Man In Search Of Heschel – Rabbi Barry Gelman

If you understand the title of this post you are ahead of the game.

I wonder why the Modern Orthodox community does pay more attention to and study the works of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Aside from his book The Sabbath, much of his work goes unnoticed and certainly unstudied in our community.

Rabbi Heschel wrote and spoke about so many of the challenges of religion in a free society. He concentrated the need and difficulty of balancing the regularity of Jewish religious practice with spontaneity, referring to these to contrary principles as kevah and kavanah, the religious ideal of living a life of, what he called, “wonder” and “radical amazement” by never taking God’s world for granted and fundamental importance of Halacha as an ingredient of the life of a spiritually healthy Jew.

While many are familiar with Rabi Heschel as the rabbi who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma Alabama, many are unaware his focus on Halacha. I sometimes wonder if the popularity of the picture of Rabbi Heschel with King in Selma has diminished focus on the other aspects of his career.

Part of the reason why Heschel goes unnoticed in the Orthodox community is because he spent most of his career at the Jewish Theological Seminary – the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism. As such he is deemed “treif” by large segments of our community. To my mind this is a terrible shame and we continue to ignore his writings and teachings to our own peril. We should be teaching Heschel in our schools and in our shuls.

How many is the orthodox community are aware of these words penned by Rabbi Heschel in 1958. “The Bible is an answer to the question, What does God require of Man? But to modern man, this question is surpassed by another one, namely, What does man demand of God…Absorbed in the struggle for emancipation of the individual we have concentrated our attention upon the idea of human rights and overlooked the importance of human obligations.”

If we did not know that the following came from the pen of Rabbi Heschel we could have easily attributed it to any orthodox rabbi. “Another ailment that plagues us is the monopoly of education. Actually, education is a matter which rests primarily with the parent, with the father. The teacher is but a representative of the father, according to Jewish tradition. Thou shalt teach them diligently, not vicariously…Religious instruction, like charity, begins at home.”

Rabbi Heschel was also an astute observer of the human condition. When commenting on the challenge of resistance to Torah he wrote the following: “Resistance to revelation in our time came from two diametrically opposed conceptions of man: one maintained that man was too great to be in need of divine guidance, and the other maintained that man was too small to be worthy of divine guidance.” Chew on that for a while.

The beauty of Rabbi Heschel’s writings is that much of them are not weighed down by the philosophical jargon that make so many other writers of his time difficult to understand. There is a timeless quality to his style making his teachings accessible.

I close with one of Rabbi Heschel’s poems (he actually was hoping to make a career out of poetry but one of his mentors suggested he would be better at Philosophy)

God Follows Me Everywhere

God follows me everywhere-

spins a net of glances around me

shines upon my sightless back like a sun.

God follows me like a forest everywhere.

My lip, always amazed, are truly numb, dumb,

like a child who blunders upon an ancient holy place.

God follows me like a shiver everyewhere.

My desire is for rest; the demand within me is: Rise up,

See how prophetic visions are scattered in the streets.

I go with my reveries as with a secret

in a long corridor thought the world-

and sometimes I glimpse high above me, the faceless face of God.

God follows me in tramways, in cafes.

Oh, it is only with the back of the pupils of one’s eyes that

one can see

how secrets ripen, how visions come to be.

20 Responses to Man In Search Of Heschel – Rabbi Barry Gelman

  1. Moish says:

    Rabbi Gelman-

    The reason the MO community doesn’t pay attention to Heschel is not because he taught at JTS. I have heard MO rabbi’s quote Rabbi Saul Lieberman’s commentary on the Tosefta many times. The reason MO doesn’t care much for Heschel is because all of MO’s leaders were/are litvaks with a mitnagdic atitude. Heschel emphasized his Hasidic tradition and it was Hasidic philosophy that colored much of his teachings. From what I’ve heard, Heschel himself did not garner much respect from the JTS faculty in his day because they too were mostly litvaks that did care much for his type of theology. Too much God, not enough gemara!

  2. Moish says:

    From what I’ve heard, Heschel himself did not garner much respect from the JTS faculty in his day because they too were mostly litvaks that did not* care much for his type of theology.

  3. evanstonjew says:

    Rabbi Heschel was in conflict with his colleagues at the Seminary. The Seminary in turn provided conflicting messages to their rabbinical students, which in modern jargon destroyed the brand. The upshot is that the Conservative Rabbinate has not found a way of bringing the values and warmth of chassidus to their congregations.An Orthodox Jew who wants to study and be influenced by chassidus has a number of possibilities. Conservative Jews rarely get to understand what it is to acheive a madreiga in ruchniyus.

  4. Richard says:

    “many are unaware of his focus on Halacha.”

