Holocaust philosopher Fackenheim died trying To Mend the World

tel aviv | While the world will remember Emil Fackenheim as a prominent philosopher and theologian, those eulogizing him at his funeral this week remembered a more personal side.

Son Yossi Fackenheim shared memories of Fackenheim as a father and role model, and Michael Morgan, a close friend and former student, recalled how he had a great sense of humor and always loved to hear a good joke.

At 87 years old, Fackenheim “lived a full and busy life,” said David Silberklang, who worked closely with the philosopher as his teaching and research assistant during the 1980s. “But death always comes too soon,” he added.

Fackenheim was ill the last couple of weeks of his life and died Friday.

Born in Halle, Germany, in 1916, Fackenheim was affected profoundly by the Holocaust. As a rabbi and philosopher, he spent his life trying to understand its meaning, writing dozens of books on the subject, including “To Mend the World.”

He is perhaps most famous for his assertion that after the catastrophic event, Jews have not only 613 commandments to obey, but 614. The last commandment, Fackenheim asserted, was to be actively Jewish, thus denying Hitler a posthumous victory.

The afternoon and evening services at the family’s shiva also reflected Fackenheim’s philosophy: They were Reform yet very traditional. Fackenheim “was trained as a Reform rabbi in Germany and practiced as a Reform rabbi in Toronto,” explained Silberklang. “But he was also a traditional Jew.”

Silberklang recalled that Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War also profoundly impacted Fackenheim’s life. “From 1967 onward, he called the Holocaust and the creation of Israel the most significant events of the 20th century — both Jewish and in general.”

That war was a turning point for Fackenheim because “he saw God’s hand in the victory,” Silberklang said. The event caused Fackenheim to reflect on “the courage involved to create the state against all odds, to win the War of Independence against all odds.”

After 1967, Fackenheim built his philosophy and theology around those two events, arguing that philosophers had not yet addressed them philosophically, Silberklang said.

Though Fackenheim wanted to make aliyah since 1967, he stayed in Canada until the 1980s. He had a full-time job and a family with four children to support. Once Fackenheim retired, however, he immediately moved to Jerusalem, where he began teaching part time at Hebrew University and then Hebrew Union College.

Fackenheim’s philosophy about the Holocaust and Israel was with him to the very last moment — even in how he asked to be remembered.

At the funeral, Rabbi Levy Kelman, a friend, announced on behalf of the family that those wanting to commemorate Fackenheim should give to two charities Fackenheim had specified: Yad Vashem and Libi, which provides financial assistance to Israeli soldiers.