The Assimilation of Judaism: Heschel and the 'Category Mistake'

By Sherwin, Byron L. | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Fall-Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

The Assimilation of Judaism: Heschel and the 'Category Mistake'


Sherwin, Byron L., Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


  We may accept or reject [Judaism], but should not distort it.
  --Abraham Joshua Heschel (1)

THIS YEAR (2007) MARKS THE CENTENARY OF THE birth of my mentor, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972). In the years before his death, Heschel had an increasingly pessimistic view of the future of American Judaism. For example, in his autobiography, Richard Rubenstein quotes Heschel as saying to him: "When I think of what our people have accumulated over the centuries that nobody will ever know about, it seems like a second holocaust. Hitler destroyed our people. Now we let their spirit die." (2)

Like the Jewish theologian Eliezer Berkovits and others, for Heschel the Holocaust demonstrated the spiritual and moral failure of western culture, particularly the philosophies that emerged from the French and German Enlightenment. (3) Consequently, Heschel derided the Jewish "plate lickers of non-Jewish culture," detached from the wellsprings of Jewish tradition who were "blinded by the light of Western civilization" and who could not therefore "appreciate the value of the small fire of our eternal light." (4) For Heschel, the spiritual and moral resources of Jewish tradition, especially east European Jewish tradition, offer not only an authentic foundation for American Jewish life and thought, but also a wisdom-tradition "that the world is hungry to hear," and that it needs to hear, so that the wisdom of the Jewish past can address the perplexities of the present and the challenges of the future.

Throughout his writings, Heschel affirmed the unique and vital nature of Jewish religious thought. (5) He considered attempts--medieval and modern--to forge a synthesis between Jewish thinking and that of the dominant culture to be a mistake, inevitably leading to a distortion of authentic Jewish thinking, to the creation of a grotesque hybrid. (6) Rather than applying the universalistic approach of Western thinking to particularly Jewish issues, he advocated the application of a particularly authentic Jewish way of thinking both to Jewish and universal social, ethical and spiritual issues. (7) In his view, a form of Judaism rooted in foreign soil was a distortion, a fraud. "It is a situation of 'the voice is the voice of Esau and the hands are the hands of Jacob ...'; physically we are Jews, but spiritually, a fearful assimilation is raging. Jewish leaders talk about social and political problems with the voice of Esau, when the world is hungry instead to hear a new spiritual word in Jewish terminology. A Jewish approach to problems." (8)

"This I surely know," wrote Heschel, "the source of creative Jewish thinking cannot be found in the desire to compare and to reconcile Judaism with a current doctrine." (9)

Voice of Esau

Like Solomon Schechter, the great Jewish theologian earlier in the 20th century, Heschel claimed that Judaism is a way of thought, as well as a way of life. Like Schechter, he was concerned that Jewish "doing" should emerge from authentic Jewish "thinking," that not only the assimilation of the Jews, but also the assimilation of Judaism was "raging." (10) Such a situation, in Heschel's view, was addressed in a statement by the 19th century Chasidic master, Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk, the subject of his last books: "It's bad enough to be in a situation of exile and alienation ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], galut). But, it's even worse to be in such a state and not even to be aware of it." (11)

Consistent with the views of Schechter, Heschel and others, sociological and historical studies of contemporary American Judaism reveal that American Jewry has forged a form of Jewish life and thought in which foreign and even inimical ideas have become the foundation of Jewish identity and self-understanding, in which the "voice is the voice of Esau and the hands are the hands of Jacob." Or, as philosophers might put it, American Judaism rests upon a "category mistake," meaning committing a semantic or ontological error by ascribing to an entity features it could not properly have. …

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