Myodicy, Issue 20, December 2003

A New Commandment:
Emil Fackenheim
and the Mystery
of the Holocaust

by Theodore Plantinga

The 614th commandment

Orthodox Christians make a strict distinction between the Word of God and the word of man. Even when the word of man presents itself as an interpretation of the Word of God, it must not to go beyond what is written (see Proverbs 30:5-6). At least, this is what a great many of us believe. Now, the Westminster Confession of the Presbyterians allows us to make strict and proper deductions from what is taught in Scripture and to give them a force tantamount to statements found in Scripture, but even Presbyterians are reluctant to undertake the process of adding to our body of official truth. Many of us claim to believe in the development of doctrine, but in practice we stick to what we have always taught. Our caution in this regard flows from the way we think about the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. To add to the doctrine would be to invite trouble. And to add to the commandments would be an even more risky enterprise. We have ten commandments, and the number ten represents fullness, completion. Those ten commandments have served us well ever since the days of Mount Sinai, and they are still adequate for today. That's roughly how many Christians think.

Among believing Jews we find similar attitudes, but held a bit more strictly. Yet in Jewish circles it is also possible to add to what God has revealed by a process of strict deduction and derivation. Therefore some Jewish thinkers speak of "the expanding universe of Torah" (Torah here means the Word of God, especially as recorded in the first five books of the Old Testament). As for the number of the commandments, it has been determined that there are 613 of them in all. To Christians this may seem a curious or even arbitrary number, but to Jews the number has a certain significance. In the Old Testament world, numbers are generally more than just numbers. Many Christians would be inclined to argue that the number 613 was somewhat arbitrarily arrived at by carving up the commandments in such a way as to reach this special number as a total. Nevertheless, the 613 commandments have stood for many centuries. One would hardly dare add to them.

But a great philosopher has broken this taboo. Emil Fackenheim, who died in Jerusalem in September of 2003, has propounded what he calls "the 614th commandment." In strictly Orthodox circles he has been criticized for his boldness. Fackenheim has not undertaken to respond to those criticisms in their own terms: his thinking is that the enormous and horrible fact of the Holocaust, which demands a philosophical and religious response, summons us to do things that would otherwise be unthinkable. And so Fackenheim has heard a "commanding voice" speaking to us from Auschwitz, and in response he has given us a new commandment.

If the phrase "a new commandment" sounds familiar, it's because we find it in the New Testament, more specifically, in the second chapter of John's first epistle (see verses 6-8). But what we read in I John is hardly what Fackenheim has in mind.

Christians are used to the notion that we should try to please the Lord in all that we do: we should give heaven reason to rejoice as it looks down upon our actions. Fackenheim's 614th commandment is the reverse of this rule, logically speaking: it asks us never to give a certain someone reason to rejoice. And that someone, of course, is not God but Hitler. In The Jewish Return into History: Reflections in the Age of Auschwitz and a New Jerusalem, Fackenheim sums up his new commandment in the following words: "... the authentic Jew of today is forbidden to hand Hitler yet another, posthumous victory." [NOTE 1] Hitler is dead, but he is not altogether gone; otherwise we would not go to such lengths to avoid giving him something to cheer about.

Fackenheim recognizes that keeping the 614th commandment involves a certain tension between remembering the past and affirming the future. He tells us: "... we are forbidden to turn present and future life into death, as the price for remembering death at Auschwitz. And we are equally forbidden to affirm present and future life, at the price of forgetting Auschwitz." [NOTE 2]

Fackenheim gives us some more specifics in terms of what is involved in honoring his new commandment:

If the 614th commandment is binding upon the authentic Jew, then we are, first, commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. We are commanded, second, to remember in our very guts and bones the martyrs of the Holocaust, lest their memory perish. We are forbidden, thirdly, to deny or despair of God, however much we may have to contend with him or with belief in him, lest Judaism perish. We are forbidden, finally, to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of God, lest we help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted. To abandon any of these imperatives, in response to Hitler's victory at Auschwitz, would be to hand him yet other, posthumous victories. [NOTE 3]

