The epistle of the Rebbe is dated 24 Nissan 5725 (i.e. 26 April 1965). Evidently, no time was to be lost in responding to Wiesel’s article.
How does this epistle, written by an man of renowned orthodoxy, manage to step around the flagrantly heretical petition that buttons the article: ‘We are deserving of another kind of atheism, of another brand of apikorsim’? Actually, it does not step around it. It walks straight into it. When we recall that the Talmudic term apikoros may signify either the ancient Epicurean philosophy that makes pleasure the highest ethical category, or the freedom to take something that is ownerless (hephker),1 the suggestiveness of the term would seem to find its most disarming problematization at the beginning of the Rebbe’s commentary. Cutting right to the marrow of this atheism’s life-blood, the Rebbe exposes the simple contradiction in terms that arises from the association of such an Epicurean philosophy with an attitude of actual protest.
You write how, initially, you considered the assault of the doleful-celebrated (or tragic-comic) ‘rabbi’ against the Master of the universe as an expression of protest (against the lack of justice in the world). I concur that this is merely a bit of rhetoric, for, as you certainly know, someone who has become convinced of something during a seminar for some movement, the entire philosophy of which is tantamount to the contrary of fighting and rebelling and the intention of which is merely to make life lighter and more comfortable, does not live up to such a level of protest.2
To protest is to fight. Whom does this atheist fight—but inflatable dummies and scarecrows? When Nietzsche’s madman declares in the marketplace that ‘We have killed God—you and I,’ he is immediately stricken with self-reproach for his untimely words. The people in the marketplace, the very ‘atheists’ whose hands are still warm with the blood from the murder stare at the madman in dumb incognizance of their own crime. ‘I come too early,’ says the madman, ‘the monstrous event is still underway … the light from the stars requires time … This deed is ever more distant than the most distant star—and yet this is something they have done!’3 Nietzsche’s madman thus seems to be both the first and the last man to fully grasp the blundering innanity motivating the ‘theocidal’ crime, and the cheap pessimism whereby the witless criminals afterwards kicked around the sand to cover up the evidence, above all from themselves, ‘as if nothing happened.’ For Nietzsche, the ‘murder of God’ at the epicentre of European civilization is an act of the weakest sort, a symptom of weariness with life, a chronic spiritual fatigue, a nihilism. Regarding sleepy atheists, the Rebbe wholly concurs with Nietzsche. The would-be protestor, like the pulpit-thumper from Detroit, resembles the heated football fan who quickly becomes agitated and red-faced in his living room, amid a storm of potato chips and beer, namely by way of an Epicurean bravado designed to dissemble his decided reluctance to step onto an actual playing field and play some ball. Such atheism is basically a spectatorial effort. Moreover, we must not assume that there is no difference in the spectatorship achieved by a Christian and the spectatorship achieved by a Jew, as if the destination ‘Atheism’ were the only thing that mattered, while the differences in the forms of pilgrimage were irrelevant. In the case of a Christian would-be ‘protestor,’ for example, the laziness and fatigue is comparatively difficult to diagnose as Christianity itself suffers from this condition in its essential aversion to ‘works,’ its preference for passion over action, beginning with Paul’s allergy to the ‘Law’ and reaching high noon with Luther’s sola fide doctrine.4 In the case of a Jewish would-be ‘protestor,’ by comparison, the diagnosis is fairly easy to establish because Judaism is all about works. It is well-known how the Rebbe’s motto was a paraphrase of the saying from Avot 1:17 by Rabbi Shimon ben Rabban Gamliel: ha-maase hu ha-ikar, ‘The deed is the key thing!’5 Psychologically if not chronologically, the first symptom of Jewish ‘atheism’ is a general weariness with deeds, or in any case some correlative Epicurean decadence. When Rav Yehudah, speaking in Rav’s name, explains the true motives behind idolatry, and hence assimilation, for instance, he refers to the pleasure-principle’s favorite form of expression: ‘The Israelites knew well there is nothing actually there in idol-worship, and they engaged in idolatry only in order to give themselves free sexual license publicly.’6 Idolatry is rooted in an Epicurean interest in jouissance. The same soil extends under the roots of Christianity, and hence of the Enlightenment, the Jewish offshoot of which, the Haskalah, eventually found in Auschwitz, not one more argument for its reasonable cause, but one more alibi for the laziness that is its red loam.7
In an epistle of 5727 (1967), the Rebbe writes: ‘… everyone who would justify his or her ‘insurrection’ against the Master of the Worlds (may the Merciful One save us!) because of the Shoah and so on has no basis or logic or reason for this.’8 Lacking basis, logic or reason, in other words, it is nothing but a justification.
