This piece, my reflections on the influential Jewish thinker Emil Fackenheim, appeared in the Rosh Hashanah 2016 edition of the Canadian Jewish News.
Please take a few moments and read below. Comments welcome!
Emil Fackenheim’s Tikkun (Olam)
This year marks the birth centenary of Emil Fackenheim, unquestionably among the most influential Jewish thinkers of the last century. Born in Halle, Germany in June 1916, the young Fackenheim was detained for six months at the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in the aftermath of Krystalnacht. He fled Nazi Germany for Britain in 1939, to be interned there for most of a year. He then managed to immigrate to Canada, only to be held yet again for another year. Finally free for good in 1940, Fackenheim took up work as a congregational rabbi (he had been ordained at Berlin’s Hochschule on the eve of his first detention) in Hamilton, Ontario. Meanwhile, he matriculated as a philosophy graduate student at the University of Toronto, destined to become his longtime professional home.
Over the next few decades, Fackenheim sought to frame an understanding of postShoah Jewish life. He was nothing if not after important matters – the books he wrote, the students he taught, and the philosophical admonitions he told reverberated with his urgency. Fulfilling a decades-long yearning, he made aliyah in the early ‘80s, and held forth from Jerusalem until his death in 2003.
I encountered Emil Fackenheim initially as a rabbinic student in Los Angeles in the late ’70s and then, once a rabbi, on a number of occasions in the late 1980s and early 1990s in Toronto. He’d been long associated with Holy Blossom Temple, mainly through his relationship with Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut. Fackenheim, like Plaut, was Old World as Holy Blossom and the University of Toronto, almost medieval in their physical presentations, also both appeared – especially to one newly arrived from California, the land of the new and the now. I couldn’t help but associate the formal, thickly accented Fackenheim with these two institutions, each of which bore in their respective edifices echoes of a haunted Europe.
During my professional relocation to Toronto in the late ‘80s – specifically to Bathurst Street, the geographic spine of the Jewish community – I was immediately struck by something I’d never previously considered. That is, in architectural terms, pre-war North American synagogues overwhelmingly faced themselves toward Europe, while those built after the War looked toward America. Earlier built synagogues borrowed heavily from the European architectural tradition, particularly from the Church, the pre-eminent public space since medieval days. Post-War synagogues leaned heavily on new American architectural forms, highly secular and functional in nature rather than religious and aspirational. A new world, a new time.
I’d look with curiosity southward a hundred yards or so down Bathurst Street from Holy Blossom towards Beth Tzedec Congregation. One building erected about seven years before the conclusion of World War II, and the other put up about seven years after the War. The differences are stark. On the one hand: Old World, dark, imbued with a sense of character, Holy Blossom summons forth the feel of a European church (in the sanctuary, anyway). On the other hand: The New World, inclined toward the sterile, its space suffused with light and openness, Beth Tzedec reflects post-War American public architecture and its surrounding ethos.
One sanctuary (Holy Blossom) feels meant to evoke the divine, while the other (Beth Tzedec) appears built to hold big celebrations; one is more aspirational, the other more functional. The former conjures up pre-war Europe, the latter, victorious America. Mine is not a comment on the respective congregations – both have enjoyed success and endure many decades after their respective origins. Rather, this observation is with regard to how each design evokes its time and place. In contemporary North America, Jews celebrate and pray in both types of synagogues, usually cognizant neither of what occasioned their respective architectural designs, nor of their consequences.
This dichotomy is found in synagogues throughout North America. Think: Montreal’s Shaar HaShomayim and Temple Emanuel; Wilshire Blvd Temple and Beth Jacob Congregation in Los Angeles. Manhattan’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue on the West Side, and Temple Israel on the East Side. In post-war America, newly built synagogues were articulations of more than design preferences; they also expressed the cultural and intellectual ways – and the woes – of North American Jewish life, religious and otherwise.
Europe in the ‘30s, despite its volatility, still reigned supreme in the arts, as in intellectual and religious life. Within a decade, Europe would be half destroyed, and America – ‘50s boom in full flight and on the ascendancy – now the world’s hub. One was a place of rapid decline, the other of intensive growth and urbanization. The expanding economy in the New World invariably influenced the design of public buildings, synagogues and churches included. Functionality paid off its debts quickly in America, while in Europe, debts and debris piled up.
