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  • Emil Fackenheim, Tikkun, and the Possibility of Response
  • Jeremy Gordon (bio)

Testimony of an Auschwitz Camp Guard


Women carrying children were always sent with them to the crematorium. The children were then torn from their parents outside the crematorium and sent to the gas chambers separately. When the extermination of the Jews in the gas chambers was at its height, orders were issued that the children were to be thrown into the crematorium furnaces or into the pit near the crematorium without being gassed first.

Smirnov (Russian Prosecutor):

How am I to understand this? Did they throw them into the fire alive, or did they kill them first?


They threw them in alive.1

Fackenheim wants us to start here and continue to look, continue to see the image on our retina even as we close our eyes to look away, even as we wish to read on—past this horror. Fackenheim keeps calling us back, challenging our discomfort. [End Page 59]

His insistence that we begin with burning babies is not a doffing of the cap in the direction of those who perished in Auschwitz; rather, he builds the entire super-structure of his work directly on the foundation of the horrors of the Holocaust. To do otherwise, he argues time and time again, is to court unauthenticity. But we are getting ahead of ourselves. This paper is about the term tikkun in the sense in which it originally slipped from its mooring to Lurianic theosophy. The word has become so used and overused in a mere thirty years that all traces of the novel and profoundly brave treatment given to the term by Emil Fackenheim has disappeared. That, as I hope to show, is a loss in ways more important than the mere academic desire to understand a vital moment in the evolution of contemporary Jewish thought.2

A Brief Overview of Tikkun: From Mishnah to Twentieth Century

When the Mishnah refers to tikkun, meaning a fix or repair, it means an alteration made by later rabbis to earlier ordinances. When the word tikkun is combined with the word olam, meaning “world,” the temptation is to consider that the phrase has some universalist intent. However, the ten occasions where the term is invoked in the Mishnah are all technical fixes of quite specific legal challenges. For example, Rabban Gamliel the Elder fixes (hitkin) a problem in earlier divorce law where a husband, issuing a divorce document to his wife by means of a messenger, was able to subsequently cancel the divorce as long as the messenger hadn’t delivered the [End Page 60] document to the woman; see M. Gittin 4:2). What might have, at first, seemed a reasonable safeguard against unwanted divorce is subsequently understood to present a threat, and so the possibility for this subsequent cancellation of a divorce decree is made impossible mi-p’nei tikkun haolam, as a fixing of the world.3 Another use, in a midrashic context, is apparent even in the rabbinic period. Bereishit Rabbah 4:7 refers to God creating the world in a certain manner l’takkein olam, in order to ensure its viability. But there is nothing in Rabbinic Judaism to prepare Jews for the staggering reworking of the phrase by the great medieval mystic, Isaac Luria (d. 1572).4

Luria, in one of the great leaps of creativity in Jewish history, brought the idea of tikkun into the heart of a great cosmic narrative. In the beginning, suggested Luria, God restricted the universal suffusion of God’s infinite Presence to create an empty space into which finite creation could be channeled (a process known as tzimtzum, contraction).5 Into this empty space God created the world. This creative process is perhaps best understood as a step-down transformer. The high-voltage divine power is “stepped-down” into a mortal realm, but the system fails: “Since [the divine power] began in a higher place, there was not enough power in any [part of the lower finite world] to withstand all the light and [the world] [End Page 61] shattered and fell down.”6 This process is known as sh’virah, a rupture or shattering. For...


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