A remarkable life story

Who was this unusual thinker? First of all, he was part philosopher and part theologian. (A Jewish thinker might be uncomfortable with the appellation "theologian": it is not used nearly as freely within Judaism as within Christianity.) What sort of thinker would dare make such a pronouncement about a new commandment? The short answer is that Fackenheim is a survivor and a witness to the horrors of our age. Born in Germany in 1916, he suffered in Hitler's concentration camps but lived to bear eloquent and effective witness against the Nazis during the last part of the previous century. And he ended his days in Jerusalem, thereby putting into practice what he preached concerning the religious future for believing Jews.

Although he did not choose this country, he was also a Canadian who lived his professional life in Hamilton and Toronto. It was during the Toronto period of his life that I had the opportunity to know him. But back in those days, I had not yet heard the life story of Emil Fackenheim. And the dimension of his life story for which he became most famous, namely, his response to the Holocaust, was just unfolding in his mind and heart. By then the second world war was already more than a quarter of a century behind us, but Fackenheim was only beginning to find the power and courage to ponder it publicly and discuss it and offer a philosophical response to it. Therein lies a tale.

The Emil Fackenheim I knew was very much a German. He spoke in a precise and considered English, but with a very strong German accent. He was born in Germany and grew up there. During his teenage years he lived in Halle. By that point the Nazis were in power. His home was directly across the street from a Christian church, and from the church flew a swastika -- the dreaded Nazi insignia. Naturally, this deplorable fact played a role in Fackenheim's attitude toward Christians, but there was also a brighter side to his experience with Christians in those days, as we will see in due course.

Although he was not politically involved in those days, he soon found himself swept up in the Nazi hysteria and deposited in one of Hitler's concentration camps. After the infamous night of the broken glass (Kristallnacht), of November 8-9, 1938, Fackenheim was arrested along with hosts of other Jews and sent to a concentration camp. The camp in which he was incarcerated was Sachsenhausen, but he was there for only three months. This all took place before the time when the so-called "final solution" became official Nazi policy. ("Final solution" was the Nazi euphemism for the plan to murder every last Jew in German-controlled territory.) And so there were occasions when Jews were actually released.

Fackenheim was among the lucky ones and found himself back on the street. He stayed in Germany for a few more months and was even ordained a rabbi. In May he got permission to enter Britain, where he would be safe from the Nazis. But on September 1 Hitler invaded Poland, and Britain declared war on Germany. In legal terms, Fackenheim was now an enemy alien, that is to say, a German citizen living in a country that was at war with Germany. He was arrested and incarcerated in Scotland.

To us, in retrospect, his arrest seems sheer foolishness, but at the time the British reckoned with the possibility that some of the refugees from Germany were actually Nazi agents. In those days Canada was one of the "dominions" and stood right by Britain's side: Canada entered the war a week after Britain made its decision. And so Canada was deeply committed to the war effort. Some of the prisoners being held by the British were transferred to Canada: Fackenheim was among them. He wound up interned in a camp in Sherbrooke, Quebec, where the Canadian armed forces were in charge. In all, he was incarcerated by the countries we came to call the Allies for a period of some eighteen months (as opposed to three months in a Nazi camp). Finally, sound Canadian common sense prevailed: the authorities wondered why in the world they were locking up a Jewish rabbi. After all, the Nazis were the enemies of the Jews, and this diminutive rabbi hardly seemed likely to assist them. And so Fackenheim was let go.

He made his way to Hamilton, Ontario, where he became the rabbi of the local Reform synagogue, called Temple Anshe Shalom. There he served for about five years. During that time he also considered the possibility of further education. Eventually he enrolled in a program of studies in philosophy at the University of Toronto, some forty miles away. He completed this program to the Ph.D. level and was hired by the university as a philosophy professor. He taught there for the next 36 years, specializing in German idealism and Hegel and earning a worldwide reputation for his insights into German philosophy. He also kept a hand in Jewish studies, but his teaching responsibilities at the university did not leave much scope for teaching about Judaism. In his later years, however, he did more and more writing that related specifically to Jewish topics.