In describing the Rebbe’s observation as an incision into the marrow and life-source of ‘atheism,’ what we have in mind is its compliment, that penetrating epistemic vantage-point attained by German thought in its climactic hours, particularly in the works of Nietzsche and Heidegger. These two men, these two Germans—and what Germans!—have done more than any other philosopher to dissect the most basic organs and gestures of European thought (logic, representation, objectivity, doubt, proof, etc.) and expose what is really happening on the inside. Nietzsche: thought as a form of life ever seeking to increase its vital power under the guise of ‘truth’; or as he says in his ironic style: ‘Truth is the kind of error without which a certain kind of living being could not live.’9 Heidegger: thought in its ‘practical’ (‘ontic’ rather than ‘ontological’) existential element from which theoretical thinking is derived; or as he says later, poiesis as the ‘building’ that accommodates a ‘dwelling’ within the truth of Being. This is not the place to read these subtle philosophies. But it is useful to mention them in context of the Rebbe’s epistle for two interwoven reasons. (1) The Rebbe’s fundamental epistemic principle, which he receives from the Alter Rebbe and thence from the talmudic tradition, is that any knowledge that is not merely theoretical but pertains to human existence cannot be at odds, if it is true knowledge, with the quotidian life and actions of the thinker himself.10 This epistemic is not an heirloom of a hoary dogma; it presupposes an understanding of truth that is epochally prior to the Platonic one,11 and to which Western philosophy finally became sensitized as it approached and then as it unfolded during the century of Auschwitz. The unhappy coincidence of this timing suggests that by the same token:— (2) This particular affinity between the ḥokhmah-binah-daat epistemic and that of the Lebensdenken epistemic, precisely because they find themselves occupying the same field of truth as praxis, can be in total disagreement about how praxis actually attains to truth, and are in fact in a situation of total war against each other. For Nietzsche and Heidegger, praxis means life as naturalism, music, tragic heroism, amor fati, passion for power, poetry, immanentism, pious attendance to the call of Being; for the ḥokhmah-binah-daat doctrine and for rabbinic teaching in general, praxis means life as a supernatural phenomenon, prophecy rather than music, rejection of all tragic moods, transcendence of fate and of mazal in a radical responsibility, gratitude for the gift of powers that are never one’s own, distrust of poetry unconnected to clear thinking and Torah, acosmism,12 listening and learning to the voice of God as embodied in the Torah given at Sinai. One might have wished that the difference in outlook between these two approaches were sufficiently extreme that they would not have to meet, and perhaps not even be able to meet, on a shared battlefield. One might have wished that it would be enough to yell out Le’havdil! and to protect this exclamation with some philosophical elucidation of the absolute incommensurability of the hermeneutic registers of these two outlooks and hence their mutual illegibility. But in any case the Rebbe does not see things that way. Nor does Wiesel. For them, conflict, and therefore fury, are unavoidable. The third and last section of the Rebbe’s epistle to Wiesel, which begins, ‘And now I permit myself a personal comment that is connected to our chat when we met in my chambers,’ must remain unintelligible, or seem merely like a homiletical ‘personal note’ and epistolary denouement, if we do not grasp the loud and urgent call to arms that resounds in this section. Nor is this call to arms a mere practical application of the two prior theoretical sections, as if to say, ‘Well, after all, something tangible must come out of all this ivory tower banter.’ If anything, on the contrary, this concluding bit of ‘advice’ contains the essential truth of the (we may henceforth use the acronym—) Ḥabad epistemic. Whence the Rebbe underlines the fact that he wishes here, finally here, to speak ‘with full force’ (mit der gantzer shtarkeit):
To commemorate and not to forget—as the Torah says, ‘Remember what Amalek did to you’ [Deut. 25:17]—is obviously a positive matter. In the terminology of our Sages, it is a ‘positive commandment.’ Particularly when one notes the growing tendency and the effort to forget and to make forget.
But in the final analysis, commemoration is only one part of the task imposed upon us. The other, possibly more important, part is to actively work and to effectuate something against the so-called ‘final solution’ that Hitler, exactly as Haman before him, had in mind.
