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A New Survival Course for and Old Faith : WHAT IS JUDAISM? An Interpretation for the Present Age by Emil L. Fackenheim (Summit Books: $17.95; 275 pp.)

December 06, 1987|Benjamin J. Hubbard | Hubbard teaches Jewish Studies in the Department of Religious Studies, California State University, Fullerton. and

As a 22-year-old rabbinical student in 1938, Emil Fackenheim, in a Nazi jail with 20 other Jews, was asked by one of them: "You know more about Judaism than the rest of us here. You tell us what it has to say to us now!" But he could not answer.

Nearly a half century later--in light of the death of European Jewry and the resurrection of the Jewish state--Fackenheim responds. He does so not mainly for scholars but for ordinary Jewish people, like those in that jail cell. His interpretation of Judaism is profound and insightful, for it asks the right questions: about God's existence after Auschwitz, the Jews' chosenness, the efficacy of prayer, the observances of the Jewish tradition, Jewish Messianism, the afterlife. His answers are wise and full of humanity.

Fackenheim's humanity shines through in his frequent appeal to the Midrash (rabbinic interpretations of the Bible that answer theological questions by telling stories) and in his reminiscences as a German Jew who spent time in a concentration camp, became a distinguished philosophy professor in Canada and, after retiring, emigrated to Israel.

In studying the past of Judaism, Fackenheim discusses Jewish fidelity to tradition and recalls a visit with Soviet Jewish refuseniks. One of them asked Fackenheim to discuss Jewish philosophy, but the philosopher wasn't sure what the refusenik wanted from such a discussion. So the refusenik explained: "We already know that it is our duty to survive as Jews. Jewish philosophy will tell us why."

In his analysis of the Jewish present, the author notes that the Decalogue command not to worship idols--which seemed so meaningless as a hallmark of Judaism in the 19th Century--has attained new meaning after the modern idolatry of Nazism. He explains the 613 commandments of the Torah as a source of joy rather than a burden and insists that lovingkindness, judgment and righteousness--action, not contemplation--have "the last word in Judaism." In fact, Fackenheim concludes his discussion of Jewish ethics by stating paradoxically, "Even for a Jew who cannot believe in God it is necessary to act as though man were made in His image."

In discussing the Jewish holidays, the author distinguishes between those that are settled and whose meaning is clear (Jewish New Year, Day of Atonement, Passover, etc.) and the two recent ones, Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel Independence Day. The thinkers and rabbis, he says, do not yet know how to observe the Holocaust. Independence cannot be taken for granted by the secular Jew, for the state of Israel is small and its enemies are numerous. Nor can the religious Jew rest easy: "He knows that a God who did not or could not prevent the Holocaust cannot be counted on to prevent a catastrophe for . . . Israel."

Yet, the book's final part, "Future," which considers the founding of the Jewish state, the messianic days and the world to come, and God in the age of Auschwitz and the rebuilt Jerusalem, is hopeful. In fact, Fackenheim thinks there must be a midrash (though he hasn't found it yet) that says: "Who is a Jew? One who hopes." Still, it is a paradoxical hope: "Never did hope do as much harm as during the Holocaust; and never has hope been as necessary for a Jew as thereafter."

Regarding the world to come, another paradox: The rabbis were totally committed to resurrection and afterlife, but nearly agnostic about the nature of both. Moreover, according to Fackenheim, one hour of repentance and good deeds is better than the whole of the next life because only by such acts does a person "make himself unique."

Finally, Fackenheim takes up the ultimate principle of Judaism, "the intimacy of the divine infinity," and speaks of a God who at Auschwitz hid the infinity of His pain from the world lest the world be destroyed.

This is a great book, but it demands of its reader both effort and a willingness to face difficult questions about the Jewish experience. Though written for Jews, it may become the best single book for the non-Jew who wants to comprehend Judaism in its most momentous age.

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