The Mystic’s Fight Against Injustice Abraham Heschel as a bridge between two impulses.

Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Sources of Wonder

By Michael Marmur (2016, University of Toronto Press) 279 pages, includes endnotes, sources index, and subject index

The more traditional branches of postwar American Judaism consolidated around a cohort of leaders who had fled Nazi persecution. These men, who were steeped in traditional Jewish learning but had, in most cases, some formal academic training, bridged the vanished world of European Jewry and the modern American condition. Of these figures, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) is unique in that he is best known for his work as an activist. The image of Heschel alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. at the front of the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, is iconic of the civil rights movement and of Black-Jewish collaboration. In this image, Heschel is portrayed as a bearded, hoary-headed, prophetic figure, an aging sage calling for justice. However, for most of his life, Heschel’s work was focused on scholarship; it was only in his last decade that Heschel reoriented toward an activist agenda. Alan Brill, a professor of religious studies at Seton Hall University, suggests that Heschel “taught modern American Jews to speak about God.” God in Search of Man, Heschel’s most important English-language work, emphasizes a theology driven by divine pathos, by a “God who searches for man, and encourages man not to despair of being found” (12).[1]

In his new book, Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Sources of Wonder, Michael Marmur observes a seeming paradox. More than any other modern Jewish thinker, Heschel’s work is distinguished by pervasive quotation, by a comprehensive and ongoing engagement with the corpus of Jewish thought from Biblical literature to Hasidism, from rationalism to mysticism (8). At the same time, Heschel believed in “depth theology,” an orientation that transcends normative theology in search of “ineffable” religious experiences that cannot be contained in any text or doctrine. Entering into the crowded scholarly field devoted to understanding Heschel’s legacy, Michael Marmur’s Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Sources of Wonder asks: “what is the relationship between Heschel’s repeated emphasis on elemental unmediated human responses to God’s call on the one hand and his intensive references to the sources of Jewish tradition on the other?” (3).

Engaging in a form of distance reading, Marmur’s book is focused on the scope and nature of Heschel’s bibliographical practices. The book’s subtitle is a play on words; the “sources of wonder” are both reverential and referential. Marmur elucidates Heschel’s theological and social contributions through a systematic study of his use of quotes, footnotes, and citations. The result, a coherent, succinct, and systematic portrayal of Heschel’s work, is an important and impressive contribution to the critical study of one of the 20th century’s leading theologians.

Marmur describes Heschel’s extensive use of rabbinic texts as a response to revelation. Adopting a Heschelian register, Marmur writes: “The Bible may provide a lexicon for wonder, but it is the Rabbis who help furnish a vocabulary for response. The Bible speaks universal truth. The Rabbis clothe these truths in specificity. The Bible evokes wonder. The Rabbis mandate action.”

Marmur asserts that Heschel’s theological and social radicalism emerges through his deep encounter with Jewish tradition. For Heschel, Judaism is a tradition that demands change and provides the tools for encountering modernity. Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Sources of Wonder argues that Heschel’s social agenda must be understood as an outgrowth of a lifelong project dedicated to a personal encounter with God and to formulating a response to modernity that emerges from but does not reject traditional religion.

The book systematically unpacks and categorizes the various ways Heschel uses quotations and citations. For example, describing Heschel as both “Heir and Pioneer,” Marmur asserts that Heschel uses citation to accomplish a number of objectives including the following: to revivify the figures of the past, to communicate his erudition and establish his authority, as ornamentation, and as a pedagogical technique. The book is organized chronologically and addresses major epochs of the Jewish canon—the Bible, the rabbinic period, medieval Judaism, Kabbalah, and Hasidism, the mystical Jewish movement into which Heschel was born.

Marmur’s account of Heschel’s biblical citations examines a concept Marmur describes as “biblical thinking,” a consciousness of humankind in relation to God and an “ultimate antidote to rampant narcissism” (30). Distinct from normative Jewish orientations focused on reading the Bible in light of Jewish law and critical approaches that dissect and historicize biblical texts, Heschel asserts that tradition itself sanctions a non-fundamentalist approach to the biblical text. According to Marmur, Heschel rarely interprets biblical texts and generally avoids close reading and exegesis. This approach, which Heschel describes as “‘responsive interpretation,’” encourages the reader to encounter, with wonder, the straightforward meaning of the Bible (33). As a believer in depth theology, Heschel asserts that biblical texts should be viewed as an “echo … ‘As a report about revelation the Bible itself is a midrash’” (44). Heschel cites biblical sources more than any other sources in the Jewish canon, a practice that accounts for his ability to address both Jewish and non-Jewish readers.

