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.

Questioning Fackenheim

This interesting, highly influential response to the Shoah requires detailed analysis of a sort that is beyond our present possibilities. However, it needs to be stressed that the main line of critical inquiry into Fackenheim's position must center on the dialogical notion of revelation and the related idea of commandment, as that traditional notion is here employed. That is to ask: (a) how do historical events become revelatory? and (b) what exactly does Fackenheim mean by the term "commandment?"

In the older, traditional theological vocabulary of Judaism, it meant something. God actually "spoke" to the people of Israel. Fackenheim, however, would reject this literal meaning in line with his dialogical premises. But then what does "commanded" here mean? It would seem that the word has only analogical or metaphorical sense in this case, but, if so, what urgency and compelling power does it retain? Second, is it appropriate that Hitler gains such prominence in Jewish theology, that Judaism survives primarily to spite his dark memory? In raising these issues, we only begin to do justice to the richness and ingenuity of Fackenheim's position.

The Covenant Broken‑‑A New Age

A second contemporary thinker who has urged continued belief in the God of Israel, though on new terms, is Yitzchak (Irving) Greenberg. For Greenberg, all the old truths and certainties, all the old commitments and obligations have been destroyed by the Holocaust. Moreover, any simple faith is now impossible. The Holocaust ends the old era of Jewish covenantal existence and ushers in a new and different one.

Greenberg explicates this radical notion in this way. There are three major periods in the covenantal history of Israel. The first is the biblical era. What characterizes this first covenantal stage is the asymmetry of the relationship between God and Israel. The biblical encounter may be a covenant but it is clearly a covenant in which "God is the initiator, the senior partner, who punishes, rewards and enforces the punishment if the Jews slacken."

The second, rabbinical phase in the transformation of the covenant idea is marked by the destruction of the Second Temple. The "meaning" adduced from this event, the reaction of the rabbis, was to argue that now Jews must take a more equal role in the covenant, becoming true partners with the almighty. The manifest divine presence and activity was being reduced but the covenant was actually being renewed. The destruction of 70 C.E. signaled the initiation of an age in which God would be less manifest though still present.

This brings us to what is decisive and rad­ical in Greenberg's ruminations, what he has termed the "Third Great Cycle in Jewish History," which has come about as a conse­quence of the Holocaust. The Shoah marks a new era in which the Sinaitic covenantal relationship was shattered; now, if there is to be any covenantal relationship at all, an unprecedented form of it must come into being.

Voluntary Covenant

"In retrospect, it is now clear that the divine assignment to the Jews was untenable. After the Holocaust, it is obvious that this role opened the Jews to a total murderous fury from which there was no escape…Morally speaking, then, God can have no claims on the Jews by dint of the Covenant." What this means, Greenberg argues, is that the Covenant, "can no longer be commanded and subject to a serious external enforcement. It cannot be commanded because morally speaking‑‑covenantally speaking‑‑one can­not order another to step forward to die. One can give an order like this to an enemy, but in a moral relationship, I cannot demand giving up one's life. I can ask for it or plead for it­ but I cannot order it."

Out of this complex of considerations, Greenberg pronounces the fateful judgment: The Jewish covenant with God is now voluntary! Jews have, quite miraculously, chosen to continue to live Jewish lives and collectively to build a Jewish state the ultimate symbol of Jewish continuity, but these acts are, after Auschwitz, the result of the free choice of the Jewish people. "I submit," writes Greenberg, "that the covenant was broken. God was in no position to command anymore but the Jewish people was so in love with the dream of redemption that it volunteered to carry on with its mission." The consequence of this voluntary action transforms the existing convenantal order. First Israel was a junior partner, then an equal partner. Finally, after Auschwitz, it becomes "the senior partner in action."

Questioning Greenberg

Greenberg's reconstruction of Jewish theology after the Holocaust presents a fascinating, creative reaction to the unprecedented evil manifest in the death camps. The question of the maintenance of his view, however, turns on the issues of: (a) the correctness of his theological reading of Jewish history, an open and difficult question; and (b) the theological meaning and status of key categories such as "covenant," "revelation," "commandment," and the like. That is to ask, on the one hand, whether Greenberg has done justice to their classical employment, and, second, whether his revised rendering is justifiable and functional: and (c) whether we should allow Hitler and the Holocaust such decisive power in determining the inner, authentic nature of Jewish theology.

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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.