Two Have Hold of a Tallit: Abraham Joshua Heschel's Rabbinic Scholarship

Article excerpt

I am a congregational Rabbi; neither an academic scholar of Rabbinics, nor an academic scholar of twentieth-century theology. I was also not the first person Professor Saperstein asked to address a conference designed to appreciate and assess the enduring influence of Professor Heschel's work on Rabbinic Judaism, which is fine. I would also not have been the first person I would have asked. The first person asked to assess the 'enduring influence' of Heschel's work on Rabbinics was a proper scholar of Rabbinics and that person declined, saying they had never read Heschel's most important book on Rabbinics--Torah Min HaShamayim.

This tells us of more or less everything we need to know about the influence of this work on the academic. Heschel's writing on Rabbinic scholarship is considered surplus to the requirements of proper academia. It was always thus.

Standing in the Doorway

Heschel made a life's work out of not fitting into the conventional expectations of the academy, neither in terms of his person nor his publications. As he refused to bend to the interests of the academy, so too the academy refused to bend to accommodate him. Heschel's PhD work fell between the two stools of phenomenology and Bible. He could not rein his interests down to one field of focus, even as a doctoral student. Then there is the issue of his theological writing, the works Professor Neil Gillman calls the 'Hide and Seek series'. (2) While Heschel captured something remarkable in these works this kind of writing never garners the academic respect that accompanies the publication of a good critical edition.

At the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) Heschel served as Professor of Ethics and Mysticism. It is a surprising choice of chair since the vast preponderance of his published work, at the time he arrived at JTS, was in the fields of Bible and Medieval Philosophy. Indeed it is a very JTS kind of snub. The faculty at JTS stood full square behind at least the first part of Shaul Lieberman's infamous put-down of Gershon Scholem (in an introduction to a lecture given by Scholem at the Seminary). (3) When I arrived at JTS in 1999 portraits of the great scholars were hung along all the corridors: Solomon Schechter, H.L. Ginsburg and Louis Finklestein were all prominently displayed. Hescheldid have a portrait, but it was totally buffed along a corridor in the library facing the stack of modern Israeli children's literature en route to a computer room which was soon to be shut down. His portrait was hung where virtually no-one would see it. It was, I learnt from Heschel's daughter, Dr Susanna Heschel, a point of consternation. (4)

Heschel stood in the doorway quite sure that he would never surrender what he cared about for the sake of broader academic acceptance, and the academic community left him standing there--an uneasy truce. This should not, however, be understood as suggesting that there is nothing to gain from a serious examination of Heschel's work on Rabbinics. That would be a grave error.

The Oeuvre

Heschel's major work on Rabbinics is the three volume Torah Min Hashamayim, recently made available in English by Gordon Tucker (hereafter TMH). (5) This paper will also address two of Heschel's less well-known Rabbinic works: a biography on Maimonides (6) and a monograph, 'The Quest for Certainty in Saadiah's Philosophy'. (7) There are other works--a biography of Abarvanel, a book length collection of biographical essays on Jewish leaders and a range of shorter monographs--but I will concentrate on these three.

Heschel's work on the medieval period is interesting in its own right, but it is additionally worth noting since it allows us to appreciate an insight into the significance of Heschel the scholar made by Moshe Idel. Prefacing a publication of two almost book-length articles on medieval philosophy and prophecy, Idel notes that Heschel--when one takes into account his work on the medievals--becomes one of 'very few' scholars who joined the dots of every significant period of Jewish scholarship, from the Bible to Hasidut, while also making an important contribution of his own. …