Heschel, A.J., Heavenly Torah as Reflected Through the Generations, ed. & transl., G. Tucker

Heschel, A. J., Heavenly Torah as Reflected through the Generations, ed. and transl. G. Tucker, NY, Continuum: 2005. Hardback, xxiv + 814. [1]

For[2] over 150 years, Jews and Christians have been trying to understand the worldview of rabbinic Judaism; three approaches have emerged. The earliest tried to develop a précis of rabbinic thinking. Some of these were patently anti-rabbinic, judging rabbinic Judaism to be inferior to Christianity; others were more sympathetic. In all cases, however, the presentation was based on a unitary reading of the sources; that is, on the assumption that one could read Mishna, Gemara, midrash, halakha, liturgy, and mystical texts all at once and affirm that they, together, represented “rabbinic Judaism.” The result was an authoritative and unitary view of the teachings of the rabbis. The two best such attempts were by George Foot Moore (non-Jewish and sympathetic) and Efraim Urbach (Jewish). The categories used by such scholars were an attempt at a “systematic theology” of rabbinic Judaism, dealing with such themes as God, revelation, prophecy, and so on. The categories of the Mishna itself were otherwise: seeds, holidays, women, damages, holy things, and purity matters.

Neusner, after a thorough critique of the systematic theological approach, tried two methods. The first centered around individual scholars. However, he soon realized that that approach naively assumed the integrity of the ascriptions; that is, that “Rabbi X says” meant that he really said it. So, Neusner developed a theology of books; that is, a theology of the editors of the discrete books in the rabbinic canon. Later, he went on to synthesize these theologies into a larger rabbinic worldview. What is good science, however, has given us a synthesis of a fragmented data base. It is not really a “theology” of rabbinic Judaism though it is certainly good history.

Max Kadushin did not use the systematic or the synthesized fragment approach (he actually wrote before Neusner). Kadushin took the unitary approach but, instead of arranging the material in systematic categories, he arranged it by key rabbinic (Hebrew) terms. He called these terms “value-concepts.” By this, Kadushin meant that each term had a conceptual dimension and, hence, could be discussed but, at the same time, each term had a normative thrust; that is, each term was also an “ought,” a something one should do (or should not do). Thus, “Talmud Torah” (study of Torah) is a concept and one can discuss how many hours one should study, which texts and in which order, the relative priority of study and charity, etc. But “Talmud Torah” is also a value, an activity one ought to do. So, too, “Gemilut Hasadim” (doing good deeds) is a concept that can be defined and refined and, also, an activity that one should do. The problem with Kadushin’s analysis was that, as he noted himself, all the “value-concepts” are mutually implicatory; each implies almost all of the others. As a result, the system is overly fluid.[3]

Heschel’s Heavenly Torah uses none of the foregoing three methods. It is not a study in systematic theology, not an essay in individual rabbis or texts, and not an analysis of rabbinic terms. Rather, Heschel’s work is a typology; that is, it is an attempt to identify two ways of seeing the world from within rabbinic Judaism and, then, to follow the logic and the texts of these two views. It has the weakness of the unitary view of rabbinic texts and of the lack of historical contextualization, but it is a powerful attempt, a real try, at two theologies of rabbinic Judaism, beginning in the talmudic period and continuing through the Middle Ages right up into modernity.[4]

Heschel’s key insight is that there are two basic rabbinic worldviews. One is rational. It is cool and systematic in its approach to text, to interpretation, to prayer, to action, etc. The other is rooted in the religious imagination (though Heschel did not use that term because of its pejorative content in medieval Jewish philosophy). In his own language, there is the approach of reason and the approach of vision. Heschel ascribes the approach of reason to Rabbi Ishmael and the approach of vision to Rabbi Akiva.[5]

Heschel begins his book with the portraits of his protagonists. Rabbi Ishmael is the person characterized by reserve, who shuns the wondrous and favors cool consideration of problems while Rabbi Akiva is the person who is the poet, the visionary, the one who rouses the public to action with his fearlessness and who thirsts for the wondrous. (33-42)

Heschel continues, not with any “systematic” concept, but with exegesis as the central activity of rabbinic Judaism. How one sees the text and how one handles it is not peripheral but is the core of one’s theology, if one is rabbinic. A series of chapters follow that deal with centrally rabbinic themes: the tabernacle and the sacrifices, the Shekhina and divine suffering, human suffering, commandments, duties of the heart, the language used in Torah, the mystical orchard, the Face of God and Moses’ experience of God, God’s Glory, etc. In dealing with each of these themes, Heschel identifies and contrasts the approaches of Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva; that is, he presents the rational and the visionary view of these themes.

Abraham Joshua Heschel was such a poet and wrote so beautifully that I think he would not approve, but I shall do it anyway. The following chart contrasts these two rabbinic worldviews on ten of the themes Heschel deals with:




“Every jot and tittle”

Are irrelevant because God spoke in terms humans could understand

Can be interpreted because every sign is an act of revelation by God

“Laws given to Moses at Sinai” (that are not in the Torah)

They have authoritative status but are not revealed

One must find a textual peg on which to hang such rules; they are revealed

The tabernacle

Was given to help people ward off idol worship

Was intended as the earthly abode of God

Sacrifices and Worship

Done as an act of obedience to God’s will (for the sake of humans)

God desires the sweet smell and prayers of His people (for God’s sake)


Represents God’s omnipresence

Is God’s empathetic presence; hence it suffers; e.g., goes into exile with the people and will be redeemed with it

Good deeds

Are ethical commandments

Are means to cleave to God

“Put God before you always”

Direct your thoughts to heaven

Sense God’s living presence

Deed and study

Deed more important because it is a concrete act of obedience

Study more important because it is the living word of the living God

Face, Glory, Back of God

Are metaphors

Represent different intense experiences of God

Human suffering

Is a decree of God to be accepted in faith

Has the purpose of ulterior reward in this world or the next

Having created the chart, I am pleased that it may make clear to the reader what Heschel’s view of the two major trends in rabbinic Judaism are. I am, however, deeply embarrassed because the chart deprives the reader of the deep subtlety of the original texts and the equally subtle and poetic reading of those texts by Heschel. The reader has lost the interpretive innovations, the play on words, the “rabbinizing” of the biblical texts, the dyadic poetry of Heschel’s presentation, and much more. There is no substitute for engagement with the texts, and the texts on texts, not even in a clear chart.

