That the main title of this book is a question is absolutely appropriate. Fackenheim asks a lot of questions – ones that made me smack my forehead and wonder why I hadn’t thought of them, ones that rattled the very foundations of my beliefs. And he went some ways in the direction of responding to them in a thoughtful and generally accessible way.
First, he establishes the groundwork for asking these questions, saying that, “Judaism has been a questioning faith ever since Abraham called God to account in the matter of Sodom and Gomorrah” (17) and reminds us, therefore, that “doubt has a legitimate place” (23).
He wonders why modern science has overtaken belief. Why do we need proof of G-d’s existence?
He also endorses Heschel’s stunning proclamation that “Pluralism is the will of God” (29). As easy as it might seem to cheer, that statement, Fackenheim reminds us, has implications for a Jewish faith that has as part of its very core, the notion that they, we, are the chosen people. Is it time to abandon that claim? For if we are chosen, then how can we support pluralism?
He writes that “every Jew seeking to come to grips with his religious situation must come to confront the fact of the State of Israel. He must do so for better or for worse” (32). As someone who is seeking to come to grips with his religious situation, current events this week have certainly forced me to consider the better and worse of Israel.
For Fackenheim, himself a Holocaust survivor, the State of Israel and the Holocaust are the starting points for any understanding of modern Judaism. They have created what he calls a “fidelity” to Judaism, and I think he’s right on this point for “[w]ithout fidelity [the Jews] would long have vanished from the earth” (46). We must, Fackenheim asserts, “hold ourself open to faith” (91). A simple and powerful statement; a hard thing to do for those of us subsumed by the modern view of things.
He asks, among other things, who is a Jew? Who is a Jew today? What is Jewish? (a “religious civilization”?). How have the Jews survived? They, we (why are the pronouns so hard?) have survived because of yeshivah, “a turning and returning in which the old is renewed” (58). “[T]he present must reach out to the past” (99, emphasis mine). The questions continue: “Does not intellectual integrity require us to view the world as closed to incursions of divinity in it?” (90). Why was Israel chosen? Do we need to abandon that part of our identity? (Fackenheim thinks so.) “How can a law or commandment that is divine be observed by such as himself, who are merely human?” (131). “[W]hat is a person without a past?” (144). “[W]ho is this God before Whom we stand?” (176). “How could Abraham obey?” is a great question, one that I wonder about even more now that I’m a parent. “If indeed there is a world to come, why did there have to be this world with its unspeakable agonies?” (274).
This is not an easy book. Some of the arguments and references are, at least for me, obscure. Fackenheim does have a way with a meaningful anecdote. I found some new heroes, like Gustav Schroeder, the Captain of the St. Louis, a German passenger ship that sailed for Cuba in 1939 with approximately 900 Jewish refugees fleeing to try to save their lives. When the ship was denied entry to Cuba and the United States, Schroeder had to turn back to Germany. He ordered the ship to proceed as slowly as possible to give those advocating for his passengers as much time as possible to try to find a place that would take in his passengers. Though this effort was in vain, Schroeder was definitely one of the 36 righteous men. I should know his name.