Abraham Joshua Heschel's Thesis on the Unity of Jewish Theology
Kimelman, Reuven, Tikkun
WHILE MUCH HAS BEEN SAID OF ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL'S RELIGIOUS genius and moral courage, more needs to be said about his intellectual audacity. He claims to have traced the continuum of Jewish religious consciousness from the Biblical and Rabbinic periods through the Kabbalistic and Hasidic ones. Heschel argued that these periods are unified by the theme of God's concern for humanity. The different expressions of Judaism are not mutually exclusive, but rather moments in the dialectic ofTiumanitys encounter with God. Where others saw dichotomies, he saw polarities. Our inclination to understand Judaism or to approach the divine through only one of the poles leaves us, according to Heschel, with partial understandings of Judaism and fragmentary visions of the divine. In contrast, Heschel's theology offers a historical and conceptual framework for maintaining the dialectic without reducing one pole to the other.
In this regard, Torah Min HaShamayim BeAsplaqariah Shel HaDorot (abridged in English as Heavenly Torah as Refracted through the Generations) qualifies as Heschel's magnum opus. It guides the reader through the woof and warp of the classic texts that inform his writings on contemporary theology, Man Is Not Alone and God In Search of Man. These books- which made Heschel such an insightful writer for the Jewish authence and to a great extent for the Christian authence, as well- restate his historical-theological vision of Judaism. He first presented this vision in The Prophets and subsequently and more extensively in Torah Min HaShamayim. This vision, which involves tracing the thread of God's interest in man throughout the fabric of Judaism, is reflected in his contemporary writings.
So much of Heschel's work is of one cloth. Man Is Not Alone is subtitled A Philosophy of Religion, while God In Search of Man is subtitledyl Philosophy of Judaism. By virtually beginning God In Search of Man with the statement "Religion is an answer to man's ultimate questions," Heschel underscores his thesis that the philosophy of Judaism is an answer to problems in the philosophy of religion, indeed its ultimate problems. Not only do these two works on contemporary theology fit together, they also converge with his two major works of historical scholarship in his statement that pathos in The Prophets "is an explication of the idea of God in search of man."
Heschel followed a Nachmanidean, as opposed to a Maimonidean, reading of the tradition, one that underscores the continuity between Biblical-Rabbinic and Kabbalistic perspectives. In a transcript of a talk entitled "Jewish Theology," Heschel spelled out the implications of his reading: "The idea of God being in need of man is central to Judaism and pervades all the pages of the Bible and of Chazal (Rabbinic literature), and it is understandable in our own time.... In the light of this idea ... you have to entirely revise all the clichés that are used in religious language."
Much of Heschel's work seeks to free Jewish theology from the constraints of Maimonides's philosophical concept of God as independent of humanity. In contrast, he develops the idea of Divine pathos, which for Heschel means that God is in search of man, indeed in need of man. Note that this is a relational statement, not a substantive one. It focuses on the relationship of God to man and underscores the interdependency of the Divine and the human. This idea does not sit well with those that advocate absolute divine omnipotence. Its absence thus in Maimonides's list of dogmas is obvious. Heschel deals with this by stating:
The whole conception of God's omnipotence, I suspect, was taken over from Islam. God is almighty and powerful. Man has nothing to say and nothing to do except to keep quiet and to accept But, actually, God needs man's cooperation. There will be no redemption without the cooperation of man. Omnipotence as such will not work. God cannot function in the world without the help of man. And this is where halacha, agada, and mitzvot begin to assume their crucial role. But all this has to be seen in relation to God. In a very deep and strong sense God cannot be conceived by us in complete detachment from man. God and man have to be thought of together. I once suggested the definition of a prophet. A prophet is a man who holds God and man in one thought and at one time. He does not think of God without man and he does not think of man without God. Ina Hellenized theology we witness a complete split. God is there, and man is here.
What Heschel found lacking in Maimonides, as in other medieval Jewish philosophers, was "the profound doctrine of the immanence of God emphatically taught by Rabbi Akiva and his disciples ... the doctrine of the Shekhinah found no echo."
Heschel challenged the tendency of modern scholarship to accentuate the chasm in concepts of God among Biblical, Rabbinic, philosophical, and Kabbalistic thinkers. No one took greater advantage of these differences to justify his own concept of God than Heschel's theological nemesis at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Mordecai Kaplan. Heschel contended that these modern arguments, while cogent, ultimately skewed the picture as a whole through their neglect of those strands held in common by thinkers from the Bible to the Kabbalah.
