Friday, 19 October 2018

Who Owns the Castle?

At the opening of this week’s Torah reading God calls on Abraham to go, and he goes, and so the story of our people begins.
I have often referred to the famous tale of Abraham in his father’s idol shop, smashing up the idols and being dragged before the local potentate, most recently here But this year my attention has been taken by a more nuanced tale, from Midrash Hagadol.

In this tale, all the wrestling happens within Abraham’s own mind. He is ‘Shotef b’Daato’ roaming in his mind. He is initially attracted by the power of the sun but when it sets he turns to the stars. He gives up on the stars as they disappear before the dawn. He yearns to know if there is something truly ultimate, something which has no causation. The Midrash continues, “To what can this be compared?
To a traveller who saw a tremendous large castle and wanted to enter it. He examined it from, but could find no entry. He called out, but there was no response. Then he lifted up his eyes and saw red woollen cloths spread out on the rood. After that he saw white flaxen cloths. The traveler thought, ‘Surely someone lives in that castle, for otherwise how would the cloths appear and disappear?’ When the owner of the castle saw that he was in distress over this, the owner asked, ‘Why are you in distress? I am the owner of the castle.’”

In later Chasidic thought this Midrash inspires a much-cited teaching about a King hidden in the innermost chamber of a palace. Fine draperies and gold trinkets abound in the outer courtyards and most of those who come to seek the King are distracted by the first piece of sparkle they find and give up on a deeper search. It’s only the truly great seeker who penetrates to the heart of the castle to sit with the King.

The point is that Judaism prizes theological questing (a favourite word of our founder Rabbi). Theology isn’t supposed to be easy. The easy theologies are the stars and the fancy drapes, simple, but dishonest and false. The quest of a source of power that has no causation isn’t a childish vision of a deity on a cloud, it’s stripping back of distractions and accretions. It’s ultimately a belief that there is an owner of the castle, that all this beauty is not without any meaning at all. Talking about God is hard, expecting it to be easy is refuse to consider a true theology at all.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Jeremy

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Fackenhiem and Kristallnacht - Talk Given at the opening of the Weiner Library Exhibition 'Shattered'

I was invited to speak at the opening of the new Weiner Library exhibition - Shattered - on Kristallnacht.
Following some initial remarks, this is the body of my talk.

I want to talk about the survivor of Kristallnacht who has had the most powerful impact on how I think about the Holocaust - actually how I think about pretty well everything.

Emil Fackenheim was a post-doctoral student in philosophy in Halle at the time - Halle - the birthplace of Hayden - he writes in his memoirs - also the birthplace of Heydrich - the architect of the Final Solution.

In the afterword to a Festschrift in his honour - published in the 1990s he writes -

On 9th November, 1938 synagogues were set on fire all over Germany. Among the thousands of Jews carried off to concentration camps were my father, my younger brought and I: [Emil was taken to Sachenhausen for three months until he was released and managed to escape first to Scotland, then Canada]: in the big house in Halle, my mother was alone. Our family’s best friends, the Lewins, suggested that she move in with them, and this she did. Why, alone of all Halle’s Jewish males, aged 16 and over, was Curt Lewin untouched? He was protected by his neighbour, none other than [Rudolf] Heydrich, so that for several weeks, my mother lived under the same roof with the coldest, most ruthless, most systematic of all the destroyers.’[1]

I wanted to know more about  Fackenheim’s memories of that fateful night - and where better to come than the Weiner Library. Happily, you have a copy of his memoir - An Epitaph for German Judaism - on your catalogue. Rather unhappily the copy seems to have been lost. In a sad way, it’s a little typical. Fackenheim is remembered - if remembered at all for only one idea, in a book published in 1978. He felt that a book published 16 years later, about a much more powerful idea was the true distillation of over 50 years grappling with the thought-challenge of the Holocaust.

Here’s the problem.

Millions were brutally murdered, babies were thrown, alive, into burning pits. Kristallnacht, in its awfulness, was merely a taste of things to come. The list of horrors is unremitting and uncompromising in its awfulness, and if we - as human beings reveal ourselves of capable of such awfulness - and we have - what is the point of everything.

