Emil Fackenheim’s Thought: CIJR Conference

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 4.13.41 PMRecently I attended and filmed the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research Conference on  “The Jewish Thought of Emil Fackenheim” in Toronto (Sunday, 25 October 2015). Emil Fackenheim  (1916-2003) was a German-born Jew who went on to become a  philosopher in his own right, a Professor of  Philosophy at the University of Toronto and, after making aliyah, a professor at the Hebrew University as well. He was not only a philosopher but also an ordained German Reform Rabbi. Emil Fackenheim became known for  probing the antisemitic dimensions of German Idealist philosophy, for studying the impact of the Holocaust on Judaism and on secular modern thought, and for demanding that Philosophy address the Holocaust. In this context he analyzed critically  the secular philosophers, including Hegel,  Nietzsche,  and  Heidegger  (who espoused the Nazi   movement).

Professor Kenneth Green, Department for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto presented on Emil Fackenheim and the Political Theology of Diabolical Evil, while Professor David Novak, Department for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto, spoke on Emil Fackenheim and Heidegger. Professor Martin Yaffe, professor of Philosophy and Religion, University of North Texas presented a paper: After 50 Years: Emil Fackenheim on Hermann Cohen.

Bringing a Jewish perspective to Fackenheim’s thought, Professor David Patterson, Hillel A. Feinberg Chair of Holocaust Studies of the Ackerman Center for Holocaust Studies, University of Texas at Dallas, presented a paper: A Jewish Philospher’s Critique of Philosophy: Emil Fackenheim’s Response to the Holocaust. Professor James A. Diamond, Joseph and Wolf Lebovic Chair, Jewish Studies, University of Waterloo, compared the writings of the Warsaw Ghetto Rebbe, Rabbi Shapira, with Fackenheim’s teachings in a paper titled God’s Infinite Pain: Encounter between Emil Fackenheim and the Warsaw Ghetto Rebbe. Professor Sally Zerker, Professor Emeritus York University, spoke on the subject Emil Fackenheim and Post Zionist Jewish Intellectuals.

Over lunch time, we were treated to a keynote address by Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, President Emeritus, The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Rabbi John Moscovitz, Rabbi Emeritus Holy Blossom Temple, spoke about Fackenheim’s ideas of Tikkun Olam and Mending the World.

Many of Fackenheim’s students and friends, spoke about Fackenheim’s impact on them. Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Laureate, a  colleague, and  personal friend, sent a brief video greeting.  We were fortunate to have Fackenheim’s son, Joseph Fackenheim, now a theater director living in Toronto, share some thoughts about his father. Joseph feels that he is carrying on his father’s legacy by bringing the Jewish Theatre Aspaklaria to the Toronto stage.

Peter Margo, National Board Member of CIJR, who had known Fackenheim as a young immigrant in Montreal shared: The Young Fackenheim in Canada: a Personal Reminiscence.

Professor Edward Alexander, Professor Emeritus of English, University of Washington sent a Letter on Emil Fackenheim, which was read by Professor Krantz.

Several of Fackenheim’s students were present. Professor Sharon Portnoff, Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Connecticut College, and a student of Fackenheim’s, presented a paper, Emil Fackenheim’s Moral Seriousness in the Art of Living. Professor MIchael Morgan, Grafstein Chair in Philosophy and Jewish Studies, University of Toronto,  examined Fackenheim’s Legacy. Professor Paul Merkley, Professor Emeritus of History, Carleton University, also a student of Fackenheim’s presented: Emil Fackenheim: The Perspective of a Christian Realist. And another student, Professor Victor Shepherd, Professor of Theology, Tyndale University College and Seminary, presented a spirited tribute: Emil L.Fackenheim: Gratitude for the Gift He Was.

We will announce when these papers and the videos of the lectures will be posted

In the meantime below is a video of Professor Emil Fackenheim himself, presenting his ideas during a conference at the University of Oregon entitled Ethics and the Holocaust: He gave a paper entitled:  Holocaust  as a Persistent Threat to Thought.
Emil Fackenheim’s talk begins at 8:46 minutes and he speaks for an hour. But you will appreciate this I am sure for the originality, the erudition and the passion of his presentation.

