Faith & the Holocaust
The Jewish Return into History.
by Emil L. Fackenheim.
Schocken. 296 pp. $14.95.
Some time after the appearance of its August 1966 symposium, “The Condition of Jewish Belief,” COMMENTARY received, and published, an angry letter from a reader in Brooklyn. Why, he wanted to know, had the editors solicited the views only of rabbis and theologians, when what really mattered was the religious outlook of “Jewish shoe salesmen, accountants, policemen, . . . cabdrivers, secretaries”? Now Emil Fackenheim, one of the most sophisticated Jewish religious thinkers, and a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, has written a book which gives profound expression to the functional theology of contemporary Jews at large. Indeed, in The Jewish Return Into History Fackenheim underscores his own “momentous discovery” that the masses of Jews—“rich and poor, learned and ignorant, religious and non-religious”—long anticipated his current theological position.
For Jewish theology, 1967 was a watershed year. Prior to that time, the Holocaust had played hardly any role at all in Jewish religious thought. In fact, the editors’ questions which framed the August 1966 COMMENTARY symposium on the state of Jewish belief did not so much as mention the Holocaust. Nor, for that matter, did Emil Fackenheim, in his own lengthy contribution to that symposium, take more than passing note of the Jewish catastrophe in Europe. It was the Six-Day War, or more precisely the trauma of the days preceding the war, that made the Nazi Holocaust a central issue for Jewish theology. In those dark days, Jews were suddently confronted with the possibility of a second genocide within the space of a single generation, and that experience produced a deeply-felt need to confront Auschwitz in religious terms. Today, of course, Holocaust theology is a basic element of Jewish theological reflection, and no one has contributed more to it than Emil Fackenheim.
Fackenheim’s new book, a collection of essays written over the past decade, many of them quite personal, could very well have been entitled “My Return Into History.” For as he makes clear in his introduction to this volume, the essays gathered here reflect a major change in his theological outlook: a “conscious repudiation” of the view that “philosophical and religious thought [can remain] . . . indifferent to the ‘accidents’ of ‘mere’ history.” Where he once believed that Jewish faith is “essentially immune to all ‘secular’ events between Sinai and the messianic days,” Fackenheim now embraces the view that Judaism must make itself vulnerable to the “stern challenge of epoch-making events.” Those epoch-making events are clearly indicated in the subtitle of his book: “Reflections in the Age of Auschwitz and a New Jerusalem.”
What does Fackenheim have to say about the Holocaust? Basic to his new theological posture, which received one of its earliest formulations in an article in COMMENTARY (“Jewish Faith and the Holocaust,” August 1968), is a distinction between the attempt to find a “purpose” in the Holocaust and the attempt to respond to it. Fackenheim regards the former as a “blasphemous” enterprise, the latter as “inescapable.” Because Auschwitz was a “unique descent into hell,” an “unprecedented celebration of evil,” Jews have to respond to it. But how? By heeding, Fackenheim avers, the “commanding Voice [that] speaks from Auschwitz.” While this Voice sends forth no redeeming message, it does issue a “614th commandment”:
Jews are forbidden to grant posthumous victories to Hitler. 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. . . . Finally, they are forbidden to despair of the God of Israel, lest Judaism perish.
The 614th commandment, Fackenheim asserts, is an “abrupt and absolute given, revealed in the midst of total catastrophe,” and, as such, is binding on every “authentic” Jew, whether religious or secular.
Several times in The Jewish Return Into History, Fackenheim takes note of the fact that he once regarded “mere” Jewish survival as of little consequence. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, however, he has come to see in any commitment whatsoever to Jewish survival a “monumental act of faithfulness.” As Fackenheim explains it:
For twelve long years [1933-45] Jews had been exposed to a murderous hate which was as groundless as it was implacable. . . . For twelve long years the whole world had conspired to make Jews cease to be Jews wherever, whenever, or in whatever way they could. Yet to this unprecedented invitation to group suicide, Jews responded with an unexpected will to live—with, under the circumstances, an incredible commitment to Jewish group survival.
This “momentous response,” having nothing to do with tribalism, embodies the essence of the 614th commandment. Today, that commandment expresses itself most particularly in a concern for the welfare of the state of Israel, which is “collectively what every survivor is individually: a No to the demons of Auschwitz, a Yes to Jewish survival and security.” For Fackenheim, the contemporary rallying cries, “Am Yisrael Chai” (“the Jewish people lives”) and “We are One,” are testimonies of faith no less compelling than the traditional “Ani Maamin.”
While The Jewish Return Into History is addressed primarily to a Jewish audience, the book also seeks to speak to Christians. Fackenheim has long been a leading participant in interfaith dialogues, but over the years he has become less sanguine about the possibilities of Jewish-Christian reconciliation. Here again the crucial experience is the Holocaust as filtered through the events of June 1967. In the days preceding the Six-Day War, Fackenheim was flabbergasted by the silence of the churches, by their indifference to the possibility of a second Holocaust. This indifference, he came to believe, had its source in the traditional Christian view of the Jews as “a fossil, an anachronism, a shadow.” Because Christian leaders harbored “old, unconscious, theologically-inspired doubts” as to whether the Jewish people had the right to live, there was “no moral Christian outcry against a second Auschwitz.” But had this situation not already been made clear at the time of the first Auschwitz? Fackenheim was led to conclude that there was a definite relationship between Nazi and Christian anti-Semitism; that “Nazi anti-Semitism, while anti-Christian, would have been impossible without centuries of Christian anti-Semitism.” This is the “painful truth” which stands between Christians and Jews.
The Jewish Return Into History can be assessed in a variety of ways. As a statement of a theological position, it is open to question on a number of counts. (Is the Holocaust really an “absolute novum” in Jewish history? Can a religion which places the Exodus at the center of its faith grant equal status to a totally destructive event like the Holocaust? Why should the traditional Jew, who lives by the 613 commandments, need an additional one to insure Jewish survival? In what sense can the secular Jew be commanded, when he does not believe in a Commander?) As a collection of essays, moreover, the book is quite repetitive and lacks the intellectual excitment of its immediate predecessor, Encounters Between Judaism and Modern Philosophy.
But these are secondary considerations. What is really important about The Jewish Return Into History is the perfection with which it expresses the credo of today’s Jewish “man in the street.” Jews around the world have, indeed, heard a voice (perhaps not the Voice, but still a voice) speaking from Auschwitz, and they are determined to do everything in their power to insure Jewish survival: no second Holocaust, no posthumous victories for Hitler. While there may still be those who speak disdainfully of “mere” Jewish survival, most Jews know in their bones that after Auschwitz, Jewish life “does not need to be sanctified. It already is holy.” The words are Fackenheim’s; the sentiments belong to Jewish shoe salesmen, accountants, policemen, cabdrivers, secretaries.