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The 'Shoa' as a Novum for History, Philosophy and Theology / השואה כארוע חסר תקדים בהסטוריה בפילוסופיה ובתיאולוגיה

אמיל פקנהיים and Emil L. Fackenheim
Daat: A Journal of Jewish Philosophy & Kabbalah / דעת: כתב-עת לפילוסופיה יהודית וקבלה
No. 15 (קיץ תשמ"ה), pp. 121-127
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/24185823
Page Count: 7
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The 'Shoa' as a Novum for History, Philosophy and Theology / השואה כארוע חסר תקדים בהסטוריה בפילוסופיה ובתיאולוגיה
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Abstract

As "genocide," the Holocaust is a case among others. As a case of "intended, planned and largely successful 'extermination,' it is — though the possibility of it serving as a precedent for future crimes cannot be ruled out — thus far without precedent or sequel. The historian would therefore fall short of his duty if he paid insufficient attention to the aspects of the Holocaust which make the event, thus far at least, unique. And this means not only to describe them but also, so far as possible, to explain them. But here the philosopher of history discovers a fundamental difficulty. Historically to explain an event is to show how it was possible. In the case of the Holocaust, however, the historian in the end finds himself asserting the possibility of the event solely because it was actual, i.e., to be moving in circles. And if insufficiently aware of this fact he resorts to explanations such as "racist madness' which are only quasi- or pseudo-explanations. As well as methodological questions, the Holocaust raises for the philosopher questions of substance as well. The "Holocaust Kingdom" manufactured two new of being human: among the victims the Muselmann or walking corpse, and among the victimizers the "banal" dime-a-dozen individual who at Auschwitz committed crimes on a hitherto unheard of scale, and who, after it was over, returned to his banal existence—without suffering sleepless nights. A novum for philosophy, the Holocaust is a novum for theology as well. Prior to the Holocaust, a Jew could respect Christian attempts to convert him even though, of course, considering them misguided. After the Holocaust, he can view them only as doing in one way what Hitler did in another. At its most advanced Christian theology has already come to share this view. A novum for Christian theology, the Holocaust is a novum for Jewish theology as well. Pre-Holocaust enemies—the Roman Emperor Hadrian comes to mind—created Jewish martyrs by forbidding the practice of Judaism on pain of death: the most famous of these was Rabbi Akiba. But whereas in the Holocaust there must have been thousands who, like Rabbi Akiba, died with the Sh'ma on their lips, Hitler murdered Jewish martyrdom itself. At best it was made irrelevant since Jews died on account not of their Jewish faith but their Jewish birth. At worst it was made impossible, through the reduction of a Jew to a Muselmann, who was already dead while still alive. That the unprecedented assault required—and continues to require— a new and unprecedented response was already articulated by Rabbi Yitzḥak Nissenbaum in the Warsaw Ghetto: this was—and continues to be—not a time for Kiddush Hashem (martyrdom) but rather for Kiddush Haḥayyim (sanctification of life). Of the expressions of a post-Holocaust Jewish Kiddush Haḥayyim the restoration of a Jewish state is the clearest and most unequivocal. It is also the most indispensable. If no Jewish state had arisen after the Holocaust, it would be religiously necessary—although, one fears, politically near-impossible—to create it now.

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