German-born Canadian Jewish Philosopher, Theologian, Reformed Rabbi and Holocaust Survivor
Emil Fackenheim, fully Emil Ludwig Fackenheim
German-born Canadian Jewish Philosopher, Theologian, Reformed Rabbi and Holocaust Survivor
What does the Voice of Auschwitz command?
Jews are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories. 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, and to escape into either cynicism or otherworldliness, lest they cooperate in delivering the world over to the forces of Auschwitz. Finally,they are forbidden to despair of the God of Israel, lest Judaism perish. A secularist Jew cannot make himself believe by a mere act of will, nor can he be commanded to do so….And a religious Jew who has stayed with his God may be forced into new, possibly revolutionary relationships with Him. One possibility, however, is wholly unthinkable. A Jew may not respond to Hitler’s attempt to destroy Judaism by himself cooperating in its destruction. In ancient times, the unthinkable Jewish sin was idolatry. Today, it is to respond to Hitler by doing his work.
For a Jew hearing the commanding Voice of Auschwitz the duty to remember and to tell the tale is not negotiable. It is holy. The religious Jew still possesses this word. The secularist Jew is commanded to restore it. A secular holiness, as it were, has forced itself into his vocabulary…
Jews after Auschwitz represent all humanity when they affirm their Jewishness and deny the Nazi denial… The commanding Voice of Auschwitz singles Jews out; Jewish survival is a commandment which brooks no compromise. It was this Voice which was heard by the Jews of Israel in May and June 1967 when they refused to lie down and be slaughtered…
For after Auschwitz, Jewish life is more sacred than Jewish death, were it even for the sanctification of the divine Name. The left-wing secularist Israeli journalist Amos Kenan writes: “After the death camps, we are left only one supreme value: existence.”
The writer Elie Weisel tells the story of a small group of Jews who were gathered to pray in a little synagogue in Nazi occupied Europe. As the service went on, suddenly a pious Jew who was slightly mad – burst in through the door. Silently he listened for a moment as the prayers ascended. Slowly he said: “Shh, Jews. Do not pray so loud. God will hear you. Then he will know that there are still some Jews left alive in Europe.”
But could and did Jews at Auschwitz choose faithfulness unto death? There every effort was made to destroy faith where faith had existed. Torquemada (of the Spanish Inquisition) destroyed bodies in order to save souls. Eichmann sought to destroy souls before he destroyed bodies. Throughout the ages pious Jews have died saying the Shema Israel – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” The Nazi murder machine was systematically designed to stifle this Shema Israel on Jewish lips before it murdered Jews themselves. Auschwitz was the supreme, the most diabolical attempt ever made to murder martyrdom itself and, failing that, to deprive all death, martyrdom included, of its dignity.
What does the voice of Auschwitz command?
Jews are forbidden to hand to Hitler posthumous victories.
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, and to escape into either cynicism or otherworldliness, lest they cooperate in delivering the world over to the forces of Auschwitz.
Finally, they are forbidden to despair of the God of Israel, lest Judaism perish. A secularist Jew cannot make himself believe by a mere act of will, not can he be commanded to do so…And a religious Jew who has stayed with his God may be forced into new, possibly revolutionary relationships with Him. One possibility, however, is unthinkable. A Jew may not respond to Hitler’s attempt to destroy Judaism by himself cooperating in its destruction. In ancient time, the unthinkable Jewish sin was idolatry. Today, it is to respond to Hitler by doing his work.
The facts themselves are outrageous; it is they that must speak through our language. And this is possible only if one's feelings are subject to disciplined restraint. The language necessary, then, is one of sober, restrained, but at the same time unyielding outrage.
He hides His weeping in the inner chamber, for just as God is infinite so His pain is infinite, and this, were it to touch the world, would destroy it. Is it still possible for a Jew to break through to the divine hiddenness, so as to share His pain? ... How is it possible to go on to the next line, od avinu chai, "our Father still lives"? It is possible and actual because, even then, the bond between the divine intimacy and the divine infinity was not completely broken; because God so loved the world that He hid the infinity of His pain from it lest it be destroyed.
In this our time, one asks again and again: how is a Jewish life still possible after Auschwitz? I would like to frame this question more correctly: how is a life with God still possible in a time in which there is an Auschwitz? ... One can still "believe" in a God who allowed those things to happen, but how can one still speak to Him? Can one still hear His word? ... Dare we recommend to the survivors of Auschwitz, the Job of the gas chambers: "Call on Him, for He is kind, for His mercy endureth forever?"
The evil of the Holocaust world ... is philosophically intelligible after Auschwitz only in the exact sense in which it was already understood in Auschwitz -- and Buchenwald, Lublin, and the Warsaw Ghetto -- by the resisting victims themselves.... No deeper or more ultimate grasp is possible for philosophical thought that comes, or ever will come, after the event. This grasp -- theirs no less than ours -- is epistemologically ultimate.... Resistance in that extremity was a way of being. For our thought now, it is an ontological category.
For if the wonder in which philosophy originates is turned into paralyzing horror by the "humanly impossible" crime of the criminals, its paralysis is mended by the wonder at the the victims who resisted a crime to which resistance itself was "humanly impossible.
For Kierkegaard, the ethical is actually suspended in the Akeida and potentially suspended for every knight of faith after Abraham. In Judaism, the Torah ends the possibility of any such suspension... In short, whereas Kant bids Jewish thought to reject even the original Akeida, Kierkegaard demands of Jewish thought the eternal perpetuation of its possibility. Whereas Kant will not let the Akeida rest on Abraham's merit, Kierkegaard would rob us of the Torah, which forbids child sacrifice.
Not much more than half a century after Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) the movement founded by him has produced results that no other modern nationalism can boast of, among them a state founded, maintained, developed, and defended by a people that—so it was once thought—had lost the arts of statecraft and self-defense forever; the replanting and reforestation of a land that—so it once seemed—was unredeemable swamp and desert; the ingathering of a people from all corners of the earth on a territory—so the experts once asserted—with not enough room left to swing a cat; the reviving of a language that—so even Herzl once feared—was dead beyond revival; and, last but not least, the physical rebuilding of the one city on earth, Jerusalem—so the consensus of mankind once held, Jews only excepted—that was meant to remain forever of the spirit only, i.e., holy ruins. Today only outright lies can dispose of the Jewish people as a chimerical nation. Every honest person, and certainly every Jew seeking to come to grips with his religious situation, must come to confront the fact of the State of Israel. He must do so for better or for worse.
Anti-intellectualism and arrogance are characteristic of the postmodernist philosophy that is currently all the rage. Judging from their fixed phrases, worn clichés, and ready answers, its representatives are often no more than sycophantic grandchildren of Nietzsche and Heidegger.
We are, first, commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. We are commanded, secondly, 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.
Man can never escape the ideal or absolute; he can merely exchange one absolute for another. He can ignore anything beyond his needs only by making an ideal out of the fulfillment of his needs themselves. In short, man cannot be an animal; he can only be a philosopher or anthropologist who asserts that men are animals and ought to live like them. It is not necessary to point out that this is just to set up another absolute.