Heavenly Torah in Human Hands

By Or N. Rose

Heavenly Torah as Refracted through the Generations
By Abraham Joshua Heschel
Edited/Translated by Gordon Tucker and Leonard Levin
848 Pages. Continuum International Publishing Group. $95.

More than 30 years after his death Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) continues to inspire religious seekers—Jewish and non-Jewish—the world over. He is remembered as a champion of social justice and an eloquent voice of spiritual renewal. English readers now have the opportunity to deepen their acquaintance with Heschel by dipping into Heavenly Torah as Refracted through the Generations.

Originally published in Hebrew (three volumes—1962, 1965, 1992), Heavenly Torah is an extensive study of rabbinic theology, presenting in great detail the views of the sages of the Talmud (first to sixth century) and their successors on such foundational issues as the nature of Torah, the revelation at Sinai, prophecy, and scriptural exegesis. Heschel analyzes these subjects through an in-depth exploration of aggadah, the non-legal portions of the Talmud and several midrashic (from midrash, rabbinic legend) sources.

Heschel asserts that this body of literature has been given short shrift by traditionalists and scholars alike (this has changed somewhat since Heschel began his project), who tend to dismiss it as the speculative digressions of the rabbis that come between the more focused discussions of Jewish law andpractice. He insists that the aggadic texts have their own integrity and that when approached with care and sensitivity these narratives disclose a range of sophisticated theological perspectives. In fact, as editor and translator Gordon Tucker suggests, one of Heschel’s primary aims in Heavenly Torah is to “rehabilitate” aggadah, to demonstrate to his readers the depth and profundity of this misunderstood genre of Jewish literature.

At the center of this work stand two towering figures of rabbinic thought: Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael, both second-century sages. They serve as the paradigms (avot, literally “fathers”) for the two worldviews Heschel believes are dominant in the rabbinic period and most influential on later generations of Jewish theologians: philosophers and mystics.

Akiva is characterized as an esoteric thinker, who believes that every marking in the text of the Torah—“every jot and tittle”—is fraught with meaning. Through his imaginative and poetic readings of the Bible, Akiva develops a theology of immanence, believing that God is actively involved in creation and that He longs to be in relationship with human beings, identifying so closely with them that He actually participates in their joy and sorrow (God in Search of Man is the title of Heschel’s major work of constructive theology). In contrast, Ishmael is depicted as a more austere rational thinker, who believes that the Torah was written in the “language of human beings,” and that one need not engage in fanciful exegetical play to understand its teachings. Theologically, Ishmael speaks of a God of transcendence: a divine being who reigns from above and who requires nothing of His creations. For Ishmael, the notion that God is affected by human action violates his understanding of divine perfection. In his view, Torah is a heavenly gift given to humanity so that they might learn something of God’s mysterious ways.

In the past, critics of the Hebrew edition of Heavenly Torah claimed that Heschel went too far in his construction of these two models. They asserted that he ignored rabbinic sources that do not conform to his schema and that while he claimed to be engaged in an historical project, his methodology was either a-historical or was too reliant on outmoded scholarly principles.

For his part, Heschel does admit that the two intellectual positions he has discovered are sometimes “intertwined” or even “synthesized” so that the “two rival ways of grasping the world” can appear in the teachings of one person. However, as Tucker notes, Heschel seems to “want it both ways”—insisting on the historicity of his work while also speaking of Akiva and Ishmael as models and not as actual figures or schools.

This raises a fundamental question about Heschel’s motivations for writing Heavenly Torah. Several commentators have observed that Heschel’s primary aim was not history, but theology. That is to say, he sought to understand the evolution of Jewish thought not simply for intellectual edification, but so that he could better engage in his own constructive theological project, and demonstrate to others the importance of theology in constructing a meaningful Jewish life. In an earlier essay, Tucker suggests that Heavenly Torah should be viewed as both ancient theology and contemporary autobiography. He adds that this is true of several others of Heschel’s historical studies, including his treatment of the biblical prophets, medieval philosophers, and the Eastern European Hasidic Masters.

We owe a debt of gratitude to Gordon Tucker and Leonard Levin for bringing this fascinating piece of Heschel’s intellectual legacy to a broader readership; and this was no easy feat. Translating Heavenly Torah was a particularly difficult challenge because Heschel (who wrote in five languages) attempts to craft this work in the form of a traditional rabbinic commentary, blending the Hebrew of several different ages into his prose. Not only is this English version a lucid and thoughtful reworking of the original text, but Tucker and Levin even manage to introduce into their translation a measure of the poeticism readers have come to expect of Heschel. The various introductions, notes, and other scholarly apparatus are also very helpful in unpacking and contextualizing Heschel’s arguments and the many rabbinic sources that serve as the basis for his presentation.  The translators also wisely abridge some of the more repetitive sections of the book without doing damage to the analytical or stylistic flow of the text.

While Heavenly Torah may not be a work of conventional historical scholarship, it is an intriguing example of how an extremely learned and sensitive reader attempts to engage the world of rabbinic thought in order to deepen his engagement with his own world.

Discussion Question

Does it matter to you how the Torah came to be? Is it a less significant text in your eyes if it was the product of several human hands and not the word of God given to Moses at Sinai? >>