This speech, recently published in European Judaism, was given at a Conference on the contribution of Abraham Joshua Heschel at University College London.
Two Have Hold of a Tallit:
Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Rabbinic Scholarship
I am a congregational Rabbi; neither an academic scholar of Rabbinics, nor an academic scholar of twentieth century theology. I was also not the first person Professor Saperstein asked to address a conference designed to appreciate and assess the enduring influence of Professor Heschel’s work on Rabbinic Judaism. That’s fine. I wouldn’t have been the first person I would have asked either. The first person asked to assess the ‘enduring influence’ of Heschel’s work on Rabbinics was a proper scholar of Rabbinics and that person declined, saying they had never read Heschel’s most important book on Rabbinics– Torah Min HaShamayim.
This tells us of more or less everything we need to know about the influence of this work on the academic. Heschel’s writing on Rabbinic scholarship is considered surplus to the requirements of proper academia. It was always thus.
Standing in the Doorway
Heschel made a life’s work out of not fitting into the conventional expectations of the academy, neither in terms of his person or his publications. As he refused to bend to the interests of the academy, so too the Academy refused to bend to accommodate him. Heschel’s PhD work fell between the two stools of phenomenology and Bible. He couldn’t rein his interests down to one field of focus, even as a doctoral student. Then there is the issue of his theological writing, the works Professor Neil Gillman calls the ‘Hide and Seek series.’ While Heschel captured something remarkable in these works this kind of writing never garners the academic respect that accompanies the publication of a good critical edition.
At the Jewish Theological Seminary Heschel served as Professor of Ethics and Mysticism. It’s a surprising choice of chair since the vast preponderance of his published work, at the time he arrived at JTS, was in the fields of Bible and Medieval Philosophy. Indeed it is a very JTS kind of snub. The faculty at JTS stood full square behind at least the first part of Shaul Lieberman’s infamous put-down of Gershon Scholem (in an introduction to a lecture given by Scholem at the Seminary). When I arrived at JTS in 1999 portraits of the great scholars were hung along all the corridors; Solomon Schechter, HL Ginsburg, Louis Finklestein were all prominently displayed. Heschel did have a portrait, but it was totally buried along a corridor in the library facing the stack of modern Israeli children’s literature en route to a computer room which was soon to be shut down. His portrait was hung where virtually no-one would see it. It was, I learnt from Heschel’s daughter, Dr Susanna Heschel, a point of consternation.
Heschel stood in the doorway quite sure that he would never surrender what he cared about for the sake of broader academic acceptance, and the academic community left him standing there; an uneasy truce. But none of this should be understood as suggesting that there is nothing to gain from a serious examination of Heschel’s work on Rabbinics. That would be a grave error.
Heschel’s major work on Rabbinics is the three volume Torah Min Hashamayim, recently made available in English by Gordon Tucker (hereafter TMH). This paper will also address two of Heschel’s less well known Rabbinic works; a biography on Maimonides and a monograph, ‘The Quest for Certainty in Saadia’s Philosophy.’ There are other works, a biography of Abarvanel, a book length collection of biographical essays on Jewish leaders and a range of shorter monographs, but I will concentrate on these three.
Heschel’s work on the medieval period is interesting in its own right, but it is additionally worth noting since it allows us to appreciate an insight into the significance of Heschel the scholar made by Moshe Idel. Prefacing a publication of two almost book length articles on Medieval philosophy and prophecy, Idel notes that Heschel – when one takes into account his work on the Mediaevals – becomes one of ‘very few’ scholars who joined the dots of every significant period of Jewish scholarship, from Bible to Hasidut while also making an important contribution of his own. Indeed it’s hard to think of anyone who can stand alongside Heschel in that pantheon. Solomon Schechter clearly had the knowledge base, but didn’t leave behind the body of work. Not even Rabbi Louis Jacobs made the sort of contribution in the study of Bible that would allow him to take his place alongside Heschel.
It’s 1933. Heschel is 26 years old. He’s completed the work on his dissertation and is trying to get it published – not an easy task for a Jewish academic in Nazi Germany, it took three years. Heschel goes to meet the publisher Eric Reiss to discuss another author’s work and leaves with a commission to write a book of his own. ‘Maimonides’ was published in 1935 before the first printing of Die Prophetie.
