The Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel

By Kimelman, Reuven | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, December 2009 | Go to article overview

The Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel


Kimelman, Reuven, First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


Judaism is not a doctrine but a life- the continuation of the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Or so Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) often said. To learn Jewish theology, then, is to relive the history of God's encounter with the Jewish people, for theology and history are inseparable. What God revealed to Israel through the prophets, the sages, and the mystics is the "bold and dangerously paradoxical idea" that God needs man.

Much of academic Jewish scholarship finds conflicts between biblical Judaism and the rabbinic Judaism of late antiquity as well as between rabbinic Judaism and later kabbalistic-hasidic teaching. The academic consensus sets up dichotomies between the legal and the spiritual and between the rational and the mystical. Heschel instead integrates biblical, rabbinic, and kabbalistic sources into a unified vision of God's continuing dialogue with the people of Israel. Indeed, Heschel's scholarship, righdy understood, is inseparable from his theology, for his scholarship seeks to re-create the dialogue of the Jewish people with God.

While much of this was obvious to readers of Heschel's account of the classic rabbinical material in his diree-volume Hebrew treatise Torah Mm HaShamayim BeAsplaqariah ShelHaDorot, it only now becomes available to English readers through the translation and abridgment titled Heavenly Torah as Refracted Through the Generations. This presents an opportunity to reflect on the role of this treatise within Heschel's oeuvre and its place in Heschel's approach to theology.

Heschel's oeuvre traces the continuum of Jewish religious consciousness from the biblical and rabbinic periods through the kabbalistic and hasidic ones. Despite their differences, Heschel argued that the teachings of all 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 of man's encounter with God. Where others saw dichotomies, Heschel 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 as well as conceptual framework for mamtaining the dialectic without reducing one pole to the other.

In this regard, Torah Min HaShamayim BeAsplaqariah Shel HaDorot qualifies as Heschel's magnum opus. It guides the reader through the woof and warp of the classic texts- Man Is Not Alone and God in Search of Man - that inform his writings on contemporary theology. These books that made Heschel such an insightful writer for the Jewish- and, to a great extent, for the Christian- authence restate his historical-theological vision of Judaism. He presented this vision first in The Prophets and subsequendy 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 throughout his writing.

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 subtitled A Philosophy of Judaism. For Heschel, man is not alone because God is in search of man. 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 the idea of pathos in The Prophets "is an explication of the idea of God in search of man."

Chronologically, The Prophets, based on his German dissertation of the early 1930s, came first, albeit published in its English form only in the early 1960s. …

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