Fackenheim had already served at the University of Toronto for a number of years when I came to know him. I assisted him in an undergraduate philosophy of religion course, and when I was assigned to teach such a course on my own, I looked to him for guidance and advice. I benefited enormously from his graduate course in Hegel, in which I enrolled in my very first term at Toronto. And then he helped guide me in my doctoral research in nineteenth-century German philosophy, which culminated in a dissertation on Wilhelm Dilthey's philosophy of history. (My other dissertation supervisor was Thomas Langan.) I came to know him then as the most demanding taskmaster I had ever worked under. Although he had been raised in Germany and spoke English with a strong accent, he undertook to correct my English!

I had grown up with a deep interest in Jews and the Holocaust. When I was ten years old, my family moved from the south end of Winnipeg, Manitoba, into the north end, which was then the Jewish district. We had Jews living on both sides of our home on Matheson Avenue and across the street. Half a block from us was a synagogue. By then I knew the basic story of the second world war, including the fact that the Nazis proposed to murder every Jew they could get their hands on. And so I wondered to myself, as I interacted with my Jewish neighbors, many of whom became my close friends and some of whom were the offspring of the lucky ones who managed to get away, just what it was about the Jews that provoked such enmity. Of course I never found out. But my association with Jews led to a good deal of reading. As a result, by the time I met Emil Fackenheim I was very knowledgeable about the second world war and the set of events we call the Holocaust. But to know the facts is not yet to understand them.

What attitude was one supposed to take toward the Holocaust? I sensed in Fackenheim a tremendous intensity about the subject, but I cannot say that I ever detected any particular line or position one was supposed to adopt -- not even that it was good to discuss these things. Of course one was foursquare against the Nazis and on the side of the Jews, and everyone wished the state of Israel well in its struggle to survive in the midst of a sea of hostile Arabs, but beyond that I did not quite know what my attitude was supposed to be, and what Prof. Fackenheim might expect of a Christian student with a Calvinistic background.

Years later, as I read publications of Fackenheim that took up issues of special interest to Jews, I gradually pieced together more of his life story. I came to understand why I had a hard time picking up his attitude toward the Holocaust during the years I was under his tutelage at the University of Toronto. The simple fact was that Fackenheim himself did not yet know what to make of the Holocaust. Like so many other Jews who somehow came through the Holocaust, it took decades for him to reach a point in his life at which he was able to confront those horrible events in such a public way as to reflect on them in the presence of others.

I was reminded of what I have often heard about Dutch immigrants in Reformed circles who also suffered under the Nazis. Many of them, including an uncle of mine who eventually settled in Winnipeg, were hauled away to concentration camps or slave labor camps. In the 1950s and 1960s, when those immigrants were raising children in Canada, they were reluctant to speak of their experiences. But at a later point in life, many of them began to open up and eventually seemed able to speak of little else. It was as though some psychological mechanism had blocked their response to the horrors they had experienced and rendered them unable to discuss those horrors for a good many years. Something of this sort also happened in the case of Emil Fackenheim.

He reports that he was drawn into the discussion by Elie Wiesel, a well-known Jewish writer and thinker who also survived the Holocaust and eventually made his way to the United States. In 1975, which was also the year in which I finished my work for the Ph.D. degree and thereby ended my formal association with Fackenheim, Wiesel persuaded him to come to New York City to participate in a public forum about the Holocaust and what it meant. Fackenheim reports that he was most reluctant to attend and that he found it a very difficult assignment.

What was the problem? It was not that memories were becoming vague and fading away. Fackenheim reports: "... it is not true that the memory of the Holocaust becomes dimmer as the event recedes in time. The opposite is the case. Perhaps twenty-five years had to pass before we found some power to respond." [NOTE 4]

Wiesel got his way, and the New York event changed Fackenheim's life. The challenge of that conference and of others that followed forced him to crystallize his thinking. The result was a stream of speeches, essays, articles, and books over the next couple of decades. Gradually Fackenheim emerged as the primary voice among philosophers of the Jewish faith in terms of assessing the Holocaust.