The work is reasonably learned, but its aim is to be accessible, it’s not supposed to be serious scholarship. It’s clear and straightforward. While I have only studied the work in translation it doesn’t feel vested with the same flights of poesy as his later works. What most catches the eye is not what the work tells us about its subject, but its author. In a moment towards the end of the work, Heschel mentions a work of Maimonides that suggests there are two kinds of religious leadership, one the private and scholarly the other the public and political. He then moves to this biographical observation;
The high position [Maimonides] achieved as nagid and the prestige he had achieved through his personality enabled him to act on behalf of his brethren in the lands of the empire…
As supreme head of the Jews, Maimonides had a lofty political position. He was considered the premier physician of his day, the most important Talmudists of the millennium, an epoch making philosopher, an astounding mathematician, scientist and jurist; he was admired by the masses, honoured by princes celebrated by scholars … In all this, he asserted his retiring, self-willed personality… He was a man of willpower, resolution and freedom.
He devoted the last fifteen years of his … the passion for scholarly labor, dominating him since his youth, was replaced by a different motive… At the height of his life, he turned from metaphysics to medicating … That was Maimonides’ last transformation: from contemplation to practice, from knowledge to the imitation of God.
Having set up polar opposite concepts of Jewish leadership, Heschel makes the claim that Maimonides excelled at both;
- The religious leader making a political impact.
- The polymath, able to make a contribution across a broad field
- The gadol who is ‘retiring’ but equally a man of willpower, resolution and freedom.
- The man who moves between contemplation and practice
Whether it was consciously meant or not, it doesn’t require much imagination to see, in this passage, Heschel setting forth what becomes his own academic, spiritual and practical agenda. I am reminded of the letter Scholem wrote to Bialik at a similar time and at a similar point in his own academic career, where he too sketched out what was to be his life’s work at an early stage.
The Quest for Certainty in Saadia’s Philosophy
As we move a little further forward in Heschel’s personal biography – to 1942 – we also take a step backwards in the historical period Heschel focuses on.
This passage comes from the opening of this work;
Philosophers do not expend their power unless they themselves are affected. The soul only communes with itself when the heart is stirred. Saadiah admittedly wrote his book for the purpose of dispelling doubts; but the quandaries knocking at his own heart provided the motive that impelled him to toil for truth…If doubts are, according to Saadia, intellectual phenomena which necessarily occur to any person searching for knowledge he could not have been immune to them himself. Perhaps they had torn asunder more than one delicate web of his naïve faith. Saadiah’s constant reference to the doubts that overcast the mental horizon of other people, instead of those in his own mind, was possibly a euphemism…
The suspicion of scepticism may redound to the honour of a man searching for truth. We may, indeed, regard Saadia’s philosophy as a personal quest of certainty, as an effort to reach evidence about the main issues of thinking.
The work on Saadia is undoubtedly a ‘proper’ piece of Wissenschaft; academic, buttressed by a slew of footnotes, engaging in manuscript issues, demonstrating a facility with Arabic etc. It is impressive scholarship but, again, it is hard to avoid thinking about the author of this biography, even at the expense of appreciating its subject. Indeed it is difficult to imagine what else Heschel could have said to offer, more clearly, the invitation to read this work in the context of his own life – even if we weren’t aware of his personal dislocation at the time of writing and the blood dripping from publication date.
Heschel wrote Saadiah during his time at
I speak as a person who was able to leave
And in the midst of the heat of the destruction of European Jewry Heschel writes,
Saadiah’s method in conquering scepticism was to secure one certitude, one solid stone on the ground of truth, and to pile up on this basis more and more bricks and mortar in order to establish a comprehensive system.
That certainty has to have been impossible for Heschel, as much as he searched. I wonder if the experience of engaging in a quest for certainty in the 1940s – surely an impossible task then, even if had ever been possible before – might have contributed to Heschel’s almost total disregard for this kind of Aristotelian, clear cut lineal analysis in his later work. Of course Heschel had a poetic soul as a young man and was hardly the model philologist or analytical positivist even at the
Certainly the allusive – momentary glimpses of insight – style suited Heschel’s method of research or drafting. Heschel would wear a many pocketed waistcoat or jacket and, being busy on a number of topics at any one time, whenever an idea, a form of phrasing or a text occurred to him, he would scribble down the sentence and put the slip of paper in the pocket that corresponded to the chapter he would use the idea for. It’s an insight that helps us appreciate the poetic force of so many of the sentences and the paragraphs in Heschel’s work. It also helps explain the occasionally staccato nature of reading Heschel, particularly the Hide and Seek works. Sometimes paragraphs connect across a chapter. Sometimes they don’t. Heschel argues, as Derrida said of Emanuel Levinas, like a wave. The waves keep rolling in, each one the same, each one unique. The waves keep bashing away until their impact can be witnessed not like Saadiah’s tower with each increasing layer of brick and mortar built above the indubitably proven foundation of the storey below, but rather from the inside – a feeling, a sense, most particularly a sense of belonging.