The counter-force must express itself through deeds in the spirit of ‘the more they multiplied, the more they spread out’ [Exod. 1:12]. […]
And permit me to say with full force that, notwithstanding how important it is to relate to the present generation what happened to us, and however difficult it is to free ourselves from those memories and experiences [iberlebungen], the first task is nonetheless, to my mind, to accomplish the feat of ‘against your will you live’ (Avot 4:22), with the emphasis on ‘you live,’ i.e., with an eye to vivacity [lebedikeit]. In other words: you must presently make every effort to tear yourself away from those experiences, and to immerse yourself in a regimen of life, a married life, to establish a Jewish home and a Jewish family. This will certainly contribute to Hitler’s defeat, as he will not have managed to diminish a Vizhnitzer hosid. On the contrary, you will raise children and grandchildren, Vizhnitzer hasidim, until the end of generations.13
It is interesting to see how closely the Rebbe anticipates the basis of that blackball idea in the history of Western philosophy, already cited above: the career-long meditation of Emil Fackenheim, begun two years later, on his ‘614th commandment’ against ‘handing Hitler yet another, posthumous victory.’ As Fackenheim understood with so much anguish and sobriety, the new warfront on which the Jew finds himself since his total defeat in Ashkenaz is the home in which he must decide how, and worse, whether, to raise children.
The more than one million Jewish children murdered in the Nazi holocaust … were murdered because of the Jewish faith of their grandparents. … Like Abraham of old, European Jews some time in the mid-nineteenth century offered a human sacrifice, by the mere minimal commitment to the Jewish faith of bringing up Jewish children. … What if they had known? Could they then have remained faithful? Should they? And what of us who know, when we consider the possibility of a second Auschwitz three generations hence. … Yet for us to cease to be Jews (and to cease bringing up Jewish children) would be to abandon our millennial post as witnesses to the God of history.14
Fackenheim’s word, as was already mentioned, is ‘resistance.’ For Fackenheim as for the Rebbe, again, Hitler’s assault on the Jews necessitates the adoption of martial language for a proper articulation of the task.15 (We might also recall how the Rebbe was not afraid to use military language in the education of children, notably in his Tzivos HaShem campaign begun in 1980.) But if the most spiritual and sublime expression of this resistance belongs to the quotidian business of child-rearing, it also defines the fundamental character that a Ḥabad epistemic (in the strict acronymistic sense) must take up, and in which must discipline itself, in order to be able to confront the general epistemic situation that German philosophy established in Europe over the two centuries leading to Auschwitz, a situation that has hardly been overthrown since the literal military defeat of Germany in 1945. In the middle section of his epistle, the Rebbe describes the situation as he experienced it first-hand during his student days in Berlin. But his description is not meant merely as a historical commentary on an intellectual and cultural scene that is thankfully extinct. The fact that, since 1945, French and American philosophers have been busy cross-examining German philosophy (as if by way of a philosophical extension of the Nurenberg trials), without pulling their punches, and hardly even embarrassed to flog the carcasses of German minds well after their last breath was taken (e.g. Heidegger’s poor horse), does not mean that they have pushed back, or even begun to confront, the most significant and abiding conquest achieved by German thought over the Western mind during the 18th century, with Kant, Fichte et al, namely what Fackenheim in his penetrating studies in German Idealism has described as ‘the God Within,’ the immanentization of the Divine within the limits of autonomous reason and the concomittent shutting out of biblical revelation.16 Albeit without the scholarly and close familiarity with German Idealism of someone like Fackenheim, the Rebbe arrives at the same general conclusion.
The Hitler episode did indeed introduce a novelty … in the domain of human development, culture and civilization.