For some years I have taught a course in Jewish philosophy at Redeemer University College. One of our required readings is Fackenheim's book To Mend the World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought [NOTE 5] There is also a chapter devoted to Fackenheim in our primary textbook for the course, which is Norbert Samuelson's Introduction to Modern Jewish Philosophy [NOTE 6]

In the remainder of this essay, I will relate something of Fackenheim's passionate advice and analysis in relation to the Holocaust. In what I teach my Redeemer students and what I am recording in this essay, I am articulating what Fackenheim thought through after I completed my studies with him. And so I base this analysis not on what I heard in the classroom or on my personal conversations with him but on his publications and on what has been written about him.

Skepticism and bearing witness

In 1983 Fackenheim looked back over a half century of his life and observed:

Ever since 1933, or shortly thereafter, I have been trying to respond through philosophical understanding and Jewish religious thought, to what gradually emerged as being a catastrophe without precedent, the Nazi assault on God and Man, on the human family in general and, in particular, on the Jewish people, the most radically singled out victim. And, after fifty years, I believe that the bulk of the task still lies ahead. [NOTE 7]

When we read such words, we are inclined to suppose that the major task consists of interpretation and philosophical synthesis and so forth. But in recent decades we have come to see that there is also a lower-level, factual task in relation to the Holocaust. Sad to say, we live in the age of the Holocaust-deniers. For Fackenheim personally, the phenomenon of Holocaust denial has been very painful. Are you supposed to debate with such people? By debating them, you lend credibility to their nefarious claims. On the other hand, you have to interpret your task as consisting -- in part, at least -- of bearing witness to the horrors that have taken place. And so the effort to answer them in some form cannot ultimately be evaded. For the rising generation, the Hitler era seems like ancient history. In a television interview Fackenheim has reported the bearing witness was a matter of serving at a post that had been assigned to him. He did not particularly like that post and the assignment he was given, but he knew he had to do it -- there was no way out of it.

Fackenheim's death at the age of 87 is another reminder that the time in which we can appeal to eyewitnesses who lived in Hitler's death camps and survived to tell the tale is slowly drawing to a close. Fifty-eight years have passed since the Allies put Hitler out of business and closed down his camps: even the youngest of the survivors are now well on in years. It will not be very many more years before there is virtually no one left who will be able to say: "I was there -- it happened to me!"

For Fackenheim, the response to the Holocaust that is required of Jews also involves resistance. The 614th commandment is certainly a form of resistance. It is not permitted for the authentic believing Jew to act or speak in a way that could give Hitler -- or any contemporary sympathizer of Hitler -- a degree of satisfaction.

Many heart-rending stories have come to us from the second world war. Some of them involved Jews who faced a choice between surrendering their children to the Nazis or allowing Christians to spirit them away, in which case there was the danger that the Christians would undertake to convert the Jewish children. In some instances, the Jews regarded both choices as equally awful. And so, when we speak of the Jewish imperative to survive, we have to understand that what is meant is not just continuing to function biologically but continuing to live as Jews. In the spirit of the 614th commandment, we could then say that the way to frustrate Hitler and ensure that he has nothing to cheer about is to continue leading a distinctly Jewish life, a life that would include Jewish worship.

For Fackenheim this is a new emphasis. He writes: "I confess that I used to be highly critical of Jewish philosophies which seemed to advocate no more than survival for survival's sake. I have changed my mind. I now believe that, in this present, unbelievable age, even a mere collective commitment to Jewish survival for its own sake is a momentous response, with the greatest implications." [NOTE 8]

Christians and Jews

Christians who claim to hate everything Hitler stood for just as fervently as Fackenheim himself did might wonder what role there is for them in all of this Holocaust remembrance and resistance to evil. In Fackenheim's thinking, there is not as much of a role as one might suppose, for he sees a danger here. He would not like to see Christians -- or any other group, for that matter -- "stealing the Holocaust" or using it for religious or philosophical purposes of their own.

