Fackenheim and Rubenstein in Conversation

From the passages of their writing that we have read, it is feasible to explore the possible interactions between Fackenheim and Rubenstein concerning the need to alter our Jewish understanding and practices after the Holocaust. While these thinkers may disagree about each other’s overarching claims and rooted beliefs, the two offer different perspectives that may be somewhat reconciled in terms of practical application. Fackenheim offers hope for critical changes in the way we prioritize our survival as a faith, and Rubenstein stresses the need to alter our perception and relationship to an absent God. But these contrasting perspectives both lead to a commitment to the future of the Jewish people, an emphasis on Jewish community, and an understanding of the uniqueness in the profound effects of the Holocaust.

Fackenheim proposes the necessity for a 614th commandment: “The authentic Jew of today is forbidden to hand Hitler yet another, posthumous victory” (159). He explains that there are four implied obligations that compose this new commandment. The first of which is that the Jewish people must continue to survive. Fackenheim asserts that this intuitive need for Jewish survival after the tragedy of the Holocaust is today’s most authentic act of faith. It is possible to imagine Rubenstein’s response to this claim. Rubenstein believes that we live in the time of the death of God, as it is impossible to have faith in a powerful and present God after the occurrence of the Holocaust. He writes, “The thread uniting God and man, heaven and earth has been broken” (199). As we stand alone in a silent and apathetic cosmos, he argues that Jews need Torah and the religious community more now than ever. In response to Fackenheim, perhaps Rubenstein would explain that Fackenheim’s sense for the need of Jewish survival is born from the instinctual understanding that a void exists where God used to be. Because of this void, Rubenstein stresses that Jews must enhance religious norms and community in order to sustain the indispensability of Torah. Rubenstein might classify Fackenheim’s goal for Jewish survival as a method for strengthening and ensuring the Jewish community at a time when it is most necessary—the age of God’s death.

The next obligation within Fackenheim’s 614th commandment is that “we are commanded to remember in our very guts and bones the martyrs of the Holocaust, lest their memory perish” (160). This remark emphasizes Fackenheim’s belief in the uniqueness of the Holocaust as a radically altering event for the Jewish people. Rubenstein agrees with this notion, rooting his belief of God’s absence in the unavoidable theological effects of the Holocaust. Rubenstein’s reaction to the importance of the Holocaust differs from Fackenheim in that he understands the horrors of the Shoah as proof of God’s disappearance from our world. Rubenstein would perhaps explicate Fackenheim’s obligation for remembering those lost in the Holocaust as an accentuation of the demonic, antihuman acts that are impossible to account to God’s will. While honoring the memories of the victims (as Fackenheim obligates), we are emphasizing the horrible events of the Holocaust that cannot plausibly be reasoned as occurring under the surveillance of an omnipotent, beneficent God. With this interpretation, Rubenstein is certain in the death of God. In reaction to the significant amount of martyrs, Rubenstein asks, “After Auschwitz, what else can a Jew say about God?” (199)

As the third piece of his 614th commandment to prevent Hitler from another victory, Fackenheim forbids Jews to deny or despair God. He threatens that if this obligation is not withheld, the Jewish people will perish. With these words, Fackenheim directly contradicts Rubenstein’s belief in the death of God. In addition to Rubenstein’s reasoning behind his claim about an absent God, he would also dispute Fackenheim’s declaration that denying God leads to the end of the Jewish people. Rubenstein would most likely reply to Fackenheim with a statement such as, “Though I believe a void stands where once we experienced God’s presence, I do not think Judaism has lost its power” (201). The difference in these thinkers’ views about the fate of Judaism if God is denied is that Fackenheim believes a theistic God is vital for the survival of the Jewish people and religion. Rubenstein, on the other hand, disagrees. He defines Judaism as a resource to share critical times and life’s tragedies with the Jewish community through ritual and tradition. This understanding of Judaism as “the need religiously to share [our] existence” is not diminished by the decline of a theistic God (201). In fact, due to the intuition for our loneliness without this God, he argues that Jewish culture and religion will flourish extraordinarily. For this reason, Rubenstein would strongly oppose Fackenheim’s forbidding Jews to deny God in order to ensure Jewish continuity.

