Born in Halle, Germany, he was arrested by the Nazis on the night of November 9, 1938, known as Kristallnacht. Briefly interned at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp (1938–1939), he escaped to Great Britain where his parents later joined him. Emil's older brother, 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 afterwards and served as the Interim Rabbi at a small Reform Temple in Hamilton, Ontario, from 1943 to 1948. . After this he enrolled in the graduate Philosophy Department of the University of Toronto and received a Ph.D from the University of Toronto with a dissertation on Medieval Arabic Philosophy (1945) and became Professor of Philosophy (1948–1984).
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.
Fackenheim came to this conclusion slowly. A professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto and a Reform rabbi, he did not become a Zionist until 1967 when his reaction to the Holocaust and its implications for Jewish law crystallized:
It was at a meeting, just before the Six Day War. It was a meeting in New York, and I had to make a speech. Before that, the Holocaust had never been essential to my ideology. However, when the chairman said, 'You've got to face it,' I had to face it. I said the most important thing I ever said.
In a fuller expression of his sentiment, Fackenheim explains the concept this way:
... we are, first, commanded to survive as Jews, lest the Jewish people perish. We are commanded, secondly, to remember in our very guts and bones the martyrs of the Holocaust, lest their memory perish. We are forbidden, thirdly, to deny or despair of God, however much we may have to contend with him or with belief in him, lest Judaism perish. We are forbidden, finally, to despair of the world as the place which is to become the kingdom of God, lest we help make it a meaningless place in which God is dead or irrelevant and everything is permitted. To abandon any of these imperatives, in response to Hitler's victory at Auschwitz, would be to hand him yet other, posthumous victories.
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 anti-Semitism. In Christian contexts this ideal sometimes appears as the "11th commandment." Christians generally recognize 10 commandments. 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.
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.
...the fact is that Christianity has been pervasively guilty of latent and patent anti-Semitism and the Gospel of John has been one of its sources. We have and can learn from this failure, by carefully monitoring our use of religious language...and our Jewish brothers and sisters can teach us to continue, with Jacob, to wrestle with God.
After Auschwitz the Christian churches no longer wish to convert the Jews. While they may not be sure of the theological grounds that dispense them from this mission, the churches have become aware that asking the Jews to become Christians is a spiritual way of blotting them out of existence and thus only reinforces the effects of the Holocaust.
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 raised 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.
The moral ban against giving Hitler posthumous victories can inspire conflict about the juncture of personal choice and shared heritage. Rev. Elizabeth A. Lerner, a Unitarian Universalist minister and the product of a mixed marriage, belongs to a religion that has traditionally not actively sought converts from other belief systems. Her statements express both sympathy with Holocaust victims and rancor against one of the injunction's implications:
My father was descended from a long line of rebbes, and a great grandfather was sacrificed as part of a pogrom…that was what encouraged relatives to leave for this country. While Jewish law would not consider me Jewish, Hitler's law would have put me in the death camps and with those who died. That sense of vulnerability has never left me, and I believe I share this with all Jews everywhere.
A strong advocate of personal choice, she condemns a rabbi's pressure of a Jewish man on the eve of a marriage to a Catholic bride:
They searched long and hard for a rabbi who was willing to perform the wedding...and in the car on the way to the hotel, the rabbi was talking to the groom about his imminent marriage and said to him: 'You are completing Hitler’s work.' This terrible, hateful thing he said is not actually that unusual...Jews actually say this to each other when one of them is leaving, or marrying outside the fold.
...of a people born in slavery, freed by their God, and taken on a transformational journey. It is the story of the steps taken towards becoming a community bound by a holy covenant, where social relationships are defined by the Godly principles of tzedek and chesed, justice and love.
Rabbi Marc Gellman rejects it outright in a 2005 Newsweek column:
I am Jewish because my mother is Jewish, and, more importantly, because I believe Judaism is loving, just, joyous, hopeful and true. I am not Jewish, and I did not teach my children or my students to be Jewish, just to spite Hitler.Focusing not on Fackenheim's conception of Jewish identity but on Zionism, renowned scholar Daniel Shoag presents a critique of this view from within the Jewish community in The Harvard Israel Review:
While Fackenheim's sentiments about the need for Jewish self-reliance in the form of a Jewish state are immensely popular, Fackenheim fails to locate a religious or divine source for his moral imperative. For Fackenheim, self-defense, and its manifestation in Zionism, are not religious values but rather things that precede religious value or stand outside of it. Thus Fackenheim locates the significance of the Jewish State in the Holocaust rather than in traditional Judaism...Perhaps the strongest rejection of Fackenheim's idea of the 614th commandment comes from Rabbi Harold M. Schulweiss:
We abuse the Holocaust when it becomes a cudgel against others who have their claims of suffering. The Shoah must not be misused in the contest of one-downsmanship with other victims of brutality....The Shoah has become our instant raison d'etre, the short-cut answer to the penetrating questions of our children: 'Why should I not marry out of the faith? Why should I join a synagogue? Why should I support Israel? Why should I be Jewish?' We have relied on a singular imperative: 'Thou shalt not give Hitler a posthumous victory.' That answer will not work. To live in spite, to say 'no' to Hitler is a far cry from living 'yes' to Judaism.
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.
I think it will be a very long time. But I would say this. Will the time ever come when we can say Hitler's shadow is gone? I think, yes, it will come when Israel is accepted in peace with its neighbor states. But it doesn’t look like it will happen soon.
There are few survivors of the Holocaust as of 2005, and many feel their memories and opinions deserve respect. The idea that people must not further Hitler's goals has become a meaningful part of public discourse about Judaism, Zionism, and anti-Semitism, but many who discuss it sympathetically do not embrace it wholeheartedly. Some in the newer generations who understand the Holocaust as history feel the injunction to grant Hitler no posthumous victories denies positive interpretations of the subjects it addresses.
The preceding discussion, rich as it is, does not begin to do justice to Fackenheim's achievements and teaching as a professor and scholar of philosophy (in his years as professor of Kantian, Hegelian, and German idealistic philosophy at the University of Toronto) — above all as a scholar of Hegel; nor does it do justice to his oft expressed indebtedness to Leo Strauss, who was for Fackenheim the exemplar of what it means for a Jew to pursue the philosophic vocation in the times in which we live.
For those who are interested in Fackenheim's contribution to the understanding of how strictly rationalist philosophizing can and must be a part of the crown of Jewish existence in our time, worth pondering is Leo Strauss's judgment that Fackenheim's book on Hegel — The Religious Dimension in Hegel's Thought (1967) — is the strongest alternative to Kojeve's atheistic interpretation of Hegel.