To send content items to your account,
please confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies.
If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your account.
Find out more about sending content to .
To send content items to your Kindle, first ensure email@example.com
is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings
on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part
of your Kindle email address below.
Find out more about sending to your Kindle.
Note you can select to send to either the @free.kindle.com or @kindle.com variations.
‘@free.kindle.com’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi.
‘@kindle.com’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.
Fackenheim’s dramatic shift in thought in 1967 cannot be understood apart from his disengagement from the thought of his mentors, Buber and Rosenzweig. These two religious existentialists claimed their thought was not derived from the great neo-Kantian Hermann Cohen. But in fact Fackenheim was influenced by Cohen, as filtered through Buber and Rosenzweig, to put history, especially with respect to its messianic significance, in the very center of his philosophic discussion.
In his defense of religion against its modern challengers, deniers, and despisers, Fackenheim regards questions concerning revelation and religious authority to be the two most essential issues affecting faith in the modern era. Is revelation plausible, or even possible? Is religious authority authentic? On what is it based? And is faith grounded in revelation and religious authority, or do they depend on faith? This last question is a matter of conceptual and existential priority. Fackenheim gives priority to faith, so the question becomes whether revelation and authority can be defended persuasively on the basis of faith. In Fackenheim’s theology, faith is the fundamental precondition for any access to truth. Contemporary thought, shaped by historicism, recognizes a certain latitude in the very notion of “faith,” so we must also ask what type of faith, religious or secular – polar opposites that historicism treats as equal, since they cannot disprove one another. Faced with this, Fackenheim must also defend the validity of religious faith as compared with secular faith.
Fackenheim eventually became dissatisfied with the modern existential conception of revelation elaborated by Rosenzweig and Buber. This should not be confused with his ever-mounting concern with the Holocaust, although both emerged in tandem. Fackenheim articulated Rosenzweig’s and Buber’s basic conception better than they did, as the ever-present possibility of revelation, with a content reduced to nothing but pure Presence. This rested on the prior philosophic argument that the possibility of revelation cannot be refuted, an argument that remains valid despite modern rationalistic criticism. Fackenheim learned this from Leo Strauss, who thought through the Buber–Rosenzweig position better than they had themselves. This initiated a fruitful period of original theological reflection for Fackenheim, between 1945 and 1967, but he found this concept was insufficiently coherent to be implemented as a workable guide to actual religious faith and life.
Emil L. Fackenheim is best known for his confrontation with the Holocaust and his struggle to discover authentic theological significance for Jewish religious faith and historical life in the face of this unprecedented catastrophe for the Jewish people. He crystallized his discovery in what he called the “614th commandment”.
Fackenheim launched his career as a theologian by confronting the modern crisis of faith, which he regarded as the most urgent matter both for philosophy attuned to religion, and for committed religious thought. He believed that this is a crisis not only for Judaism, but for all modern religious thought, because modern philosophy has done as much as possible to make even the most basic religious faith questionable, if not untenable, to modern man, for it assaults the basic belief that God makes himself manifest through “personal” converse with human beings. For Fackenheim, this crisis of faith arises not so much over whether God exists, but over whether God can communicate with man directly. Fackenheim thinks that genuine faith in God’s existence, whether religious or secular, will endure through and beyond all critique.
However significant the “personal” dimension of revelation is for Fackenheim, he insists that revelation be historically authentic. This ultimately gives priority to the collective people over the individual. Fackenheim’s insistence on the historical “authenticity” of revelation is based on his belief that revelation reveals a higher intention in history, which is beyond the grasp of human reason. If human consciousness can receive revelation of something beyond its grasp, it could only be a vision of the unifying pattern and purpose of events. Fackenheim argues that historical authenticity is proven if a subsequent event is revealed as linked to an earlier event, like the second exile “repeating” the first, or the “echo” of Moses’ prophecy in subsequent prophets. This shows historical consistency; and it is through revelation that this linkage becomes apparent, expressing a common intention.