Jewish Learning is Not Just for Children

Every one knows that Jewish civilization rests on the bedrock of the education of children. However study of Jewish texts and values is not limited to children. It happens to be one of the fundamental behaviors that Jewish men and women of all ages are enjoined to practice throughout their lives: study is a lifelong aspiration and a primary goal for all Jews. Here in Montreal, we are fortunate that classes are held all week and every week at various venues, synagogues and community centers. We are blessed with exceptional teachers and can be busy with Jewish learning every day of the week. In addition Rabbi Steinmetz and Rabbi Jacobsen have been offering a full day of learning to the community every year for the last several years. The most recent day of learning took place last Thursday, June 25th, 2015. This time I recorded their classes and want to share them with you so that you too can taste the nature and scope of what we call Jewish learning. I videotaped these talks and share them with you here.

1) Hachnasat Orchim – Hospitality towards strangers in the Jewish tradition: What is its Source and Why is it Important?  (Rabbi Steinmetz)

2) Why are the Jewish people called G-d`s witness. What does this mean and what are we being called upon to  witness or to testify to? (Rabbi Jacobson)

3) Talmudic Study: “acquiring an accidental treasure, when unanticipated value emerges, who owns it?” Rabbis and class sharing one on one discussion. This is typical of the way Jews study texts via inquiry but difficult to video.

4) The Racist Murders in Charleston: Is Forgiveness possible? This talk was a response to the families of the murdered victims in the Charleston Church shooting offering the murderer forgiveness at the funeral of the victims. Rabbi Steinmetz argues that offering forgiveness without asking for any reflection from the perpetrator deprives the perpetrator of the opportunity for  acknowledging his transgression and working through any personal responsibility abd regret that is involved in “asking for forgiveness? (Rabbi  Chaim Steinmetz)

5) Quebec’s Bill 52 and the “right to die”: A Jewish perspective on this issue. 1,the obligation to avoid suffering and 2. the need to appreciate every life to its very end.

(Rabbi Jacobson)

Are Jews Funny?

On my way to Chicago to screen my documentary, “Yiddish;  a tale of survival” in Chicago,  I caught the documentary “When Jews were Funny.”
My impression after watching the first hour of the film (the plane arrived and I was interrupted)  is that this documentary is more about Allan Zweig, the filmmaker struggling with his own Jewish identity than about the comedians he interviews. It is midway through the film before the interviewer/filmmaker shares anything about himself. What does he share? That he married outside the faith and when it came time to name his daughter, he objected to a name that his wife suggested by saying instinctively – No! too goyish! And his wife accuses him of playing the Jewish card retroactively.

In an article, titled “The Death of Jewish Culture,” reviewing the Jewish American cultural scene of the last 50 years, James Leoffler asks:  “Are American Jews alienated from Jewish feelings? Do they lack Jewish identities?” He answers, “Not at all: they freely and openly profess such feelings, and appear quite comfortable with their Jewish identity. Rather, the content of that identity has itself shrunk to a solely internal realm of subjective experience and emotion, fortified by clichés and bits and pieces of an elementary cultural literacy.”  This is exactly how I would characterize the filmmaker in this work.

The interviewer appears to be obsessed with an external expression of what it means to be Jewish as he gleans it from the public persona of  comedians, born Jewish, and universally popular in the America of the fifties and sixties – comedians such as Milton Berle, Henny Youngman, Shecky Green and David Steinberg. He sees this as a golden age of “Jewishness” which he both loved and hated, and which is no longer with us.

As a child of survivors, born in Hungary, after the war, and growing up in Canada, I too have struggled with my Jewish identity all my life. I am deeply aware of the desire to assimilate, to be part of one’s surroundings, the pervasive culture, and to distance oneself from identifying with Jewish culture that has been denigrated through history. Yet I am also deeply aware of the roots of Jewish identity as passed on through religious identification and participation that has also been part of my growing up experience.

I have to admit that doing this documentary about Yiddish, has also been a part of encountering and struggling with my  own Jewish identity. During most of my life I was mostly disparaging of anything “Yiddish” and did not know very much about it. This attitude towards Yiddish,  has been part of the Jewish culture ever since the possibility of acceptance by mainstream secular culture became an option open to Jews  in the 1800’s with the emancipation born of secular nation states. But then we encountered the fiendish national religion of Hitler and his cohorts.

