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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2244

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Article abstract: Fackenheim used Jewish resources to interpret non-Jewish philosophy and Western techniques on Jewish texts and history. He defined an authentic Jewish philosopher—and an authentic Jew—as one who has opened the self to the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust and one who actively supports the building of the State of Israel as past, present, and future home for the Jews.

Early Life

Emil Ludwig Fackenheim was raised by a piously Jewish mother and a father who not only was a successful lawyer but who also daily recited traditional Jewish prayers in Hebrew. After completing Gymnasium (college-prep high school) studies in the rigorous German school system, with an emphasis on Greek and classical philology, Fackenheim traveled to Berlin in 1935 in order to study Judaism at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums with the intent of becoming a rabbi. However, following the November, 1938, Nazi pogrom of the Jews known as Kristallnacht (night of the broken glass), his six-year rabbinical program was permanently interrupted when he was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to the Sachsenhausen labor camp for three months. Released on February 8, 1939, Fackenheim finished an abbreviated rabbinical training in two months and was ordained as a rabbi.

Significantly, Fackenheim insists that what most markedly characterized him and a small group of friends from the rabbinical school was that they never questioned their faith in God. In contrast, they rejected self-pity and focused on husbanding their strength for survival. They were some of the few who survived.

Life’s Work

On May 12, 1939, Fackenheim fled Germany one step ahead of another Gestapo roundup and spent a year studying in Aberdeen, Scotland. Afterward, he was interned in Britain, then sent for a year and a half further internment in Canada. Upon release, he entered the Graduate School of Philosophy at the University of Toronto while also serving as a rabbi in Hamilton, Canada, from 1943 to 1945. Under the influence of scholars such as Leo Strauss and Jacques Maritain, Fackenheim formed a philosophy of history and wrote Metaphysics and Historicity, in which he attempted his first refutation of Martin Heidegger’s philosophy. In this work, Fackenheim was already drawing on traditional philosophic and Jewish sources for his critical analysis in attacking Heidegger, and both his refutation of Heidegger’s choice to support Hitler and Nazism and his own appropriation of significant elements of Heidegger’s existentialism would, in one way or another, dictate his philosophical endeavors for the rest of his career.

Although strongly influenced by the existentialist elements in Heidegger’s philosophy, Fackenheim drew much more regularly and extensively on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s philosophy, especially his logic of the dialectic. When Fackenheim first joined the faculty at the University of Toronto in 1948, no courses were being taught in German idealism and so Fackenheim began what he called a decades-long encounter beginning with Hegel’s Phénomenologie des Geistes (1807; The Phenomenology of Mind, 1910). In 1960, Fackenheim was made a professor on the faculty, which enabled him to continue his work in German idealism including how it related to his Jewish heritage. His research resulted in the publication of one of the most significant analyses of Hegel’s philosophy of religion in the twentieth century, The Religious Dimension in Hegel’s Thought, in 1967. This work is his most important contribution to the branch of philosophy concerned with German idealism and formed the cornerstone of his ongoing critique of the limits of philosophy to adequately deal with history.

Although primarily Hegelian, Fackenheim’s philosophical interests range broadly, as he includes critical commentaries within his texts on many other modern non-Jewish philosophers, especially Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, Søren Kierkegaard, A. J. Ayer, Martin Heidegger, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Baruch Spinoza, Karl Marx, and Ernst Bloch merit special attention by Fackenheim because of their disavowal of their Jewish origins. Additionally, many Jewish philosophers, including Moses Maimonides, Franz Rosenzweig, Leo Strauss, and especially Martin Buber, have also deeply influenced his work.

Although Fackenheim was profoundly marked by these and many other philosophers, he consistently returns to Hegel’s philosophical reflections to construct his own formulations, such as his original version of dialectical encounter. The thesis of encounter is one that Fackenheim plays out in each of his succeeding works and is based on the notion that although Jewish thinkers need to take non-Jewish philosophy seriously and have done so (as Fackenheim’s own work demonstrates), philosophers also need to take Jewish thought and existence seriously, which has not been the case. Consequently, Fackenheim ends The Religious Dimension in Hegel’s Thought by noting that Hegel accepts the fragmentation of the modern world as a modern necessity, “yet believes in the power of the Spirit to re-create as a new unity beyond fragmentation.” Despite his judgment that “philosophers are an isolated order of priests” who have to leave the world, he counsels that “philosophic thought must move beyond the extremes of partisan commitments, and grope for what may be called a fragmented middle.” Rooted in his reading of Hegel’s commitment to existential-historical conditions, it seems that with his The Religious Dimension in Hegel’s Thought, Fackenheim could still hope for metaphysical comprehensiveness.

However, although Fackenheim attends to this “fragmented middle” throughout the remainder of his career, coincidentally with his publication of the Hegel text, he became convinced that it is impossible to attain any kind of philosophical comprehensiveness on what he calls Planet Auschwitz. A world that has not authentically taken into account the radical, unique evil of Adolf Hitler, Nazism, and Auschwitz and that allows for the possibility of absolute destruction is a world that is marked not only by wonder that originally spurs on philosophical reflection but also the horror of inexplicable evil. Hence, to Fackenheim, the year 1967 represents not only the year of publication of his text on Hegel but also the year of the Six-Day War in Israel that precipitated his decision that he could no longer remain an isolated philosopher-priest. Fackenheim, based on his Holocaust-oriented historical analysis, saw the attack on Israel by the Arab states as a logical extension of the attempt to annihilate Jewish existence by the Nazis. The response of the Jews to this military attack on their very existence as a people was an extension of another Holocaust-related experience, namely, the Warsaw ghetto response of fierce, autonomous resistance thirty-five years earlier. Although the Jews demonstrated their commitment and will to fight for survival in both situations, the decisive difference, according to Fackenheim, was that in Israel in 1967, the Jews had the military training and arms—the power—to execute success. During this war, the Israelis also took full control of the city of Jerusalem.