In this later and pivotal book, To Mend the World, Fackenheim quotes twice this passage from the great Christian existentialist, Soren Kiekergaard. He uses the same the passage again as the epigram in his reply to the articles published in his honour in the Festschrift.

Should we say, ‘There have elapsed now nearly two thousand years since those days, such a horror the world never saw before and never again will see; we thank God that we live in peace and security, that the screams of anguish from those days reach us only very faintly; we will hope and believe that our days and those of our children may pass in quietness unaffected by the storms of existence? We do not feel strong enough to reflect on such things, but are ready to thank God that we are not subjected to such trials.’ Can anything be imagined more cowardly and more disconsolate than such talk? Is then the inexplicable explained by that that it occurred only once in the world? Or is not this the inexplicable, that it did occur? And has not this fact, that it did occur, the power to make everything inexplicable, even the most explicable events.[2]

This is the problem of the Holocaust. If small babies were thrown, alive, into the furnace - and they were[3]... If the awfulness of Kristallnacht was only the precursor of what was to come - and it was... then what is the point? What is the point of any of it all? What’s the point of a Chanukiyah lit to remind Jews of their triumph in a military campaign some 2000 years earlier. What, frankly, is the point of a library to document quite how bad it was and whether it was Franz or Heinz who died on this day or that. Doesn’t everything, Fackenheim is tormented by the notion, lapse into in-authenticity when facing the Holocaust?

That’s a question to make you swallow hard.

Fackenheim suggests his problem is the ‘brute facticity,’[4] of the Holocaust - ‘A spectre haunts my thoughts [he writes] - the spectre of historicism.’[5]

Over there, in that corner, is a scrap of a report from a clandestine resistance organisation, smuggled out of Germany in a shampoo sachet. Does it matter - it didn’t help?
Over there, are the reports of the JCIO, carefully detailing the testimony of those who were there and personally witnessed the destruction of the Holocaust. Does it matter?

If Fackenheim’s first foray in post-Holocaust thought began with the question;

In the face of the Holocaust what should the authentic Jew do and why?[6]

Over the decades that followed his interests shifted to the more inchoate and more universal problem;

Can there ever be an authentic response, in the face of the Holocaust?[7]

To Mend the World is full of historical excurses into the Holocaust. But Fackenheim finds something truly precious in the rubble of the destruction of European Jewry. He finds the very building blocks of a response. Auschwitz brings us all to a halt. But it is not the end of our tale, rather, its beginning. As Fackenheim says;

It is at this point that our going-to-school-with-life … begins in earnest…And only in [the] context of [engaging with the destruction of the Holocaust] can the “central question” of our whole inquiry be both asked and answered.[8]

History provides not only the ‘Q’, but also the ‘A’.

Central to Fackenheim’s commitment to look to the dark places of history until the darkness becomes its own source of possibility. It brings, if not a downright epiphany, then at least its own reward. We have his record of the moment.

[While studying the story of Pelagia Lewinska[9]] I made what to me was, and still is, a momentous discovery: that while religious thinkers were vainly struggling for a response to Auschwitz, Jews throughout the world had been responding all along … with an unexpected will to live – with under the circumstances, an incredible commitment to Jewish group survival.[10]

The answer, claims Fackenheim, was there all along, waiting in history for someone to come and find it.

The evil of the Holocaust world is philosophically intelligible after Auschwitz in the exact sense in which it was already understood in Auschwitz – and Buchenwald, Lublin and the Warsaw Ghetto – by the resisting victims themselves… No deeper or more ultimate grasp is possible for philosophical thought that comes … after the event. This grasp – their grasp – is epistemologically ultimate.[11]

Lewinska, who discovered that in the face of Nazi de-humanisation she felt commanded never to surrender her humanity, becomes the model for the possibility of choosing a path of ‘faithfulness unto death.’[12] The Buchenwald Hasidim, who swapped FOUR rations of bread for a pair of tefilin, become the paradigm for the possibility of retaining categories of commandedness[13] in a post-Auschwitz world. Shimon Dubnov was the greatest historian of hasidism, at the time of the Holocaust. This is Professor Ismar Schorsch, former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary where I received my Rabbinic education,

