as “Torah,” not just ancient literature but the Word of God. He had also come to accept some, if not all, Jewish laws as commandments personally addressed to him. But Rosenzweig was not captivated by Zionism, and he conceived of the Jewish people as living “outside” of the stream of history.

Fackenheim, by contrast, came to speak of a “Jewish return to history,” the title of a book he published in 1978, and of Zionism and the state of Israel as the main vehicles of that return. The Holocaust had demonstrated that Jewish “servitude” to the powers-that-be must be resolved now, in history, and not in messianic times. “What made [the Holocaust]—thus far—unbearable,” he wrote, “is an unprecedented togetherness of helplessness in the victims with wickedness in their persecutors. It is necessary to make an end to this togetherness, and since the victims cannot make an end to the wickedness they must make an end to the helplessness.”

Into Rosenzweig’s doctrine of revelation, in other words, Fackenheim brought the survivalism that had been at the heart of a number of secular nationalist ideologies since the late 19th century. Ahad Ha-Am and Simon Dubnow, the fathers of Jewish cultural survivalism, had found the ultimate explanation for Jewish history in the active will of the Jewish people to persevere in its individuality. For these secularists, God and the Torah were but the mutable stratagems employed historically by the Jewish elemental life force, which in the present age could and would take on different forms not necessarily tied to the categories of ethical monotheism or the supernatural authority of any of the laws of Torah.

Fackenheim, however, now saw secular Zionism as itself rooted in something more than nationalism. “If at its best Western Jewish fideism,” as in the writings of Franz Rosenzweig, “showed fidelity to the God of Israel but abandoned the Jewish people, Eastern Jewish secularism at its best showed fidelity to the Jewish people but abandoned the God of Israel.” In Fackenheim’s attempt to heal the breach, the concept of amkha served as nexus.



Fackenheim’s preoccupation with amkha has remained an integral part of his thought to this day. In What Is Judaism?, indeed, he begins by citing the simple fidelity of present-day Jews to Jewish survival, a commitment that has turned Ahad Ha-Am and Dubnow into veritable prophets of a dominant Jewish stance. From there he proceeds to a reading of the Bible as a Jewish book, then to the question of how a contemporary Jew can have access to the Bible as the Book, as Torah. After observations on what Judaism specifically means and will continue to mean (what is “living by Torah,” “learning Torah,” Jewish ethics, prayer, the cycles of worship), he takes up the relation of the Jewish people to the perplexities of its history (anti-Semitism, Judaism and Christianity, Jewish messianism).

Though he insists that “God is the ultimate theme of Judaism . . . the theme of themes,” only in the last pages of What Is Judaism? does Fackenheim venture to discuss “God in the age of Auschwitz and the rebuilt Jerusalem.” Here he invokes the midrashic rhetorical device of kivyakhol (“as it were”), which means that any statement so qualified is at once true, “that it falls short of the ultimate form of truth, and that the ultimate form is beyond our finite understanding and in the keeping of God alone.” He applies this midrashic mode of apprehension to God’s independent yet paradoxically reciprocal relation to the Jews, His “witnesses.” “So involved with His witnesses is God in His intimacy as to make Him, as it were, ‘not God’ if He is abandoned by His witnesses. And so independent is He in His infinity of all human praise as to be, if not praised by them, as it were, ‘lovely in Himself.’” If such paradoxes seem to border on the mystical, for Fackenheim that may be, finally, a realm in which the “ultimate theme” of Judaism can best be understood; in a brief epilogue to this book he appeals (in spite of his general discomfort with the Kabbalah) to Jewish mysticism as he reaches for language to capture the relation between God and the Jews in history:

If the house has an owner, why does He not put the fire out? Perhaps He can and yet will. Perhaps He cannot or will not. But if He cannot or will not, a Jew today must do what he can to put the fire out himself. A kabbalistic saying is to the effect that the effort from below calls forth a response from above.



Over the years, Fackenheim’s thought has been subjected to a fair amount of comment, much of it focusing on his views of the Holocaust. Even among his admirers he has been taken to task for exaggerating the significance that the Holocaust poses for Jewish theology, for overemphasizing its historical uniqueness, or for seeming to ground all prospect of future Jewish salvation in the Holocaust itself. Thus in a 1971 review of God’s Presence in History, Michael Wyschogrod contended in response to Fackenheim that “If there is hope after the Holocaust, it is because, to those who believe, the voices of the Prophets speak more loudly than did Hitler, and because the divine promise sweeps over the crematoria and silences the voice of Auschwitz.” Likewise David Singer, reviewing The Jewish Return to History, asked, “Can a religion which places the Exodus at the center of its faith grant equal status to a totally destructive event like the Holocaust?” And in an essay on Fackenheim as “theologian of the Holocaust” Hyam Maccoby averred: “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.”