Fackenheim’s Quest for Past and Future is a collections of essays concerning his response to those historical events, in particular, how to make sense philosophically of the events of the Holocaust from 1933 to 1945 and the formation of the modern state of Israel in 1948. In this work, he coined the phrase that brought his work popular exposure: his declaration of the “614th Commandment” as a Holocaust-inspired addition to the 613 commandments referred to in the traditional Halakah of the Jews. That commandment presupposes that God is still present in history, and out of the inexplicable horror of the Holocaust emerges God’s command not to give Hitler a posthumous victory by giving up Jewish faith in the ongoing historical effectiveness of God. Rather, Jews should act in concrete, historical ways by forsaking martyrdom, fighting for their very survival and raising their children as traditional Jews in order to continue to bear witness to God and to their hope for a better world.

He clarifies and develops these themes during the next decade in several collections of essays: God’s Presence in History: Jewish Affirmations and Philosophical Reflections, Encounters Between Judaism and Modern Philosophy, and The Jewish Return into History: Reflections in the Age of Auschwitz and a New Jerusalem. These volumes each serve to prepare Fackenheim to produce what he called his magnum opus, To Mend the World: Foundations of Future Jewish Thought, published in 1982, his first systematic work since The Religious Dimension in Hegel’s Thought. One year after finishing that work, Fackenheim acted on his own beliefs and moved permanently to Israel.

In 1970, Fackenheim and his wife had made their second trip to Jerusalem, stopping along the way with a group of Holocaust survivors making a pilgrimage to Bergen Belsen. That trip began what was to become a gradual commitment to traveling more and more often to Jerusalem with his family and spending more and more time there, eventually securing a position as a fellow at the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Over the course of his life and work, a clear pattern emerged that showed the growing force of Fackenheim’s commitment to live out in practical and political ways his understanding of his Jewish heritage. What characterizes Fackenheim’s work is a verification that people are still left with the historical fragments of a broken Hegelian middle and that dealing with the remaining religious content is the most important task, especially for Jews. Philosophically, Fackenheim came to the conclusion that all systematic philosophical thinking, including even that of key systematic Jewish philosophers such as Maimonides and Rosenzweig, is anachronistic post-Holocaust. Rather, what remains is the “systematic labor of thought” and the existential verification of a commitment to authentic Jewish life. In fact, his move to Jerusalem in 1983 after finishing his last major work, To Mend the World, exemplifies his own acting out of Rosenzweig’s prescription at the end of Der Stern der Erlösung (1921; The Star of Redemption, 1970) that one’s faith must be verified in life and that study is but a prelude that establishes the gates through which one must humbly walk into life with others and with one’s God.


Although Fackenheim’s interpretation of Hegel continues to attract scholars of continental philosophy, especially because of his erudite analysis of religion in Hegel’s work, his influence in Jewish philosophy is much more pronounced. However, that influence is clearly mixed. On the one hand, he significantly contributed to increasing awareness of the importance for Jews of confronting the Holocaust and for promoting its importance as a world historical event and therefore as a significant event for all peoples. Additionally, he redefined Jewish Zionism and the establishment of the modern state of Israel in functional terms of protecting current and future Jewish existence. However, not all Jews accept such a linkage and, in fact, Fackenheim’s insistence that his redefined Zionism is the only mark of authentic Jewish existence is problematic not only for any Jew committed to living outside Israel or in Diaspora but also for a traditional understanding of Judaism. Traditionally, Judaism has always taught that survival is a religious duty, and according to secular and religious Jews not committed to living in Israel as a response to the Holocaust, categorically proclaiming the 614th Commandment as revelatory and beyond question does not allow for any further exploration of how non-Israeli Jews may or may not continue to act in the world.

Additional Reading

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.

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 Nicholson, eds. German Philosophy and Jewish Thought. Toronto: Toronto Studies in Philosophy, 1992. This book includes ten essays by several international philosophers and former students of Fackenheim who present critical views of several of Fackenheim’s central ideas. The book concludes with an original essay by Fackenheim responding to the arguments of the ten authors.

Raaven, Heidi M. “Observations on Jewish Philosophy and Feminist Thought.” Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought 46, no. 4 (Fall, 1997): 422-439. This article presents a creative critique of both Fackenheim’s position and certain feminist philosophical projects because of their similar insistence on the fragmentation of the liberal, modern tradition of Enlightenment-inspired philosophy. Raaven’s argument hinges on her rejection of Fackenheim’s narrowing of the philosophical enterprise to particularist national and ethnic isolations.

Samuelson, Norbert. An Introduction to Modern Jewish Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. Although the section on Fackenheim is only ten pages long, it provides a clear and balanced summary of Fackenheim’s central philosophical positions. Also, the commentary is situated as the capstone of the text because of Samuelson’s assessment of Fackenheim’s importance for late twentieth century Jewish philosophy.

Seeskin, Kenneth. Jewish Philosophy in a Secular Age. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990. Seeskin deals with a philosophical problem he terms “Universality and Particularity.” In the final chapter of his work, he concludes a dialogue between contemporary secular philosophers and Jewish philosophers. Fackenheim represents the chief protagonist in the form of Jewish existentialism. Aligning himself with another modern Jewish rationalist philosopher, Steven Schwarzschild, Seeskin opposes Fackenheim’s ideas of Jewish historical particularity and rupture.