His relations with Christians are not easily summed up and characterized. One significant fact is that when Fackenheim finally married after living in Canada for quite a number of years, the woman he chose was a Christian. I recall that when I knew Mrs. Rose Fackenheim, she was still a Christian, but in the years since I last saw her she has converted to Judaism. He always spoke of her with great affection and appreciation.

The fact that Fackenheim lived across from a Christian church displaying a swastika must have made a deep impression upon him. But he also gives us an interesting report on some early discussions with Christians which took place while he was in the Nazi concentration camp. He tells us: "... for me personally the dialogue began in the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen in 1938 with a few Christians who were there for much nobler reasons than such as I." [NOTE 9]

Fackenheim was in a camp for no other reason than that he was a Jew, but the Christians with whom he spoke there had actually done something or other to incur the wrath of the Nazis. This fact alone made Fackenheim respect them. And then he remembered a high school teacher of whom he speaks with great appreciation. This teacher, named Adolph Lörcher, was

... a German patriot and a Christian [and] my high school teacher at the Stadtgymnasium in the German city of Halle, until my graduation in 1935. In addition to Greek he taught religion, and while Jews were exempt I attended his classes voluntarily, for with Lörcher teaching Christianity was inseparable from attacking Nazism -- at a time when other teachers no longer wanted (or dared) to speak. After my graduation we stayed in touch at his insistence, and in 1938 he wrote to a friend abroad in my behalf, thereby risking his life. After my release from Sachsenhausen in February 1939 I no longer visited my remaining "Aryan" friends before leaving Germany: I had no wish to endanger them. Lörcher phoned to say that he would never forgive me if I did not visit him. When visit him I did, he had in readiness two copies of Martin Buber's Kingship of God, one to give to me and the other to keep for himself." [NOTE 10]

Fackenheim's deep interest in the thinking of Franz Rosenzweig is also an indication of his relatively positive attitude toward Christians and Christian thought. He reports that he was influenced by Rosenzweig more than by Buber. [NOTE 11] In his writings I have not found a precise indication of the degree to which he would hold Christianity responsible for the events of the Holocaust. Various other Jewish thinkers have made extreme statements to the effect that the Holocaust was perpetrated by Christians (a number of the leading Nazis were church members of some sort), but Fackenheim seems to have held back.

Protesting against God

Fackenheim's 614th commandment for Jews indicates that he does not see it as his task to make things easy for people. It is telling that his favorite Christian thinker is Kierkegaard, who once revealed that he had taken it as his mission in life to make things difficult for people, as opposed to making life easier and easier, as other leaders in the nineteenth century were doing. [NOTE 12] I recall some years ago that my oldest son's favorite teacher in catechism (the church's instruction in doctrine intended for its children) was a man who kept insisting, when a difficult question was addressed to him, that we have to "struggle" with it. When my son would report this to me, at first I thought he found it humorous, but later I came to see that he genuinely respected the man for not making things easy. In similar fashion, Fackenheim urges us to "struggle" with the difficult issues. And struggling does not simply mean scratching our heads or racking our brains. We even need to struggle with God, to contend with God -- perhaps call him to account.

As the owner of a Calvinist soul, I have personal difficulty with what Fackenheim seems to advocate. Calvinists are probably too inclined to regard to the script of all of human history as written far in advance by the master puppet-maker who pulls all the strings, in which case it would make sense to submit to anything and everything that happens in the hope that there's a good reason for it. But this is not quite the attitude we find in the Old Testament. Abraham dared to argue with God (see Genesis 18). When God was so angry that he wanted to destroy his chosen people, Moses talked him out of it (see Deuteronomy 9). God chose Saul as king, but later he repented of his choice (see I Samuel 15). In the Psalms we often find laments that amount to protests against God. The book of Job is something of an exception to this pattern, but even Job eventually concludes that he needs to lay his hand over his mouth for he has spoken too freely (see Job 40). The Jewish tradition, which on the one hand is extremely reluctant to have the name of God taken on human lips, on the other hand is more inclined to contend with God and pull him by the beard, so to speak, than is the Christian tradition. Fackenheim stands squarely in the Jewish tradition and speaks favorably of protesting against God, although he adds cautiously that you have to earn that protest. There is such a thing as a cheap protest.

