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[URJBiennial] Rabbi Marmur on Heschel

Rabbi Michael Marmer, from HUC-JIR in Jerusalem, presented a session on Gordon Tucker's new translation of Abraham Joshua Heschel's Heavenly Torah, which presents Heschel's understanding of how the Sages of the Talmud set the agenda for Jewish life (an agenda which has not changed in essence since their day).

Heschel lived 1907-1972; born in Poland, and left his Hasidic family (though he never left Orthopraxy) and moved as a teenager to Vilna, where he received a secular education and wrote poetry in Yiddish; then went to Berlin, studied for a doctorate at the University of Berlin, and studied and taught at the Hofschuler for the Wissenchaft des Judentums (the precursor to liberal rabbinic seminaries around the world). He came to North America, spent the years of WWII at HUC; he was uncomfortable both at HUC and, later, at JTS, where he taught from 1945 until his death.

"His literary output...was extremely varied. He was a generalist," said Rabbi Marmer. He wrote significant works on the Biblical period, on the Sages (rabbis of the late Second Temple period, early centuries of the Common Era), the great figures of medieval philosophy (among them Maimonides, Saadia Gaon), the Hasidic movement into which he was born, and independent works of theology and liturgy -- not to mention that little book on the Sabbath. (This broadness made him unpopular with specialists, who resented the fact that he had something to say about all of those eras.)

He wrote in Yiddish, German, Hebrew, and English. To some extent the difference in language had to do with periods of his life -- e.g. he wrote his dissertation in German because he was in Berlin. But sometimes, after coming to America, he chose to write not in English, and that was deeply significant. In 1962, he wrote a huge, monumental work in Hebrew called Torah Min HaShamayim, v'aspaklaria shel ha-dorot -- Heavenly Torah, As Refracted Through the Generations, in translation.

"You have to admit, it's not a Ludlow title." Aspaklaria is a borrowed word, relating to spectacle or spectacle; it's a prism through which we see, or maybe a mirror which reflects back to us. The word is best known to us from a Talmud teaching which says that Moses looked upon God through a clear lens and the prophets looked upon God through a cloudy or dark lens. So: the prism of history, the lens of the generations.

In the 60s he had a real American audience. He was a respected intellectual here. So why did he write in Hebrew? Someone suggested he was a Zionist. Rabbi Marmer disagreed, though said he was a great lover of Israel -- but he wasn't a Zionist in ideological terms. ("One of the reasons I myself moved to Israel is that that was easier than sitting around and trying to define what a Zionist is!") But he agreed with the commentor's point that Heschel was writing in the universal language of the Jewish people.

"Think about Maimonides, as I'm sure we often do. [laughter] He had mastery of Arabic and Hebrew, and he chose to write different works in different languages. When he wrote philosophical books like A Guide to the Perplexed, seeking to appeal to -- dare I say it -- Reform Jews of the Egyptian world a thousand years ago, he wrote in Arabic. When he wrote a normative book of Jewish law, to provide a code of Jewish law, he didn't write in Arabic. He knew there were Jews, around the Jewish world, for whom Arabic was not the lingua franca. And he knew he was in conversation with Jewish posterity, those who lived a thousand years before him and those who lived a thousand years after him! So he wrote in Hebrew."

"There have been periods of time when vigorous Jewish lives have been led not in the Hebrew language. But maybe there are some things you can only say in Hebrew, that are lost in translation. This is a difficult notion for Progressive Jews."...Also, writing in Hebrew determined his audience. Had he written in English, he wouldn't have appealed to the same Orthodox audience. "The audience for this book was not assimilated and integrated intellectual Jews in America at that time...The audience was traditional Jews of his day, and the audience was Jewish tradition."

In this book Heschel asked some core questions about what it means to be a Jew, what Judaism is. In the first volume, he dealt primarily with rabbis Akiva and Ishmael, and asserted that they represent two primary ways of looking at the world. "Many of us somehow, deep in the pupik, believe that there is one real version of Judaism, there is one truth. You may fight about who owns that truth. But Heschel comes in this volume and says, from the beginnings of rabbinic Judaism, there have been two voices. And if you want to understand what it means to be a person or to be a Jew, you have to know how to hear both voices."

