Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

Heschel's Two Maimonides

Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

Heschel's Two Maimonides

Article excerpt

THE AIM OF THIS ESSAY is to describe and analyze the ways in which Maimomdes appears in the work of Abraham Joshua Heschel. I hope to shed light on Heschel's understanding of his own enterprise, and to provide a view of Heschel's Maimomdes in the context of other modern Jewish readings of "the Great Eagle."1 The essay touches upon Heschel's opposition to Maimonidean dogma, his placement of Maimonides within the typological framework contrasting Rabbi Ishmael with Rabbi Akiba, and the special role played in Heschel's work by the biographical and the individual. A brief discussion of Heschel's scholarly methods is followed by a consideration of Heschel's Maimomdes along the axis established by Leo Strauss and Julius Guttmann. The essay concludes with a consideration of the conceptions of prophecy and imidatio dei in Heschel's work, in an attempt to show that the role of Maimonides in Heschel's theological enterprise is both demonstrable and highly significant.

Addressing the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1954, Samuel Atlas reflected on the contemporary relevance of Maimonides. Atlas expressed his opinion that "in the struggle of ideas, the voice of Maimonides should be heard loudly on the battleground of ideas in favor of reason over unreason."2 He then went on to bemoan the flourishing of various kinds of mysticism and the "overemphasis on the idea of God as the 'wholly other,' the transcendent, and the ineffable." Maimonides is to be seen as a corrective to this dangerous vogue. In the course of the lecture, Atlas made clear that his reference to the "wholly other" is to Emil Brunner and Karl Barth,3 but the provenance of the ineffable is left unstated. To Atlas's audience of Reform rabbis, less than three years after the publication of Man Is Not Alone, there would have been little doubt that the reference to the ineffable alluded to that Jewish thinker who brought the term into contemporary Jewish theological parlance Abraham Joshua Heschel.4

In contrast to this perception that the legacy of Maimonides stood against Heschel in the great intellectual and religious debates of the twentieth century, it is particularly noteworthy that no individual figure was as central to Heschel's own oeuvre as was Maimonides. If Maimonides were simply to be overcome, why the continued and intensive reflection on his life and works throughout Heschel's career?

Maimonides' role in Heschel's work is central yet ambivalent. Although he is absent from or peripheral to Die Prophetic, The Sabbath, Man, Is Not Alone, Man's Quest for God, and other works, he plays a major role in God in Search of Man and has both a German biography and a Hebrew article dedicated to him.5 Moreover, Heschel's Maimonides is multifaceted, and sometimes contradictory. In some cases, his name is invoked as a watchword for greatness and normative Jewish respectability - in God m Search of Man, for example, we find Maimomdes described as the author of a "classical expression" and a "great code" and termed one of "tke leading exponents of Jewish thought" and "one of the greatest scholars of the law of all times."6 However, as discussed below, elsewhere in that same work he is attacked for veering away from the true spirit of Judaism.

A simple dichotomy in which Hesckel stands for neomysticism and Maimonides for archrationalism will not hold. A more nuanced picture of Heschel's understanding and judgment emerges from a careful examination of the ways in which Heschel relates in his work to the life and work of Maimonides.


The first reference to Maimonides in Abraham Joshua Heschel's 1955 theological work, God in Search of Man, is remarkable. An entire paragraph on page 21 is devoted to a summary of the Thirteen Principles. After asserting that all but four of the principles relate to "the realm of ideas," Hesckel continues:

The Maimonidean creed is based upon the premise that it is in ideas that ultimate reality comes to expression. …

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