On this page, we present essays profound or timely culled from the CLAL literary archive. Most of the articles that appear here appeared originally in the pages of Sh'ma A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, which was founded by Eugene Borowitz in 1970 and published by CLAL from 1994-1998.
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(from Shma 13/254, May 13, 1983)
Emil Fackenheim as Lurianic Philosopher
By Eugene B. Borowitz
To Mend the World (New York: Schocken Books, 1983), Emil Fackenheim's recently
published book, is difficult, noble, searching, rich and impressive. It constitutes the first step in bringing to a
climax his life's work as a leader in contemporary Jewish philosophical theology. We would naturally anticipate great intellectual
rewards from reading it, but we are also presented with an elemental, passionate,
inspiring statement of enduring Jewish faith.
Somewhat more than half the book retraces and rethinks the issues Fackenheim has raised during the three plus decades of his existentialist reworking of Jewish thought. He approaches them afresh by analyzing the work of some thinkers on whom he has not previously concentrated, notably Spinoza and Rosenzweig. He reaches no radically new conclusions, but now holds his hard won views with greater clarity and conviction.
He studies Spinoza as the prototypical Jew who accepts modernity and therefore embraces rationalist philosophy. Fackenheim accedes to Spinoza's rejection of the literal authority of Scripture, but points out that Spinoza's attack on the Bible has only proved it was not revealed. The argument has not refuted the possibility of revelation in general. Modern Jews cannot follow Spinoza if they affirm the continuing validity of Judaism and acknowledge the ultimate inadequacy of reason (surely required by the Holocaust, Fackenheim's own ultimate criterion). We must then find a way to combine Spinoza's post-ghetto thoughtfulness with the Ultimate which grounds and "guides" human existence. For Fackenheim, this sets the agenda of modern Jewish thought.
To this end, he next examines the thought of Franz Rosenzweig, who philosophically asserts the reality of revelation without wiping out the virtues of either personal autonomy or broad humanistic learning. But Rosenzweig, too, cannot satisfy modern Jews. In staking everything on his liberal notion of revelation, Rosenzweig denied that Jews are truly involved in human history: This invalidates him as a proper interpreter not only of the Jewish past but, more important, of the Holocaust, which Fackenheim considers determinative for all future Jewish philosophy.
God's Exit From History
Hence he turns to Hegel, a thinker who can detect the transcending- commanding reality which operates within human history. This move continues Fackenheim's estrangement from Kant, initiated in his Encounters Between Judaism and Modern Philosophy (1973). But that match does not take. Hegel does see the transcendent in events. But his philosophy of history has the effect of then swallowing up their truth in the greater meaning of succeeding happenings. Now Fackenheim's famous insistence upon the qualitative uniqueness of the Holocaust makes its overriding demands: this event cannot be assimilated to anything! One who evades, or buries, or mitigates, or "explains," or couples the Holocaust with any other occurrence commits the unpardonable sin. The contemporary Jewish thinker must, therefore, make the absolute oneness of this malevolence the core and criterion of all authentic future Jewish thought.
makes a daring move, perhaps foreshadowed in Encounters. He utilizes the philosophy of Martin Heidegger. Naturally, this immediately requires dissolving
any connection between the ideas taken and Heidegger's support of the Nazis, particularly
his refusal after World War II to retract or repent in any way. Fackenheim believes we can avoid the potential
moral degeneracy lurking in Heidegger's ideas though we adopt one of his key concepts:
when we authentically face up to our death, our lives are touched with transcendence
(Heidegger's philosophical equivalent to religion's Ultimate One). This understanding
becomes the philosophic bedrock upon which future Jewish theology can be built. For it discloses how we may confront the
Holocaust in all its terrifying uniqueness and yet have true, if transformed, Jewish
In this four-part intellectual development, God has gradually been left behind. What was everything to Spinoza, what independently engaged us in Rosenzweig, what immanently coursed through history in Hegel, is absent from Heidegger. The Sinaitic theophany which was banished from thought only to reappear as "contentless" revelation and then the zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, has now become a secularized experience of transcendence.
After Auschwitz, God may not be dead for Fackenheim, but he can no longer detect God's presence in history.
Uniqueness Of The Holocaust Reasserted
The construction of the new system now begins and here, in the final third of the book, Fackenheim moves on to somewhat new positions. But the basic premise of his thinking -- the event that is one (the Holocaust) -- will exercise such sovereignty over all that follows that Fackenheim pauses to restate his thesis about the Holocaust's uniqueness. Almost all contemporary philosophy and theology, because they hide from this truth, are rendered irrelevant. One may even ask whether acknowledging the absolute exceptionality of the Holocaust does not invalidate all cognitive reflection and shatter the possibility of intellectual systems. To some extent that is true. Placing a qualitatively unique, "revelatory" event at the beginning of one's thinking destroys the adequacy of ideas.
If ideas are now inadequate, we must give life and acts priority, a decidedly traditional Jewish notion. Fackenheim points to two Jewish religious action-concepts as the cornerstones of his post-Holocaust Judaism: teshuvah, "repentance" or turning;" and tikkun, the 16th century mystical idea of Solomon Luria, that Jewish deeds can repair, mend, the breaks God permitted/made in the process of creating. Utilizing the Heideggerian sense of transcendence, Fackenheirri points to various acts of tikkun which took place during the Holocaust and asserts their undying authority for subsequent Jewish generations. For against the Nazis' ultimate assertion of the hegemony of death now stand the deeds of spiritual resistance manifesting the transcendent value of personal existence. (Some non-Jews also gave the lie to the Holocaust but, as the only people singled out for extermination, Jewish resistance to the Jewish fate speaks with a uniquely compelling quality.)
