Sanctifying Life (1)


In an Unwelt whose sole ultimate self-expression is a system of humiliation, torture, and murder, the maintenance by the victims of a shred of humanity is not merely the basis of resistance but already part of it. In such a world—this is the testimony of the mothers, the countless individuals who had a spokesman in Pelagia Lewinska, the fighters in the ghettoes and camps, and the Hasidim in Buchenwald and Lublin—life does not need to be sanctified: it is already holy. Here is the definition of resistance, sought after for so long.                                    Many performed the mitzvah of kiddush ha-hayyim by enhancing, defending, or even just barely clinging to life. Some could sanctify life only by choosing death.

—Emil L. Fackenheim, To Mend the World: Foundations of Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought (Indiana University Press, 1994, p. 225)

Some things in that passage from Fackenheim need a few words of explanation.

(1) An Unwelt is a non-world, a world de-worlded. It is a world stripped of all of what Heidegger would call its “worldhood” (“Weltlichkeit”), all of what really makes it be a genuine world in the first place, and not just a pseudo-world disguising a void of any world truly to be lived in. An Unwelt is a nega- or counter-Utopia (from the negative prefix u- or un-, “not,” plus topos, Greek for “place”), we might say: a true anti-place that is the wiping out of any place at all, rather than an ideal place realized fully in no actual place, but everywhere to be aimed at. Such an Unwelt, a no-place no-place, was Auschwitz, to give the paradigmatic example, which has become a name standing for any and every such world-consuming non-world of a nowhere. An Unwelt, then, is Auschwitz—whether that be limited to a Nazi death-camp in Poland, or gone global to envelop the entire planet. Wherever there is an Unwelt, there is Auschwitz. And wherever Auschwitz is, there is “a system of humiliation, torture, and murder.

(2) The “mothers” whose “testimony” is at issue are those Fackenheim describes a bit earlier. “Nazi thought took a serious view of Jewish pregnancies,” he writes (page 216). “Pregnant women at Auschwitz were sent to the crematorium on arrival or, if they managed to conceal their condition then and until birth, immediately on discovery and together with their babies. Orthodox rabbis, considering the situation, permitted abortions despite the stern Halakhic opposition to the practice.” The mothers whose testimony is at issue are those who nevertheless found precisely the strength to “refuse an abortion, give birth to her baby, and show the energy and ingenuity to conceal it for a day, a week, a month, or even by good fortune until all was over”.

(3) Pelagia Lewinska was a Polish noblewoman, a non-Jew, who survived being sent to the Nazi camp at Auschwitz. After the war, she wrote of her experience, including the following passage (which Fackenheim cites twice, first on page 25 and then, in a slightly more complete version, on page 217, which I will quote):

At the outset the living places, the ditches, the mud, the piles of excrement behind the blocks, had appalled me with their horrible filth. . . . And then I saw the light! I saw that it was not a question of disorder or lack of organization but that, on the contrary, a very thoroughly considered conscious idea was in the back of the camp’s existence. They had condemned us to die in our own filth, to drown in mud, in our own excrement. They wished to abase us, to destroy our human dignity, to efface every vestige of humanity, to return us to the level of wild animals, to fill us with horror and contempt toward ourselves and our fellows.

But from the instant that I grasped the motivating principle . . . it was as if I had been awakened from a dream. . . . I felt under orders to live. . . . And if I did die in Auschwitz, it would be as a human being. I would hold on to my dignity. I was not going to become the contemptible, disgusting brute my enemy wished me to be. . . . And a terrible struggle began which went on day and night.

Such a struggle was itself not only on her own behalf, we can say today in looking back upon Lewinska’s testimony, a testimony to go only with that of the mothers already mentioned. It was also on behalf of those very ones of her “fellows” who did not survive Auschwitz, and above all on behalf of those who, before they died, were indeed stripped of any possibility any longer to resist at all: the Muselmänner, those who had been tortured and humiliated to such a point that, through no fault whatever of their own, they were stripped of the very capacity to hear, let alone obey, any orders, from whatever source, to continue any struggle to live.

