Off the Pulpit

The Laughing Philosopher

Each of us has witnessed things that if unshared, the world will never know. I would like to tell you of a remarkable event I once saw, so that the image will live on.

There is a custom in Israel on Independence Day, Yom Ha’atzmaut, for children, sometimes carried on the shoulders of their parents, to walk around the streets with plastic hammers, bopping people on the head. I don’t know its origin, but everyone who has been there has witnessed the glee.

Many years ago on this day I was walking on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem and I spotted the tall, stately figure of philosopher Emil Fackenheim. Fackenheim, most famous for his declaration after the Holocaust that we must practice Judaism to deny Hitler a posthumous victory, was walking toward my direction and I could see him clearly. A young boy on his father’s shoulders came up behind him and whacked him on the head with a plastic hammer. Fackenheim’s face darkened. He turned around and saw the boy, who was laughing hysterically. The philosopher at first smiled and then he too began to laugh. I will never forget that unique snapshot from modern Israel. I repeat it here because the story of the laughing philosopher should not be lost.