The background to such thinking is his willingness to allow his faith to be falsified by the events of history. In making such an observation, Fackenheim is well aware of the classic gardener parable of John Wisdom, [NOTE 13] which is intended as an argument to the effect that the Christian faith lays out its doctrines in such a way that no conceivable course of events here on earth could serve to falsify the basic Christian claim about God's relationship to the works of his hands. Fackenheim is not satisfied with such a relation between faith and history, and so he tells us:

Imagine a small band of Jewish believers as the sole survivors of a nuclear holocaust. Imagine them to be totally certain that no human beings have survived anywhere else, and that they themselves and their children are inexorably doomed. They are not faced with a repetition of Noah's flood but rather with the end of history. Of the destiny of individual souls, the whole picture is not yet in sight. But the whole picture of history is already seen, and it refutes the Jewish eschatological hope concerning it. The suffering of individuals as such may still be given its point. But the suffering to which Jews have exposed themselves by remaining a people is already seen to have been pointless. ... Precisely insofar as it holds fast to history, Jewish faith risks falsification by history. [NOTE 14]

This is a rather bold line of thought. If the Jews should finally perish -- let's say that a nuclear holocaust finishes what Hitler started -- their faith will have been falsified. It would not do any good to say that what happened was in God's plan all along. This line of thought on Fackenheim's part lends force to the survival imperative. If the Jewish people do not survive, then we will have to say -- sadly, perhaps, but nonetheless surely -- that it was all in vain. And the survival of the Jews as Jews is by no means guaranteed via a doctrine of providence or of the perseverance of the saints. In Fackenheim's understanding of things, it is possible for the enemies of the Jews in the Middle East to triumph -- overrunning Israel and throwing the Jews back into the sea. And so, to commit oneself to Israel is to run a definite risk. Yet Fackenheim took this risk freely and moved from Toronto to Jerusalem, where he spent the last years of his life, after retiring from his professorship at the University of Toronto.

In earlier years Fackenheim avoided thinking of the Holocaust as bordering on a falsification of Jewish belief. In those days he thought along lines that are familiar to Christians. He observes: "I myself for many years compared the Holocaust to prior tragedies in Jewish history, [and] avoided the fundamental differences, thus reaching the comfortable conclusion that Judaism and the Jewish faith are not called into question in a unique, unprecedented way. Yet there is a radical, fundamental, shattering difference." [NOTE 15]

His recognition of the "shattering difference" led him to change his mind. The position he came to adopt later on was a strong affirmation of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, which he then characterized as one of the three great events (he calls them "epoch-making" events) in which the Jewish people have been involved since the destruction of the Second Temple. The other two epoch-making events are the emancipation of the Jews in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the founding of the state of Israel.

Waiting for redemption

Christians and Jews have the Psalms in common, and therefore both are familiar with the notion of waiting for the Lord. My soul in silence waits for God ... (see Psalm 62). But the Jews of the twentieth century have assumed a certain impatience -- an impatience that has flashed forth especially in recent years when we have witnessed the rapidity with which the state of Israel takes action against its enemies. It is as though a new spirit has been born.

The new spirit is also to be found in Fackenheim, although we do not find him advocating the iron fist when it comes to dealing with the challenge of the Palestinians. His celebration of the religious significance of the emergence of the largely secular state of Israel is an indication of the new Jewish mood. [NOTE 16] While many Jews think along similar lines, there are also quite a number, mainly in the Orthodox camp, who still believe that there is something sacrilegious about the state of Israel and the way it tries to assume responsibility for the future and welfare of the Jews. Such Orthodox Jews still propose to wait for the Messiah. But Fackenheim and a great many other Jewish thinkers have grown impatient with this Messiah who has tarried and tarried and tarried.