Fackenheim’s almost sensationalist conception of a 614th commandment forbidding Jews to grant posthumous victories to Hitler has also provoked strong demurrals—on the ground that it seems to give pride of place to Hitler as a reason for Jews to bear children and to rear them as Jews. David Singer has paraphrased the objections of the Orthodox and the agnostic alike: “Why should the traditional Jew, who lives by the 613 commandments, need an additional one to ensure Jewish survival? In what sense can the secular Jew be commanded, when he does not believe in a Commander?” In a fine and careful essay on Fackenheim’s religious thought, Michael A. Meyer agrees that there is a commandment issuing forth from the Holocaust—“to survive as Jews, continuing to hope and to act in an unredeemed world”—but takes issue with Fackenheim’s existentialism by proposing that this duty is “the command of a God who is the source of the distant but urgent moral ideal glimpsed by Israel’s prophets and sages,” rather than Fackenheim’s God of history, about whom “it seems no longer possible to say anything meaningful.”

Perhaps the problem here is that the language of divine commandment is too narrow to accommodate the revelatory interchange to which Fackenheim points. Certainly the Holocaust gives rise to a twofold Jewish nightmare: the overwhelming potency of human evil to degrade and destroy, and a vision of a world without the Jewish people. Attesting to God’s presence in history means, for Fackenheim, reaffirming the human capacity to resist evil both physically and spiritually, and it means detecting signs of a reconfirmation of the convenant which is the essential theological rationale for there being a people of Israel at all. Formulating this attestation as a command, which is what Fackenheim does, recalls the role of the talmudic sages who amplified the list of benedictions and obligations incumbent on Israel by establishing that Jews are “commanded,” for example, to light Hanukkah lamps even though no such command is found in the written Torah. (Actually, Fackenheim might be viewed less as a rabbinic interpreter of Torah than as a thinker in the tradition of Deutero-Isaiah, the otherwise anonymous prophet of the Babylonian exile who unforgettably endowed historical catastrophe with religious meaning, offered consolation for the devastating burden of sin and defeat, and found hope of redemption in a return to Zion.)



Fackenheim does not conceive of Auschwitz, or the establishment of Israel, as revelatory in the sense that Sinai was: they are “epoch-making,” but not root experiences. The Babylonian exile, the destruction of the Temple, the expulsion from Spain, and the modern emancipation of the Jews were similar “epoch-making” events, in Fackenheim’s terminology, drastically rupturing the orderly flow of Jewish history. True, the Holocaust was a “novum” in human evil, and in Jewish history. True, the establishment of the state of Israel was a historical surprise, the creative response of a people who could very well instead have been overwhelmed by mortal despair. But for all the novelty of these events, Jewish history contains other excruciating catastrophes and redemptive surprises, after which Jewish life has gone on. In a sense it may therefore be misleading to speak, as Fackenheim does, of a Jewish return to history; Jews and Judaism never left history, even though they may now be facing history with fewer illusions.

Yet in any case Fackenheim hardly intends to celebrate the irrevocable rupture in the events of the 1930’s and 1940’s; indeed, carefully threading his way between two unacceptable alternatives, he provides the basis for reasserting Jewish continuity dialectically.

There is, at one extreme, the response perhaps most memorably formulated by Richard Rubenstein, who argued in After Auschwitz that the millennial Jewish belief in a caring, omnipotent God was demolished by the Holocaust and that an entirely different rationale had to be erected for post-Holocaust Jewishness. For Fackenheim this way out is certainly not permissible; the permanent loss of a personal God who attends to history and answers prayer would foreshadow the end of Judaism itself. At the other extreme is recourse to one of the venerable formulas according to which the repeated persecution of the Jews is understood as punishment for their sins, or as evidence of divine testing, “the chastisements of love.” This too Fackenheim can hardly accept. Rather, by rooting philosophical and religious meaning in the physical and spiritual resistance of Holocaust victims, and in the fidelity of post-Holocaust Jews to Jewish survival, he at once wrestles with the brute, inarguable facts and prepares for the eventual absorption of them into the Jewish history of salvation.

The experience of near-annihilation can act as a dybbuk on a people’s soul, driving it to self-defeating acts of violence and/or immolation. By providing a subtle, eloquent, even rational response to an event which is close to being religiously inexplicable, Fackenheim has helped exorcise this dybbuk for modern Jews, reestablishing a ground for religious faith, however problematically “postmodern,” however full of strains and kivyakhols. And by associating the full force of the memory of the Holocaust with the anxieties and elations of June 1967, Fackenheim has given powerful philosophical meaning to sentiments felt by vast numbers of his fellow Jews. In his project of turning these feelings into theory he has contributed to repairing what is perhaps the most serious of all ruptures in modern Jewish thought: that between a secular, scientific conception of Jewish experience and the primary insights, values, and beliefs of Judaism.



1 Summit Books, 320 pp., $18.95.

2 Edited by Michael L. Morgan, Wayne State University Press, 394 pp., $39.95.

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