Fackenheim, Emil

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FACKENHEIM, EMIL (19162003) is best known for his sustained commitment to refashion Judaism in the shadow of the Nazi holocaust. He was born in Halle, Germany, on June 22, 1916. In 1935 he moved to Berlin where he entered the rabbinical program at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums ; he also began a degree in philosophy at the University of Halle. Fackenheim's academic career in Germany was interrupted by Kristallnacht and internment for several months in Sachsenhausen. In the spring of 1940 he fled to Aberdeen, Scotland, and matriculated in a degree program in philosophy at the university. A year later Fackenheim and other refugees were interred in camps and then dispersed throughout the British Empire.

Fackenheim traveled by ship to Canada, spent months in a camp in Sherbrooke, Ontario, and was eventually released, whereupon he went directly to the University of Toronto and was accepted into the doctoral program in philosophy. Fackenheim received his degree in 1945 with a dissertation on medieval Arabic philosophy and its classical antecedents. From 1943 to 1948 he served as rabbi for congregation Anshe Shalom in Hamilton, Ontario. Invited to teach philosophy at the University of Toronto in 1948, he remained there until 1983, when he retired as University Professor. He and his family then immigrated to Israel in 1983. He taught at the Institute for Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for several years. Fackenheim died in Jerusalem on September 19, 2003.

Fackenheim's 614th Commandment

In the postwar period Fackenheim pursued two intellectual interests. First, he began a philosophical examination of faith and reason from Kant (17241804) to Kierkegaard (18131855), with special attention to Hegel (17701831). Second, he explored the role of revelation in modern culture, in particular dealing with Jewish faith, autonomy, the challenge of naturalism and secularism, and the defense of revelation in the thought of Martin Buber (18781965) and Franz Rosenzweig (18861929).

Until 1966 Fackenheim largely avoided dealing with the Nazi assault on Jews and Judaism and the atrocities of the death camps. On March 26, 1967, at a symposium titled "Jewish Values in the PostHolocaust Future," convened by the American Jewish Committee and organized by the editor of its journal Judaism, Steven Schwarzschild, Fackenheim first formulated and presented his imperative for authentic Jewish response to the Holocaust, what he called the 614th commandment: "The authentic Jew of today is forbidden to hand Hitler yet another, posthumous victory." He elaborated the reasoning that led to this imperative and its hermeneutical content in "Jewish Faith and the Holocaust," which appeared in Commentary and, in a slightly different form, in the introduction to his collection of essays, Quest for Past and Future (1968). His argument appeared in its most developed form in the third chapter of God's Presence in History, published in 1970 and based on his 1968 Deems Lectures at New York University.

In these central writings, Fackenheim argues that although no intellectual responsehistorical, political, theological, or psychologicalto the evil of Auschwitz is satisfactory, an existential response is necessary. But neither philosophy nor theology is capable of framing what a genuine response should be. One can and must turn to actual lived experience, during and after the event, to grasp how Jews have responded and hence how one ought to respond. Such ongoing Jewish life, Fackenheim claims, can be interpreted as a response to a sense of necessity, and this necessity takes the shape of a duty to oppose all that Nazism sought to accomplish in its hatred of Jews and Judaism and in its rejection of human dignity. Although for secular Jews, such a duty has no ground but is accepted as forceful without one, for believing Jews, the only ground that is possible is the voice of a commanding God. Hence for them, it has the status of a divine command, alongside but not superseding the other, traditional 613 biblical commandments. It is, in his famous formulation, a 614th commandment.

Fackenheim's route to this imperative of resistance to Nazi purposes capitalized on several crucial insights. One was that after Auschwitz, as he put it, even Hegel would not be a Hegelian, that is, that Auschwitz was a case of evil for evil's sake and was therefore inassimilable into any prior conceptual system. Even the most systematic philosophic thought was historically situated and was ruptured by the horrors of the death camps. The second was his commitment to existentialdialectical thinking about the human condition and to its hermeneutical character. The third was the recognition that although Auschwitz threatened all prior systems, ways of life, and beliefs, Judaism must and could survive exposure to it. The work of Elie Wiesel (b. 1928) and Wiesel himself, a survivor and a novelist, confirmed this hope and this realization.

