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Emil Fackenheim facts for kids

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Emil Ludwig Fackenheim
Born 22 June 1916
Halle/Saale, Province of Saxony, German Empire
Died 18 September 2003(2003-09-18) (aged 87)
Era 20th-century philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Continental philosophy
Main interests
  • The Holocaust
  • Radical Evil
  • Israel
  • Tikkun Olam
Notable ideas
  • 614th Commandment

Emil Ludwig Fackenheim (22 June 1916 – 18 September 2003) was a Jewish philosopher and Reform rabbi.

Born in Halle, Germany, he was arrested by Nazis on the night of 9 November 1938, known as Kristallnacht. Briefly interned at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp (1938–1939), he escaped with his younger brother Wolfgang to Great Britain, where his parents later joined him. Emil's older brother Ernst-Alexander, who refused to leave Germany, was killed in the Holocaust.

Held by the British as an enemy alien after the outbreak of World War II, Fackenheim was sent to Canada in 1940, where he was interned at a remote internment camp near Sherbrooke, Quebec. He was freed afterward and served as the Interim Rabbi at Temple Anshe Shalom in Hamilton, Ontario, from 1943 to 1948. After this he enrolled in the graduate philosophy department of the University of Toronto and received a PhD from the University of Toronto with a dissertation on medieval Arabic philosophy (1945) and became Professor of Philosophy (1948–1984). He was among the original Editorial Advisors of the scholarly journal Dionysius. In 1971, he received an honorary doctorate from Sir George Williams University, which later became Concordia University.

Fackenheim researched the relationship of the Jews with God, believing that the Holocaust must be understood as an imperative requiring Jews to carry on Jewish existence and the survival of the State of Israel. He emigrated to Israel in 1984.

"He was always saying that continuing Jewish life and denying Hitler a posthumous victory was the 614th law," referring to the 613 mitzvot given to the Jews in the Torah.


Emil Fackenheim created this concept of the "614th commandment" (or "614th mitzvah.") The "614th Commandment" can be interpreted as a moral imperative that Jews not use the facts of the Holocaust to give up on God, Judaism or—in the case of secular Jews as well—on the continuing survival of the Jewish people, thereby giving Hitler a "posthumous victory". The meaning of this imperative has been the subject of serious dialogue both within and beyond the Jewish community. Opposition to the goals of Hitler is a moral touchstone that has implications for several sensitive issues.

A new moral imperative

Traditional Jewish law contains 613 mitzvot (commandments) as compiled by Maimonides. These laws—365 of which are negative (e.g. "Thou shalt not...") and 248 of which are positive—cover all aspects of life. Fackenheim asserted that tradition could not anticipate the Holocaust, so one more law, a 614th Commandment, became necessary. "Thou shalt not hand Hitler posthumous victories. To despair of the God of Israel is to continue Hitler's work for him." This proposes that people of Jewish heritage have a moral obligation to observe their faith and thus frustrate Hitler's goal of eliminating Judaism from the earth.

Fackenheim came to this conclusion slowly.


In dialogue about this subject, choice of words is a sensitive matter. Within the Jewish community, many reject Fackenheim's assertion that this could be called a commandment. The Torah already forbids adding additional commandments. Wording that expresses this concept in the form of a commandment may also give offense.

This becomes a contentious point because references to a "614th commandment" are not unique to Fackenheim. This concise term has other shortcomings besides the theological objection. To count this as an addition to Jewish law is an implicit statement that it applies only to Jews. Opposition to the goals of Hitler is a universal concept. Gentiles can respect it by studying the Holocaust and opposing antisemitism. In Christian contexts this ideal sometimes appears as the "11th commandment." Christians generally recognize 10 commandments of the Old Testament. This may give unintentional offense to Jews who recognize a different 11th commandment and may lead to confusion with other unrelated ideas that Christians have called an 11th commandment.

Although there is no single formulation that expresses this concept in terms that avoid controversy, posthumous victories and Hitler appear in most descriptions.



Fackenheim applied this reasoning to the state of Israel and its Law of Return as a necessity to prevent a second Holocaust. Had a Jewish state existed in the 1930s, it could have accepted Jewish refugees and rescued large numbers of people. This opinion carries clout with most Jewish people although the specifics of how to apply it in contemporary politics is a subject of debate. Boris Shusteff invokes it in a conservative opposition to Israeli withdrawal from settlements.