Torah Min HaShamayim
By the 1950s Heschel’s writing, both the Hide and Seek works – and also in TMH which he begins to write late in the decade, are resolutely non-linear in their style and their construction, but there are important differences between the form and significance of the Hebrew language Rabbinic work and the English language theology.
Tucker suggests the aim of TMH is to rescue Judaism from those who wish to engage only in the analytical scientifically provable worlds of study Heschel saw around him. It is therefore important to understand a little about these worlds; the academic milieu in which Heschel found himself. Heschel is working on TMH at the same time Professor Saul Lieberman (Heschel’s colleague only in the sense that they both taught at the same institution) was working on Tosefta KiFshuta. Lieberman as a scholar and Tosefta KiFshuta as a work were then and remain today probably the greatest achievements of Wissenschaft des Judentums – the analytical scientific study of Judaism. It’s hard to explain to the non-specialist quite how spectacularly analytical and scientific Tosefta KiFshuta is. It is also vast, stretching to 10 volumes, and in all this analysis and science there is not a single endeavour to engage with what Heschel would call the needs of the soul (Lieberman of course, having little interest in the direct engagement with the needs of the soul). However at the same time as Lieberman is justly receiving extraordinary praise for his masterwork, at the same time as so many other faculty members and graduate students at JTS were at work on Genizah fragments, critical editions and philology, Heschel is working on TMH. He is desperate to advocate for the spiritual in a world full of those who believe that the zenith of study is the pursuit of the analytical certainty practiced by Lieberman and abandoned by Heschel if not pre-War then at least in the aftermath of his work on Saadiah.
Heschel makes his claim as to the vital importance of matters of the soul in his major theological works, published by this time, but the world of Wissenschaft is not stirred by contemporary theology. Writing in English, writing his own theology, even engaging in any other period in the history of Jewish Scholarship will not do. In order to fight this fight Heschel needed to write in lashon hakodesh – Hebrew - and he needed to engage with the classical Rabbinical period.
Fortunately the need to turn to source material from the Rabbinical period held no fears for a man whose chair was in mysticism, whose graduate work was in bible and who spent much of his early post-doctoral career in the Medieval period. Heschel, his daughter tells us, took enormous pleasure in writing TMH. One can feel, reading the book, the sources flowing out of him. Indeed as Tucker, and his co-translator Leonard Levy, discovered while working on the book, many of the citations seem to have been written from memory, a number needed to be corrected (though Tucker suggests typographical errors were ‘often’ to blame).
Did Heschel succeed in transforming Jewish study with his work? Not really. There has been a move away from philology and manuscript work, but it would be overstating things to make any particular case for the primacy of TMH in this movement.  But, again, moving away from an assessment of influence to the question of what can be gained from an encounter with the work, one should appreciate a vital nuance in fight for the head and soul of Judaism.
What were Rabbi Ishmael’s personal characteristics? Delicacy, intellectual reserve, clear thinking and sobriety. He sought the middle way and his words were carefully measured.
Rabbi Akiva could be credited with seeking out the wondrous; Rabbi Ishmael could be credited with shunning the wondrous…
Akiva’s teachings sought to penetrate to inner depths… a poet at heart and at the same time a razor sharp genius. Rabbi Akiva was special in that two fundamental qualities were combined in him: poetry and acuity, the esoteric and the analytic.
Of course one could see Heschel here as both Akiva and Ishmael, but there is something more important to note in the style of this passage – and so many others in the book. TMH is non-linear, but its allusiveness is not the allusiveness of the Hide and Seek series where each sentences veils and reveals in the same poetic tour de force. Here the non-linearity is, for want of a better term, more Talmudic. Bifurcations, parallelisms, dyads and polarities permeate every page and time and time and time again these tensions are unresolved. Each different pole, each different idea, each different character is analysed and left in place. There are the protagonists (Rabbi Akiva & Rabbi Ishmael), themes (the relationship between Halacha and Aggada), chapter headings (Human Ways & Divine Ways, the Fashion of Babylonia & the Fashion of the Land of Israel, Two Philosophical Methods, Two Approaches to the Essence of Torah) and on and on the bifurcated nature of the work continues to unfold. This isn’t really a marker of the Hide and Seek works, but it is very close to the open ended style of Talmud itself. The non-linearity of TMH is not just to be understood in terms of the revealed and the allusive, but beyond that, as an un-finalised journey into the space created between polarities.
