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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Voluntary Covenant

"In retrospect, it is now clear that the divine assignment to the Jews was untenable. After the Holocaust, it is obvious that this role opened the Jews to a total murderous fury from which there was no escape…Morally speaking, then, God can have no claims on the Jews by dint of the Covenant." What this means, Greenberg argues, is that the Covenant, "can no longer be commanded and subject to a serious external enforcement. It cannot be commanded because morally speaking‑‑covenantally speaking‑‑one can­not order another to step forward to die. One can give an order like this to an enemy, but in a moral relationship, I cannot demand giving up one's life. I can ask for it or plead for it­ but I cannot order it."

Out of this complex of considerations, Greenberg pronounces the fateful judgment: The Jewish covenant with God is now voluntary! Jews have, quite miraculously, chosen to continue to live Jewish lives and collectively to build a Jewish state the ultimate symbol of Jewish continuity, but these acts are, after Auschwitz, the result of the free choice of the Jewish people. "I submit," writes Greenberg, "that the covenant was broken. God was in no position to command anymore but the Jewish people was so in love with the dream of redemption that it volunteered to carry on with its mission." The consequence of this voluntary action transforms the existing convenantal order. First Israel was a junior partner, then an equal partner. Finally, after Auschwitz, it becomes "the senior partner in action."

Questioning Greenberg

Greenberg's reconstruction of Jewish theology after the Holocaust presents a fascinating, creative reaction to the unprecedented evil manifest in the death camps. The question of the maintenance of his view, however, turns on the issues of: (a) the correctness of his theological reading of Jewish history, an open and difficult question; and (b) the theological meaning and status of key categories such as "covenant," "revelation," "commandment," and the like. That is to ask, on the one hand, whether Greenberg has done justice to their classical employment, and, second, whether his revised rendering is justifiable and functional: and (c) whether we should allow Hitler and the Holocaust such decisive power in determining the inner, authentic nature of Jewish theology.

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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.