REPLY: Defending Heschel (and Myself) 

Todd Berman Tradition Online | December 15, 2022

Todd Berman replies to David Curwin and Rafi Eis about his recent TRADITION essay. Read our editor’s introduction to these exchanges.

I appreciate David Curwin and Rafi Eis reading and commenting on my article, “Berkovits, Heschel, and the Heresy of Divine Pathos” (TRADITION, Fall 2022). Curwin adds nuance to understanding R. Eliezer Berkovits’ philosophy within his harsh criticism of R. Abraham Joshua Heschel. Eis comments on my methodology. The two letters share many overlapping concerns and advance several points I would like to challenge.

Heschel and Berkovits

Curwin argues that I should have analyzed Berkovits’ earlier writings more extensively: “Not only did God, Man and History precede his critique of Heschel in the pages of TRADITION by several years, it should also be viewed as Berkovits’ most important presentation of his religious philosophy. Any full discussion of his approach to such issues as divine pathos and anthropomorphism must begin with it, and only later can it be asked why he offered the particular criticism of Heschel.” Similarly, Eis suggests, “Analyzing Berkovits requires integrating his theology in God, Man and History with his critique of Heschel.”

I built my project with a modest goal, “not to debate which thinker advances a more persuasive interpretation of one verse or another. Rather, my aim is to question Berkovits’ claim that Heschel’s interpretation of prophecy is foreign to Jewish tradition. Claiming…Heschel presents a legitimate, competing, and compelling understanding of prophecy.” If there was a need to synthesize Berkovits’ earlier and later works, then the burden is on Berkovits for not clarifying the inconsistencies between the two essays.

To be sure, I did quote Berkovits’ other works, including God, Man and History, to show a lack of consistency within his approach. However, even if possible, such a synthesizing approach, as suggested by my correspondents, is unnecessary to defend my thesis.

To be clear, Berkovits wrote an independent, free-standing essay in TRADITION criticizing Heschel’s view of pathos and prophetic sympathy. This article was the subject of my response. I, and other thinkers, including Curwin himself, point out seeming inconsistencies with God, Man and History and what Berkovits wrote in TRADITION. In God, Man and History, Berkovits deviates or even rejects a limited Maimonidean or rationalist perspective; however, in his critique of Heschel, he seems to drive towards or at least utilize such a Maimonidean or rationalist understanding for his argument.

Curwin creatively attempts to force the two texts into an artificial unity. However, even he admits they are inconsistent: “In God, Man and History he also takes a softer approach to an anthropomorphic view of God.” As noted, Nadav Berman Shiffman extensively documents many of these inconsistencies. Berman Shiffman suggests that God, Man and History would not stand up to the same criticism Berkovits levels at Heschel in the TRADITION article. Since my goal was to analyze Heschel’s sources and not present a complete overview of Berkovits’ philosophical writings, I remained primarily within Berkovits’ arguments in that one 1964 article. I only pointed out some examples where Berkovits sounds similar to Heschel or should have been open to Heschel’s approach and some of the secondary literature on the subject.

If there is a need for absolute consistency, we need to factor in Berkovits’ earlier essay, “What Is Jewish Philosophy?” (TRADITION, Spring 1961). In that article, as quoted in my piece, Berkovits suggests a broad understanding of Jewish belief. In that article, Berkovits sounds like Joseph Albo in Sefer Ikkarim. He establishes only three criteria for a work to be considered “Jewish”: belief in God, Israel, and Torah. Heschel’s work affirms all three. I find it hard to reconcile the broad-minded Eliezer Berkovits of that article with the harsh and narrow one of his very own essay on Heschel! So sometimes Berkovits sounds like Halevi, at others like Maimonides, and at times like Albo. A worthy area of research would be seeing if and how all of Berkovits’ writing fits together or if he altered his approach over time.

However, the aim of my investigation was his attack on Heschel, as clearly spelled out in TRADITION, rather than squaring the circle of Berkovits’ lack of consistency.

Curwin’s suggestion that my claim “that Berkovits is closer to the philosophy of Maimonides than to that of Yehuda Halevi…is refuted in the beginning of God, Man and History” is immaterial, since Berkovits seems to contradict himself between the book and the article.

Curwin further suggests, “Berkovits argued that Heschel was not operating with the caution that these topics demand. This is a far cry from Berman’s claim that ‘Berkovits’ main argument seems to be that Heschel abandoned medieval rationalistic-philosophic assumptions, which form the framework of Jewish thought.’” Similarly, Eis suggests, “But Berman misunderstands Berkovits and imposes rationalism on him. Berman similarly asserts that Berkovits is a medieval-type philosopher when he says that ‘Berkovits seems to begin from this rationalistic framework and, despite himself, refuses to read the biblical texts without a Hellenistic-philosophic perspective.’”

However, Berkovits makes that exact argument in his article, “a ‘God of pathos’ is only tenable, if one can show how it may be philosophically and theologically reconciled with the idea of an infinite, perfect Being” (emphasis added).