In any case, after the war, discontinuity expressed itself beyond physical design. Within the many hundreds of suburban synagogues and temples erected on these shores in the ‘50s and ‘60s, contemporary communal requirements easily gained precedence over once normative religious imperatives. Post-war thought, no less than contemporary synagogue architecture, bore the stamp of progress and progressivism, of hope over horror, of sociology over theology – indeed, as never before, the hand of the human alone promised the possibility of redemption. For Europe and America both, the past grew increasingly less present. It was now, at best, an interesting relic.
In short, architectural style served as a metaphor for vast changes in every realm of Jewish life, including that of Jewish thought and ideas – the realm of Emil Fackenheim.
Into the breach, once in Canada and freed, stepped a young Fackenheim. Hungry to heal, and keen to heal the war’s rupture and ravages, particularly as visited upon the Jews, Fackenheim’s endeavour would be in the area of thought. A serious man in a less than serious time.
Nonetheless, in the shadow of mass murder, he valiantly attempted to forge a rearranged religio-philosophical worldview. Refusing to ignore evil, especially on a continent and in a time when denial was the overwhelming reality, Fackenheim sought regeneration and redemption – beginning with the Jews, but for the benefit of all. From the ‘50s on, it could be said that Fackenheim sought “to mend the world” – not so much the author’s early ‘80s book title, as it was Emil Fackenheim’s internal churning, turned into his worldview. By virtue of biography and intellectual vigor, he was well equipped to construct such an outlook.
Spurred by his biography, Fackenheim pursued a mending of the rupture he’d witnessed and then brooded on. His attempt at a tikkun emerged from the inside out: a regeneration of thought promised the possibility of a regeneration of life itself. Hence, Fackenheim’s career-long concentration on a systematization of Jewish thought – or, at least, a reintegration of the divine at the centre of Jewish thought, if not of Jewish life. His rebuilding, his re-imagined architectural infrastructure, was internal – at first, anyway. He was urgent about it all.
However, like other serious thinkers of his time, Fackenheim faced a problem. For postwar North American Jews, the profound took a backseat to the prosaic – itself, new and alluring and accessible, and driven incessantly by “progress”, the watchword of the new faith, maybe even the faith itself. This faith was defined by the externals of physical building almost to the exclusion of internal spiritual rebuilding.
One further word on the context in which Jewish “building” and “progress” proliferated.
Consider the 1964 World’s Fair in New York with its everything-in-them new homes. Imagine ‘50s and ‘60s California, unleashing an explosion of population, highways and university campuses. Think of the disappearance of front porches in new housing, once air conditioning and television became available and omnipresent. No less, suburban Toronto’s 1950’s development of York University was, in its own way, a conscious turning away from the past as represented by the far older (and downtown) University of Toronto, Emil Fackenheim’s very home.
In short, in the land of the new and the now, one in thrall to the thrill of change, there was little tolerance for stasis. It was forward all the way, and the Jews, in particular, were receptive – their very recent past, after all, appeared to offer no other choice. No wonder newly built suburban temples and synagogues throughout the continent showed little use for the past. Not architecturally, not socially, not politically.
Emil Fackenheim, however, outré as he was, almost uniquely sought a bridge between past and present. Especially so with regard to repair – so necessary for the Jews, especially. Amidst the aggressive discontinuities of postwar North American Jewish life, Emil Fackenheim’s attempt at repair – tikkun – meanwhile encountered a very different kind of tikkun: the newly formulated, or re-formulated and soon to be ubiquitous, “Tikkun Olam.”
Tikkun Olam, in its current iteration, originated in the early ‘50s (some say ‘40s, depending on who takes credit for cherry-picking an old concept and accommodating it to a contemporary agenda). Gaining steam over the next decades, by the 1990s Tikkun Olam had become the main organizing activity of many, perhaps most, non-Orthodox synagogues. “Social Action”, as it was usually named, now strode past Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Chassadim, not only in what Jews actually did together, but also as the raison d’être – if not the winning ticket – of North American Jewish life. Today, only Israel, and then only in some instances, can give Tikkun Olam a run for its money as a synagogue endeavour. In liberal Jewish circles, at least, Tikkun Olam is almost tantamount to Judaism itself.
