1. From SACRED FRAGMENTS by NEIL GILLMAN, The Jewish publication Society, Philadelphia. Jerusalem, 1990


Abraham Joshua Heschel's version of this middle option moves in a different direction. Heschel too accepts the personal, transcendent God of the Bible. But, because of his roots in eastern European mysticism and Hasidism, he insists that God is totally beyond human conceptualization. We can never "know" God or use human concepts and language to describe him objectively and adequately. The most we can have are intimations of His presence, an awareness of His reality. What kind of a God would He be if we could understand Him?

The cardinal theological sin for Heschel, then, is literal-mindedness, the presumption that our theological concepts are literally true or objectively adequate. Thus Heschel's striking claim about revelation: "As a report about revelation, the Bible itself is a midrash. " We understand midrash as a later interpretation of a biblical text. But according to Heschel, even the Bible itself is a human interpretation of some prior, or more primal revelatory content that is beyond human comprehension.

Heschel teaches that two events occurred at Sinai: God's giving of the Torah and Israel's receiving of the Torah. Both parties were active in the encounter, and what emerged is colored by both its divine origin and its human appropriation. To use another of Heschel's formulations, Judaism reflects "a minimum of revelation and a maximum of interpretation." Accordingly, "the source of authority is not the word as given in the text but Israel's understanding of the text." Yet, as we shall see, Heschel takes the Jewish legal system that emerges out of this revelation very seriously indeed.

Rosenzweig and Heschel clearly reject the two polar understandings of revelation as articulated by the traditionalists on one hand and the naturalists on the other. Yet they disagree in their understanding of what was revealed. For Rosenzweig, what was revealed was simply God's presence in intimate, commanding (though not legislating) relationship with Israel. For Heschel, it was the Torah as representing God's will for Israel, though what we have is not that Torah in its purity but rather, our ancestors' and our own understanding of its contents. Both maintain the unique authority of Torah, not as the explicit word of God but as a response to (Rosenzweig) or expression of (Heschel) His concern for Israel and humanity.

Both statements also avoid some of the more troublesome theological problems of Lamm's supernaturalism and Kaplan's naturalism. Both allow for the findings of biblical criticism. For both, pluralism, historical development, and ambiguity are inevitable. Judaism no longer speaks in clear-cut, authoritarian terms. That is why both positions will be rejected by the modern traditionalist and welcomed by other Jews who prize the individualism and freedom that Rosenzweig and, to a lesser extent, Heschel recognize. Of course, with freedom and individualism comes responsibility-and not a little anxiety.



2. From Toward a Theology for Conservative Judaism, Conservative Judaism, Vol. 37(1), Fall1983 @1983 The Rabbinical Assembly


Heschel's Theological Critique

The most sustained critique of verbal revelation on strictly theological grounds has been undertaken in our day with unparalleled perceptiveness by Abraham Joshua Heschel. It is one of the central thrusts of Part II of God in Search of Man. His point is simple: to understand the claim that "God spoke as a literal claim is to demean God. If anything, it is an understatement. Neither the human mind nor human language can adequately capture the nature of God or His relationships to creation. God is simply beyond human epistemological accountability. The language of the Bible is the language of man, however much it may contain the spirit of God. It records two interrelated events: mattan Torah and kabbalat Torah, God's revelation and Israel's appropriation of that revelation. Man's role in this appropriation-as in every other instance of human perception-is never purely passive. Human experience is ineluctably transactional and revelation is very much a human experience; it must involve both God and man as equally active partners. In effect, then, Heschel insists that we can deny the last three of the traditionalist claims and maintain the first, belief in the divine origin of Torah. More, he insists, we must do so precisely to preserve our concept of God.[1]

This critique of verbal revelation plays such a central role in Heschel's thought because he wants to preserve the supernatural God of traditional Judaism. Yet the distinctive character of this supernatural God-a quality which Heschel discovers in the Bible which he reads at least as seriously as he reads Greek philosophical literature-is His "pathos."[2] The Bible portrays God in an ongoing personal intimate relation with the world. Heschel's phenomenological description of the religious experience is an attempt to describe the moment when man is touched by that pathos.

