A Magisterial Volume

January 1, 2005
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Neil Gillman

Abraham Joshua Heschel, Heavenly Torah As Refracted through the Generations , Edited and Translated with Commentary by Gordon Tucker with Leonard Levin. (New York, London: Continuum, 2004) $95, 848 pp.

FROM THE MOMENT this hefty (800 plus pages) volume, with its striking scarlet cover, arrived in my office some three weeks ago, the reactions of students and colleagues who stream in to chat were unanimous: “Finally! It’s done? Wow!” The publication of this book, the fruit of over a decade of work, and coinciding with the 100th anniversary of Heschel’s birth (1905), and his 32nd yahrzeit, is an event!

“It” is a one-volume, slightly condensed (by eliminating repetitions, redundancies, and some proof-texts), English translation of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s magisterial three-volume study of the doctrine of revelation in the literature of the talmudic rabbis. The original three-volume Hebrew version, published respectively in 1962 and 1965 by Soncino Press and in 1990, posthumously, by the Jewish Theological Seminary, had long been one of those monumental scholarly efforts that students and scholars worship from afar. Very few students of rabbinic theology had the patience or the language and textual skills to master Heschel’s archaic, rabbinic Hebrew, the wealth of original ancient, medieval and modern rabbinic, philosophical and kabbalistic sources that he assembles, and the intricacies of his argumentation – and all of this in three volumes, no less.

For Heschel to have devoted this time and energy to a study of revelation is an explicit recognition of the primacy of that issue in Jewish theology. How one understands revelation determines how one deals with the authority of Torah in Judaism. Not incidentally, it is also a key to how one understands God and God’s role in history. It is a point of entry into all of Jewish theology.

But to refer to this work as a study of revelation in talmudic literature does not even begin to capture the scope of what Heschel has bequeathed to us. The core of his inquiry is the juxtaposition of two theological paradigms that he identifies with two giants of the age of the Tannaim , Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael. But, as translator and commentator Gordon Tucker emphasizes, Heschel’s concern is less with the substance of the positions as they were articulated in the statements attributed to these two teachers, nor with the historical accuracy of these attributions, but mainly with the paradigms themselves, and the tensions and interweavings of these two ways of constructing the life of faith, as they appeared throughout Jewish intellectual history to Heschel’s own day.

Of these two paradigms, the one identified with Rabbi Akiva affirms that every letter of Torah, even the crowns over the letters in the Torah scroll, represents a distinct Divine revelation with its own discrete content. In contrast, Rabbi Ishmael insists that the language of Torah has its own intrinsic structure that even God must obey: “The Torah speaks in human language.” The decisive issue, then, as Tucker points out, was the status of religious language – an issue that remains central to philosophy of religion to this very day.

Even more significant, is Heschel’s life-long struggle to argue for the indispensability of the Aggadah , or more generally, of theology itself for the study of Jewish religion. Those of us who were privileged to study with Heschel and who are familiar with his personal history will appreciate that this struggle was an issue on which he staked his entire career. Precisely because of his stature as a theologian, he suffered more than most from those who would reduce Jewish theology to an irrelevancy, or who would echo that familiar refrain, “It’s not important what you believe. Judaism is a religion of action.” This volume demonstrates that the origins of this debate lie in Judaism’s foundational texts.

This volume is far more than a simple translation. Each of the 40 chapters is prefaced with a “Translator’s Introduction” in which Tucker summarizes the content of what is to come. Heschel’s own footnotes are supplemented by Tucker’s – both at the bottom of the page. At the end, we are given six appendices: abbreviations, rabbinic authorities (Babylonian or Palestinian and by generation), medieval and modern authorities, a glossary of Hebrew terms, and modern authorities Heschel cites.

Finally, that decades after Heschel’s death, a book should appear with a front cover that identifies the author as simply “Abraham Joshua Heschel,” should not be taken for granted. Only on the inside title page do we discover the names of the editors and translators. This act of generosity on the part of Rabbis Tucker and Levin must be acknowledged. But of course, this is entirely Heschel’s book, and that is cause enough for radical amazement.

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