    I’m not sure what you mean, but Heschel didn’t focus so much on halacha.

    • Barry Gelman says:

      Moish, I think that is a fair read. Although I am left with the following question. Today, so much of the Yeshiva world and even MO is infused with Chassidic tendencies and approaches. There is no pure litvak appraoch anymore. Still, Heschel is ignored.

    • Barry Gelman says:

      Richard,

      Rabbi Heshcel wrote about Halacha in terms of Theory as well as a practical matter in Man In Search Of God as well as in a collection of Essays called Te Insecurity Of Freedom.

  5. Richard says:

    First, I think it’s a combination of the two reasons. Saul Lieberman is considered treif in many institutions because of his job, but his work on Tosefta is considered so essential to study that people get over it. (I’ve heard, unconfirmed, that in some Haredi yeshivot they scratch out the JTS logo on Tosefta kiFshuta.) Heschel is by default considered treif, and because his subject matter (esoteric theology) is not remotely central to the MO yeshiva framework, it’s not worth it to bring him into the beit midrash. But you can’t study tosefta without Lieberman.

    When you say that Heschel wrote about “Halacha in terms of Theory,” it’s not halachic theory as it is commonly understood. Heschel wrote about halacha as it relates to his theology. I’ve never read The Insecurity of Freedom, but I can’t imagine it’s a meta-halachic work.

    A presenter at this year’s Heschel conference at Hartman in Jerusalem recalled once complaining that Heschel didn’t discuss halacha enough. His colleague responded: “What do you expect? He’s a hasid! You open up the Shulchan Orach and there’s the halacha!”

  6. Moish says:

    Rabbi Gelman-

    Although the Yeshiva and MO world has taken upon itself many Chassidic tendencies,thats all they are – tendencies. What I mean by this is that the reason the Yeshiva world treats their roshei yeshiva like Chassidic Rebbe’s (Daas Torah etc), is not because they have any Chassidic understanding of the Tzadik/Chasid relationship, its purely out of dogmatic conservatism. MO as well has the Chassidic approach of tikkun olam (social justice)and the reason for this strong emphasis is not because of an understanding of tzimtzum, but out of more modern sensibilities.

    The point is that MO and the Yeshiva world might have Chassidic tendencies, but they have little to do with Chassidic theology. At the end of the day the Yeshiva world and MO world (at least its leadership) have a strong litvish theology where gemara biyun is the paramount way to serve God (I’m pretty sure there is a paper articulating this point in Leaves of Faith by RAL). Even when Rav Kook is studied in the MO world, it is many times watered down, especially where Rav Kook sounds more like a chassidic Rebbe (Shmona kvatzim’s statements implying that Rav kook had prophetic visions and that maybe we can too). It is not surprising to me either, that Heschel in particular and Chassidus in general is not studied in the MO world because its emphasis of how to serve God differs strongly than MO’s litvish heritage and theology.

  7. Also, Heschel’s theology of “G-d in search of man” sounds far too much like Rav Hirsch’s teaching that the Torah is an anthropology and not a theology. (Heschel is certainly indebted to Hirsch; see the translator’s appendix to Rabbi Dr. Leo Adler’s The Biblical View of Man, Urim Publications.) Having G-d seek man implies too much responsibility on man’s part, too humanistic, to perspicacious and audacious. It is simply too controversial to put so much power and responsibility in man’s hands; it is much more comfortable to let spirituality and mysticism be a balm for the conscious; do a few theurgic mitzvot, engage in some theosophical speculation, and you’re good by G-d.

    Similarly, we pay only mere lip-service to Rambam’s teaching in Hilkhot Avodah Zara that Avraham Avinu found G-d via reason and intellect; as Rabbi Yom Tov Schwarz (in Eyes to See, Urim) and Professor Menachem Kellner (cf. here) both point out, Rambam’s explanation implies Avraham found G-d by going against authority and tradition, and instead using his critical reasoning faculties, accepting only that which was empirically evident. This is not a message Orthodoxy is comfortable with.

    • Moish says:

      “Rambam’s explanation implies Avraham found G-d by going against authority and tradition, and instead using his critical reasoning faculties, accepting only that which was empirically evident. This is not a message Orthodoxy is comfortable with.” I don’t think Heschel would be comfortable with this either.

  8. *conscience, not conscious

    My point is that if G-d is in search of man, it means He is seeking out man to give him responsibility. By contrast, if man searches for G-d, then man is seeking to satisfy his own needs and desires, and he accepts religion insofar as it suits his sensual desires.