Despite the explicit connection to Zionism, few sources mention Hitler and posthumous victories in reference to Islam. Christian Palestinian Sami A. Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh of the Swiss Institute of Comparative Law in Lausanne paraphrases it ironically in a defense of Palestinian interests. Where a form of it appears in the Asia Times as part of a quote from Robert Novak, the cultural resonance appears to go unnoticed.

Holocaust remembrance

The concept encounters broad acceptance in connection with Holocaust remembrance. In the late twentieth century, efforts to document the memories of remaining Holocaust survivors echoed the notion that preserving these facts for future generations was a way to keep Hitler and his ideas in the grave. A guide for British primary school teachers gives the concept in a guide for informing children about the Holocaust. Richard A. Cohen of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte cites it in an essay, "The Holocaust is a Christian Issue."

Caution against antisemitism

The phrase finds resonance within Christian communities as a rebuke against antisemitism. Methodist minister Rev. Robert A.

Conversion to other religions

Within the broader context of religious tolerance, this concept applies to the sensitive subjects of conversion and intermarriage. Gregory Baum, a German-born Catholic theologian and Professor Emeritus in Religious Studies at McGill University in Montreal, expresses the effect of this concept on Christian views toward conversion.

Fackenheim's affirmation of his Jewish heritage, although embraced by many other Holocaust survivors, was by no means universal. Physicist Lise Meitner had been born and brought up Jewish. She rejected newspaper attempts to characterize her as a Jew following the bombing of Hiroshima when the press learned that she had been the first scientist to recognize nuclear fission. Decades before Hitler rose to power she had become a Lutheran. Although the Nazis stole her savings and ruined her career she refused to work on the bomb or let Hitler define her identity.


Intermarriages between Jews and non-Jews are relatively common in the United States and Canada. Several circumstances complicate these unions from the perspective of the Jewish community. Different movements within Judaism recognize different standards for conversion to Judaism and transmission of their heritage. Social pressure generally falls upon men to marry Jewish women because all movements recognize a Jewish woman's offspring as Jews.

(Note: Starting in the late 1960s and lasting until the 90s–00s, several movements in Judaism ceased recognizing Jewish women's offspring as Jews if the women intermarried. The Reconstructionist movement of the United States, followed by the Reform movement of the U.S. in 1983, declared that they would accept the children of either an intermarried Jewish father or an intermarried Jewish mother as Jews only if the children had been raised as Jews. If the children were not raised as Jews, and later wished to join the Reform or Reconstructionist movements in the U.S., they had to convert. The Society for Humanistic Judaism in the U.S. will accept the children based on their own self-identification. The Orthodox and Conservative movements in the U.S. still require the conversion of patrilineal [Jewish fathers] children, but accept the children of Jewish mothers, regardless of how they are raised. Jewish Renewal rabbis do not have denominational guidelines, and go on a case-by-case basis.)

A puzzling twist to this controversy is the fact, apparently not well known, that Prof. Fackenheim himself was intermarried, and the Jewishness of one of his children was rejected by an Israeli Orthodox court, even though that son was converted via Orthodox ritual as a child, and is a citizen of Israel. (See, "Rabbinical Court casts doubt on conversion of son of famed Jewish theologian" in the Jerusalem Post, January 19, 2009).

According to this news article, his wife converted to Judaism some time after the marriage. Jews using Fackenheim's admonition not to give posthumous victories to Hitler as a reason to dissuade people from intermarrying are apparently not aware that Fackenheim was himself intermarried.


Rabbi Toba Spitzer finds this idea compelling yet incomplete. In a Passover essay for she addresses it sympathetically before embracing the Passover tradition and its Seder ritual as a more meaningful story:

The same criticism was formulated by Jewish philosopher Michael Wyschogrod in his 1971 review of God's Presence in History. Wyschogrod questioned the value of a definition of Judaism that merely inverts antisemitism into a bigoted "semitism." The uniqueness of Auschwitz as a historical event, moreover, is a dubious distinction. "It is necessary to recognize that, from any universally humanistic framework, the destruction of European Jewry is one notable chapter in the long record of man's inhumanity against man." Not satisfied with criticism, however, Wyschogrod offered a traditional explanation of the Jewish claim to uniqueness and chosenness formulated in positive terms.

Perhaps the strongest rejection of Fackenheim's idea of the 614th commandment comes from Rabbi Harold M.

Rabbi Michael Goldberg has developed this sort of criticism in his book Why Should the Jews Survive?: Looking Past the Holocaust Toward a Jewish Future.


  • 1969: National Jewish Book Award in the Jewish Thought category for Quest for Past and Future

See also

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