Here I believe Berkovits makes a category error. As he remarks at the beginning of the work, Heschel was writing a phenomenological study, not a philosophical one. Steven T. Katz raised a similar point. In a sharp critique of Berkovits (TRADITION, Fall 1977), even lengthier than my own essay, Katz argues:

The target is obvious, the age-old problem of anthropomorphism and more precisely anthropopathism. Yet the target is more elusive than Berkovits realizes. Heschel knows as well as Berkovits that language is a major philosophical problem. He knows about anthropopathism and its attendant difficulties, yet as a man of profound faith, he wants to sustain the intelligibility in some form of religious language, and hence of the larger issue of Biblical faith. Berkovits even cites Heschel’s constant disclaimers that this language is not literal, that it constantly points beyond itself, that it is, when all is said and done, mysterious, paradoxical, evocative but not descriptive. And yet Berkovits treats Heschel as if he were a simple-minded fundamentalist with no sophistication, as if what he were doing were ridiculous. He fails to understand that Heschel’s attempt, even if it is unsuccessful, is profound. It is profound and very Jewish, despite Berkovits’s remarks to the contrary—because it is trying to explicate the depth of the Biblical imagery pertaining to the meaning of man’s existential relation to God, while recognizing the wisdom inherent in the traditional dictum that the Bible “is written in the language of man.” In no sense is Heschel trying to write a metaphysical treatise about God’s being; rather he is making one of the most sustained contemporary attempts to explain what the relation of God and man entails, and why God needs man as much as man needs God, themes he develops in his other works (125, emphasis added.)

That Berkovits, in other writings, seems closer to Heschel and further from Maimonides does not water down what he writes here. Berkovits wants Heschel to be a philosopher and use the tools of philosophy. He says so explicitly, as quoted above.

TRADITION 6:2 (Spring-Summer 1964) contained Berkovits’ “Theology of Pathos” essay alongside R. Soloveitchik’s landmark “Confrontation” [click to enlarge]

Mr. Lawrence Kobrin, writing for TraditionOnline, responded to my essay by contextualizing the debate during a time when Conservative and Orthodox Judaism were locked in a battle for adherents. Curwin seems open to a similar claim, “Berkovits was understandably concerned that Heschel was perilously close to the abyss, and so used admittedly intense arguments against this risk. This is particularly true regarding someone with the charisma of Heschel, who spoke to audiences beyond the confines of Orthodoxy.” Curwin claims, “Equating God’s sympathy to man with man’s sympathy to God is dangerous.” I am trying to understand the theological danger Berkovits feared and why he was bothered in 1964 but not a mere three years earlier, when he defined the parameters of legitimate Jewish thought in 1961. As I argue in my essay, I believe, Berkovits was misreading Heschel, who was careful to not equate divine sympathy with human emotions and not to suggest that divine pathos reflects the divine essence. Suppose Kobrin and Curwin are correct that distancing Heschel from Orthodoxy was part of Berkovits’ agenda. In that case, the turn from what he writes in God, Man and History and “What is Jewish Philosophy?” to what he argues in the TRADITION article takes on a different, and less complementary, hue.

Curwin seems disturbed by my comparison of Heschel to Halevi and not Maimonides. As I, and many of those I quote at the end of the essay demonstrate, Heschel seemed to oscillate, never entirely abandoning Maimonides even as he gravitated toward the kabbalistic traditions of Nahmanides and Ibn Gabbai.

Berkovits’ complaint about needing a philosophical argument to support Heschel’s phenomenology reminds me of the King’s response to the Rabbi at the beginning of Halevi’s Kuzari. The Rabbi, the apparent stand-in for Halevi, presents a historical/phenomenological description of Jewish belief. The King, channeling the philosopher, demands a system of universal proofs for God. Similarly, Maimonides, half a century after Halevi, will offer these proofs in Yesodei HaTorah. I cannot help but hear echoes in Berkovits, representing rationalist philosophy akin to Maimonides, demanding of Heschel a philosophic proof of his reading of the prophetic experience. Like Halevi, Heschel’s route to pathos is experience. For Berkovits, in this article at least, like Maimonides, logical proof and philosophic argument are required. Nothing could be more Maimonidean than offering a narrow and dogmatic view, what Curwin calls “walking a tightrope,” rejecting others’ positions as heretical and demanding philosophic proof to support experience-based religious claims.

That Heschel is open to Maimonides, while Berkovits in other places embraces Halevi, does not minimize their presentations here as the quasi-mystic or phenomenologist vs. the philosopher. Ironically, Curwin and Eis place significance in the fact that the two thinkers under examination denied this blunt categorization. They are willing to take Berkovits at his word that he was not following Maimonides despite evidence to the contrary, even though Berkovits refused to do so when (mis)reading Heschel’s numerous declarations that he was not referring to God’s essence.

Eis seems to argue that I would need to defend the history of Kabbalah to safeguard Heschel from Berkovits’ queasiness with the Jewish mystical tradition. “A second problem arises which Berman does not address. Jewish mysticism might explain Heschel, but Berkovits has significant hesitations about mysticism… Relying on a mystical approach does not offer Heschel an adequate defense. Berman should have addressed Berkovits’ concerns about mysticism.” I find this argument surprising and will suggest that this ancient and longstanding tradition does not need defending. To be sure, even Berkovits quotes some kabbalistic texts which he believes would disagree with Heschel as if to say even the kabbalists would not go as far as Heschel does. I deal with this topic and the legitimacy of using a kabbalistic reading of Jewish tradition at length in the essay.

I do not believe that Curwin or Eis undermine any aspect of my central thesis – a rejection of Berkovits’ assertion that “Dr. Heschel’s position is … Christian theology” or Berkovits’ claim that the kabbalistic tradition would not support Heschel’s readings. I maintain that my essay offers a convincing demonstration that, indeed, Heschel offers an authentic reading of Jewish tradition.

Rabbi Todd Berman is the Director of Institutional Advancement and a Ram at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi.

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