Does this mean that there is no more room for messianic talk? Fackenheim says cautiously: "I think we have Messianic fragments. We just have to muddle through. I think at this point, to affirm the Messianic hope unadulterated and tie it politically to Israel's current predicament, is utterly unwise. We cannot ignore the threat of destruction." [NOTE 17] His "Messianic fragments" are also referred to as "sparks of redemption." [NOTE 18]

Perhaps the doctrine of the Messiah needs to be fragmented. Perhaps we need to set aside the notion of waiting for the Messiah and look within and ask ourselves what we as individuals could do to bring about the fulfillment of the messianic promises. Such, at least, seems to be the trend in the thinking of Fackenheim. While he does not go as far as some others when it comes to linking messianic hopes with the state of Israel, he does make much of the success of the Jewish state. More specifically, he believes that the reunion of hosts of Jews who have lived in the Diaspora (dispersion) over many centuries is a powerful indication that something fundamental has changed. And so we find him observing:

As Yehuda Haleir once wrote, "Jerusalem will not be redeemed, until Jews yearn for her very dust and stones." ... [Jews who visit Jerusalem today] would see Jews from Western countries as well as Muslim and Arab countries -- Jews from as far away as India and China. They would be filled with a profound astonishment, as if to say "The city that sat solitary yesterday, that was ruins even if holy ruins -- how full of people it is now!" ... the deepest Jewish response to [taunts about the destruction of Jerusalem] is Jewish Jerusalem rebuilt. It is today the most profound expression of the Jewish faith that the long but not incurable disease of Jew-hatred will one day come to an end. [NOTE 19]

The celebration of the Passover among the Jews in the Diaspora traditionally ends with "Next year in Jerusalem!" Now that Jerusalem is in Jewish hands and its rulers would love to have more Jewish immigrants, those words are starting to sound hollow, for there are more Jews moving from Israel to a comfortable life in North America than vice versa. But for Fackenheim himself they were not hollow: he went to Jerusalem and he stayed, even though he would have been safer in Toronto. And so there is something that the Jews can do in response to the Holocaust.

Is there broader lesson in all of this for the human race in general, a lesson on which Christians can also draw? Or can we only "wait for redemption"? With this question we return to the main theme of the Holocaust as central to Fackenheim's work in his capacity as a distinctly Jewish thinker. Fackenheim wants us to be honest about the Holocaust -- about what it was. We need to admit how close it came to succeeding. If we are honest, we will find it in our hearts to live in solidarity with its victims. Hence he observes: "Either you are honest about the Holocaust, in which case it might destroy your faith. And that would be a posthumous victory for Hitler as far as I am concerned. If Hitler succeeds in destroying the faith of the survivors, then he would be laughing in hell. On the other hand, if you save your faith, but in a comfortable way, then it would be a betrayal of the victims." [NOTE 20]

For the Jew to respond to the Holocaust is to persist in his Jewishness. But it is striking that in Fackenheim's main response to the Holocaust, which we find in his book To Mend the World, the central response to Nazi misdeeds come from a woman named Pelagia Lewinska, whom Fackenheim does not seem to regard as Jewish. In a taped TV interview he says that he does not know whether she was Jewish, whereas in To Mend the World, he says she is not Jewish. [NOTE 21]

Fackenheim asks: "What can you do with evil? All you can do is resist it." [NOTE 22] And so, in the end, resistance turns out to be the key to Fackenheim's thinking. His philosophy is not a rationalism that claims to be able to explain what at first seems inexplicable. We find in Fackenheim no theodicy, no explanation of how God could have allowed the horrors of the Holocaust. The very notion would seem offensive to him, and so he tells us: "No purpose, religious or otherwise, will ever be found in Auschwitz. The very attempt to find one is blasphemous." [NOTE 23]

