Menu JTA Search

Fackenheim’s philosophy remembered


Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim in a July 1982 photo. (BP Images)

Jewish philosopher Emil Fackenheim in a July 1982 photo. (BP Images)

TEL AVIV, Sept. 22 (JTA) — While the world will remember Emil Fackenheim as a prominent philosopher and theologian, those eulogizing him at his funeral this week remembered a more personal side. Yossi Fackenheim shared memories of Fackenheim as a father and role model, and Michael Morgan, a close friend and former student of Fackenheim’s, recalled how his teacher and friend had a great sense of humor and always loved to hear a good joke. At 87 years old, Fackenheim “lived a full and busy life,” said David Silberklang, who worked closely with the philosopher as his teaching and research assistant during the 1980s. “But death always comes too soon,” he said. Fackenheim was ill the last couple of weeks of his life and died last Friday. Born in Halle, Germany, in 1916, Fackenheim was affected profoundly by the Holocaust. As a rabbi and philosopher, he spent his life trying to understand its meaning, writing dozens of books on the subject, including “To Mend the World.” He is perhaps most famous for his assertion that after the catastrophic event, Jews have not only 613 commandments to obey, but 614. The last commandment, Fackenheim asserted, was to be actively Jewish, thus denying Hitler a posthumous victory. The afternoon and evening services at the family’s shiva also reflected Fackenheim’s philosophy: They were Reform yet very traditional. Fackenheim “was trained as a Reform rabbi in Germany and practiced as a Reform rabbi in Toronto,” explained Silberklang. “But he was also a traditional Jew.” Silberklang recalled that Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War also profoundly impacted Fackenheim’s life. “From 1967 onward, he called the Holocaust and the creation of Israel the most significant events of the 20th century — both Jewish and in general.” That war was a turning point for Fackenheim because “he saw God’s hand in the victory,” Silberklang said. The event caused Fackenheim to reflect on “the courage involved to create the state against all odds, to win the War of Independence against all odds.” After 1967, Fackenheim built his philosophy and theology around those two events, arguing that philosophers had not yet addressed them philosophically, Silberklang said. Though Fackenheim wanted to make aliyah since 1967, he stayed in Canada until the 1980s. He had a full time job and a family with four children to support. Once Fackenheim retired, however, he immediately moved to Jerusalem, where he began teaching part time at Hebrew University, and later, Hebrew Union College. Silberklang recounted one particularly emotional moment, shortly after Fackenheim’s arrival in Israel at Hebrew University. At the end of his first class, taught in the late afternoon, Fackenheim was facing the class. The students in turn were facing both Fackenheim and the classroom windows behind him, overlooking the Old City and the Temple Mount. “He lectured, and as he came to the conclusion, he talked of the significance of the Holocaust and the creation of Israel,” recalled Silberklang. "Then he became emotional about what it meant to teach students at Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. Right then, the sun hit the Dome of the Rock. It was amazing. I asked him, “How did you arrange that?’ " Fackenheim also felt that having a Jewish army protecting the Jewish people was very meaningful. “When there was an existential threat to the Jewish people — to Israel, as the state of the Jewish people — the only ones coming to our defense was the Jewish army. That was a gigantic experience for him,” Silberklang said. Fackenheim’s philosophy about the Holocaust and Israel was with him to the very last moment — even in how he asked to be remembered. At the funeral, Rabbi Levy Kelman, a personal friend, announced on behalf of the family that if anyone wanted to commemorate Fackenheim they should give to two charities Fackenheim had specified: Yad Vashem and Libi, which provides financial assistance to Israeli soldiers.