Heschel describes the experience, he does not account for it because it is in essence beyond human accountability. Thus the pronounced antiepistemological thrust of Part I of God in Search of Man. What we have is an "awareness," not "knowledge";[3] the awareness cannot be conceptualized for "all conceptualization is symbolization, an act of accommodation of reality to the human mind";[4] we sense the "disparity" between what we encounter and our words and symbols;[5] the encounter itself is "preconceptual";[6] all we can do is bear witness to the event;[7] our concern is "an act of worship," not an intellectual achievement.[8] The dimension of the ineffable refers to "that aspect of reality which by its very nature lies beyond our comprehension."[9] The point is that Heschel's thinking on the language of religion is intrinsic to the substance of his theology, which is supernaturalist, which takes God's revelational character as inseparable from His being God, which understands halakhah as an indispensable dimension of that revelation, and yet, at the same time, which denies that the substance of that revelation can be adequately captured in human categories of thought or in human language.

Mordecai Kaplan's theological naturalism, of course, frees him from having to submit the theology of verbal revelation to any extensive critique, and Martin Buber and Franz Franz Rosenzweig, for their part, see revelation as completed with God's disclosure of presence alone.[10] What emerged out of that encounter, the Torah, is a human document that constitutes Israel's characteristic response to the revelational encounter. However, the Buber-Rosenzweig correspondence on revelation and law published in Nahum Glatzer's anthology On Jewish Learning is a fascinating exploration of how a shared theology of revelation can yield vividly contrasting conclusions on the status and authority of halakhah.[11] The point is that though these four contemporary theologians understand revelation in very different ways, they concur in denying, on strictly theoIogical grounds, the very possibility of verbal revelation. That agreement is crucial to our argument here.

It need not be said that in denying the literalness of our characterizations of God, we are in no way denying His reality. If anything, our purpose is to make faith in that reality possible for contemporary Jews. We deny verbal revelation precisely in order to preserve the monotheistic God. The alternative is idolatrous.


[1] God in Search of Man, pp. 176-190,257-278. Elliot Dorff, Conservative Judaism, pp. 114-115, identifies four Conservative theories of revelation, the first of which maintains both that God dictated His will at Sinai in words but that these words were recorded by human beings and are hence prone to error or ambiguity (in contradistinction to Lamm's claim that the words of Scripture are God's words). I find this distinction highly problematic. In fact, it inherits the main vulnerabilities of the positions which it seeks to straddle, that is, to Lamm's charge that God is fully capable of making His will known unambiguously, and to Heschel's charge that to see God as speaking words is excessively anthropomorphic. I emphatically disagree with Dorff's locating Heschel in Conservative I for reasons which will emerge below. There is, of course, no challenging the right of those who maintain this position to identify themselves as Conservative Jews. My goal is to isolate the more representative theological assumptions of the movement and there is no clear or absolute correlation between theological and institutional identification.

[2] On the divine "pathos," see Heschel's The Prophets, New York: Harper and Row, 1962, chapters 12-14.

[3] God in Search of Man, pp. 106,116,117.

[4] P. 115.

[5] P. 116.

[6] P. 115-116.

[7] P. 108

[8] P. 119

[9] P. 104. That Heschel's theology of revelation can be interpreted by Elliot Dorff to be representative of Conservative I and by me to be representative of Dorff's Conservative III is testimony to Heschel's lack of clarity on the issue. There are proof texts in God in Search of Man which support both positions. I use pp. 264-266 in support of my understanding of his position.

[10] Rosenzweig's formulation is "The primary content of revelation in this: Revelation." On Jewish Learning, p. 118.

[11] The Buber-Rosenzweig correspondence is in On Jewish Learning, pp. 109-118. It is in response to Rosenzweig's "The Builders," ibid., pp. 72-92. See also his "The Commandments"; Divine or Human," pp. 119-124 and the more recent reformulations of the Rosenzweigian position by Eugene Borowitz and Seymour Siegel, The Condition of Jewish Belief, pp. 37-38 and 223-225, and in Will Herberg's Judaism and Modern Man, New York: Farrar, Straus and Young, 1951, pp. 286-306.