Fackenheim burst on the theological scene at a time when revelation was under assault. In the Jewish tradition, revelation has usually been expressed in the form of God speaking to man. Precisely how God speaks with human beings, however, is a fraught theological issue that has sparked a great deal of speculation. Most often this has arisen in the course of interpreting the biblical account of God’s original revelation to Moses, and its subsequent prophetic, rabbinic, philosophic, and mystical augmentations. Modern philosophic and literary criticism takes a very different approach to reality. It is predominantly, but not solely, historical; and it is on historical grounds that criticism of revelation has been a dominant theme of modern philosophic thought, if revelation has not been its chief target.
Toward the end of his career, Fackenheim is forced reluctantly to conclude that revelation has almost completely ceased to be a present possibility. Reluctantly, for he began his career arguing that Judaism makes no sense without revelation, and he labored for decades seeking contemporary revelation before he is forced to acknowledge that there is no longer any immediate access to revelation. He concludes that if revelation can be said to have occurred at all in our era, it occurred on the negative, rather than positive, level of being, by revealing a radical absence of the divine in history, especially in the present era. He sees this as a “negative revelation,” far more radical than Buber’s mere “eclipse” of God, which Fackenheim thinks is far too weak a metaphor for the force and impact of God’s seemingly total absence during the Holocaust, revealing that He may no longer be the God Who saves in history.
Fackenheim is scandalized by previous responses to the Holocaust, which he considers either derisory, misguided, or partial. Hannah Arendt’s assessment of Eichmann, for example, adopted a “stance of ‘clinical’ detachment – and lapsed into irony,” and this Fackenheim judges gravely deficient. At the other end of the spectrum, Terence Des Pres adopts an “archaic, quasi-religious vocabulary” in his effort to understand the unique characteristics of “the survivor,” but tells only half the story, for he could not write about the perpetrators, on the grounds that “for a writer to identify with them would be his ultimate corruption.” Fackenheim offers his own approach as a badly needed correction. He believes that the full truth about the Holocaust cannot be comprehended without recognizing its unprecedented evil as historical fact. This imposes what he sees as a duty and a challenge to reassess all previous conceptions of evil, and all previous responses to evil in human history, because he finds them inadequate to deal with the Holocaust.
In his search for authentic revelation, Fackenheim asks why modern philosophy mounted a systematic critique of religion. He discovered that its animus against religion is not so much because of religion’s perceived antagonism to reason, but because it saw religion as inimical to human freedom. Freedom is the pride of modern man, and of modern philosophy. It is the essential modern political principle, the very basis of liberal democracy. The possibility of creating a new political order based on maximizing individual freedom and autonomy was originally conceived philosophically by Spinoza and Locke, and developed and promoted by other acute thinkers. Freedom enhances human worth and dignity, because it allows the individual to choose his own path and pursue it employing his own unaided powers. Freedom also urges bold scientific discovery, unimpeded by religious doctrine, which can lead to remarkable historical advances. Revelation seems to compromise man’s freedom to “create,” think freely, and decide for himself. Thus revealed religion is attacked by modern philosophy as an act of justice, believing that it makes man dependent on God, thereby enfeebling and diminishing his powers.
In Fackenheim’s early thought, he embraces an existential basis for faith, viewing religious commitment as primary since commitment cannot be derived from any other source. This includes metaphysics, science, psychology, politics, or any pragmatic consideration, even of a moral nature. Commitment alone, in his theology, is autonomous. It does not require or offer rational or empirical proof. It is an irreducible and unavoidable necessity, but fraught with risk. It gives priority to willing, commitment, and decision: we must all decide what is of “ultimate concern” to us. This “decision of faith” is the only truly unqualified decision we make. Its quality can be judged as to whether it merits such a fundamental status.
Fackenheim was one of the most philosophically serious, knowledgeable, and provocative contemporary Jewish thinkers. His original focus as a philosophical theologian was mainly on revelation, but in his later work he concerned himself primarily with the wide-ranging implications of the Holocaust. In this book, Kenneth Hart Green examines Fackenheim's intellectual trajectory and traces how and why he focused so intently on the Holocaust. He explores the deeper thought that Fackenheim developed about the Holocaust, which he construed as a cataclysmic event that ruptured history and one that also brought about a change in the very structure of being. As Green demonstrates, the Holocaust, according to Fackenheim's interpretation, changes how we view all things, from God to man to history. It also radically affects Judaism, Christianity, and philosophy, the major traditions that have shaped the Western world.
Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this to your organisation's collection.