As for writers and teachers, the emphasis must fall especially on bearing witness, on not glossing over what the Holocaust amounted to. Fackenheim himself is eloquent indeed in his summary of what the Holocaust represented:

Eichman created a system which, by torturing with terror and hope, by assailing all human dignity and self respect, was designed to destroy the souls of all available Jewish men, women, and children before consigning their bodies to the gas chambers. The Holocaust Kingdom was a celebration of degradation as well as of death, and of death as well as of degradation. The celebrants willingly or even enthusiastically descended into hell themselves, even as they created hell for their victims. [NOTE 24]

A Christian might ask: What about redemption? Not even a Nazi is beyond redemption -- think of Albert Speer. But Fackenheim tells us: "And if you face, as Buber did, Joseph Goebbels [Hitler's minister of propaganda], you shouldn't say about him what Buber said, that no human being is beyond redemption; in my book Goebbels is beyond redemption. You should say he destroyed the divine image in himself. That is true of all those Nazis who tried their best ... to make the holy people into feces. When people do that, they destroy the divine image in themselves." [NOTE 25]

Calvinistic theology also maintains that the image of God has been destroyed -- but only in part. The destruction took place not in Auschwitz but through the fall into sin of our first parents. Can that image ever be restored? To answer this deep question is to take a position on the issue of the Messiah. Do we have no more than "messianic fragments" to which we may look in hope? Or has the Messiah already come in order to give flesh to the promise of redemption, which includes the restoration of the image of God to its full glory? Christians and Jews have a lot to talk about together. [END]


The Jewish Return into History: Reflections in the Age of Auschwitz and a New Jerusalem. (New York: Schocken Books, 1978). p. 22.

Jewish Return, p. 22.

Jewish return, pp. 23-4.

"From Bergen-Belsen to Jerusalem: Contemporary Implications of the Holocaust" (a lecture published as a brochure in 1975 by the Cultural Department of the World Jewish Congress), .p. 19.

Originally published by Schocken Books of New York in 1982 and reprinted by Indiana University Press in 1989.

Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.

Quoted in The Holocaust: Religious and Philosophical Implications, ed. John K. Roth and Michael Berenbaum (New York: Paragon House, 1989), pp. 289-290.

Jewish Return, p. 21.

In Michael Curtis, ed., Antisemitism in the Contemporary World, (Boulder & London: Westview Press, 1986), p. 34.

To Mend the World, p. 288.

Source: an interview in Joshua O. Haberman, The God I Believe In. (New York: Free Press, 1994), pp. 39-40.

See Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. David F. Swenson and Walter Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941), pp. 164-166.

For an account of this parable, see Antony Flew, "Theology and Falsification," in New Essays in Philosophical Theology, ed. Antony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre (London: SCM Press, 1955), pp. 96ff. The parable is also reproduced and/or discussed in many other books devoted to issues in philosophy of religion.

Encounters Between Judaism and Modern Philosophy: A Preface to Future Jewish Thought (New York: Schocken Books, 1973), p. 21.

"From Bergen-Belsen," p. 14.

See "From Bergen-Belsen," where he speaks of "the religious quality of the `secularist' Israeli Jew" (p. 17).

In Haberman, The God I Believe In, pp. 52-3.

Haberman, pp. 54-5.

In Curtis, Antisemitism in the Contemporary World, p. 38.

In Michael Tobias, Jane Morrison and Bettina Gray, eds., A Parliament of Souls: Interviews with 28 Spiritual Leaders from Around the World (San Francisco: KQED Books, 1995), pp. 199-200.

On Pelagia Lewinska, see To Mend the World, pp. 25-6, 217ff, 229, 248, 302-3.

Interview in Parliament of Souls, ed. Tobias, p. 195.

Quoted in Eva Fleischner, ed. Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era? (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1977), p. 353.

In Fleischner, Auschwitz, p. 209.

Interview in Haberman, The God I Believe In, p. 59.

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