In particular, many had believed in the arguments of the so-called maskilim that in the 20th century, having attained such a level of civilization, with various ‘higher’ philosophical systems, with a broad and high education, with such scholarship and so many universities, with such a high ethics and elegant manners; that in such a century there could not happen what happened in the ‘dark middle ages.’ … This was intended to repudiate the ‘superannuated’ method of the Tanakh, for ‘sin is a reproach to any people’ [Prov. 14:34], and, as Rashbi says, ‘it is a well-known halakha that Esau hates Jacob’ [Sifrei, Beha’alotekha 69]. Suddenly the great crash arrived, and the whole culture and civilization of the 20th century collapsed. It thereby became manifest that it is no contradiction for someone to be a philosopher or a poet, with elegant manners, who enjoys higher society in a Berlin salon, while this same man then arrives in Treblinka or its like and does everything that was done in those places. […]
If the Hitler episode should have touched any part of faith [emunah], it should not only have touched upon, but clearly demonstrated, the fact that human feelings of justice and uprightness cannot be relied upon, even when the man has a higher education and a university degree and is also the son of an accredited academic.17
What is a lamentable shame here is that a person can be afraid to arrive at this conspicuous conclusion, having been already dissuaded from accepting the logical consequences to which the conclusion regarding everyday life should lead. This unpardonable reluctance can also be found among religious voices, unfortunately, and even among those who have seen with their own eyes what human beings can do when they are given over to their own authority. And this, as mentioned above, is because one seeks to make one’s life easier and more comfortable and one can sleep better; because one can get along with the world in a lighter manner—although this is the same world that was silent—and for the most part one can also achieve some peace of mind.18
How is this lethargic condition, already invoked as the cause of the ‘atheist’ bluff, also the cause of the reluctance to denounce as unreliable a concept of justice derived by human intelligence alone? And if the same lethargy is behind both gestures, how could the very sense of justice swelling with indignation in the breast of this ‘atheist’ be a viable sense of justice altogether? Is that sublime idea of justice achieved for our ongoing historical situation, some time around the French Revolution, les droits de l’homme et du citoyen, the same idea of justice subsequently imported by Kant via Rousseau into German philosophy and, following him, spread over Western mind like a cozy blanket;19 an idea, moreover, to be found at the definition of the core of Ashkenazi decadence as exposited in Mendelssohn’s essay über religiöse Macht und Judentum, in which this Judentum is measured against a frustration with the political dimension of religion; is this secularized idea of justice a product of softness, lethargy, and a fear of protest or of any form of confrontation (as in fact Nietzsche argued)?
With this question we finally arrive at the substance of the Rebbe’s transcendental critique of Wiesel’s righteous fury, which is contained in the first part, the first third, of his epistle. The substance is dense. We take it as our task to unpack and stretch out its density, and even to make explicit certain ideas that are only implied; and to do this partly by indulging in philosophical methods foreign to the Rebbe’s native terms and context but, it is hoped, not antipathetic to his intent and wider purpose. The Rebbe’s entire critique of Wiesel, to repeat, stands on the most solid agreement with him.
I agree with you, of course, that the complaint ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do justice?’ [Gen. 18:25] can be authentic and can have its proper force only when it breaks forth from the pain-filled heart of a deep believer [maamin]. Moreover we find that indeed the first one who ever expressed this complaint was Abraham our father, the biggest believer and the father of ‘believers, sons of believers’ [Shabbat 97a]. We are also told by the Sages that the first to have posed the question of ‘the righteous one who suffers, the wicked one who prospers’ was none other than our teacher Moses [Berakhot 7a], the same one who explicated to the Jews, and to the entire world, the idea of ‘I am the Lord your God’ and ‘you shall have no other gods’ [Exod. 20:2], where the category of ‘other gods’ includes the human intellect and understanding when one makes these into idols and supreme authorities.
For this reason I was surprised that you did not see the course of thought through to the end and bring out its conclusion. […]20
The Rebbe says he agrees with Wiesel. He agrees that a ‘deep believer’ can authentically raise the complaint, ‘Did the Judge of all the earth do justice in Auschwitz?’ Would he go so far as to say with Wiesel, ‘I maintain that the death of six million human beings poses a question to which no answer will ever be produced’; that ‘nothing justifies Auschwitz’? Could the Rebbe simply overlook the traditional justification for suffering given again and again in the Torah itself, namely that human suffering somehow correlates to human sin, even if the correlation must remain mysterious? In a hasidic discourse of 5751 (1990), in the context of a general rejection of any fire-and-brimestone pedagogics of the Mussar type, the Rebbe nails his own protest on the gates of such blithe orthodoxy.21
The present generation, the remnant escaped from the Desolation [Shoah] in which six million Jews were killed in sanctification of God’s Name [al kidush HaShem], may the Lord avenge their blood, belongs to the category of ‘a brand plucked from the fire’ [Zach. 3:2], a brand plucked from a conflagration—and Heaven forfend that they should be submitted to any prosecution! […]
There is such a thing as something undesirable that does not come as a matter of punishment, but rather comes as something that the Holy One, blessed be He, has decreed [gazar] without any reason or explanation whatsoever that is either rational or based on Torah wisdom. In the words of the Sages (regarding the killing of Rabbi Akiva, who was flayed with iron combs, and likewise each of the Ten Martyrs): ‘Silence! Thus it arises in the supernal Mind!’ [Menaḥot 29b], and ‘It is a decree [gzerah] before Me’ [Yom Kippur liturgy] (and it is not said about this, ‘Is the Holy One, blessed be He, suspect of executing justice without justice?’ [Berakhot 5b]). And the archetypical case: the decree of the ‘covenant between the parts,’ about which it is written: ‘Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years’ [Gen. 15:13]—something that was not the consequence of sins [since the potential sinners were not yet born] but simply what the Holy One, blessed be He, decreed to be so.
