Emil Ludwig Fackenheim

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Emil Ludwig Fackenheim

Liberal Jewish theologian Emil Fackenheim (born 1916) explored new horizons relating the Holocaust to Jewish theology and examining the relationships among modern philosophical issues.

Emil Ludwig Fackenheim represents the odyssey of contemporary liberal Jewish theologians both in his thought and in his life. He was born in Halle, Germany, on June 22, 1916. Liberal Jews at this time looked to Germany's cultured, middle-class Jewish population as the beacon of enlightenment and progress. Fackenheim shared these views and studied for the Reform Jewish rabbinate in the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, where he was ordained in 1939. He maintained a keen interest in non-Jewish philosophy as well by studying at the University of Halle. Shortly after his ordination he was interned for three months in a concentration camp—a profoundly traumatic experience, but one with a fortunate outcome, as he was one of the few lucky ones to be released. After leaving Germany he studied briefly at the University of Aberdeen and was then called as rabbi to Congregation Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, where he served from 1943 to 1948.

In North America, Fackenheim came to represent a growing number of Reform rabbis in both the United States and Canada who explored new theological horizons. He embraced a "neo-Orthodoxy" inspired in part by the German Protestant thinker Karl Barth. His philosophical training led him beyond existentialism to investigate Hegel, who seemed to point towards new avenues in religious thinking. He received a Guggenheim fellowship for 1957-1958 which enabled him to develop his ideas more fully. These ideas reached full expression in his book The Religious Dimension in Hegel's Thought (1968).

Fackenheim's thinking challenged the youth of his congregation to take Judaism seriously as an intellectual system. He took up this challenge himself while studying at the University of Toronto's Department of Philosophy, from which he received a Ph.D. in 1945. In 1948 he joined the faculty of that department, an appointment he continued for over three decades. He was an intellectual leader whose struggles with liberal thought and neo-Orthodox beliefs were well represented in his anthology of essays Quest for Past and Future: Essays in Jewish Theology (1968).

Holocaust and the State of Israel

The introduction to the Quest book represented a change in Fackenheim's approach. In March 1967 he was asked to speak at a symposium concerning the Nazi Holocaust and Jewish theology. The symposium occurred on a Sunday which celebrated both the Christian Easter and the Jewish holiday of Purim. Fackenheim noted that for Christians redemption occurs because of divine suffering, while Purim suggests that Jews must struggle in history for their own redemption. He recalled the psychic pain of confronting his own memories at a time when Christians seemed to be demanding that Jews play out their drama of suffering and abandon the lessons of Purim. These were the weeks leading up to Israel's Six-Day War, a time in which the Jewish state was threatened by the Arab world's military stronghold of Egypt. Fackenheim took the opportunity to enunciate what he called the "614th commandment," which forbids Jews to hand Hitler yet another, posthumous victory.' Thus, he asserted, Jews are compelled to learn from and remember constantly the lessons of the past—in essence, to survive.

In the following years Fackenheim developed the ideas expressed in that symposium. He explored their meaning in the Charles F. Deems Lectures given at New York University in 1968 and later published as God's Presence in History: Jewish Affirmations and Philosophical Reflections (1970). He explained the relevance of this new position for his continuing study of non-Jewish philosophy in Encounters Between Judaism and Philosophy: A Preface to Future Jewish Thought (1973).

During the 1970s Fackenheim's thought matured as he devoted five summers to study in Israel supported by research grants of the Canada Council. In 1971 he affirmed the relevance of Holocaust theology not only for Jews but for all humanity in the B. G. Rudolf Lecture in Judaica Studies at Syracuse University. In 1976 he presented a new methodological approach—that of taking midrash (medieval commentaries on Hebrew scripture) as the point of departure for Jewish theology. In a conference devoted to Elie Wiesel, the Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor, Fackenheim described this new approach to Jewish thinking: stories, images, and mystical concepts rather than philosophy could supply the keys to the meaning of Judaism. His new view of Jewish ethnicity, the relevance of the Holocaust for all humanity, and midrashic method of theologizing were expressed in The Jewish Return into History: Reflections in the Age of Auschwitz and a New Jerusalem (1978) and To Mend the World: Foundations of Future Jewish Thought (1982).

Confronting Kant and Hegel

Fackenheim's most important contribution to contemporary religious thinking was his clear account of how modern theology must confront philosophical issues. While he traced the history of modern philosophical thought in general, his analyses of Kant and Hegel are of special importance. No contemporary Jewish thinking can fail to encounter Kant's ethical challenge. Kant contended that only a self-willed, autonomous ethic is morally good. A religious ethic which is based on mere obedience to the divine will is morally suspect. Fackenheim examined this claim in a number of essays and sought to show that in Judaism the problem of God's unconditional demand is related to martyrdom and a sense of divine purpose.

From Hegel, Fackenheim learned the necessity of taking historical processes seriously—in other words, the patterns of the past do indeed shape destiny. In both cases the Nazi experience is crucial. The Holocaust brought the question of purpose into direct light; God's unconditional command is ethical because it serves a purpose even if human beings cannot comprehend that purpose. Fackenheim asserted that Kant was wrong because he does not allow for the surprise that comes when human beings recognize a purpose that they cannot comprehend. The Holocaust also revealed God's presence in history, not as an inevitable hand but as a commanding voice. Listening to that voice enabled Jews to transform the reality of human history and thus move beyond Hegel.

The Eclipse of God

Fackenheim and his family emigrated to Israel in 1974, where he continued to write books and articles on theological matters. Moving beyond Hegel and Kant into the twentieth century, Fackenheim also explored the idea put forth by modern Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, who argued that the occurrence of the Holocaust is sufficient evidence that God must have abandoned humanity for a time. Yet Fackenheim disagreed, arguing that the surviving Jews and the resistance to Nazi Germany pointed to evidence that many indeed heard the voice of God, and in essence was indeed true to that 614th commandment. Fackenheim's other titles include To Mend the World (1980), What Is Judaism? An Interpretation for the Present Age (1987), The Jewish Bible After the Holocaust: A Re-Reading (1990), and Jewish Philosophers and Jewish Philosophy (1996).

Further Reading

There is no easy way to be introduced to Emil L. Fackenheim the thinker and person. His essays and books are the best introduction since they contain both autobiographical material and his maturing thought. A critical but fair study of his work is found in Steven T. Katz, Post-Holocaust Dialogues: Critical Studies in Modern Jewish Thought (1983). Other scholarly studies include David Ellenson, "Emil Fackenheim and the Revealed Morality of Judaism," in Judaism (1976); Sandra Lubarsky, "Ethics and Theodicy: Tensions in Emil Fackenheim's Thought," in Encounter (1983); and Norbert Samuelson, "Revealed Morality and Modern Thought," in Journal of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1969). Each of these essays is difficult but rewarding reading.

Additional Sources

Michael W. Morgan, ed., The Jewish Thought of Emil Fackenheim (1987).

Robert M. Seltzer, "Judaism According to Emil Fackenheim," in Commentary (September 1988).

Harvey Shulman, "The Theo-Political Thought of Emil Fackenheim," in Judaism (Spring 1990). □