    Cf. Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, describing Rabbi Soloveitchik, quoting from here: “Soloveitchik regards as altogether too simple the popular notion of religious experience as one preeminently pleasing and soothing-a stream of delight and relaxation and an asylum from the frustrations of life. This conception of religion Rabbi Soloveichik deems a fraud, the result of a surrender on the part of religious thinkers to the desire of the mass of men to lose themselves in states of bliss. It also echoes Rousseau in his flight from reason, and much subsequent romanticist thought. Religion’s invitation has been misinterpreted to say: “If thou cravest peace, if thou cravest integration, make the leap of faith.” In the flight from reason and the rejection of objective truth, Rabbi Soloveichik sees the cause of the moral deterioration of contemporary man. He would prefer to see religion wedded to a cold objectivity and rationality, even though faith and reason may at times appear to conflict with one another, rather than derive religion from man’s instinctual longings.”

  9. Moish says:

    Rabbi Gelamn-

    For an MO criticism of Heschel see Heschel, Intuition, and the Halakha by marvin fox in tradition fall 1960 and Zalman Schachter Shalomi’s response in tradition spring 1961.

  10. Shlomo says:

    I believe that Heschel was more “flexodox” than “Orthodox” in terms of his halachic practice.

    His daughter, in an interview I found on the web, describes her surprise at visiting observant families for Shabbat as a college student, in terms of the care they took as regards to the details of halacha, which she had not seen at home.

    Heschel’s wife was a beautiful concert pianist, who was known to have little knowledge of, or interest in, Jewish practice. I do not believe that it would be out of line to wonder about what priority Heschel placed on ritual observance, given the choice he made as to whom he would marry and what kind of home he would have as a result.

    Whether this is — or should be — a reason why MO don’t read Heschel, I cannot say.

  11. Matthew says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I love R’ Heschel’s writings, and so do many non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews. He managed to spread the light of Torah “beyond our borders”. Without him my practice of Torah would be impoverished. I fervently hope more people in the frum community connect with his prophetic, enlivening, confrontational, and nuanced wisdom.

  12. Pierre says:

    shlomo, I don’t know that that’s quite what she said, if this is the interview;

    “Always observant, he was nonetheless insistent that we cannot live as Jews today the way we lived yesterday…There’s an expression Jewish people sometimes use. They’ll say someone is ‘strictly observant.’ It occurs to me that the word ‘strict’ just doesn’t fit my father. He was not about being strict. I’m not sure what the right expression might be, but ‘lovingly observant’ might be it. When I left home and went into the world, I discovered people were different from my family. I was surprised that some Jews who kept the Sabbath worried about fine points of Jewish law. We never did that at home. Things were so much more natural. Observance was the breath of life. It was how we lived.”

    http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=10016

    She is speaking to a Catholic, goyishe interviewer, she’s clearly trying to formulate internal jewish colloquialisms to an outsider. She sounds like many FFBs I know describing Charedi BTs or Chabadniks! I think the interview is more enlightening for the degree of arrogance and condescension she details her father receiving from the professors of the Talmudic departments and their students, the celebrated [by many LWMO fans of theirs] dissenters, who formed the core of the UTJ. Kaplan’s “Spiritual Radical” gives other unsavor examples of such behavior from people who are treated as almost aristocracy in some circles for their scholarship and personal piety and high moral stands for leaving JTS. Perhaps someone could give examples of Heschel’s similarly-mean-spirited inclination to his peers – I don’t know. It doesn’t sound as if they were willing to share peerage.

  13. Shlomo says:

    Pierre —

    I was not commenting on which part of the interview ws most interesting or enlightening, only that it clearly expresses her surprise that others would worry about the fine points of halacha.

    If she was an unknowledgeable BT visiting Mea Shearim, the surprise that such things exist might be in order, but she was a young woman who grew up in Heschel’s home (his only child) and — most certainly — was describing her experience in the “wider world,” not Meah Shearim.

    It’s one thing to be more relaxed; it’s quite another to be “surprised” that others

  14. Shlomo says:

    Pierre —

    I was not commenting on which part of the interview ws most interesting or enlightening, only that it clearly expresses her surprise that others would worry about the fine points of halacha.

    If she was an unknowledgeable BT visiting Mea Shearim, the surprise that such things exist might be in order, but she was a young woman who grew up in Heschel’s home (his only child) and — most certainly — was describing her experience in the “wider world,” not Meah Shearim.

    In other words, a young woman who grew up in the home of a Rabbi was surprised to discover that there were those who were concerned with the details of halacha, which she had not seen in her own home.

  15. Yoel says:

    The MO world doesn’t really give any attention to any Jewish thinker-philosopher-writer except for a token few rabbis who actually grew up with the Rav. Randomly ask 10 Joe Average MO Jews if they have read Halakhic Man and I would be surprised if one has. So course they are not going to read Heschel. Its not part of the MO mentality to read Machshevah.

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