“God in Search of Man” by A.J. Heschel
Reviewed by Emanuel Rackman
Volume 19, No. 2
DR. EMANUEL RACKMAN is the rabbi of Congregation Shaaray Tefila. Far Rockaway. N. Y. He teaches political science at Yeshiva University and is the author of the recent book Israel’s Emerging Constitution.
IN THE PAST THE CHASIDIC movement enriched Judaism; in the present it is saving Judaism. Without Chasidic thought and commitment, Torah true Jews would simply not be able to cope with the challenge of modernism.
This is a bold admission for a Misnaged to make. Many will concede that the Chasidic movement helps traditionalist Jews to withstand the economic and social challenges of our day. Chasidism are so loyal to their religious heritage that they are able to resist all pressure to desecrate the Sabbath, to eat forbidden foods, and to Aryanize their dress, appearance, homes, weddings, funerals. That also explains why it is they who make available most of the young who can be taught in modern Yeshivot by the great scholars whom the Misnagdim produce and train. Yet, one does not readily fathom how the Chasidic movement which was anti-intellectual in essence could become the very instrument through which contemporary intellectual challenges might be met with complete satisfaction to the intellect. Yet precisely this has happened. Chasidism provides the best answers for Jewish intellectuals who want to live in two civilizations—their ancestral one, and the one in which they were catapulted after the so-called “Enlightenment” had come to the Jewries of Eastern Europe between and after two world wars.
Some of us remember how the late Hayim Greenberg— the ideologist and philosopher of the Labor Zionist movement but a non-observant Jew—sought to recapture Chasidic moods and insights for a revitalized Judaism in our day. He felt most deeply that Chasidism was the only “ism” that might represent the wave of the future. However, it remained for Abraham J. Heschel to spell it out in great detail. This he has done fully, eloquently, and magnificently, in his latest book, “God In Search of Man.” In my humble opinion, this is the book of the century on Jewish theology.
Logic and Poetry
For Dr. Heschel, however, even the word “theology” has a special meaning—a distinctively Jewish meaning. He docs not examine “ideas of faith … in total separation from the moments of faith” (8). Nor does he explore Biblical meanings separated from the experience in history of the People of the Book. Thus, with brilliant insight and matchless expression he presents to us a complete text for our understanding of God and Israel, their Law and their love. At times he resorts to the logician’s scalpel; at times to the poet’s synthetic grasp of truth. But from beginning to end, the book constitutes the answer that has been sought by Jews who are loyal to the faith of their fathers and yet have been buffeted from pillar to post in the intellectual milieu of our day with its predilection for philosophies of naturalism and its reduction of all traditions to their lowest common denominators.
DR. HERSCHEL DOES NOT try to prove that God exists in the manner that medieval Jewish philosophers did. In that respect he is perhaps more authentically Jewish than they—they were trying too hard co make Judaism Platonic or Aristotelian while Heschel accentuates Judaism’s differences with Hellenism. Understanding God is not attained by calling into session all arguments for and against Him. . . . Proofs for the existence of God may add strength to our belief; they do not generate it. Human existence implies the realness of God” and “just as there is no thinking about the world without the premise of the reality of the world, there can be no thinking about God without the premise of the realness of God” (1202).
Israel’s Centrality Yet one cannot think about God without becoming preoccupied with that one great literature which more than any other literature in universal history contains the record of God’s encounter with man. Dr. Heschel is not embarrassed by the centrality of Israel and the Bible in his philosophy of religion for all peoples. Israel and her prophets are the springboard to the experience of God. And Israel’s law is not just the discipline of a tiny segment of the world’s population. Rather it is the Law, as understood in the prism of the Agada, the key to “an inner world.”
Small wonder that non-Jews find the book parochial. Small wonder that reconstructionists too cannot countenance the book’s acceptance of such traditional notions as revelation and chosen people. But Dr. Heschel knows what the reactions of Christians and non-Orthodox Jews must inevitably be. He would have them understand that Israel has the right to deem itself “proof of the Bible” and the Bible is God’s voice, no other work being “as worthy of being considered a manifestation of His will.” Moreover, if they altogether doubt that God speaks, do they so doubt because “He who has the power to create a world is never able to utter a word”? One is tempted to exclaim, “Touche!”
The book has many such passages to demonstrate how anthropomorphic are the conceptions of God entertained by the very liberals who are critical of the traditional points of view. It is they, not the traditionalists, who create God in their image and limit His omnipotence and omniscience. The inescapable conclusion is that they don’t really believe. They do not “respond” to God and therefore, for them to profess belief is merely to utter words that are irrelevant — words that have nothing to do with their real being. The believer, on the other hand, responds by fulfilling the will of God — the “mitzvot”.
WHILE DR. HESCHEL DISCUSSES the “Mitzvot” at great length, and conclusively demonstrates that Halachic development involved not only a precise analysis of legal concepts but also the amalgam of Agadic elements —which amalgam this reviewer has elsewhere described as a “telelogical” approach to Jewish law — lie fails to illustrate his point. He cites many texts to prove that the sages so understood the Halacha but he does not show how the method was operative in the formulation of specific rules. Perhaps this would have made the book too technical, too legalistic. But it would have been a delight to sec how the poet and philosopher handles such materials. And one must also rue the fact that Dr. Heschel says so little about the holiness of land—the land that is as unique in Jewish commitment as Torah and People.
Nonetheless, Dr. Heschel has indicated in several of his books that the Torah is less “man’s theology” than it is “God’s anthropology” and as much as anything ever written, Dr. Heschel’s most recent book establishes the bridge between the two. One or two omissions cannot detract from its grandeur, scope and lasting significance.