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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2056

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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 of Passover. By reenacting the event, practitioners reenact the abiding astonishment and make, thereby, the historical event their own, which results in a continuation of the sole power that is God. Hence, memory enacted becomes living faith and hope, and the root experience is able to legislate from the past to the present and future.

Questions arise, however, about the nature of God as one that is on the one hand transcendent and on the other involved. In short, the question of human control of the earth leads to judgments of the nature and relationship of an historically effective God to such an earth. If God were present at that particular moment of the Exodus and exercised power on behalf of the Jewish people, as sole power, God necessarily should be able to fight oppressive evil once again, demonstrating God’s status as Creator and as absolute sovereign of the world. Fackenheim accepts this paradox and responds with a recourse to traditional Jewish thought that God does act and is involved in history and is not merely the consummation or transfiguration of history; that is, God does not stand over the entirety of the historical continuum.

Such a present God is the object of messianic faith where the believing Jew responds to historical instances of evil and threats to existence by pointing to the future where evil will ultimately be vanquished and human freedom and divine freedom are reconciled. Furthermore, such a future is anticipated in a reenacted past, that is, the reenactment of the root experiences through ritual. Such reenactment is what Fackenheim understands as the Midrashic experience, which he argues is “consciously fragmentary” and “yet destined to an ultimate resolution.”

As Fackenheim relates at the end of the first part of the work, two of the strongest criticisms of God’s presence in history have to do with the Holocaust. Given the actuality of God’s presence as it is affirmed in Judaism and Christianity, to still believe in God post-Holocaust entails that Auschwitz is punishment for Jewish sins, which slanders a million innocent children in an abortive defense of God, and that any God connected with Auschwitz must have decreed Auschwitz, and such a God must be dead.

Fackenheim takes these criticisms seriously and spends the next two parts of his text in elaborating his rejection. In his analysis, the metaphysical foundations for such a rejection are based on how the Jewish people are rooted in the actuality of history. Because of their dialectical balance and playing out of the oppositions of the particular and the universal facets of their own lives, they are concretely situated within the overarching temporal framework of past, present, and future relations with other nations and their God.

Specifically, Fackenheim confronts a series of philosophical challenges, the greatest coming from modern positivists such as Auguste Comte, who reject God as a hypothesis that is empirically unverifiable. Fackenheim rejects the reduction of religious experience to scientific explanation and the positivist’s assertion that a resort to absolutes is a mere logical mistake by contending that such a reduction eliminates wonder and ongoing historical effectiveness of abiding astonishment. The alternative is to replace that wonder with mere scientific or historical curiosity. What Fackenheim argues is that faith and modern secularism are irreconcilable because they are mutually irrefutable and that in order for historians, secular and Jewish, to exercise genuine impartiality, they should be required to suspend judgment between faith and secularism, resulting in a more nuanced philosophical stance of “criticism of criticism.”

Fackenheim criticizes those who spoke out against the Jews, including German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, because of his predilection for Hellenic aristocracy and aestheticism, and the Marxists who, based on a kind of Jewish messianic expectation, nonetheless preached that Jews had a universal duty to assimilate into general humanity. Philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach taught that Jews are nothing more than egoists projecting an idea of God to themselves as an instance of self-worship. Karl Marx, for the sake of ideological consistency, claimed that Jews are merely self-interested hucksters who worship money and are dialectically false because they are so bound up with capitalism.

Fackenheim reserves his final critique for Ernst Bloch’s philosophy of hope. He tempers his critique with a generally sympathetic reading of Bloch because of his affirmative acceptance of the survival of the Jewish people. The problem, however, is that Bloch relocates his version of messianism to Moscow, not Palestine, thus committing a very old Jewish act, namely, premature messianism.

Finally, the shortfall of all modern philosophers is their iterations of various versions of the “death of God” theme. Consequently, Fackenheim ends part 2 of the work by referring approvingly of philosopher Martin Buber’s conceptualization of an eclipse of God rather than the death of God, viewing it as an authentic messianic response to the unique challenge of Auschwitz and the abiding human experience of horror.

The culmination of Fackenheim’s own dialectic is fueled by his Jewish faith, as quintessential good, which is confronted by Adolf Hitler, as quintessential evil. Fackenheim asks, post-Auschwitz: Although Hitler failed to kill all the Jews, did he ultimately succeed postmortem by destroying Jewish faith? Fackenheim responds: “Yet we protest against a negative answer, for we protest against allowing Hitler to dictate the terms of our religious life. If not martyrdom, there can be a faithfulness resembling it, when a man has no choice between life and death but only between faith and despair.”

After Auschwitz, Jews are left with existential fragments related to the problems of being uniquely targeted for destruction and yet, as part of their destiny with God, are demanded to survive. Moreover, such survival must be existentially grounded and faith-committed. After Auschwitz, he argues, the defiant success of the Jews to survive despite many challenges, especially the ultimate challenge of extermination, testifies to their endurance. Mere survival is not enough, however, and in order to avoid madness, Jews desire to endure precisely because of the testimony to the voices of the prophets of their heritage with the living presence of God in history. Hence Jews must continue to pray, after Auschwitz, as proof against madness in defiant particularity and as witnesses.

Fackenheim’s analysis of modern philosophical and psychological perspectives and certain forms of social theory continues to provide powerful arguments that other philosophers of religion have continued to debate. Fackenheim continued to publish refined versions of his argument, eventually resulting in his most philosophically systematic work, To Mend the World: Foundations of Future Jewish Thought (1982). However, even this text carries on the basic insights about the Holocaust, the State of Israel, and the failure of philosophy that Fackenheim initially presented in God’s Presence in History. According to Fackenheim, the reason for the surprising success of the Israeli defense forces against the attack by the surrounding Arab states in 1967 was that the Israelis responded with “a new song of defiance in the midst of hopelessness—the song of the Warsaw Ghetto Jewish Underground.” For many Jews, both inside and outside Israel, Fackenheim provides a voice for their general concerns regarding the inexplicable horror of the Holocaust. Indeed, his call for a renewed defense of Israel was in tune with a general move not only by Jews the world over to resist further attacks on Israel but also especially by the initiation of the support of the U.S. government, which emerged in the second half of the twentieth century as a strong and faithful ally of Israel.