One could simply consider this an attempt, on Heschel’s part to engage in the world of the Rabbinic studies of his youth, in classical Rabbinic style, but, my claim is that one also needs to factor in the abandonment of Saadiah’s ‘Quest for Certainty’ and a desire to pull back Jewish scholarship from the full-on charge towards the more linear style of scholarship practiced by Lieberman and virtually every other member of the JTS faculty. The bifurcated non-linear style of TMH is also its message. The point isn’t whether one pole or other is correct, the point is holding both poles together, appreciating the poetry, the interplay, the dynamism, and particularly to appreciate the truly Rabbinic nature of this kind of scholarship. One could possibly even make the case that the multifaceted bifurcated nature of TMH could be seen as a corrective to the style Heschel mastered in the Hide and Seek works, a corrective that can only be expressed in Hebrew, working with classical Rabbinic texts.
If, in the 1940s, Heschel understood the spiritual quest as a journey towards a fixed point – per Saadiah, by the late 1950s we see, instead, a man dedicating his energies to articulating the joys and holiness of living in the space between poles. In Heschel’s otherwise untranslated introduction to the second volume of TMH there is a poetic analysis of what was probably the very first Rabbinic text Heschel, the young boy would have learnt.
Two have hold of a tallit.
Heschel directs us to consider the tallit is being tugged between Akiva and Ishmael, but we should also consider that just as Heschel has been Maimonides, Saadiah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael he is, perhaps most of all, this tugged tallit; suspended between so many different tugs; worlds Chassidish and Wissenschaft, ancient and modern, heavenly and earthly …, and to appreciate this tension there is surely no better place to turn than his works on the Rabbinic period.
Jeremy Gordon is Rabbi of
 This paper, based on a talk given at conference on Abraham Joshua Heschel held at UCL, November 2007, is dedicated to memory of my uncle Peter Spanier whose shiva was being observed at the time this paper was given. May his memory be a blessing.
 Man is Not Alone, Man’s Quest for God & God in Search of Man (Noonday Press, NY, 1951, 1954, 1955 respectively).
 ‘We all know kabbalah is nonsense’ said Lieberman, ‘but the history of nonsense is a science.’ See Joseph Dan, Jewish Mysticism, Vol IV, (Aronson, Northvale, NJ, 4 vols, 1998-9) p. vii.
 Private conversation. The irony is that, in 2004, the Seminary decided to replace the painted portraits along the oft-trod corridors with a series of photographs. So down came Schechter, Ginsburg and Finklestein, but the portrait of Heschel remained on the wall. The corridor still leads nowhere, but at least he’s still on display.
First published Torah min ha-shamayim be-aspaklaryah shel ha-dorot, (Shontsin, London, 1962-1990). See also ed. & trans. G. Tucker Heavenly Torah, As Refracted Through the Generations (
 Preface to A. Heschel Prophetic Inspiration After the Prophets (Ktav, Hoboken NJ, 1996)
 Maimonides pp 242-244.
 Published in Devarim Bgo (Tel Aviv, 1976) pp. 59-63.
 Saadia, pp 1-2.
 Citing Zechariah 3:2. The speech is reproduced as ‘No Religion is an Island’ in
 Saadiah p. 9.
 See especially the collection of poems Der Shem Hameforash: Mentsh. Lider, (1933), recently made available in M. Leifman, trans. The Ineffable Name of God: Man (Continuum, NY, 2004).
 See the claim made in a speech to the CCAR first published in 1953, ‘I came with great hunger to the
 Cited by R. Bernstein in S. Critchley ed.
 I am considerably indebted, in this section, to Gordon Tucker’s excellent introduction to the translation of this work.
 Foreword to Heavenly Torah p. xvii.
 Heavenly Torah p. xxxiii.
 That said P. Peli, a one-time Talmud PhD candidate at JTS explains how he was persuaded away from writing a dissertation on Ugaritic in the Babylonian Talmud and into writing on the meaning of the Shabbat by Heschel in the introduction to Shabbat Shalom (B’nai Brith Books, Washington DC, 1988).
 Heavenly Torah pp. 33-34.
 I am grateful to Rabbi Dr Michael Shire for this observation.
 Mishnah Baba Metziah 1:1 was the usual starting point for Rabbinic education. This part of the introduction is discussed by Tucker in Heavenly Torah p. xxx.