As terms (like language) tend to do, this one has changed. In the case of tikkun olam, the metamorphasis from its Talmudic and medieval intentions has been dramatic. I won’t rehearse those changes – Jonathan Krasner, Gilbert Rosenthal, Arnold Jacob Wolf among others, have all covered that territory – but I do wish to offer several observations about post-war non-Orthodox Judaism, as much as about Emil Fackenheim’s work.
First, it’s obviously relevant that, once recast, the notion of tikkun would be understood in political and sociological terms – the terms of reference of the New World – rather than through the theological lens. In fact, it’s fair to say, that most Jews who employ the term are unaware of its theological and historic roots. Today’s rabbis most certainly know, but generally don’t tell: it doesn’t fit with the purposes and socio-political orthodoxy of the last two-plus decades.
Second, ironically and painfully, as Jews have built up an impressive array of physical structures after the War – synagogues, federations, JCCs; to say nothing of the museums, hospitals and universities N. American Jews have backed and built – we’ve emptied ourselves of content. Jewish knowledge and ideas? Gone – even as Fackenheim and others sought to shore up what had been lost, first destroyed in European depravity, and then dissolved in the waves of American prosperity.
Third, nonetheless, significant thinkers have valiantly fought the tide. Emil Fackenheim, Eugene Borowitz and Abraham Heschel (thinking now of non-Orthodox theologians) to name three. Even while earning wide audiences, they invested hope in their disciples: Perhaps the regeneration of Jewish thought might take through its transmission from teacher to student, and the centre then restored.
Fourth and most important, the cruelest irony, along with the deepest understanding of Emil Fackenheim’s work, stems from the following two-fold reality.
Fackenheim, in some essential way, believed that thinking was everything. Specifically, if you could think and think well (he was a Straussian, at least in part) – only thus equipped, could you acknowledge and confront evil. This was not only crucial – after all, the embers of the fires lit by human evil still burned, and how could anyone not know? But, to think and think well was the fundamental tikkun required for human and Jewish revitalization. This was the mending called for; it started in cognition and carried into courage to confront evil.
The related element of this two-fold reality is just this: In the contemporary rendering of Tikkun Olam, that of liberal rabbis, progressive activists or Barack Obama for that matter, there is virtually no room for evil. Activist rabbis and their confreres want desperately to “repair the world”, but they can’t or don’t dare acknowledge human evil. Whether employed to justify a political goal, or utilized as a branding slogan for educational institutions (rabbinical seminaries included), or to furnish the bulk of the programmatic content of most synagogues, “Tikkun Olam” is as ubiquitous as discussion of evil is absent.
Talk about the cruelest irony. The very People which only yesterday experienced horrific human-made evil, today, as they (indeed, to the credit of many contemporary Jews) agitate for the betterment of the many – often appear unknowing that what so recently destroyed their own was evil at its most obvious.
Ultimately, history may judge Emil Fackenheim as a bridge between worlds. The old and the new, Europe and North America, North America and Israel, Jews and nonJews, the academy and the synagogue. Amongst these, the most important one may prove that of his thought – a bridge from the inner world of Jewish thought to the external world in need. In essence: If you seek to repair the world, you must begin in recognition of evil well before you can work toward the good. This is the meaning of the religious intellectual infrastructure erected by Emil Fackenheim.
Tikkun, Fackenheim’s anyway, starts with an internal mending: Real repair begins internally with how you think, both about evil, as well as about redemption from evil. Once that’s comprehended and confronted – only then can you build a bridge towards a world finally redeemed by God. The God who has been waiting all along, way too patiently and imperfectly, nonetheless, for humans to make their necessary repairs. Once this mending is on its way to realization – only then can you truly hope for the better. And only then can you truly change the world.
John Moscowitz, rabbi emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple, Toronto, is the author of “Evolution of An Unorthodox Rabbi” (Dundurn Press).