Thursday, Nov. 11, The College of William and Mary’s Judiac Studies program hosted their first event of the year: a discussion led by the Chair of the Department of Religion at Florida State University Martin Kavka, on Jewish Philosopher Emil Fackenheim’s “The 614th Commandment” and its relation to modern-day liberation movements.
The 614th Commandment, as Kavka explained, was a theory by Fackenheim that argued in a post-Holocaust world, there needed to be an additional commandment added to the traditional 613 of Judaism, one that commands Jewish people not to grant Hitler a posthumous victory by denying or forgetting their Jewish identity.
The discussion began with a reading of an excerpt of the text, and proceeded to describe the main theme of the work as one of “imprudence.”
“So this then is Fackenheim’s argument in a nutshell,” Kavka said. “We have the right, when analyzing large scale imprudent performances of Jewish identity, to describe them as responses to supernaturally given commands.”
“So this then is Fackenheim’s argument in a nutshell,” Kavka said. “We have the right, when analyzing large scale imprudent performances of Jewish identity, to describe them as responses to supernaturally-given commands.”
Earlier, Kavka defined imprudence as an identity-affirming performance that puts a target on the backs of members of a minority group. He made clear throughout his presentation that being unapologetically oneself is potentially dangerous for the individual, as not all identities are met with acceptance, and instead, individuals could be subjected to violence and fear at the hands of others.
The discussion also drew parallels between the Jewish condition in a post-Holocaust world to other modern day movements that fight for the rights of individuals, namely Black Lives Matter and the gay rights movement in the 1980s and 1990s.
“Any kind of political protest is imprudent these days, especially when the protest has its roots in tears,” Kavka said.
Kavka moved on to discuss Ieshia Evans, a Black nurse who was arrested in Baton Rouge during the protests in the wake of the shooting of Alton Sterling, sharing a photograph of Evans being detained by the police. Kavka explained how Evans’ actions showed “imprudence” in the face of danger and injustice, as she did not know what would happen to her in police custody. However, Kavka emphasized the importance of Evan’s experience.
“It’s a performance of Black identity in the face of a series of cavalier killings of Black people by cops,” Kavka said.
Kavka continued by explaining that it was his students, whom he early on described as “transformative,”, who pushed for him to connect Fackenheim’s claims about the imprudence present in the modern-day Jewish experience other with modern-day movements.
“Because my students ask me whether any imprudent identity generates some argument for a commanding supernatural voice, my students won’t let me teach Fackenheim without thinking of other acts of imprudence,” Kavka said.
Additionally, Kavka asserted that imprudence has a role in daily life beyond the scope of protests and self-affirming demonstrations — it is evident even in interactions on social media. Kavka further urged audience members to consider their social media presence.
“To engage in discourse on social media with either friends or strangers is to risk making yourself a target and damaging your mental health,” Kavka said.
Later in the discussion, Kavka proposed possible means of moving forward in a modern world by emphasizing the relevance of the 614th commandment in a post-Holocaust world. He spoke to the ability of this commandment to account for the imprudent performances of Jewish individuals specifically, and acts of imprudence in general that occur in abnormal times.
Noor Scavotto ’24, an audience member, especially appreciated the connections that Kavka made between historic and more recent imprudent performances.
“I thought it was interesting how he approached it from a more modern angle. I came into the talk thinking it was gonna be about almost immediately after the Holocaust, and how it was more of an aftermath situation, but he took it into our current times and transformed it into a talk that applied to us in a way that I didn’t expect it to,” Scavotto said.
Aleksandr Kuzmenchuk ’24, another attendee of the event, appreciated the lecture because he felt that it was important to talk about the Holocaust and its impact through a different lense.
“It is important, with a renewed sense of curiosity and academic integrity, talk about what happened in the Holocaust,” Kuzmenchuk said. “There is that old saying that if you do not learn from history, you get to repeat it. There are certain elements of our global history that we certainly shouldn’t repeat.”
“It is important, with a renewed sense of curiosity and academic integrity, to talk about what happened in the Holocaust,” Kuzmenchuk said. “There is that old saying that if you do not learn from history, you get to repeat it. There are certain elements of our global history that we certainly shouldn’t repeat.”
Kuzmenchuk also commented that the chat resonated with him because he is studying international relations.
“It adds a unique layer to our sociological perspective to international relations, just to society, and I think that it is also very applicable to consider how an aspect of religion which is so near and dear to so many people can influence their political behavior — I mean you saw the picture on the board [in reference to the Ieshia Evans photo] — their demonstrations, and their ways of making their opinions known,” Kuzmenchuk said.
Samantha Gutcho ’21 said that the photograph of Ieshia Evans and her courage in the face of impending arrest was the most compelling topic covered.
“I thought it was really powerful — the photo of her standing in front of the police officers being very poised and strong, and demonstrating how she was acting in a way that she had no fear of what was to come, acting as a Black woman in resistance, no matter the consequences,” Gutcho said.