The second volume is all about the Sinai moment. It has more than six thousand references in it, some of which are cited and footnoted and many of which are echoes, reflections, hints of traditional references and verbal conversations. "It's soaked in tradition! But it's really quite undermining of tradition, if you think tradition means one truth, given by God to Moses in a total package. Because Heschel looks within the sources of our tradition for a different kind of description of revelation. For the idea that in fact revelation happens, Torah happens, in the encounter between the unknowable, indescribable, ineffable God and people. He actually proposes in this book a liberal theology in the voice of traditional Judaism."

Then we looked at three short excerpts from the book. Rabbi Ishmael is not well known to us, but we brainstormed together what-all we know about Rabbi Akiva -- his life, his death, and so on. And then we read:

Everything cycles in the world; and just as the intellectual problems remain with us, so does the tension. The divergences and dissensions between these two "fathers of the world" continued on their way throughout the generations...

Heschel is saying here that these are archetypes who embody a tension within Judaism which preceded Akiva and Ishmael, and which would continue beyond them.

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. His emotional equilibrium and his intellectual sobriety did not allow his feelings to sweep him off into extremism...Paradox was anathema to him, and he expended his energy on clarity and precision, on that which was given to understanding and cogitation.

Who is he describing here, as he describes Rabbi Ishmael? This is worth considering as we read.

Rabbi Akiva could be credited with seeking out the wondrous. Rabbi Ishmael could be credited with shunning the wondrous. He shook no structural beams, neither did he impose his authority on the text.

Rabbi Ishmael presumed that the Torah was written in the language of human beings; that if there are metaphors or images, that's just because that's how people talk, and we should still read the text literally. Rabbi Akiva, instead, is interested in the wondrous, and is going to tell us that everything in the Biblical text carries multiple layers of meaning. For Akiva the Torah is an endless source of wisdom, and if you've got the pshat, the simple, literal meaning, that's just the beginning.

Rabbi Akiva's teachings sought to penetrate to inner depths, with profundity and potency of language. He... cherished imaginative meanings, added metaphorical embellishments, and created images of the supernal world. Instead of a logic that was subservient to surface meaning, he championed free exegesis and intellectual flights.

These two men are contrasted in all kinds of ways. Rabbi Akiva thought a lot about the World-to-Come, and thought martyrdom was a great way to go (useful, since he himself was martyred); Rabbi Ishmael thought martyrdom should be avoided at all costs, and pointed out that we're instructed to take the mitzvot and live with them, not to die by them. Akiva was a mystic, Ishmael was a rationalist. And we can align later figures and ideas with them! Maimonides -- Ishmael. Nachmanides -- Akiva. Classical Reform -- Ishmael. New Age Spirituality -- Akiva. Vilna Gaon -- Ishmael; Baal Shem Tov -- Akiva. (Or you could say: Hasidim follow Akiva; anti-Hasidic or misnagdish impulses, Ishmael.) And so on.

"Heschel builds around these two figures a whole theology, and argues that in order to understand the story of Judaism you need to hear more than one voice, that things are constantly moving back and forth in a kind of dialectical tension between them." Akiva is identified with transcendence and the supernal; Ishmael, with immanence and the earthly. Judaism has always involved both of these, and the tension between them.


That was the first passage from Heschel which we read and explored. There were two more, and I especially enjoyed the excerpt from volume three, an in-depth look at the different ways to interpret Psalm 119:126, "It is time to act for the Lord, for they have nullified your teachings," since one of the interpretations suggests -- audaciously -- that this verse makes it possible to break or change the rules of halakha. Anyway -- good stuff! but my brain was kind of full and I decided to just listen instead of trying to transcribe. Hopefully this post gives a flavor of Rabbi Marmur's excellent seminar-leading style and the insights he helped us gain into this section of Heschel's work.

He closed by telling us that one of Heschel's students at JTS asked him which of the two great sages he identified with, Ishmael or Akiva. "I?" Heschel responded. "I am both." Just so, Rabbi Marmur said, we must strive to be both, as well.

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