Emil Ludwig Fackenheim (1916-2003), the late Jewish philosopher, Holocaust survivor and Reform rabbi created and advocated the concept of the “614th commandment” or “614th mitzvah”, which asserts that people should not act in order to validate Hitler or his beliefs. This “commandment” is Fackenheim’s controversial extension to the 613 commandments compiled by the 12th century Rabbi Maimonides, whose works are viewed by many as the major authority of Jewish history.
In that “commandment” is the recognition that, though the 613 laws cover all aspects of life, it was written too early to anticipate the Holocaust, and thus, the need for one further law was a historical necessity. This included the notion that “to speak or write about Hitler gave him a posthumous life”.
To be seen to dignify Hitler in the act of analysing his personal background or his personal motives is, for Fackenheim, some sort of persistence of the Nazi legacy, and a continued contempt for God, or as he put it “To despair of the God of Israel is to continue Hitler’s work for him”.
It was Fackenheim’s view that the State of Israel be understood in the context of the Holocaust justifying the imperative for the prolongation of the Jewish people. It was by this opinion that Fackenheim emigrated to Israel in 1984.
And Monday (27th April, 2009) was the day that Israeli politics canonised Fackenheim’s legacy and truly credited him for his opinion that words have more than just mere symbolic value, they have real weight too, and that the utilisation of the language we use to describe global tragedy, like the Nazi’s, be considered and reconsidered in the framework of the Talmudic Law (even if unintentional).
I’m speaking of course about Ultra-Orthodox Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman, of the United Torah Judaism Party, who, on the day that Israel received news of its first suspected case of Swine flu (and its second suspected case soon after that), declared that Israel drop the internationally recognised terminology, and call the global pandemic “Mexican flu” on account of religious Jews not eating pork.
For Litzman, the word swine - pig, which Jewish law forbids from eating - gave the “unclean animal” (a view held by Maimonides himself) a culinary life.
Of course it should be pointed out to him that the reference to the swine in the flu threat has nothing whatsoever to do with dietary habits. In fact, as Lauran Neergaard for Associated Press has said, pork is safe to eat and Swine influenza does not pass through food. The flu is thought to be a mix of pig, human and bird influenza being spread, unlike more typical swine flu, to humans by humans. This is unusual as it is more commonly spread by human contact with animals.
The issue certainly does raise awareness about the possible consequences of words, and their cultural communicability, but we shouldn’t be anticipating a 615th mitzvah too soon for the reason that Maimonides’ commandments were too early to anticipate the Swine flu. Indeed, would Litzman extend his linguistic over-sensitivity to Jews suffering from a gammy leg by virtue of the prevention of gammon in their diets?