Recently Jews all over the world celebrated the annual biblical holiday called Shavuot, a Jewish holiday very few non-Jews can identify or even know anything about. And yet it is the holiday of the receiving of the sacred covenant at Sinai, receiving the ten commandments and the attendant lore and commandments as set down in what we know today as “The Torah”, the Teachings of the Jews that form the very basis of Jewish cohesion throughout the centuries.

Everything that Jews understand today, and are today as a people, emanates from this basic event. We separate Jewishness and Jewish culture from this basic source to our peril.

This was again brought home to me by the recent performance of “Soul Doctor,” the story of Shlomo Carlebach performed as a Yiddish play at the Segal Centre in Montreal. Shlomo Carlebach is known for his unorthodox ways of connecting with Jewish tradition and bringing the non-affiliated in contact with those sources via the example of his life and his work as a musician and composer. He birthed new life into prayer via ecstatic music and dance first popularized at the House of Love and Prayer in Berkley in the sixties.

Carlebach was born into a well known Hassidic family from Austria that relocated to the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1939. He and his twin brother can both be called Hassidic Rabbis. But his brother was the congregational Rabbi at the synagogue on West 79th Street which still bears the family name, while Shlomo, “took his ministry to the streets” of Berkely and New York. Shlomo Carlebach composed and introduced revivalist melodies that stirred the hearts of those who heard them and have become mainstream in Jewish synagogues of all denominations. Shlomo Carlebach was not accepted in his lifetime by mainstream Judaism.

Two important ideas are shared over the Shavuot Holiday.  One – “not by might or by force but by my Spirit, sayeth the Lord”. The other one that the Jewish people have struggled with over the centuries is the famous phrase “Naaseh venishma”- “we will do and we will listen” as regards acceptance of the laws of G-d.  There are many competing interpretations of this idea “we shall do and we shall listen” that are chewed over every year.

Does “naaseh venishma” mean we will follow your commandments blindly even though they make no sense to us? Does it mean that we will follow the commandments first and then struggle to make sense of them? Do we even have a choice re accepting the law? There is one interpretation (midrash) that says that the Jews only accepted the law because G-d threatened to destroy them if they did not. The specific legend is that G-d picked up the mountain of Sinai and said “accept my law or I bear this mountain down on you right now.” As the Jewish mother confronted with conflicting versions of the truth by her children would say “Darlings, you are both right!”.

There is an element of fate in being Jewish. Most of us do not choose to be born into this tradition, but being born into it we are forced, willy nilly, to confront its meaning and to struggle with making our own choices vis a vis this heritage.

Filmmakers, such as Allan Zweig and myself,  are only one part of this longstanding tradition of struggle and contemplation that starts with actions and dilemmas that we do not choose and needs to lead to actions that we do choose which entails struggling to accept anew the covenant of Sinai every year, and indeed every day with ever newer understandings.


Purim 2013 Facts and Fancies

What is Purim? Purim is a Jewish holiday that is celebrated exactly four weeks before Passover. It is based on the story told in the Book of Esther and offers an ancient blueprint for that age-old scourge, Jew hatred or anti-semitism. We read in the Book of Esther Chapter 3:1:

3:8 And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus, There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the people in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from all people; neither keep they the king’s laws: therefore it is not for the king’s profit to suffer them. 3:9 If it please the king, let it be written that they may be destroyed: and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver to the hands of those that have the charge of the business, to bring it into the king’s treasuries. 3:10 And the king took his ring from his hand, and gave it unto Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, the Jews’ enemy.

The rest of of the story recounts the escape from this cruel fate by the actions of Esther who manages to sway the king and acquire the right for the Jews to defend themselves. Those who attack the Jews are killed but the Jews do not touch their spoils. (Verses 9: 1 – 9:16) The Rabbis thought long and hard about whether to include this text in the Jewish cannon. and in our own time Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, the former chief Rabbi of England admits that he always wondered “Why is this book worthy of celebration.” And celebration indeed marks this holiday more than any other: Children and adults dress up in disguise, food and drinks are passed form neighbour to neighbour.

Play and laughter, food and drink is the order of the day. Here are some recent pictures posted to my facebook page from our recent Purim holiday which took place last Sunday.

Rabbi Jonathon Sacks says, “It is important to celebrate because here is an instance where Jews overcame their enemies and were victorious, and this is worthy of celebration.

And here is my favorite Purim video for this year – Move Like Graggers Remix (Purim Song) by Temple Israel, West Bloomfield, Michigan

How many Purim themes can you name here?