Taking up the responsibilities of survivorship entails devotion to Jewish continuity in whatever form we favor. We cannot then say that only religious Jews are "good Jews." Indeed, the Holocaust dissolves our old religious certainties. It also eliminates the old distinctions between religious and secular Jews. Today, genuine Jewishness must be judged in terms of the acts of tikkun performed in the death camps. By their power we dare to live as Jews despite Auschwitz, and by our imitation of them we not only show our devotion to the dead, but practice the only true form of humanhood now available.
Our Acts Are Limited
Whatever we do will
necessarily be flawed and limited. Our tikkunim can never match theirs. Even the State of Israel, as close to a genuine
Jewish response to the Holocaust as anything later might be, is only a partial act of
mending. Even it shares the universal signs
of metaphysical galut, exile. And our future thinking, of which this book is
admittedly but a first step, will always remain fragmentary and incomplete, a conclusion
which shapes the episodic nature of the last parts of this book.
Two and a half years of freedom from his academic responsibilities enabled Emil Fackenheim to produce this master work. It will be mandatory if demanding reading for any serious student of Jewish thought in our time. In its philosophic sophistication and Jewish devotion, I cannot think of its equivalent in recent decades.
The grateful student may nonetheless find some things about this work quite curious. Of the four I wish to mention, one is minor yet not insignificant. For all its thoroughgoing repudiation of the Nazis and the "good" Germans who did nothing, the philosophic tone of this book seems oppressively Germanic. One has the eerie sense that Jews seeking philosophical resources to overcome the calamity produced by German culture cannot escape from it.
But Is The Holocaust Truly Unique?
The second matter concerns the foundation on which all of Fackenheim's massive cognitive structure rests. For years, his assertion of the qualitative uniqueness of the Holocaust has drawn rejoinders. Yet he does not give a searching response to the criticism. He twice turns to this issue directly (pp. 9-13 and 181-188), but only adds fresh examples of the Nazi cruelty as additional evidence for his previous conclusion. He analyzes neither the notion of uniqueness itself nor the alternative explanations of Nazi evil in the rigorous way he employs when considering, say, the less central notions of Spinoza or Rosenzweig. Positing a qualitatively unique event entails such momentous consequences, one would think that establishing it beyond cavil would be the central task of a theology based upon it. But Fackenheim does not want to spend long considering whether the Nazis' perverted behavior might have come from a radically distorted but not uniquely demonic set of values, or whether their racial murderousness truly might have parallels, as, for example, in ancient national blood feuds.
He may have felt that to assume the old categories of analysis and demonstration still hold, and to require the Holocaust to prove its exceptionality in terms of them is as good as denying that anything uncommon happened. To press him for more, then, only reveals how "unauthentic," as he terms it, our thought remains.
But what if, in all openness and Jewish loyalty, as best we can assess these, we find the Holocaust to be "only" the worst or among the worst cases of real or possible evil? Are we not entitled to demand the most scrupulous examination of the concept on which we are being asked to stake our lives? And if our thought is thereby termed "unauthentic," are we not justified in calling such an intellectual response defensiveness?
What Of Leo Baeck's Example?
Two lesser matters are also worthy of attention. Most peculiar is the omission of one of the most obvious examples of tikkun, the life of Leo Baeck. The edlerly Berlin liberal rabbi, the head of the German Jewish community under the Nazis, faced them in full comprehension of their evil, but with utter spiritual transcendence. His human and Jewish leadership of the inmates in Theresienstadt may perhaps be downgraded by noting that he was not in a death camp, but "merely" in the "show" concentration camp. Yet he was the one great modern Jewish thinker who personally tested his philosophy under the Nazi terror. He also headed the tiny rabbinic school that ordained Emil Fackenheim in 1938. But Baeck's case would decisively count against Fackenheim's uniqueness thesis. What Baeck wrote as a survivor testifies to his considered conclusion that the fiendishness of the Nazis had changed nothing about the awesome human freedom to do good and evil which he had eloquently described in The Essence of Judaism long before Hitler.
Finally, there is the odd form of this philosophy of Judaism. Its central image is of unmerited death following on gruesome suffering. No other such horrid a death ever occurred. Yet our faith also brings the good news that we were not defeated by this awesome tragedy. Because of what the dying did, we need not despair. Fackenheim no longer points to the resurrection of Jewish national sovereignty in the State of Israel as the triumphant evidence of our people's conquering will-to-live (arid never has considered it compensation for the Holocaust). Now he finds the redemptive affirmation of life in the deeds of tikkun performed in the sepulcher of the death camps. Their validity rises to heights we can never attain. Subsequent generations must make their facing their unique suffering the saving model of our lives. For we now live authentically only by the grace of their accomplishment.
I do not recall any other Jewish theology with such a contour. To be sure, Fackenheim's view of Jewish uniqueness now derives not from Sinai's gift of the Tree of Life, but from a qualitatively unique event of Jewish dying. Hence future Jewish thought, as he envisions it, must grow from a root experience of unparalleled negativity. Yet if the event was utterly incomparable, the religion authentically derived from it should also be different, not only from all prior Jewish thinking, but from any previous religious thought. Fackenheim's theology is not, however, a radically surprising structure in the history of human religion. In form, it is similar to what we have heard elsewhere. This fact, too, casts doubt on his assertion of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, the central premise of his system.
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