Heschel focused on the interdependency between the Divine and the human. He writes:
In the phrase "we need each other" is embedded the concept of Israel's power to diminish or enhance God's might. This opinion, which served as a cornerstone of Kabbalistic teaching, is already alluded to in a homily in Sifre (319): 'You neglected the Rock that begot you" (Deut. 32:18). The word teshi ("neglected") can be understood in relation to the word teshishut ("feebleness"), whence the interpretation 'You weaken the power of the One on high" ... This approach achieved its classic formulation in the mouth of Rabbi Judah b. Simon, an amora of the third to fourth generation of Eretz Israel : "As long as the righteous comply with the Divine will they augment the Power above, as it says 'And now, I pray Thee, let the strength of the Lord be enhanced' (Num. 14:17). But if not, then, as it were, 'You enfeebled the Rock that begot you' (Deut. 32:18)." Similarly: "As long as Israel complies with the Divine will they augment the Power above, as it says: 'In God we shall make [i.e., create] power' (Ps. 60:14); and if not, as it were, say, 'and they [i.e., Israel] are gone without strength before the pursuer'" (Lam. 1:6). According to the Zohar (2:33a), this idea is intimated in the verse "Give power to God" (Ps. 68:35).
Both rabbi and kabbalist, contends Heschel, held that human compliance with the Divine will augments Divine power. One might think of the Divine-human relationship as analogous to that of a general and soldier, where the power lies with the general and the soldiers merely follow orders. In reality, every command implemented by the soldier extends the general s power. The growth of the power of the general thus corresponds to the increase in compliance by the soldiers and vice versa. An order that commands no compliance is a voice in the wilderness. Judaism is so commandment-oriented precisely because through the fulfillment of the commandments God's kingship is realized on earth. In fact, according to the Midrash, God gave Israel so many commandments because Israel had made God king first. Heschel hence titles a chapter in volume one with the Rabbinic expression "IfMy people does not enthrone Me on earth ..." To make this point with a different metaphor, Heschel would often cite the midrashic gloss to Isaiah 43:12, "So you are My witnesses- declares the Lord- and I am God," to wit: 'When you are My witnesses, then I am God, but when you are not My witnesses, then I am, as it were, not God."
In sum, for Heschel the idea of divine-human interdependency is the thread that weaves its way through the Hebrew Bible, Rabbinic literature, and Kabbalah, creating the tapestry called Judaism.
Heschel's work on Rabbinic thought continues his work on Biblical thought, what Heschel called "God's anthropology." Both focus on the category of pathos in the divine-human relationship and how revelation results from the interaction of the Divine and human. Although the Biblical work is concerned with the prophetic understanding of the Divine and the Rabbinic work with the Rabbinic understanding of Torah and Shekhinah, especially as articulated in the school of Rabbi Akiva, the presentations overlap. This fits Heschel's overall thesis that as prophecy emerges from the encounter between prophet and God, so Judaism emerges from the encounter between sage and Torah.
Torah Min HaShamayim not only has an overarching thesis about Rabbinic Judaism, but differs from standard academic approaches also in its modality of presentation. Whereas Solomon Schechter and Ephraim Urbach in their books on Rabbinic thought summarize Rabbinic thinking, Heschel explores its inner dialectic and for that reason adopted the strategy of exegeting it from within by writing it in Rabbinic Hebrew, using religious categories native to it. The subsections of the treatise frequently are titled with Rabbinic quotations. All this reflects his understanding of the intersection between language and thought, holding that just as words and language inform thinking, so categories structure thought. By organizing his thinking according to rabbinical categories, the language and structure of the book project the reader into the minds of the sages. Once inside their minds, one finds that they were not of one mind. Indeed on most theological issues there are at least two resolutions, frequenuy at odds with each other, representing two schools of thought.