To Mend the World

In the 1970s Fackenheim's thought extended the lines of thinking summarized above. On the one hand, he applied this framework to a variety of themesmost notably to the State of Israel, its reestablishment and defense, but also to the belief in God, the relationship between Jews and Christians, and the necessity of struggling against all attempts to diminish human dignity and the value of human life (see essays collected in his The Jewish Return Into History and selections in Morgan [ed.], The Jewish Thought of Emil Fackenheim ). On the other hand, he turned to important philosophical problems with his existential and hermeneutical argument. The crucial one had to do with the possibility of performing the imperative of resistance or, as one might put it, the possibility of confronting the radical threat of rupture and not giving way to total despair. This was to become the central problem of the book he always took to be his magnum opus, To Mend the World, first published in 1982. In the earlier period, culminating in 1970, Fackenheim had argued from the necessity of the commandment or imperative to its possibility, either on Kantian grounds, that duty entails the freedom to perform it, or on Rosenzweigian grounds, that along with the commandments that God grants in an act of grace, he also gives humankind out of the same love the freedom to perform them. By the late 1970s Fackenheim had come to see how both responses failed to respect the victims of the Nazi horrors. In the crucial chapter of To Mend the World, he systematically and dialectically explores the agency of evil and its victims, in order to arrive at a moment of lucid understanding that grasps the whole of horror and reacts in opposition to it with surprise, and he confirms this intellectual grasp with an emblematic case of a victim of the atrocities who both sees clearly what she is being subjected to, what the evil is, and senses a duty to oppose it in her life. This episode constitutes an ontological ground of resistance. Judaism, through the idea of a cosmic rupture and a human act that respects and yet opposes it, what is called in the Jewish mystical tradition (Qabbalah ) tikkun olam, provides philosophy with a concept essential to grasp this moment of horrified surprise and recovery from it, the possibility of genuine post-Holocaust life. To Mend the World proceeds to apply these lessons in three domainsphilosophy, Christianity, and Jewish existencein each case locating an emblematic case of tikkun (mending or repair) that respects the evil of Auschwitz as a total and unqualified rupture and yet finds a route to hope and recovery.

In the last two decades of his life, Fackenheim once more extended the lines of this argument: with a book on the Bible and how it ought to be read by Jews and Christians, together, in a postHolocaust world (The Jewish Bible after the Holocaust, 1990); with a survey of Jewish belief and practice of Jews in the 1980s (What Is Judaism?, 1987); and with a number of essays on the State of Israel as a paradigmatically genuine response to the Nazi assault, that is, as a unique blending of religious purposes and secular self-reliance, combining a commitment to a homeland for Jews against the most extreme assault and to its defense.

Fackenheim's philosophical commitments were deeply immersed in existential and concrete realities, most notably the historicity of philosophical and religious thought, the hermeneutical and situated character of human existence, and the unprecedented evil of Nazis and the death camps. Auschwitz led him to expose philosophy, culture, and religion unconditionally to historical refutation; yet his deepest yearnings were to find continued hope and to avoid despair, to appreciate the necessity of Jewish life and the defense of human value and dignity. These dispositions, however, were what one might call "rationally defended yearnings" and hence necessities (duties and obligations) only in a deeply contextual sense. In this respect, Fackenheim bears some similarity to the contemporary Anglo-American philosophers such as Charles Taylor, Hilary Putnam, Richard Rorty, and even the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (19061955), although except for Levinas, the motivation for Fackenheim's philosophical and theological work was the experience of Auschwitz and not theoretical considerations. In this respect, in the twentieth century, his thought is distinctive and significant and in Jewish life and thought virtually unique.


Fackenheim, Emil L. "Jewish Faith and the Holocaust." Commentary 46 (1968): 30-36.

Fackenheim, Emil L. God's Presence in History. New York, 1970.

Fackenheim, Emil L. Quest for Past and Future (1968). Boston, 1970.

Fackenheim, Emil L. What Is Judaism? New York, 1987.

Fackenheim, Emil L. To Mend the World (1982). 3d ed. Bloomington, Ind., 1994.

Fackenheim, Emil L. The Jewish Bible after the Holocaust. Bloomington, Ind., 1990.

Greenspan, Louis, and Graeme Nicholson, eds. Fackenheim: German Philosophy & Jewish Thought. Toronto, Canada, 1992.

Morgan, Michael L., ed. The Jewish Thought of Emil Fackenheim. Detroit, Mich., 1987.

Morgan, Michael L., ed. Emil Fackenheim: Jewish Philosophers and Jewish Philosophy. Bloomington, Ind., 1996.

Morgan, Michael L. Beyond Auschwitz: PostHolocaust Jewish Thought in America. New York, 2001.

Michael L. Morgan (2005)