(3) By “the Hasidim in Buchenwald and Lublin,” Fackenheim is referring to a story he has told just before the lines quoted at the start of this post, about

an incident that occurred in a field outside Lublin, early in the war. A certain German officer named Glowoznik, having rounded up a group of Hasidim, ordered them to sing and dance. (He had heard about Hasidic songs. Also he shared Goebbels’s sense of humor.) The terrified victims began the kind of song the pious sing in the face of death—lomir zich iberbeten, Ovinu she-ba-Shomayim, “Let us be reconciled, Our Father in Heaven!” But their voices quavered, Glowoznik then shouted at them to sing louder, more heartily. [. . .] In the midst of this pandemonium suddenly “an anonymous voice broke through the turmoil with a . . . piercing cry: Mir welen sei iberleben, Ovinu sh-ba-Shomayim—‘We shall outlive them, Our Father in Heaven.’ ” A moment of silence. Then the song took hold of the whole camp in an instant, transporting it into a “stormy and feverish dance.” Glowoznik, now enraged, screamed at the Hasidim to stop.” Doubtless—though the chronicler [whom Fackenheim has been quoting] does not tell us—he succeeded in stopping them, in one way or another. But he could not destroy a moment of truth.

The truth at issue is that conveyed in Fackenheim’s lines cited above, about resistance in such an Unwelt.

(4) Mitzvah means “commandment,” and refers especially to any law, commandment, or order contained in the Jewish Torah, the first five books of the Bible. As so grounded, every mitzvah is regarded as binding upon all practicing Jews.

(5) Kiddush ha-hayim means “sanctification of life.” Just the page before he tells the story of the singing and dancing Hasidim of Lublin, Fackenheim cites a remark attributed to Rabbi Yitzhak Nissenbaum, something he is supposed to have said in the Warsaw ghetto under the Nazi occupation of Poland. That remark explains kiddush ha-hayim by contrasting it to kiddush ha-Shem. The latter literally means “sanctification of the Name,” in the sense of that word whereby the “name” proper to something is that which expresses its definitive essence, such as “Holy One” or “Lord” or, perhaps most appropriately in the case at hand, what Exodus 34:10 says God’s “name” (Shem) is, namely, “the Jealous One.” However, in the context of Fackenheim’s remarks, kiddush ha-Shem, “the sanctification of the Name,” effectively means the sanctification of the body—the body being sanctified by being offered it up in martyrdom, “to the glory of His Name,” as it is often put. Here, at any rate, is the remark Rabbi Nissenbaum is said to have made during the dark days of the Warsaw ghetto under the Nazi occupation:

This is the time for kiddush ha-hayim, the sanctification of life, and not for kiddush ha-Shem, the holiness of martyrdom. Previously, the Jew’s enemy sought his soul and the Jew sanctified his body in martyrdom; now the oppressor demands the Jew’s body, and the Jew is obliged therefore to defend it, to preserve his life.

In the very name of God, as it were, the Jews forced together into the Warsaw ghetto by the Nazis, were enjoined to sanctify life by continuing to live it as long as they could, every moment up to that one in which the Nazi’s succeeded in murdering them all, leaving only their corpses to honor God’s name—which they did, a point to which I will eventually return.



I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

—John 10:10 (NRSV)

To “preserve” one’s life in such a way as to sanctify that life itself is not necessarily to do whatever one can to go on living oneself, by any means necessary—including, perhaps, becoming a brutal capo in a death camp and helping the murderers murder one’s fellows, just to gain a temporary respite from dying oneself. Rather, as Fackenheim insists, in the lines that serve as the epigraph to the preceding section of today’s post, in Auschwitz “some could sanctify life,” and thereby succeed in performing “the mitzvah of kiddush ha-hayyim” not by continuing to struggle to stay alive themselves, whatever the cost, but rather “only by choosing death.”

