Ariel Center for
Policy Research



NATIV  Volume Sixteen   Number 6 (95)  ■  November  2003 ■ Kislev 5764 ■ Ariel Center for Policy Research





Emil Fackenheim, z"l

Anne Bayefsky

These are the High Holy Days and for the first time in 87 years the voice of Emil Fackenheim is stilled. Emil died on September 19, 2003. I remember his voice as a teenager 35 years ago, when Emil Fackenheim’s words were the reason hundreds of people went to a Reform synagogue in Toronto, Canada on days like Yom Kippur. For Emil Fackenheim had two spiritual, wrenching, messages in the midst of the contradictions of a diaspora community, that was upwardly mobile and constantly trying to fit in. As in many such communities throughout North America, the local rabbis often struggled to cast the results of anti-Semitism as our failing to empathize sufficiently with the enemies of the Jewish people.

Fackenheim told us the Holocaust had philosophical significance, not only for Judaism, but for all humankind, and that the existence of Israel mattered not only for Jews, but for world history. Radical evil could not, and had not been, overcome by philosophical or religious thought. The death of six million people, including one million children, whose crime was existence, was an event unique in human history before and after the Holocaust. It challenged all religions and all future understanding of life beyond the state of nature. What thought cannot master, the reality of survival might. The continuation and renewal of the Jewish people in the land of Israel was a testament to a remaining potential for good and for peace.

Fackenheim was a modern man who, not only understood the secular Jew, but also sought to include secularism in Jewish history. He was an ethical man who had deep connections with the non-Jewish community, and who appealed to their religious depths to confront the past in order to move forward together. He was an egalitarian who accepted and nurtured the aspirations of women and minorities throughout his long career.

After being interned in the Sachenhausen concentration camp in Nazi Germany, he made his way to Canada in 1940 and eventually to a professorship in philosophy at the University of Toronto, where he taught until 1984. Emil married a non-Jew, a deeply spiritual woman who converted to Judaism in her own time and place, upon their making aliya to Israel 20 years ago. Together he and Rose raised their four children, one having sadly been born with severe autism, as Jews. Rose, who was much younger than Emil, regularly sat in the front row of his many talks, taking responsibility for the recording of his words for posterity. Emil himself spoke from a few pages of scribbled notes. Many in the audience were grateful that she would be there to help encourage his longevity. It was Rose, however, who developed early Alzheimer’s Disease, and Emil raised their still young family alone. He lived to see two sons serve in the Israeli army, his children marry and have children of their own, leaving behind Michael, Suzy, David, Yossi and five grandchildren, Daniella, Benjy, Dan, Adam and Gideon.

Listening carefully to Professor Fackenheim required sitting in the front row. His heavy German accent remained with him all his life. Beyond this superficial impediment however, he was one of the 20th century’s greatest orators. One could not hear a pin drop, in otherwise restless crowds, though his subject matter was Rosenzweig and Hegel. He would infuse each lecture with a central theme, spell it out at the beginning, weave a complex story drawn from the leading philosophical figures and Jewish teachings over thousands of years, and conclude with a reminder bearing out his opening remarks. Every lecture at the University, every sermon at the synagogue, was a work of art. Everyone who heard him sought to be a better person, to understand more, to reach deeper.

For Emil Fackenheim, however, Israel was not a theory, but a calling. He left behind a comfortable life in Canada to move his family to Israel in the 1980s when he was already an older man. It is a serious failing that Israel was not as welcoming as it should have been. Promises of positions disappeared, invitations to speak at appropriate moments were not forthcoming. His Hebrew language skills did not enable him to deliver the masterpieces of which he was capable in another language. Undeterred, he continued to travel the world when he could, contributing to dialogue and learning in other places. He kept writing. He read prodigiously throughout his life in a multiplicity of languages.

Emil’s fate during his later years is a lesson for all those seeking to synthesize liberalism and reality, humanism and Judaism. For Emil, philosophy was not an abstraction. It was intimately connected to politics writ large, and everyday events. He felt the march of history most acutely in Israel, where the threat of extermination of a remnant population was, and is, a constant presence. Emil’s philosophical message had a political application and he did not hesitate to lay its meaning bare by a letter to the editor or a question from the audience to a panel of pundits.

The result was ad hominem criticism and disconnection from some of liberal Judaism’s self-flagellating and obsequious authorities. The label of “right-wing” was an easy excuse not to confront the deeper message of his inquiries and concerns. Yet his very understanding, humility, openness and compassion for Jew and non-Jew alike made him a liberal in every sense of the word, but for the characteristic of inner shame. Emil Fackenheim lived and breathed the words of Pirke Avot, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Emil’s historical and religious insight led him to Jerusalem where he lived for almost two decades, and where he died. He never flinched from the insistence of the centrality of Jerusalem for Judaism, its essential importance for the vitality of the State of Israel, and the reality of a unified Jerusalem as the only assurance of Jewish self-determination and preservation. In 2002 he spoke at my daughter’s bat mitzvah, held outdoors overlooking the old city’s Tower of David, only a few days after a horrible bombing by Palestinian terrorists at the Hebrew University. To the sounds of occasional sirens in the streets, Rabbi Fackenheim said: “It is a crisis-age for Jews, but it gets clearer all the time that it is also for all humanity, for world history... Our crisis age began with a physical attack on our people which shatters us still, and now an attack on the state Jews needed to survive physically, and the return to Jerusalem which they needed to survive in spirit.” His message of an inescapable link between the necessity of Jewish survival, and the survival of civilization itself and its triumph over evil, was one of inclusion and of tolerance.

In his final week, Emil spoke to a close associate about what might be remembered of his work. She suggested people would remember his having penned a 614th commandment, one more than the Torah’s 613 commandments. He wrote in 1967 that Jews have an obligation not to give Hitler a posthumous victory. We have a moral duty to remain Jewish in a post-Holocaust world, despite the natural disinclination to penetrate and to fathom the horrors of the past, and despite the strength required to face the atrocities suffered by Israelis today. Emil responded to his associate’s speculation, “I hope so.” Amen.


Anne Bayefsky is a Professor of Political Science at York University, Toronto, Canada, Adjunct Professor at Columbia University Law School, New York. She was a student of Professor Fackenheim in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Toronto in the 1970s and a considers herself enormously fortunate to have been a friend ever since.

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