In the final obligation within his 614th commandment, Fackenheim states, “We are forbidden to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of God, lest we help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted” (160). Here, Fackenheim asserts that a belief like Rubenstein’s in the death of God creates a world empty of significance, which ultimately leads to the devaluing of laws and norms that guard the world from indecency and faithlessness. Rubenstein’s theology states the opposite view. While we have previously explored why Rubenstein finds meaning in religion despite the absence of God, he also discusses how Jewish law is both flexible and relevant in this time. He would agree with Fackenheim in the importance of Jewish law, as it results in Judaism’s notable contribution to the world—the high quality of its men and women. But while Fackenheim thinks a lost faith in God’s existence in the world can only lead to a dismissal of these laws, Rubenstein insists that the death of God does not negatively impact the Jewish reception of the commandments. Rubenstein claims that, although the mitzvot are surely binding, Jews must “confront all 613 commandments in the light of the insights of their time in order to decide what sector is meaningful to them” (193). At the time of the God’s death, it is necessary to define and keep the laws that help Jews through life’s crises in order to strengthen Jewish norms and community. With such beliefs in the law’s flexibility and timeless relevance as an essential aspect of Judaism even without God’s beneficent power, Rubenstein would likely criticize Fackenheim’s assertion that a faith without God incites a lawless, meaningless and futureless Judaism.

Through an insight into the possible reactions, oppositions and agreements between Fackenheim and Rubenstein, we may better comprehend the two thinkers’ very different responses to the theological impacts of the Holocaust. While Rubenstein would perhaps interpret Fackenheim’s theology for his 614th commandment as an intuitive response to sensing the death of God, Fackenheim values the belief in a theistic God as an unmovable base for the Jewish future. Still, both theologians are motivated by the radical effects of the Holocaust and understand the extreme necessity for community and continuity as a Jewish reaction to the unforgettable implications of the Shoah. Fackenheim and Rubenstein, despite their conflicting perception of God’s role in the world, emphasize a practical application for enhanced Jewish peoplehood and religiosity.

By Lucille Marshall

Written for God, Torah and Israel in Modern Jewish Thought with Rabbi William Plevan at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

Works Cited

Fackenheim, Emil L. The Jewish Return into History: Reflections in the Age of Auschwitz and a New Jerusalem. New York: Schocken, 1978. 157-83. Print.

Rubenstein, Richard L. The Condition of Jewish Belief; a Symposium,. New York: Macmillan, 1966. 192-201. Print.


About lucystarer

college student. hiker. oatmeal eater.

4 responses to “Fackenheim and Rubenstein in Conversation

  1. I’m not Jewish, not even the slightest, but it takes a particular form of idiot to not enjoy Fackenheim and/or Rubenstein. I haven’t read The Condition, yet, but it is on the list. I was not particularly taken in by the 614 commandment, perhaps because it wasn’t directed at me, but his other essays were delicious. They required so much thinking. They glittered with a thousand ideas. I wish everyone could write like him…

    • He’s definitely an interesting guy, and I agree with you completely! I’m hoping to read more of his stuff. I suppose that one, Jewish or not, could respond to the 614 commandment with this question: is the belief in God completely necessary for the survival of a peoplehood? Somehow it comforts me that Fackenheim is so sure…even though it’s so unclear to me!

      • Any peoplehood…? I like to think not. The idea that there can be some other form of absolute truth in the world comforts me. Not exactly science, but anything that could fill the gap would be nice. Perhaps some nice bit of nothingness could fill the gap like, eh, ‘love’ or ‘equality.’ But then I look around. I realize that, even for me, I have these great beliefs… And I live by none of them. There needs to be something that is outside of me and God does seem to fit the bill.

        Really though I have no answer. Maybe it’s better that way. I can’t lost all my mystery, especially to myself.

      • My thoughts line up much closer to yours than with Fackenheim. But at least we have his words to help us explore… 🙂

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