Not every staying alive is a sanctification of life. Rather, as the example of Pelagia Lewinska teaches us, only a life lived in such a way as not to succumb to the coercion whereby the Unwelt attempts “to fill us with horror and contempt toward ourselves and our fellows,” is a sanctified, sanctifying life. When it is no longer possible to live such a life, then the sanctity of life requires, in fact, that one choose death. That is a mitzvah not only for Jews, practicing or not.

What is common to all those mentioned by Fackenheim in the passage I cited above? What is common to all the Jewish mothers who continued to refuse abortions even in the face of Auschwitz, and even though relieved of the religious duty so to refuse, as well as all those who, like Pelagia Lewinska, were able to continue the struggle to survive even in Auschwitz? What is common to them all, as well as those who fought the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto or other ghettoes, or even in uprisings at Treblinka and other death camps, including Auschwitz itself? What is common to them all, and the Hasidim who sang with gusto in the field near Lublin? And, finally, what is common to all those resisters and, most especially, all those who, once sent to Auschwitz, could only choose death?

Above and before everything else, what is common to them all is this: They all sanctified life. They all—which means each and every one of them—sanctified that very life that, according to Fackenheim in another line of the cited above, does not even need to be sanctified, because it is already holy.



How slippery the paths on which you set them;

You make them slide to destruction.

How suddenly they come to their ruin,

wiped out, destroyed by terrors.

Like a dream one wakes from, O Lord,

when you wake you dismiss them as phantoms.

–Psalm 72: 18-20 (Grail translation)


“Sanctifying Life” is an ambiguous title. On the one hand, sanctifying can be used the same way the word throwing is used when we speak of throwing fastballs, for example. Taken that way, “Sanctifying Life” would refer to acts of marking, honoring, or acknowledging the sanctity of life, acts that “sanctify” it, making it holy, in that sense. On the other hand, the same title can be used such that the first word, sanctifying, functions as an adjective, so that it would be life itself that did the sanctifying. Then “Sanctifying Life” would mean life itself, considered insofar as life made other things holy by its touch.

Ultimately, if either sense is to be heard fully, the other sense must simultaneously be heard along with it. Thus, finally, the title means both at once, unconfused but inseparable—just as earth and heaven are unconfused but inseparable, or gods and mortals.

Life both is sanctified, and is to be sanctified, as a duty, because life itself sanctifies. Where life is, there is the holy. Life sets itself apart, which is what the word holy ultimately means: to be set apart. It therefore demands to be sanctified. That is, it calls out to be marked and honored in turn, in recurrent ritual and rite—thereby acknowledged and honored in its very own holiness, its own set-apart-ness. Sanctifying life in ritual and rite is sanctifying the sanctifying in turn, sanctifying it in its very being-sanctifying.

It is because life itself sanctifies that Fackenheim can write, in the lines I quote at the beginning of today’s post, that life itself “does not need to be sanctified.” Life itself does not need to be sanctified, which is to say first of all caused to be holy, after the fact of jus being, as it were. Life does not first need to become holy by being expressly set aside and apart in rite and ritual, precisely because “it is already holy,” as Fackenheim says—already set aside and apart.

However, it is not despite but because of life’s being already holy, already sanctified, that life of itself calls out, demands, and commands to be sanctified by us in turn, in ritual and rite—even if the ritual is performed in complete privacy and solitude, as it is by those who let go of their lives peacefully and willingly, to die, perhaps all alone and unattended, in a hospital bed, or on a battlefield. In the same way, those who are gravely ill are set apart by their very illness, made special by it. Just for that very reason, the anointing with oil of those so sick calls out to be performed by Christians who practice that particular sacrament.

A “sacrament,” to use the definition given in the catechism contained in the Anglican or Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, a is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.”

A sacrament is an “efficacious” sign of such grace, to use a term from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. According to the Catholic definition, sacraments are “efficacious signs of grace, instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is ‘dispensed’ to us.” Thus, a sacrament is a mark or sign the bestowal of which does not just “stand for” or “represent” the grace that it “signifies.” Rather, the sacrament actually effects the grace that it “signifies.” It actually graces those on whom it is bestowed, “dispenses” it, as the Catholic definition says. In the Anglican or as Episcopal definition, the same point is at issue when it is said that sacraments are given to us “as a means whereby we receive the same”—that is, the same “inward and spiritual grace” that the sign signifies.