These worldviews are not, as Heschel sees it, mutually exclusive; rather, they supplement one another, maintaining a healthy tension within rabbinic Judaism. “It is necessary to shift viewpoints from time to time to see the fullness of reality.” (709) “Manifold vision” and the “complementarity of reason and vision” are what is needed.[6] (712)

Finally Heschel, as Tucker suggests, was not just writing a theology of rabbinic Judaism. Himself a “brand plucked from the fire” of nazism, Heschel was, as he always did, addressing the contemporary post-shoah Jewish community. His message (not sufficiently spelled out either by himself or by Tucker) seems to me to be twofold. [7]

On the subject of God’s part in the shoah, Heschel accepted the view of Rabbi Akiva: “The Holy and Blessed One is a partner in the suffering of His creatures; He is involved in the lot of His people, wounded by their sufferings and redeemed by their liberation. This response constitutes a sublimation of human suffering. It elevates the mystery of suffering above and beyond the human realm, and seeks to nullify the afflictions of mortals before the afflictions of Heaven… the Holy and Blessed One invites Israel to share His suffering…. This doctrine is one of lament and woe, but it is a lament that contains great comfort.” (120-21) For Heschel, God in the post-shoah period is affirmed as the suffering God. I have disagreed with our teacher and master but his theology is stated here very clearly. [8]

On the subject of Jewish society after the shoah, Heschel saw that the visionary approach of Rabbi Akiva was needed but he realized that, as Tucker puts it, the “more humanistic and pluralistic” approach to text and exegesis of Rabbi Ishmael was also needed: “There never arose in Israel any Sage who so imprinted his characteristic stamp on Judaism as did Rabbi Akiva…. And yet it seems to me that the hour demands the teachings of Rabbi Ishmael….” (707)

Susannah Heschel in her touching Foreword notes that the years of writing Heavenly Torah were among the happiest of Heschel’s life. The material flowed from him. He knew he was writing a sefer, a work of religious inspiration, in the tradition of his hasidic ancestors. This book is surely that. Within the Heschelian corpus, Heavenly Torah is Heschel’s work on rabbinic Judaism, from the talmudic period through the Middle Ages and into modernity, just as The Prophets is Heschel’s magnum opus on biblical Judaism, God in Search of Man is his chief work on philosophy, and The Insecurity of Freedom is his major statement on religious ethics. Heschel’s scholarship, especially in Heavenly Torah, is stupendous; I think it is probably unmatched.[9] One need only study pages 118-21 on divine suffering and God’s need for humans to make atonement for Him to see Heschel at his deepest, spiritually and intellectually. This book is a tour de force not only in its conception of the material but in its mastery thereof.

A word about the translation and commentary: Tucker’s own scholarship and learning shine through the whole work. Again and again, his notes and explanations spell out the elliptical rabbinic texts as well as Heschel’s elliptical handling of those texts. Even learned colleagues will need his notes. Further, the translation has a beauty of its own. Tucker has gone to great lengths to capture the poetry of Heschel’s language, taking great pains even to explain Heschel’s Hebrew usages and allusions. This is a learned and poetic translation and commentary, to a very learned and poetic interpretation, of an even more learned and poetic body of literature. This classic will be with us a long time.

[1] This review essay appeared in Reviews in Theology and Religion, 13:1 (February 2006) 136-41.

[2] As a matter of full disclosure, I note that I never studied with Heschel though I did work with him on the Clergy Concerned about the War in Vietnam. I have, however, faithfully read much of his work and consider myself a disciple. Further, I have known Gordon Tucker for many years as a friend and colleague.

[3] For an exposition of Kadushin’s value-concepts, see my The Banality of Good and Evil (Georgetown University Press: 1999) chaps. 7 and 10. See especially the section there on secular and humanist value-concepts such as “liberty, democracy,” etc.

[4] Others who have written on the rabbinic worldview, including Moore, Neusner, Kadushin, and Urbach do not have Heschel’s ease with the medieval philosophic and kabbalistic traditions that Heschel consistently brings into this study. Further, while these theologies of rabbinic Judaism were being written, a veritable industry grew up which produced critical texts and reconstructed the social and political history of rabbinic Judaism. This work is not relevant here.

[5] As Tucker notes in many places, Heschel “overreached” in his assigning of texts and followers to each of these schools – which does not change the power of the typology at all.

[6] Heschel confused the approach which “shifts viewpoints” with the one which tries to do both at once. See my Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest (Westminster / John Knox: 1993), chapter 5, where I have argued in favor of the “shifting” approach.

[7] The word “holocaust” is not appropriate for the event it refers to because of its meaning as a wholly burnt sacrifice. Further, since the event occurred to Jews, it is in their language that the event should be referred to; hence, “shoah” (“terribly destructive storm”). As a word of horror in Jewish history and consciousness, it should never be capitalized.

[8] See my Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest, where I follow Heschel in chapters 2, 3, and 5 but disagree with him in chapters 16-18.

[9] Did Heschel really have this whole corpus in his head? I have known men who knew the whole Talmud and its commentaries by heart but I have not know of anyone who had a similar command over the midrashic material as well.