Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Fackenheim, Emil (1916-2003) from Encyclopedia of Philosophers on Religion

Fackenheim’s grandparents were conservative Jews who kept kosher. His mother was descended from a long line of rabbis and was very pious in the practice of her religion. So too was his father, who balanced his work as a lawyer with the daily recitation of traditional Jewish prayers in Hebrew. The family adhered to a rather liberal, albeit not a strictly reformed, branch of Judaism. They sincerely believed in the possibility of being an upright Jew and a German at the same time, and did not favor the Zionist movement. They regularly attended synagogue services on Friday evenings.

At the age of nineteen, having completed his studies at the Gymnasium, Fackenheim enrolled at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin. It was a Rabbinical seminary, but his primary intention was simply to learn as much as he could about Jewish tradition. His Midrash teacher there (Leo Baeck) provided him with many a midrashim and, like Martin Buber, encouraged him to think for himself about their implications.

Three years later, however, a day or so after Krystallnacht, he was taken by the Nazis to the concentration camp of Sachsenhausen and held there for three months, underfed and forced to do terribly hard labor in frigid weather. Shortly after his release he was ordained a rabbi, and with some help from Harvard, soon thereafter obtained a scholarship to the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Fears of Nazi invasion of England resulted in his being interred over the next two years, first in Scotland, then (like prisoners of war) in Canada. Finally released, he pursued advanced studies in philosophy at the University of Toronto, while at the same time (1943-1948) serving as rabbi at Temple Anshe Sholom in Hamilton, Ontario.

For the next thirty-six years he taught philosophy at the University of Toronto and published multiple essays and books on metaphysics, Hegelian and Kantian philosophy and the fate of Judaism in the modern world. But deeply disturbed by the world’s indifference to Arab attempts in 1967 to destroy the nation of Israel, he became all the more pro-Zionist and committed to supporting the cause of Jewish survival. Toward that end, after a number of trips with his wife to Israel, he eventually made aliyah himself and accepted a fellowship at the Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry in Jerusalem. The memoirs written during his final years testify to his lasting commitment as a philosopher to his Jewish faith.

Fackenheim on Religion. Just as modern science and philosophy have expelled God from nature (either on grounds that the ability of science to explain everything renders the "God-hypothesis’ otiose, or on methodological grounds that it is illegitimate to infer absolute and transcendent causes from relative and empirical effects), so a variety of modern thinkers have been inclined by their concern about human freedom and the problem of evil to expel God from history, ultimately replacing even an "externally superintending, divine providence" with a humanistic belief in progress, and reducing religious faith in God’s presence in history to a merely subjective, emotional experience.

With the Holocaust debunking any notion of progress, some philosophers (including a few Jewish thinkers) have agreed that "God is dead" and that the ancient Midrashic affirmation of God’s presence in history is absurd. But Midrash storytelling challenges philosophy’s reliance upon discursive language. The God it talks about is infinite, and therefore beyond rational comprehension. It makes no logical truth-claims about the existence or nature of God, but gives expression rather to the wonder authentic Jews experience when, even in the darkest moments of despair, their religious faith gives them a glimpse of God as the incomprehensible, sole Power at work in the epochal events of Jewish history (the Exodus, Sinai, destruction of the temples, Auschwitz and rebirth of the State of Israel). It bespeaks a view of history that is neither progressive nor catastrophic, recognizing as it does that God alone can save man from the unspeakable horror of the Holocaust, but also that God will do so only through the acting of man within history. The divine presence it witnesses to, therefore, is a commanding one, challenging Jews, secular and religious alike, "to survive as Jews," and never "to hand Hitler yet another, posthumous victory" by despairing either of God or of this world.

Sources
  • Fackenheim, Emil. An Epitaph for German Judaism: From Halle to Jerusalem. Introduction by Michael Morgan. Madison: University of Wisconsin, 2003.
  • Fackenheim, Emil. God’s Presence in History: Jewish Affirmations and Philosophical Reflections. New York: New York University Press; London: University of London Press, Ltd., 1970.
  • Fackenheim, Emil. The Jewish Return into History. New York: Schocken Books, 1978. See esp. 19-24; 25-32; 261-72.
  • Fackenheim, Emil. To Mend the World. New York: Schocken Books, 1982. See esp. 317-31.
  • Morgan, Michael L., ed. The Jewish Thought of Emil Fackenheim: A Reader. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1987.
  • Samuelson, Norbert M. An Introduction to Modern Jewish Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. 288-306.
  • Simon, Julius J. "Emil L. Fackenheim." In World Philosophers and Their Works. Vol. 1. edited by John, K. Roth. Pasadena, CA, and Hackensack, NJ: Salem Press, Inc., 2000. 629-34.
© 2008 McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers

Related Credo Articles

Full text Article Fackenheim, Emil L.
Biographical Dictionary of 20th Century Philosophers

Canadian Jew. b: 1916, Halle, Germany. Cat: Rabbi and theologian. Ints: Metaphysics; philosophy of religion; existentialism; history of...

Full text Article Emil Fackenheim (1916-)
Holocaust Literature: An Encyclopedia of Writers and Their Work

Emil Fackenheim was born in Halle, Germany, in 1916. His father, whose family's presence in Germany traced back to the Thirty Years War, was a...

Full text Article COHEN, HERMANN (1842–1918)
The New Encyclopedia of Judaism

German philosopher and interpreter of Judaism. The son of a cantor, he originally studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, but...

See more from Credo