Abraham Joshua Heschel's Thesis on the Unity of Jewish Theology

By Kimelman, Reuven | Tikkun, November/December 2009 | Go to article overview

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. …

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