Biography of Emil Fackenheim

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Emil Fackenheim (1916 - 2003)


Rabbi Fackenheim came to Canada from his native Germany as a result of the Nazi persecutions. There he earned a doctorate from the University of Toronto, where he became professor of philosophy. Fackenheim taught that we must not give Hitler a posthumous victory. He called this the 614th mitzvah, since the Torah contains 613 mitzvahs or commandments.

Fackenheim meant that we are, first, commanded to survive as Jews lest the Jewish people perish. We are commanded , secondly, to remember always the martyrs of the Holocaust, lest their memory perish. We are forbidden 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 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 he which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted. Fackenheim taught that to abandon any of these principles would give the Nazis another victory.

There are those who resent the use of the phrase the 614th commandment because they believe that one may not add or subtract anything from the Torah. Although one may quibble over this terminology, the implications of Fackenheim's philosophy are clear. Those who accept his view recognize that Israel and its law of return are a necessity to prevent a second Holocaust. Such a second Holocaust must be seen today in the context of the Muslim threat to Jewish survival. Fackenheim's commandment furthermore implies that we must teach all children about the Holocaust and that we must persist in commemorating it annually, as we do each April.

Christians, and particularly the Catholic Church, have taken Fackenheim's teaching to heart. Therefore, Pope John Paul II visited the synagogue in Rome and denounced anti-Judaism vehemently. His successor, Benedict XVI, visited the synagogue in Kőln, in his homeland in Germany, and did the same. Moreover, the Catholic Church and some Protestant churches other than the Anglicans have removed from the liturgy all anti-Jewish references and have enjoyed their followers not to participate in anti-Jewish behavior. In addition, Catholic Bishops meeting in Argentina in July of 2005 proclaimed that anti-Zionism is anti-Judaism and that no distinction exists. Furthermore, the Catholic Church has announced that it does not wish to convert Jews to Christianity because the covenant between Abraham and God holds today and is irrevocable. Some Protestant denominations, other than the Anglicans, hold these same views.

Fackenheim's philosophy has led to considerable controversy among Jews and others. His detractors say that one must not be Jewish only to spite Hitler but because of the intrinsic value of Judaism. Non-Jews complain that Fackenheim gives the impression that a Jew who marries a non-Jew is finishing the Nazi objectives.

Emil Fackenheim was born in Halle, Germany.  He studied for the rabbinate in Berlin.  He was imprisoned by the Nazis during the Kristallnacht pogrom on November 10-11, 1938. Subsequently he was able to escape to Scotland and then made his way to Toronto. His older brother was one of those German Jews who refused to believe the worst and insisted on remaining in Germany, where he was murdered.

Fackenheim died three years ago in Toronto, Canada.  Now he has joined that long list of Jewish teachers whose optimism in the face of the unspeakable continues to sustain us, because in the end we are still the chosen people and ďa light unto the nationsĒ.

Shalom uívracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Football & American Identity (2005) &  Youth Culture and the Generation Gap (2005) with Dr. Ursula A. Falk.

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