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Reviewed by:
  • Emil L. Fackenheim: Philosopher, Theologian, Jew
  • Matthew LaGrone (bio)
Sharon Portnoff, James A. Diamond, and Martin D. Yaffee, editors. Emil L. Fackenheim: Philosopher, Theologian, Jew. Brill. xviii, 340. US$148.00

A former University of Toronto professor, Emil Fackenheim (1916-2003) first cut his teeth as a scholar of nineteenth-century Germany philosophy but is best remembered as the foremost interpreter of Jewish religious and philosophical responses to the Holocaust. Works such as To Mend the World and The Jewish Return into History are part of the syllabus for any discussion of Jewish thought after the Holocaust. As Ken Green declares, Fackenheim initiated 'the effort to recover authentic theological significance for Jewish religious faith in the wake of the catastrophe of the Holocaust.' Scholars such as Green are now assessing his critical contributions to this discussion, and Brill has issued a new volume of essays - Emil L. Fackenheim: Philosopher, Theologian, Jew - that will set the standard for future Fackenheim research. Most of the essays are penned by former students, and while the authors are affectionate in remembrance of their teacher, they are also willing to challenge him on philosophical or religious grounds; Fackenheim, surely, would have demanded no less.

While all of the essays stress one thread of Fackenheim's thought - whether in his role as a philosopher, theologian, or Jew - each essay rightly acknowledges that these three threads are in the end inextricably [End Page 400] bound together, as the controlling question for Fackenheim from the mid-1960s onward centred on how religious life and philosophical activity would persist when faced with what he called the 'epoch-making event' of the Holocaust. While the destruction of European Jewry haunts either the foreground or the background of most of the papers, others are devoted to the intellectual relations between Fackenheim and, among others, Spinoza and Leo Strauss. Of biographical interest are the reflections that constitute the first part of the book, with John Burbidge's personal remarks being particularly notable.

With his philosophical weight and commitment to tradition, Fackenheim brought the Holocaust to a central position in contemporary Jewish philosophy. As Michael Oppenheim notes, the philosophical response to the Holocaust represents the 'first stream of modern Jewish thought that is not anchored in the problematic of Jewish Emancipation, that is, the Jewish entry into Western political, social and cultural life.' A late-eighteenth and nineteenth-century phenomenon, Emancipation was the attempt to secure equal civil, political, economic, and religious rights for European Jews. Prior to the Holocaust, the dominant strain of Jewish philosophy was directed towards the negotiations between Jewish and secular/political identity in Western liberal democracies. The Holocaust, for Fackenheim, challenged, if it did not fully undermine, the optimism of previous thinkers who believed that Jews would flourish in a neutral public sphere. As Oppenheim writes, the 'Holocaust has forced Jewish thought to abandon the single task of translation and to struggle with a terrifying event in order to forge at least a hint of a meaning for Jewish existence.'

The challenge, however, was not only political, but also philosophical. Michael Morgan argues that Fackenheim's writings on the Holocaust and its intersection with philosophy drives a wedge between the 'objective' philosophical reasoning of the past - that is, the philosopher stands outside of historical and even personal contexts in his or her arguments - and the much more contextual philosophical reasoning of the present. Philosophy has a personal and political task: it 'must think as resistance' to radical evil. If philosophy is now resistance, so too is Judaism. From this resistance emerges Fackenheim's celebrated formulation of the '614th commandment' - the directive for Jews not to hand Hitler 'posthumous victories' by abdicating their public identity as Jews. Martin Plax and Lionel Rubinoff write eloquently on this formulation.

This collection is a signal contribution to the life and work of Fackenheim. The essays gathered here represent the full narrative of his scholarship - from German thought to Jewish life - and allow us to glimpse his private life as well. This volume will be of great value to those who wish to trace the intellectual trajectory of a first-level thinker. [End Page 401]

Matthew LaGrone

Matthew LaGrone, Program in...


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