Marmur describes Heschel’s extensive use of rabbinic texts as a response to revelation. Adopting a Heschelian register, Marmur writes: “The Bible may provide a lexicon for wonder, but it is the Rabbis who help furnish a vocabulary for response. The Bible speaks universal truth. The Rabbis clothe these truths in specificity. The Bible evokes wonder. The Rabbis mandate action” (47). Heschel’s main project in relation to rabbinic literature is to reclaim the status of Aggadah (folkloric texts) which have been ignored when compared to Halakhah, the Jewish legal tradition. Marmur writes: “More than defending the honour of Aggadah, Heschel regarded its rehabilitation as a crucial step for the future of Judaism” (49). The heroes of Heschel’s analysis of rabbinic literature are Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael, the mystic and the rationalist, who serve as archetypical figures of religious life:

 

Rabbi Akiva’s views are linked with apocalyptic literature and Rabbi Ishmael’s with the classical prophetic tradition. Akiva’s perspective is heavenly while Ishmael’s is this-worldly. Akiva is an ideologue of martyrdom; Ishmael prefers to live to serve God another day. Akiva finds meaning in the crowns of the letters; Ishmael believes the text was written in the language of human beings. (56)

 

These figures are central to Heschel’s understanding of the religious experience. Challenging those who identify Heschel with either Akiva or Ishmael, Marmur asserts that these are “eternal paradigms,” a binary that needs to be balanced, synthesized, and ultimately collapsed in order to achieve a religious life of deeds that also transforms the soul (62).

Heschel’s Maimonides, not necessarily the Maimonides portrayed by standard scholarly approaches, is a complex figure who is both criticized and extolled.

Moving to medieval Jewish thought, Marmur considers Heschel’s engagement with Moses Maimonides (1135-1204). Heschel’s Maimonides, not necessarily the Maimonides portrayed by standard scholarly approaches, is a complex figure who is both criticized and extolled. One manifestation of Heschel’s Maimonides is an overly rationalistic refraction of Rabbi Ishmael. This first Maimonides imposes on Judaism a rational linearity and dogma that subverts “the true spirit of Judaism” (66). A second manifestation of Heschel’s Maimonides is a figure who vacillates between the worldview of Akiva and that of Ishmael, and who is “imbued with radical prophetic passion” (71). Ultimately, Heschel identified deeply with Maimonides as a figure who transitioned from “metaphysics to medicine,” from “contemplation to practice.” For Heschel, it was this move that secured Maimonides’s status as one of the great figures of Jewish history.

Marmur’s investigation of Heschel’s engagement with Kabbalah, provides an ambiguous answer to the question: “Was Heschel a mystic?” (81). Unlike thinkers who assert that the mystical tradition is excised from modern Jewish thought, Marmur notes that Heschel cites Jewish mystical sources extensively. As a religious populist, Heschel balanced rationalism and irrationalism, rejected exclusive formulations of the mystical approach, and affirmed the essential position of deeds as the ultimate expressions of religious ecstasy (100-101).

Although he embraced a universalism not typically identified with Hasidism, Heschel’s thinking is influenced by his engagement with the movement into which he was born. Marmur argues that Heschel’s writing on the early years of the Hasidic movement is one of the few areas where he makes an original scholarly contribution. Outside of these essays and two books—A Passion for Truth, written in English, and Kotzk, written in Yiddish—that address a particular Hasidic master, Heschel rarely cites Hasidic texts. Nevertheless, Marmur argues that many of Heschel’s key concepts and commitments—his focus on prayer, his belief in individual self-betterment, and his search for encounter with the divine—reflect his intimate connection to Hasidic Judaism (102).

The only unambiguous villain for Heschel is Baruch Spinoza, who is blamed with popularizing the idea that Judaism is primarily focused on Halakhah (narrowly defined legalistic rules). Heschel blames Spinoza for the diminished status of the Bible and for introducing an inauthentic conception of Judaism, one based solely on law, to Western culture.