The action, the “effecting,” accomplished in and by the performance of a sacramental act such as the anointing of the sick—or baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist, reconciliation (also known as penance, or confession), marriage, or ordination, to list all of the traditional seven sacraments practiced in Catholicism and some other Christian denominations—can, of course, be taken to be some sort of magic act, whereby occult powers are manipulated through incantations and the like. They can be taken that way, namely, as devices to force the hand of hidden powers. Fortunately, however, sacramental ceremonies and acts need not be taken that way at all. Rather, they are open to non-superstitious, non-idolatrous ways of understanding them.

In one such non-magical, non-superstitious interpretation, performing a sacrament—that is, bestowing a sacramental sign—is (to use the sort of Heideggerian way of putting it that I favor) a matter of letting be what already is. Indeed, the definition of sacraments in the Catholic Catechism captures this immediately after what I have already cited above by saying (my emphasis added): “The visible rites by which the sacraments are celebrated signify and make present the graces proper to each sacrament.”

Put a bit differently (but still in my favored Heideggerian fashion), they are ways of building or erecting, of setting up and forth, of what already of itself calls out so to be set up and forth—just as Michelangelo is supposed to have said that in order to create his statue of David all he had to do was draw forth the figure of David from out of the block of marble in which it lay concealed, and whence it called out to him to carve it. It is not that the human act of performing a sacramental signing or marking somehow conjures up grace and forces it to appear. Rather, it is grace itself that commands being granted in and through being signed or marked—a gift that calls out to be dispensed and received.

Thus does life itself, as already sanctified, call out to be set forth in rituals and rites of recognition and celebration that sanctify it, precisely so that the sanctification life of itself gives may be dispensed and received. So giving of itself, life also already sanctifies whatever it touches and defines, giving it a sanctity that in turn calls out to be dispensed and received.

At its end, as its end, life even sanctifies the very death that ends it. As all life sanctifies, so is all death, life’s end, sanctified in turn. Every death is sacred, just as is every life—and even if the duty to dispense and receive that death as sacred goes utterly unfulfilled. That includes the deaths of those who die in utter humiliation, having been tortured until they are no longer anything more than bare life, and then murdered, as were the Muselmänner in Auschwitz. Even such death, like each and every death, calls out to be sanctified, precisely because the life such death ends has already sanctified that same death first.

Sanctified by the very life that it ends, death in turn is given the power to sanctify life. Death sanctifies life when it is a voluntary death, died for the sake of life itself, in affirmation of it. Jesus’s death on the cross was such a sanctifying death. So was the death of Socrates, or those Jews who died fighting the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto, or for that matter the death of Martin Luther King. But so, too, was Jean Améry’s death, which came at his own hand—a suicide. And so is the death of everyone who just quietly lives her or his given life to its end, then finally accepts permission to let it go, dying peacefully in a hospital, hospice, or at home, in bed, perhaps surrounded by loved and loving ones.

            But that is also why Robert Antelme, a Frenchman who survived imprisonment in a Nazi camp as a prisoner of war, could write afterward, in The Human Race, that the very corpses of the dead, piled up in and around the camps themselves, waiting to be burned up in the crematoria (and many of which were ultimately just left lying there, eventually to be bulldozed into mass graves by the Allied forces after the camps were liberated), themselves testified unanswerably to the ultimate failure of the whole Nazi death-machine. The dead themselves, wrote Antelme, the very corpses of those who had been humiliated, tortured, and murdered, continued to bear witness not only to what the Nazi state had done, but also—and far more importantly—to the ultimately illusory nature of all such unholy, life-denying power.

In the very corpses of the humiliated, tortured, and then murdered, life continued to sanctify itself, and to resist all the power that sought to deny it.

*     *     *     *     *     *

To be continued.

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