Three Possibilities: On Fackenheim’s Reading of Spinoza, Emasculation & Zionism


Fackenheim’s revision of Franz Rosenzweig suggests that, after the Holocaust, the reading of Judaism in terms of the “dynamic of contraction” – what Rosenzweig associates with the “Jewish people as (eternal) remnant” – is and must be displaced by the “dynamic of expansion.”  Fackenheim suggests that the establishment of a Jewish State situates this displacement.  However, it must also be completed by us.    Since the “Jewish State requires a dynamic of ingathering, and this in turn requires a dynamic of expansion”(To Mend the World, 92).    This, he argues, is a necessity since, if the Jews are to return to history, then the Jewish people must actively negate the “dynamic of contraction” and the Jewish turn to humility and smallness.

Fackenheim argues that Baruch Spinoza would agree with him on this note.  The rhetoric he uses in his argument suggests that Spinoza had a masculinist view of power and statehood and that the only possibility worthy of self-respect – in the Spinozistic sense – is the support of Israel and Zionism:

In his own time, Spinoza expected all enlightened men to become men-in-general.  Today this is expected of no one but Jews.  In the Soviet Union, Russians, Ukranians, and even Germans are allowed their own language and culture; to Jews they are denied.  In the West enlightened men can be Englishmen, Frenchmen, or Americans; to Israelis this is not readily granted.  And whereas it is considered natural that black Americans identify with Black Africa, Jews are zealots if they identify (or identify too much) with Israel.  During the Holocaust, Jews were murdered by their enemies as Jews.  When their friends came to liberate the survivors they recognized their Jewish identity reluctantly or not at all…For if the first Spinozistic virtue is self-preservation, the highest self-respect, and this for a Jewish man-in-general is unattainable in our time.  When at Auschwitz Jews had no choice but death, Jews elsewhere had no honorable choice but to use every means of coming to their aid.  When Israelis today have no choice but to fight for their life, Jews elsewhere have no honorable choice but to support their struggle…Anti- or non-Zionism remains a possibility for Jews today.  But it is not a possibility without self-respect. (97)

Fackenheim drives this home by using a rhetoric that suggests that any other possibility is self-emasculating.  He argues that Spinoza would concur and would be surprised by those who turned away from this possibility:

Doubtless Spinoza today would be surprised by these turns of events, less so, however, then by yet another: the Jewish religion, in its most authentic forms, no longer emasculates.  If in his own time Spinoza hated Judaism, the essential reason was that, as he saw it, religion had come to seek refuge from life in impotent prayer and self-abasing humility; that it considered passive waiting as a duty and resolute action as a sin. This was so in his time.  Hence, when considering religious Zionism of our time, Spinoza today – for him true piety and religion are bound up with “courage and high-mindedness” – could hate Judaism no more.  He might not love it, but by his own principles, he would be bound to respect it. (97)

After the Holocaust and the establishment of the Jewish State, Fackenheim suggests that what was Judaism – which he also associates with “self-abasing humility” and inaction – is no more.  But it still hinges on a choice.   Which possibility will one embrace?  In his view, if a Jew is to choose anti-Zionism he or she would be considered backward by Spinoza.  His move forward also suggests that all forms of self-abasement and humility – which is something we often find in the schlemiel character – belong to another Judaism.  However, as he notes, both are possibilities.

On the other hand, one can argue that the humility and self-deprecation we find in the schlemiel mark another possibility; namely, the possibility of both dynamics (of expansion and contraction).  Jonathan Safran Foer, in his book Here I Am, tried to bridge both by having Jacob, a schlemiel, go off to Israel to fight as the country goes to war.  Foer maintains the bridge by virtue of Jacob’s dynamics.  He acts and fails to act.  Jacob identifies with his Israeli cousin and relatives, but he knows he is different.  And in the end of the novel, he returns to America.  He contracts.  The American Jew, Foer seems to be telling us, embraces both possibilities.    I call this the possibility of Tzimtzum.

Would Fackenheim, with his either/or logic, accept this as a possibility (a third possibility)? Or would he see Foer’s Jacob character as, ultimately, a non-Zionist failure or a fictional possibility?

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