The Holocaust as Revelation: Fackenheim & Greenberg

According to some thinkers, the events of the Nazi era initiated changes in the nature of Judaism.

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Questioning Fackenheim

This interesting, highly influential response to the Shoah requires detailed analysis of a sort that is beyond our present possibilities. However, it needs to be stressed that the main line of critical inquiry into Fackenheim's position must center on the dialogical notion of revelation and the related idea of commandment, as that traditional notion is here employed. That is to ask: (a) how do historical events become revelatory? and (b) what exactly does Fackenheim mean by the term "commandment?"

In the older, traditional theological vocabulary of Judaism, it meant something. God actually "spoke" to the people of Israel. Fackenheim, however, would reject this literal meaning in line with his dialogical premises. But then what does "commanded" here mean? It would seem that the word has only analogical or metaphorical sense in this case, but, if so, what urgency and compelling power does it retain? Second, is it appropriate that Hitler gains such prominence in Jewish theology, that Judaism survives primarily to spite his dark memory? In raising these issues, we only begin to do justice to the richness and ingenuity of Fackenheim's position.

The Covenant Broken‑‑A New Age

A second contemporary thinker who has urged continued belief in the God of Israel, though on new terms, is Yitzchak (Irving) Greenberg. For Greenberg, all the old truths and certainties, all the old commitments and obligations have been destroyed by the Holocaust. Moreover, any simple faith is now impossible. The Holocaust ends the old era of Jewish covenantal existence and ushers in a new and different one.

Greenberg explicates this radical notion in this way. There are three major periods in the covenantal history of Israel. The first is the biblical era. What characterizes this first covenantal stage is the asymmetry of the relationship between God and Israel. The biblical encounter may be a covenant but it is clearly a covenant in which "God is the initiator, the senior partner, who punishes, rewards and enforces the punishment if the Jews slacken."

The second, rabbinical phase in the transformation of the covenant idea is marked by the destruction of the Second Temple. The "meaning" adduced from this event, the reaction of the rabbis, was to argue that now Jews must take a more equal role in the covenant, becoming true partners with the almighty. The manifest divine presence and activity was being reduced but the covenant was actually being renewed. The destruction of 70 C.E. signaled the initiation of an age in which God would be less manifest though still present.

This brings us to what is decisive and rad­ical in Greenberg's ruminations, what he has termed the "Third Great Cycle in Jewish History," which has come about as a conse­quence of the Holocaust. The Shoah marks a new era in which the Sinaitic covenantal relationship was shattered; now, if there is to be any covenantal relationship at all, an unprecedented form of it must come into being.

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Dr. Steven T. Katz

Dr. Steven T. Katz is the director of the Elie Wiesel Center for Judaic Studies at Boston University. He is the author of The Holocaust in Historical Context.