The book concludes with a series of analyses related to Heschel’s approach to the world beyond traditional Jewish texts. Marmur accounts for Heschel’s engagement with thinkers outside the canon of Jewish thought—both Jewish and non-Jewish. Philosophers from Plato to Dewey and non-canonical Jewish thinkers serve a variety of roles, alternatively supporting Heschel’s views and serving as counterpoint. The only unambiguous villain for Heschel is Baruch Spinoza, who is blamed with popularizing the idea that Judaism is primarily focused on Halakhah (narrowly defined legalistic rules). Heschel blames Spinoza for the diminished status of the Bible and for introducing an inauthentic conception of Judaism, one based solely on law, to Western culture (138).

Marmur pays particular attention to Aspaklaria, a term with many possible translations and meanings that Marmur suggests is key to understanding Heschel’s unique theological perspective. The term is in the title of Heschel’s most important Hebrew work, Torah min Hashamayim be-Aspaklaria shel ha-Dorot (Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations). Translated as mirror, perspective, and sometimes screen or barrier, Aspaklaria emerges as a key theological concept for a thinker devoted to encountering modernity through tradition. While religion at its best is both self-reflecting and illuminating, Heschel argues that a fossilized religious perspective can sometimes obstruct one’s ability to see “reality as it is” (156). A conception of tradition that incorporates and demands change thus allows one to utilize the history of Jewish thought as a mirror and a lens while rejecting fundamentalism or a spiritually vacuous rationalism.

It is often remarked of Heschel that “Christians understood his work better than Jews.” Heschel’s influence on Nostra Aetate, the 1965 proclamation that reshaped Catholic attitudes toward non-Christians, and toward Jews in particular, illustrates this point.

Marmur’s review of the various visual metaphors related to the term Aspaklaria introduces his argument that Heschel’s commitment to social activism did not contradict his lifelong pursuit of scholarship and spiritual awareness; rather, “his move to action can be seen as a culmination of his life of study and struggle with the meaning of tradition” (164). In support of this claim, Marmur moves through the history of Jewish thought from the Bible to contemporary sources, examining the ways in which Heschel uses these texts to justify social activism, sometimes going so far as to argue that one can break Jewish law in order to fulfill God’s will. When pressed into action, these efforts proved controversial. For example, Heschel was criticized for carrying a Torah scroll into Arlington cemetery—a violation of Jewish law—as part of an anti-war demonstration. Of particular significance is Heschel’s tendency to interpret texts originally meant for particularistic contexts as having universalist implications. I note that, since the mid-1980s and, to a greater extent, since the beginning of the 21st century, this mode of reinterpretation has become standard for a growing number of individuals and organizations, who, following Heschel’s lead, have formulated a progressive Jewish ethic. This is not the secular progressivism of the early 20th-century Jewish Left but a Jewish progressivism expressed in religious terms.

It is often remarked of Heschel that “Christians understood his work better than Jews.” Heschel’s influence on Nostra Aetate, the 1965 proclamation that reshaped Catholic attitudes toward non-Christians, and toward Jews in particular, illustrates this point. In addition to making an academic intervention in specialized discourse on Heschel, we might understand Marmur’s investment in Heschel’s legacy as reflecting a recent enthusiasm for Heschel within the progressive Jewish community. Jewish activists often cite Heschel as a symbol of Jewish commitment to social justice activism. For many of these activists, Heschel emerges as a refraction of Rabbi Ishmael, a figure concerned primarily with the here and now. Marmur’s text, however, portrays Heschel’s activism as the outgrowth of a lifetime of religious contemplation.

The Heschel portrayed in Marmur’s text is also important for understanding the emergence of a Jewish movement defined by traditional progressivism. In 2006, Arnold Eisen, a sociologist devoted to perpetuating Heschel’s legacy, replaced Ismar Schorsch as Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, where Heschel taught. This transition cemented Heschel’s role at the center of Conservative Judaism. That same year, Machon Hadar, a non-denominational seminary startup that is now at the center of a Jewish traditional progressivism, was established in New York. These institutional developments resonate with Marmur’s portrayal of Heschel, and signal an important phenomenon: that of drawing on Heschel as a key source for an emergent Jewish traditionalism devoted to Torah study, prayer, and social justice.

[1] Brill, Alan, “Aggadic Man: The Poetry and Rabbinic Thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel,” Meorot 6 vol. 1 (2006):1-21.

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