No Jewish historian ever had a greater impact on his time than Simon Dubnov. He died at the hands of the Nazis in Riga in December 1941 at the age of 81. Because he was too frail and infirm to deport, they shot him in the ghetto. Those who witnessed the murder reported that Dubnov's last words were, "Jews, write it down." And they did, in Kovno, Warsaw, Lodz and elsewhere. In his spirit, Jews organized collective and clandestine efforts to record the terrifying faces of the Final Solution. Unarmed and unaided, they found solace in assembling the evidence that would one day convict their mass murderers in the court of human history. Dubnov died as he had lived, devoted to the power of historical consciousness.[14]

Fackenheim would say Dubnow - and those unnamed heroes who dedicated their lives, sometimes quite literally, to documenting the Holocaust from within the Holocaust - within the thing itself - did something else, they justified documentation as an authentic response to the brute facticity of the Shoah.

It’s not that these heroes of research and record thought that they could undo the horrors of the Holocaust, and certainly not that they didn’t know exactly what was going on. They knew the futility of their action and were aware of their all-but-certain-death; ‘they knew it, but they did it.’[15] This, claims Fackenheim, was holy, authentic and meaningful. And whereas before this epiphany we feared there could be no authentic response in the face of the rupture of such horror, once an archetypal reaction is discovered to be authentic the path is open for other possible responses. Notwithstanding the futility of life and the failure of piety and the certainty of death in our contemporary existence, we too are capable of achieving holiness, authenticity – even meaning.

My heart was struck by the wonderful testimonies, over there, and collected in that wonderful volume - honour to recognise the work of Ruth Levitt and so many others associated with the Library in its production.

Fackenheim uses a very Jewish term for the category of an authentic response to the utter catastrophe of the Holocaust. The term is Tikkun - it means to mend or repair, but he means it very specifically in the context of Lurianic Kabbalah

Tikkun follows Shvirah.
Brokenness - I wonder - and if you can find the copy of Fackenheims Epitaph to German Jewry, I would love to come back and check - I wonder if the brokenness of that awful night of broken glass close on 80 years ago may be more integral to the thought of this bravest of thinkers on the Holocaust than has been so far realised.

That brings me back to this wonderful Chanukiayh - the point about a flame is that it is fragile. We don’t light a flame at Chanukah - and the family of Helen especially - don’t light a flame because we know it is always going to be OK in the end. We light it, authentically, because we know of the fragility and the brokenness. And we still believe in the light that can be shed. For that authentic refusal to surrender to the awfulness of the darkness, of the darkness of that night - and the darkness of everything that followed - I gain huge succour. So to you all, thank you.

[1] P.254-255
[2] P. 251, attributed to Kierkegaard, Either/Or (1959) II pp 344 ff
[3] Cited in Emil Fackenheim, To Mend the World: Foundations of Future Jewish Thought (New York: Schocken, 1982), hereafter MW, p. 212. Op cit p.340 n. 15 offers a fuller bibliographic citation for this testimony.
[4] F. German Philosophy & Jewish Thought ed Greenspan & Nicholson, A Reply to My Critics p.276
[5] p.274
[6] The driving question of Emil Fackenheim, God’s Presence in History (New York, Harper & Row, 1970), hereafter GPH.
[7] The driving question of MW. This framework is based on Morgan’s “The Central Problem of Fackenheim’s To Mend The World” Journal of Jewish Thought (1996) 5:297-312 at p. 299.
[8] MW 23-24.
[9] Auschwitz survivor and author of Twenty Months At Auschwitz (London, Lyle Stuart Inc., 1968)
[10] Emil Fackenheim, The Quest for Past and Future (Bloomington, IN, Beacon, 1968) pp. 19-20
[11] MW p. 248.
[12] GPH p. 74, see discussion of Lewinska in MW pp25, 217, 219, 223, 229, 248, 302.
[13] Though the notion of commandedness is clearly central for Fackenheim he does not advocate the wholesale importation of pre-Modern Halachic norms into a post-Holocaust world. The notion that the ‘religious Jew who has stayed with his God may be forced into new, possibly revolutionary relationships with Him’ is a central tenant of Fackenheim’s self-claimed canonical statement of the Commanding Voice of Auschwitz, GPH p. 84. See discussion of the Buchenwald Hasidim in MW pp.218, 223, 229, 254 & 303.
[15] MW 266-267.
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