Heschel's "Torah from Heaven"

By Wolf, Arnold Jacob | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Summer-Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Heschel's "Torah from Heaven"


Wolf, Arnold Jacob, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


SUSANNAH HESCHEL WRITES IN HER FORWARD TO "Heavenly Torah as Refracted through the Generations":

"It seems clear that, for my father, Torah min Hashamayim was not simply another tome, nor was it a conventional work of scholarship. Rather it was a 'sefer', a work of religious inspiration that was intended not only for scholars of rabbinic Judaism but also for Jews seeking theological guidance ... he was pleased to find differing viewpoints.... As typical of my father, in his writings he sought to illuminate parallels in the theological and spiritual problems that faced Jews, Christians, Muslims, and all people of faith.... Commonalities on the level of what he called "depth theology" were important to him, not the doctrinal difference that set people of faith apart. He hoped that Torah min Hashamayim would be a source of inspiration that would illumine the richness and depth of Jewish theology. In fact, he always told me that this was the book he hoped his readers would study the most thoroughly" (pp. XVII ff.).

The great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) wrote in many languages: Yiddish, German, Polish, English, and Hebrew. He wrote many kinds of books: essays, philosophy, biblical and historical analysis, and poetry. He addressed many different audiences: students, seekers, non-Jews, the secular, and the confused. He offered many kinds of wisdom, the deepest of which, in my view, is comprised in this Hebrew-written volume, now brilliantly translated by his gifted American disciples, especially Rabbi Gordon Tucker.

"Torah from Heaven," a curious translation of Heschel's original three volumes "Torah Min Hashamayim" or in his alternate English, "The Theology of Ancient Judaism," is, perhaps, his masterpiece. Published over many years in Hebrew, it has now been made available in clear, idiomatic English (Continuum, 2005). Heschel once told me, with his uniquely accurate and typical exaggeration, that every word he wrote was a quotation from classical Jewish literature. This book comes close to being exactly that. It is an anthology of viewpoints clustered in two opposing constellations.

Rabbi Yishma'el, a mishnaic sage represents the worldly aspect of rabbinic Judaism. Rabbi Akiba, the preeminent Tanna, symbolizes what is transcendent and other- worldly in the Mishnah. Their debate plays out subtly and profoundly over three Hebrew volumes, now summarized, with brief excisions, in this English book of some 800 pages. The two opposing schools are cited, compared and dramatized in a way that brings the reader into personal contact with Aggadah, rabbinic narrative, and theology.

Yishma'el emphasizes the here and now, the life of our present world, while Akiba points to a life beyond. The former holds that we are taught by Judaism how to behave, the latter how to die. Intelligence, realism, love of life, and the joyful privilege of being a Jew is one view. The other lusts for martyrdom, loves and honors suffering, and sees in Judaism no greater gift than serving God with one's whole heart.

Yishma'el's God is everywhere; his religion is a human need, while Akiba seeks to discover the hidden God, inscrutable, far beyond our mind. Religion to Akiba reflects God's need for us and for our self-sacrifice.

One school seeks the p'shat, the plain meaning of scripture in an effort to understand what God wants of us. Morality, justice, the intellectual love of God are all Yishma'el's Torah. Akiba seeks to understand God's self, emphasizing spirit, mercy, and the deep truth hidden within words. One school seeks to avoid sin, especially the sin of idolatry; the other seeks to love one's neighbor with a love at least equal to the love of self. One wishes to know, to escape evil, to become fully human. The other wishes to care, to fulfill, to move continually toward a secret beyond the human, hidden obscurely in scripture.

When asked about the essence of Torah, Yishma'el asserts "The Torah speaks the language of humanity. …

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