Originally published in Conservative Judaism 18:2 (1964), pp. 59-61.
Torah Min Hashamayim B’aspaklariah Shel Hadorot, (Theology of Ancient Judaism), by Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Soncino Press, London and New York, Vol. I, 1962, 297 pp., plus LIX, $6.75.
The publication of this Soncino volume on the weighty subject of revelation by a theologian of Professor Heschel’s caliber is an event we have all awaited with the keenest anticipation. The Hebrew sub-title (Darkhei Hamahashavah Bit’kufat Hatannaim) as well as the English title warns us, however, that the author’s aim is primarily historical. The book deals chiefly with the differing views of Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ishmael in method of Torah interpretation. For a discussion of revelation in the light of modern biblical criticism and scholarship and for Professor Heschel’s own views on the subject we shall have to wait patiently for the second volume. Within the limits the author set for himself the work can hardly have been done to better effect. Its scholarship is sound, its ideas illuminating. The whole is extremely well-documented. Practically every relevant source in the vast range of talmudic and midrashic literature is quoted. The medieval philosophical literature and the works of the Kabbalists have not been overlooked; the light these throw on the way in which the attitudes of the great Tannaim summon forth echoes in the thought of later teachers is carefully described. Numerous felicities of style make it a delight to quarry in this mine of information.
Since many of the sources used are aggadic, the Introduction defends the Aggadah as being much more than folklore and legend. The followers of Spinoza and Mendelssohn claim that Judaism is law rather than religion. Even among the most extreme traditionalists today—in a sense, especially among them—there is an attitude of pan-Halakhism which Heschel has tried elsewhere to combat. Adapting the famous talmudic saying about Torah, Heschel remarks that one who says, “I shall have halakhah alone” has not even halakhah to his credit. The fundamental problem of why the Jew should accept halakhah is not an halakhic, but an aggadic, problem. Admittedly, it is halakhah which possesses great preservative value and is the most typical expression of the Jewish genius. Without halakhah Judaism would certainly have been different from what it came to be and may not have survived at all. Halakhah is the glowing coal of which Aggadah is the flame. But if the flame would die without the coal it is the flame which is chiefly responsible for warmth and light (pp. I-III). Hence, the Aggadah must be allowed to speak for itself, which it can do if there is a proper appreciation of its inner meaning (p. VIII). In the hands of a less careful scholar the quest for this “inner meaning” might easily have resulted in a desperate attempt to discover in the rabbinic sources whatever one wished to find there. Needless to say, Heschel successfully avoids axe-grinding and he really does allow the Rabbis to voice their own thoughts.
The question of accurately dating the rabbinic sources is always a problem in connection with studies of this kind. Heschel (p. XLV) remarks, for instance, that all the Tannaitic names for God are in Hebrew with the exception of the Aramaic rahamana, used by Akiba and his disciples Simeon bar Yohai, and he draws certain conclusions from this usage. The sources quoted in support of this are Berakhot 60b (kol de-avid rahamana le-tav avid) and Yerushalmi Shabbat I, 3a. But in both sources the words are almost certainly Amoraic, even though they are attributed to the Tannaim, and it is somewhat precarious to construct theories regarding Tannaitic literature on them. (How much ink has been spilled on Hillel’s negative formulation of the Golden Rule, learned authors not noting that, while the idea goes back to Hillel, the formulation is almost certainly Amoraic, dating from a period centuries after Hillel! No one would dream of accepting the speech beginning “Friends, Romans, countrymen,” as the actual words of Mark Antony. Although the gap between Shakespeare and Caesar was many centuries more than that between the Tannaim and the later Amoraim, the principle is the same.)