Heschel employs the rubrics of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael to illustrate these contrasting schools of thought. The heaven-bound school of Akiva, with its emphasis on Shechinah, is contrasted with the more earthbound school of Ishmael, with its emphasis on the more mundane. The Akivan perspective was more mystical, possibly apocalyptic, unbounded, and blatantly paradoxical. The Ishmaelite perspective was more critical, rationalistic, restrained, and pellucid. Together, according to Heschel, they form a dialectic, not just a dyad, in which the human encounter with the divine is played out. A case in point is Akiva's focus on the biblical instances of God's immanence and Ishmael's focus on those of God's transcendence. The point is not either-or but both-and; as Heschel says, "the dichotomy of transcendence and immanence is an oversimplification," for "God remains transcendent in His immanence, and related in His transcendence."
By contrasting the sides of an issue under the rubrics of Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva, material is presented dialectically. Heschel entreats those who cannot rise to such dialectical heights to realize that half a loaf is not a full loaf, and no perspective exhausts reality. As he was wont to say, "There is always a polarity of two principles." Neither the practical, this-worldly pole represented by the school of Ishmael nor the mystical sense of God's need for man represented by the school of Akiva can be reduced to the other. Nor can they be totally integrated. It is the limitation ofhuman vision that causes us to see God and the world in two different ways at different times. The goal of Heschel's presentation is to expand our horizons, keep alternatives open, and prevent premature closure by training us to theologize dialectically. The problem is that one who is strong in one pole ofthe dialectic may be disinclined to do full justice to the other. Each pole needs the other to correct itself. Only together do they embrace the full reality ofthe encounter with the divine.
Sometimes, a different perspective, yea a competing one, can supplement one's understanding ofthe truth. Since the fullness of the divine word cannot be contained in a single human perspective, a plurality of understandings is needed to fill out the human grasp of divine truth. The whole truth remains elusively human, exclusively divine. Accordingly, the Rabbis designated truth as God's signature, that is, a unique characteristic of divine cognition that exceeds the human grasp. In fact, since any human perspective is necessarily limited to part ofthe truth, the whole truth may not be humanly graspable without contradiction.
This underlying insight allowed Heschel to take issue with so many ofthe conventional truths of modern scholarship and to be so generous to alternative theological viewpoints. It was not so much that the various scholars were wrong in their analysis of Biblical, Rabbinic, Kabbalistic, or Hasidic theology, as that they saw only part ofthe picture. Whatever the cause of the scholars' impaired vision- cultural blinders, unconscious agenda, psychological makeup, or inability to theologize dialectically- Heschel did not fault them for it. Instead he enhanced their work by rounding out the total picture.
In this respect Heschel's way of doing theology has an inherent affinity for scholarly and theological collaborative pluralism. That perspective contributed to his openness to Jewish-Christian dialogue. For a pluralism to be collaborative, however, the convergence of ends must exceed the divergence of means. Heschel's pluralism is firmly bounded by the dialectic within the classic Jewish texts. It is not simply that Heschel is bound to tradition, but that he understands tradition itself as an aspect of God's encounter with the people of Israel. His pluralism thus reflects both his understanding ofthe dialectic of the tradition and of the divine-human relationship. With nonfinality as his watchword, Heschel invites one to engage in the ongoing quest for the meaning of revelation and of God's involvement with humanity. This conclusion is as applicable to Heschel's three-volume work, which he titled in English Theology of Ancient Judaism, as it is to his entire oeuvre, historical scholarship, and contemporary theology.
"Much of Heschel's work seeks to free Jewish theology from the constraints ofMaimonides's philosophical concept of God as independent of humanity," the author argues. This portrait ofMaimonides comes from Tom Block's Shalom/Salaam series of Jewish and Sufi mystics.
With great intellectual audacity, Abraham Joshua Heschel saw the major periods of Jewish religious consciousness- from the Biblical and Rabbinic periods through the Kabbalistic and Hasidic ones- not as divided by conflicting approaches, but as unified by the theme of God's concern for humanity.
Please note: an earlier version of this article appeared in First Things.
Reuven Kimelman teaches at Brandeis University. He is the author o/The Mystical Meaning of 'Lekhah Dodi' and 'Kabbalat Shabbat,' and the audio books The Moral Meaning of the Bible and The Hidden Poetry of the Jewish Prayerbook.…
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Publication information: Article title: Abraham Joshua Heschel's Thesis on the Unity of Jewish Theology. Contributors: Kimelman, Reuven - Author. Magazine title: Tikkun. Volume: 24. Issue: 6 Publication date: November/December 2009. Page number: 48+. © 2002 Tikkun. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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