Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Torah From Heaven - A Translation of Heschel's Work

I. Heavenly Torah

Prof. Abraham J. Heschel's Torah Min Ha-Shamayim Be-Aspaklaria Shel Ha-Doros was recently published in English translation as Heavenly Torah: As Refracted through the Generations. The book is a massive single volume, sadly without an index but containing excellent chapter introductions by the translator, (Conservative) Rabbi Gordon Tucker.

In this book, Heschel does much more than analyze the attitudes among the Sages to the heavenly origin of the Torah. He posits that there were two distinct theologies among the Sages. It is common knowledge that there were collections of halakhic midrashim emanating from the schools of R. Akiva and R. Yishmael (e.g. Mekhilta De-Rabbi Yishmael and Mekhilta De-Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai -- R.Sh.B.Y. was a student of R. Akiva). Previous scholars analyzed the different midrashim and found differing approaches to deducing laws from the Torah, such as R. Akiva finding significance in every details and R. Yishmael allowing for stylistic elements.

Click here to read moreII. R. Yishmael and R. Akiva

Heschel takes this study to a new level. He suggests that there are also distinct theological differences between these two schools. He sees R. Yishmael as a rationalist who relates to a distant, transcendent God. R. Akiva, on the other hand, is a mystic who feels God intimately involved in our world.

After establishing these theological differences in volume 1 of the original Hebrew, Heschel proceeds in volume 2 to show how this impacted their attitudes to the Torah. According to R. Akiva, God is so mystical and involved that He gave us a complete Torah that is fixed and unaffected by human innovation. However, according to R. Yishmael, man has a role in creating the Torah -- both through prophetically inspired additions to the Written Torah and by using the thirteen methods of textual inference to create new Oral Torah.

What remains implied but unstated, until the translator emphasizes these points in his introductions, is that modern challenges require the flexibility of R. Yishmael's approach and not the overly dogmatic approach of R. Akiva, but also the mystical passion of R. Akiva and not the dry philosophy of R. Yishmael.

Reading through the book chapter by chapter, as this dichotomy is systematically applied to every major theological issue -- free will, prophecy, providence, etc. -- with an incredible array of talmudic, midrashic and medieval sources brought to support this thesis, is both exhilarating and overwhelming. This is a monumental work of genius.

III. Problems With The Theory

Yet, if you read it carefully, you will see that there is an incredible amount of fudging. Heschel's task is to separate two distinct approaches. However, he often quotes a source and assigns it to one of the schools without proof that it is, in fact, from that school. In a book about R. Akiva and R. Yishmael, there are a surprising number of sources that have little to do with either of them. You often get the feeling that Heschel created these a priori typologies and then looked for sources that he can pigeon-hole into them, calling them by the names of R. Akiva and R. Yishmael more because those are the names of the categories than any compelling reason.

Note also that these two categories are remarkably similar to the medieval rationalists and kabbalists or the modern academics and chassidim. His applying these worldviews to talmudic figures is reminiscent of the controversy over the publication of Parashas Derakhim. That book, written by the brilliant R. Yehudah Rosannes (author of Mishneh La-Melekh), contains ahistorical explanations of talmudic and midrashic passages, at time attributing disputes between (for example) the Rambam and the Ra'avad to a disagreement between Yosef and his brothers. Some of R. Rosannes' contemporaries objected to this approach of ahistorically retrofitting later disputes onto earlier figures. Heschel seems to be taking a modern dispute and attributing it to R. Akiva and R. Yishmael, Parashas Derakhim style. It's brilliant, but is it true?

Additionally, and here is the big problem that Heschel raises in his introduction but never resolves, what about all the Sages throughout the generations who clearly adopt contradictory attitudes according to Heschel's thesis about R. Akiva and R. Yishmael? The primary, but by no means sole, example is the Rambam. When it comes to the creation of new laws through textual inference, the Rambam clearly follows the school of R. Yishmael -- there is human contribution to the Torah (in its expansive definition). But when it comes to the authorship of the Pentateuch, the Rambam is an ardent follower of R. Akiva -- there is no human contribution to the Torah. Remarkably, Heschel quotes the Rambam in both discussions as following different schools but does not resolve the contradiction.


In general, it seems that Heschel's thesis is just too big. He tries to pack everything into a simple dichotomy and the reality is that the world is much more complex. I'm not sure that Heschel would disagree with this criticism. It could be that he was being intentionally ahistorical, trying to create a basis in the sources for modern theology even if it doesn't adhere faithfully to the original intentions. I don't know.

However, while we have to acknowledge that the sources he quotes are legitimate, his explanations of the sources and his connections between them end up creating something more radical than any of them actually say on their own. The views the book presents, in the context that Heschel sets, are not necessarily those of the Sages. Because of the book's brilliance, it ends up being very misleading.

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