On the question of revelation in Tannaitic literature, it goes without saying that we shall look in vain for an anticipation of modern theories. G. F. Moore is right when he observes (“Judaism,” Vol. I, p. 249): “We need to remind ourselves that the conception of development as applied to revealed religion, or in theological phrase an economy of revelation, is eminently modern. To the rabbis, if it could have been explained to them, it would have seemed a contradiction of the very idea of religion: the true religion was always the same—how otherwise could it be true? The revelation of God’s character and will was unchanging as God himself was unchanging.” This is certainly correct. Both Rabbi Akiba and Rabbi Ishmael believed that the Torah was divine in all its parts. They both would have subscribed to what is now called the doctrine of “verbal inspiration.” But, according to Rabbi Ishmael, as Heschel convincingly demonstrates, though God dictated the Torah to Moses, the language and style He used were those used by humans. The prose of the Torah is the style of human prose, its poetry in the style of human poetry. It is, consequently, not permissible to read any special meaning, apart from their plain one, into stylistic devices used by ancient Semitic writers, even if these occur in the Torah. This is the meaning of Rabbi Ishmael’s objection to deriving new halakhah from the scriptural use of the infinitive absolute, as stated in his maxim: “The Torah speaks in the language of men.” Far different is Akiba’s view. For him the Torah is a primordial, mystical work, its every word and letter containing eternal truth. The divine economy evidenced in the Torah’s language means that nothing therein is superfluous or merely for stylistic effect. It is told that a Professor of mathematics who was moved to improve his appreciation of English poetry was advised by his colleague in the English faculty to begin with something easy, such as Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.” When he came to the line, “Half a league, half a league, half a league onward” the mathematician was unable to contain himself. “If this idiot wishes to say a league and a half why does he not say so?” Divine though the Torah is, for Rabbi Ishmael its form is that of a human literary creation. Rabbi Akiba’s approach is “mathematical” precisely because of his conviction that the Torah is sui generis. The paradox here is that Rabbi Ishmael’s prosaic view of how the Torah has been transmitted enables him to treat the poetry of the Torah as poetry, whereas Rabbi Akiba’s poetic view of the Torah as “wholly other” compels him to treat even its poetic forms as rigorous statements of a legalistic exactitude. These two views were not entirely original with the great Tannaim but it is in their teachings that they are found most comprehensively. The two views had great influence on subsequent attitudes, so that it is no exaggeration to see the Kabbalah as following in the Akiba tradition and Ibn Ezra, for example, following in the Ishmael tradition.
Heschel demonstrates successfully that Akiba and Ishmael differ, too, in their general approach to life and religion. Ishmael is the sober rationalist, circumspect in his treatment of the imponderables, prepared, if necessary, to suffer and even die for his faith but seeing martyrdom as a necessary evil. Without denying the possibility of miracles, he prefers to treat the marvellous happenings recorded in Scripture, wherever possible, as no more than extraordinary natural events. He is so much on the side of life here on earth that he permits the Jew to worship idols in order to save his life, provided this is done in decent obscurity. The sacrificial system he tends to see as a sop to human weakness and inadequacy of comprehension. He cannot believe that God needs man’s worship. Avoiding extremes, he is a firm upholder of the “Middle Way.” Akiba, on the other hand, is a turbulent religious spirit, positively longing for martyrdom and defying the might of Rome by teaching the Torah in public. Suffering, for him, is the hallmark of piety. Worship is as much for God’s sake as for ours. Even the boldest anthropomorphisms do not deter him since they belong to man’s thirst for the divine. For Akiba, it is sacrilegious to subject the Torah to the kind of critical and philological investigation appropriate to a human work.
On the whole, Heschel has proved his case. Here and there, however, his conclusions are debatable. For instance, he traces the notion that all matters are “hinted at” in the Torah to Akiba and shows how later Jewish teachers developed this theme, but quotes some of the Kabbalists as departing from it when they state that there is no “hint” of Ein Sof in Scripture (p. 23). Surely the intention of the Kabbalists is not to deny that all matters are hinted at in the Torah but that, in the nature of the case, there can be no hint there of Ein Sof because Ein Sof is beyond all comprehension. It is not that the Torah does not refer to Ein Sof but that Ein Sof cannot be referred to anywhere. Heschel (pp. 112-113) sees opposition to Akiba’s longing for martyrdom in the name of one who risks his life for the Torah (Baba Kamma 61a). From the context it is clear that the reference is to one who risks his life in order to obtain a particular decision, and the meaning may well be that if he cares so much about it he may be biased in his transmission of it. The rule that the decision should not be given in his name may have been intended both as a check to ambition and as a means of securing detachment. There is evidence of careless proofreading. For instance, the above is quoted from Baba Kamma 60a, Professor Scholem’s initial is generally quoted correctly but as “J” on p. 279, n. 13, and Scholem’s book on the origins of the Kabbalah is given the correct title on p. 209, n. 7, but incorrectly on p. 64, n. 23, Hathhalath Ha-Qabbalah instead of Reshith Ha-Qabbalah. Despite these minor errors, the book is an essential addition to every rabbinic library.