In our own times, the destruction of six million Jews that took place with such great and terrible cruelty—a tremendous desolation the likes of which never was (and never will be, may the Merciful One save us!) throughout all generations—cannot be considered a matter of punishment for transgressions, for even the Satan himself could not configure a calculus of transgressions for that generation which could justify—Heaven forbid!—a punishment so severe.
There is no rational explanation and no elucidation (based on Torah wisdom) whatsoever for the Devastation, nothing but the knowledge that ‘thus it arises in My Mind!’ and ‘It is a decree before Me’ (although certainly not in the sense of desire—innermost will—Heaven forbid!—as it says in Torah, ‘When man suffers, what does the Shekhinah say? “My head is too heavy for me, etc.”’ [Sanhedrin 46a], for it is ‘for a small moment have I forsaken thee’ [Is. 54:7]), and certainly certainly [ubevadai ubevadai] there is no explanation in terms of punishment for sins.
On the contrary: all those who were killed in the Desolation are called kedoshim [‘holy ones’] (this is their appelation in the mouth of every Jew) because they were killed in sanctification of God’s Name (on account of being Jews) […].22
The Rebbe agrees with Wiesel. The Shekhinah Herself agrees with Wiesel, according to the Rebbe’s reading of the statement by R. Meir which he cites: faced with human suffering, Her head is rendered ‘too heavy for her’ to engage in contemplation and to explain the meaning of this suffering. Human suffering is incomprehensible to God Herself, in other words; that is, in so far as God is present in our world, as Shekhinah, as ‘feminine’ Divine Indwelling immanent in the world. Is there anything like a comprehension of human suffering beyond our world, then, in the transcendent Mind of the Godhead? Or is comprehension itself transcended in that beyond? According to the midrash discussed above, in which God tells Jeremiah to summon the Patriarchs and Moses to come weep for His children, God first gives Himself over to weeping. He weeps for the Shekhinah, for that ‘feminine’ part of ‘Himself’ that ‘He’ was compelled to recall from dwelling in Jerusalem among His children. The archangel Metatron then steps forward, falls on his face, and begs God to let him do the divine weeping in His stead. God’s apparent inability to maintain His transcendence is too much to bear for the archangel. An abyss of cosmic embarrassment opens up under his seraphic feet. And God responds: ‘If you do not let Me weep now, I will enter a place you have no permission to enter, and I will weep there!’ In Jeremiah’s words: ‘But if ye will not hear it, my soul shall weep in secret places for your pride.’23 In order to preserve the secret that belongs to the immanence of the Shekhinah, God retreats into an even more transcendent hidding place, beyond the reach of the archangels, in which inconceivably remote place God in His inconceivable divine solitude is still unable to justify to Himself the suffering of His children. This is what the Midrash says. And the Rebbe’s repeated reference to the notion of a gzera, a decree from Heaven beyond all earthly intelligibility, stands fully behind this midrashic teaching. For the Rebbe, the entire question of how catastrophes like the Ḥurban or Auschwitz are to be brought under the aegis of the justifiable, explicable and comprehensible, is placed on permanent hold this side of Heaven.
Now to what conclusion this critique of reason leads we have yet to see. First we need to simply notice that a transcendental deduction is underway. When the Rebbe writes, ‘For this reason I was surprised …,’ the ‘reason’ in question is that ‘I agree with you, of course …’ The Rebbe does not ‘criticize’ Wiesel in the colloquial sense of the word, by way of disagreement, rejection, refutation and so on, to say nothing of deprecation. His critique, rather, is transcendental, in the classical Kantian sense, in that it seeks to bring into our purview the preconditions which have been present all along behind, on the horizon, and underneath Wiesel’s argument, and which are upholding and making this very argument possible to begin with. Wiesel’s atheism is not wrong, according to the Rebbe. The only thing that is wrong in the situation is that Wiesel does not know how right he is, and, just as importantly, how he is right. In his article, Wiesel mentions the prophets Jeremiah, Jonah and Job as good examples of God’s loyal opposition. The Rebbe pulls the problem even more squarely into the heart of the Torah. Abraham and Moses are his examples, two men whose standing as prophets is overshadowed by far greater distinctions in the Torah. These men are none other than our Father and our Teacher. What is implied in the appeal to such bedrock precedents?