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
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.
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? >>