God's Presence in History Summary

Overview (Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The text of God’s Presence in History is a revision of three lectures delivered by Emil L. Fackenheim as the Charles F. Deems Lectures at New York University in 1968; the volume addresses how world historical Jewish events such as the Holocaust and the establishment of the modern State of Israel categorically entail concrete responses by Jews to ensure Jewish survival. The event that directly precipitated this work was the 1967 surprise attack by the Arab states surrounding Israel (the Six-Day War) and the total lack of support for Israel by any other nation in the world. An additional impetus was Fackenheim’s assertion that responses to the Holocaust, such as the “death of God” movement of the 1960’s and the rise of secular and nonobservant Jews, were threatening the future existence of the Jewish people as a whole. However, it could easily be argued that Fackenheim was working toward just such an apologetic response his entire life.

Fackenheim begins his text by dedicating it to Holocaust survivor and activist Elie Wiesel, to whom he credits his use of a midrashic method in exploring the faith-commitment of Jews post-Holocaust and their support of the modern State of Israel. His opening, a Midrashic interpretation of a scriptural passage, provides the cornerstone of his argument that post-Holocaust Jews have the right and duty to judge others because they survived the attack on their ongoing existence as a people. Hence Fackenheim begins with his telling of an “ancient Midrash [that] affirms God’s presence in history” and demonstrates how that presence becomes historically effective through Jewish witness. However, modernity challenges such testimony in two ways: First, the modern scientist has to expel God from nature because of a lack of verifiable proof, and the modern historian expels God from history because of the incompatibility of the supernatural with natural history. Second, and consequently, modern Jewish and Christian theologians can only affirm a provident God who uses nature and humans but is absent from history. Adding to the modern rejections, Fackenheim challenges a commitment of faith by asking: After Auschwitz and Hiroshima, who can still believe in a God who manifests himself as a superintending providence, or in an ideal kind of progress based on the promises of modern, enlightened technological advances?

In wake of the Holocaust, the Jewish people must still believe because they have a unique status based on the phenomenon of collective survival, a claim that serves as the key term for understanding Fackenheim’s entire thought. Fackenheim argues that this collective survival has significance for both Jewish people and the rest of humanity because the God of Israel is not a mere tribal god but is someone who is Creator of the world and is concerned for universal humanity. However, Fackenheim’s conception of God is nonetheless of one who does not have a presence-in-general but is, rather, present to particular people in particular situations. For Fackenheim, these “implications, however, are manifest only in the particular; and they make of the men to whom they are manifest, not universalistic philosophers who rise above their situations, but rather witnesses, in, through, and because of their particularity to the nations.” He then asks, How is the modern Jew today, after Auschwitz, able to be a witness to the world?

His answer is that Jews can continue to draw on their foundational root experiences, that is, the historical events of Exodus and Sinai that ensure continuity in how they are relived in rituals. Accordingly, Fackenheim contends that the past is able to be relived in the present; the root experience is a public event in which there is a transformation of the earth and which decisively affects all future Jewish generations. Later generations have access to the founding event and can and do reenact them as present reality.

Fackenheim links philosophy to his religious heritage via the congruence of starting points that he establishes between the religious experience and the philosophical experience of the world, principally the historical concept of wonder. For Fackenheim, the religious experience is an astonishing experience of an event that enters the system of cause and effect and becomes transparent, thus allowing a glimpse of the sole power at work that is not limited by any other. Moreover, he draws on Martin Buber to support his claim that, like the philosophical experience of wonder, the religious experience is an “event which can be fully included in the objective, scientific nexus of nature and history” with the proviso that it includes a “vital meaning” that, “for the person to whom it occurs, destroys the security of the whole nexus of knowledge for him, and explodes the fixity of the fields of experience named ’Nature’ and ’History.’”

Based on such historical effectiveness, for example, the believer in and practitioner of ritual relates to the Red Sea event during the Jewish ritual...

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God's Presence in History Bibliography (Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Sources for Further Study

Berger, Alan L. Children of Job: American Second-Generation Witnesses to the Holocaust. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Braiterman, Zachary. “Fideism Redux: Emil Fackenheim and the State of Israel.” Jewish Social Studies 4, no. 1 (October 31, 1997): 61.

Cohn-Sherbok, Dan. Holocaust Theology. London: Lamp Press, 1989. Emil L. Fackenheim’s views on the Holocaust are succinctly and critically set out in this comparative study, which includes several other key Jewish writers who take definitive positions with respect to the Holocaust. Other figures include Elie Wiesel, Richard Rubenstein, and Marc Ellis.

Doidge, Norman. “Thinking Through Radical Evil.” National Post, September 27, 2003, p. A24.

Fackenheim, Emil L. Jewish Philosophers and Jewish Philosophy. Edited by Michael L. Morgan. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996. Morgan’s introduction to this overview provides helpful orientation through Fackenheim’s assessment of several Jewish philosophers who have influenced his own philosophy. Many of the selections were previously unpublished and include commentaries on Hermann Cohen, Franz Rosenzweig, Martin Buber, and Leo Strauss.

Greenspan, Louis, and Graeme...

(The entire section is 408 words.)