The Holocaust as Revelation: Fackenheim & Greenberg

According to some thinkers, the events of the Nazi era initiated changes in the nature of Judaism.

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In the following article, the author mentions "a Buberian-type model of dialogic revelation." He is referring to the thought of the religious philosopher Martin Buber, who suggested that religious experience is rooted in dialogue with the world and with other people. Encountering the world with one's whole self, one can understand the events of life as communications from God, as revelations. Reprinted with the permission of The Continuum International Publishing Group from The Encyclopedia of Judaism, in 4 volumes, edited by Jacob Neusner, Alan Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green.

Auschwitz‑‑A New Revelation

Emil Fackenheim contends that the Holocaust represents a new revelation. Rejecting any account that analyzes Auschwitz as the result of Jews' sin, as well as repudiating the literal notion of "explanation" as regards the Holocaust, Fackenheim employs a Buberian‑type model of dialogical revelation, of revelation as the personal encounter of an I with the Eternal Thou (God). Thus Fackenheim urges Israel to continue to believe despite the moral outrage of the Shoah. God, on this view, is always present in Jewish history, even at Auschwitz. We do not, and cannot understand what he was doing at Auschwitz, or why he allowed it, but we must insist that he was there. 

Still more, from the death camps, as from Sinai, God commands Israel. The nature of this commanding voice, what Fackenheim has called the "614th commandment" (there are 613 commandments in traditional Judaism) is that "Jews are forbidden to hand Hitler posthumous victories;" Jews are, that is, under a sacred obligation to survive. After the death camps, Jewish existence itself is a holy act: Jews are under a sacred obligation to remember their martyrs: Jews are, as Jews, forbidden to despair of redemption, or to become cynical about the world and humanity, for to submit to cynicism is to abdicate responsibility for the world and to deliver the world  into the hands of the luciferian forces of Nazism. And, above all, Jews are "forbidden to despair of the God of Israel, lest Judaism perish."

birkenauThe voice that speaks from Auschwitz demands above all that Hitler win no posthumous victories, that no Jew do what Hitler could not do. The Jewish will for survival is natural enough, but Fackenheim invests it with transcendental significance. Precisely because others would eradicate Jews from the earth, Jews are commanded to resist annihilation. Paradoxically, Hitler makes Judaism after Auschwitz a necessity. To say "no" to Hitler is to say "yes" to the God of Sinai; to say "no" to the God of Sinai is to say "yes" to Hitler.

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Dr. Steven T. Katz

Dr. Steven T. Katz is the director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University. He is the author of The Holocaust in Historical Context.