Pearls from Heschel's Heavenly Torah
June 05, 2013
When Rabbi Akiva found difficult or strange language in the Torah, his ears would widen, for in his view strangeness in the text was a gateway to the discovery of the Torah's secrets. Rabbi Ishmael's goal was the integrity of the text. The Torah speaks in human language. If there is difficult or strange language in the Torah, then it is a mistake to take it at face value...
Rabbi Ishmael would teach that raz [Hebrew: "secret meaning"] is an anagram for zar [Hebrew: "bizarre"], for a text should be interpreted according to its plain meaning. But Rabbi Akiva would teach that peshat [Hebrew: "plain meaning"] is an anagram for tippesh [Hebrew: "foolish"], for the truth cannot be grasped with nothing but the tongs of plain reason...
There were thus two points of view among the Sages: (1) a transcendent point of view, comprising a method of thought always open to the higher realms, striving to understand matters of Torah through a supernal lens; and (2) an immanent point of view, comprising a method of thought modest and confined, satisfied to understand matters of Torah through an earthly lens defined by human experience.
My Wednesday morning Torah study group is reading Abraham Joshua Heschel's Torah Min HaShamayim b'Aspeklaria HaDorot / Heavenly Torah As Refracted Through the Generations (translation and commentary by Gordon Tucker.) This book was originally published in Hebrew in three volumes, and has only recently been released in English. I'm endlessly grateful to Gordon Tucker (whose work I had already admired) for his work in translating this so that it is opened up to a wider readership.
Each week, our group meets for coffee and bagels and companionship. And, after a period of chatting and catching up, a silence falls over the table, and someone says, "shall we do some learning?" And we all grab our books, and we make the blessing over Torah study, and then we dive in. We take turns reading aloud, pausing every so often for conversation and questions. We've been working our way through this book for some weeks now, and we're almost finished with the introduction. (This book is going to take us a very, very long time. But that's okay.) So far, I have to say, it's fantastic.
I'm fascinated by the binary between these two great sages, Rabbi Akiva (whose name and whose story are quite familiar -- as is his martyrdom) and Rabbi Ishmael (about whom I knew little, before we began this learning, beyond his 13 exegetical principles.) Heschel does a beautiful job of articulating their differing sets of interpretive lenses and perspectives. Often the text comes across as mouth-puckeringly tart. (Take that line about raz being an anagram for zar and peshat being an anagram for tippesh -- that made our whole table laugh out loud. Okay, maybe you had to be there. But it's really quite witty and dry.)
Rabbi Akiva, in Heschel's framing, is the transcendent thinker, the poet, the mystic, the one who insists that every letter of Torah contains hidden meaning and that our every action impacts the Holy Blessed One. Rabbi Ishmael, in contrast, is the immanent thinker, the rationalist, the one who looks for plain meaning and for intelligible practice which we can derive logically from the text.
In a certain way, Rabbi Akiva is the more literal reader of Torah, finding supernal possibilities in every letter and so cherishing the individual letters even when a phrase's meaning is unclear or strange. Rabbi Ishmael is the more relaxed reader of Torah, willing to acknowledge that some of what's in Torah is an articulation of custom rather than a holy commandment from on high, interested in the laws and practices we can build on the scaffolding of the text. One might say that Rabbi Ishmael comes to Torah with a human's-eye view, while Rabbi Akiva aspires to approach Torah with a God's-eye view.
I love Heschel's assertion that when Rabbi Akiva found something strange in Torah, his interest would be piqued (in the original language, it says his ears would open like funnels) because in his mind Torah's moments of strangeness, its oddities, its incongruities were doorways into the Torah's secrets. There's a playfulness there which appeals to me, both as a poet and as a rabbi. But I also love Heschel's articulation of Rabbi Ishmael's calm, gentle intellectual approach. The Torah is written in our own language, says Rabbi Ishmael; it's meant to be understandable and clear. There's something of the dichotomy between the Hasid and the mitnagid, here. Part of what interests me is the importance of the fruitful tension between these two age-old perspectives.
I remembered having heard someone speak about this text some years ago, so I went digging in my own blog archives, and found a post from the URJ Biennial in 2005: Rabbi Marmur on Heschel. I hadn't realized, until I reread that post just now, that some od the same quotes and ideas which I find so compelling now (my edition is becoming peppered with marginal notes and exclamation points) are the same ones I chose to include in that post eight years ago.
Anyway: this is great stuff. I'm excited to be delving into it, and I trust I'll find further pearls to share with y'all as we go. Meanwhile, I'll be over here chuckling at "the truth cannot be grasped with nothing but the tongs of plain reason" for the rest of the morning...