In Memoriam: Emil Fackenheim 1916-2003; Some Personal Reminiscences

By Ages, Arnold | Midstream, January-February 2005 | Go to article overview

In Memoriam: Emil Fackenheim 1916-2003; Some Personal Reminiscences


Ages, Arnold, Midstream


At the memorial service held at Toronto's Holy Blossom Temple in October of 2003, those who eulogized Emil Fackenheim--Indiana University philosophy professor Michael Morgan, Rabbi Emeritus Dow Marmur, and former Temple president, Henrietta Chesnie--were profound, thoughtful, and inspiring in their collective recollections of the Halle-born Jewish thinker whose 614th commandment "thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory," is the most widely quoted statement in the inventory of modern Jewish thought.

These eloquent speakers told the truth about Emil Fackenheim, as Huckleberry Finn would say, "mostly." But they could not compact the whole truth into a 45-minute service cum memorial segment. This is not to gainsay the importance of the event and the effort on the part of the collaborators to render homage to one of the most original and provocative thinkers of the 20th century.

My first encounter with Emil Fackenheim was in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when I was completing a Ph.D. in Romance Languages at Ohio State University. As an avid student of Bible and theology (may dissertation was on Voltaire's Biblical criticism), I frequently came across Fackenheim's name in Midstream, Judaism, and some of the more technical scholarly journals. His scholarly writing on Hegel, I found, was draped in obscure philosophical paradigms that were beyond my ken.

But his essays on Jewish philosophy and thought shone with analytical brilliance and clarity of thought. His book reviews were models of fairness, and he was unafraid to criticize the big names in Jewish philosophy, including Abraham Joshua Heschel. In a conversation I had with the late Marvin Fox, then professor of philosophy at Ohio State, I asked this rigorously Orthodox rabbi and scholar what he thought of the liberal Jewish philospher, Emil Fackenheim.

I shall never forget the response, which Fox delivered with a smile: "Fackenheim is a dangerous man." When I asked for elaboration, Fox said that because of his brilliance, Fackenheim was a worthy adversary. Coming from Marvin Fox, a man who was notoriously scrooge-like with compliments, these comments about Fackenheim were a strong tribute.

After obtaining the Ph.D in 1963, I accepted a position as professor of French language and literature at the University of Waterloo, a one-hour drive from Toronto. Although I had no personal contact with Fackenheim during the first six years at Waterloo, I continued to read his seminal writings and noticed the shift that he had made in his thought regarding the Holocaust and Zionism, subjects with which he had not been preoccupied with up to that point. Particularly moving was the famous 1968 Commentary article in which he articulated a new way of pondering the conundrum flowing from the basic problem in theodicy. How could God have permitted the Holocaust?

Just after the June 1967 war, I was invited to give a lecture at Temple Anshei Shalom in Hamilton, Ontario, and just before delivering my remarks, I decided to walk through the synagogue and look at the various wall displays. Prominently hung on them were portraits of the various rabbis who had served the congregation--including one of a young Emil Fackenheim, who had served the congregation briefly in the 1940s. Standing by me was an elderly gentleman, and when I observed that Emil Fackenheim was pictured there, he said: "Oh yes, Rabbi Fackenheim, I always wondered what had happened to him after he left the congregation."

In 1969, in what was to be a one-year sabbatical in Toronto (it has lasted now for 34 years), I finally had the opportunity of meeting Emil Fackenheim and becoming a colleaglle of his until he made aliyah in 1985. During that 16-year-period, I had the opportunity of reading some of the books that he published (God's Presence in History, The Jewish Bible After the, Holocaust, Quest for Past and Future, To Mend The World, Encounters Between Judaism and Philosophy, and, What is Judaism? …

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