RESPONSE: Berkovits v. Heschel: 6 Decades On

Lawrence A. Kobrin   Tradition Online | November 14, 2022

A.J. Heschel & Eliezer Berkovits

To the Editor:

In his recent essay, “Berkovits, Heschel, and the Heresy of Divine Pathos” (TRADITION, Fall 2022), R. Todd Berman revisits an article by R. Eliezer Berkovits, which appeared nearly 60 years ago (“Dr. A.J. Heschel’s Theology of Pathos,” (TRADITION, Spring-Summer 1964). In his carefully researched and elegantly organized article, Berman notes the unusual set of Editorial Committee notes which accompanied Berkovits’ essay. They reflected some concern and dispute within the TRADITION Editorial Committee over the contents of what Berkovits wrote and whether it should appear in the journal.

[A lively discussion of Berman’s article is taking place over on his Facebook page.]

A.J. Heschel & Eliezer Berkovits

As part of his current review, Berman appears hard-pressed to understand Berkovits’ critical presentation of Heschel’s theology, showing that in many respects there was nothing radical, heretical, or unusual in Heschel’s formulations. As a result, Berman seems distressed over the vigor and extreme nature and tone of Berkovits’ criticism and finds it difficult to explain or justify. Since I am named as one of the then members of the TRADITION Editorial Committee (although Berman is careful to acknowledge that I was then “young”), while I do not now specifically recall the discussions surrounding the article, I venture to suggest some explanation for the vigor and near animosity of the Berkovits review. I have no documentary or archival evidence for the theory I outline, but base it entirely on my recollection of the atmosphere of the time.

An understanding of the position taken in 1964 should be put into historical and religious context. The period in which Heschel’s work and Berkovits’ response were generated was far different from our own, especially in terms of the relationship of the Orthodox and Conservative movements in the United States. It was a time of intense institutional and intellectual rivalry between the two, when the Conservative movement and its leaders were far closer to Orthodoxy than in later years. The intellectual leaders of the Jewish Theological Seminary, including Saul Lieberman, Louis Finkelstein, Louis Ginsburg, and Alexander Marx, were men with classical religious training and backgrounds and were almost entirely personally observant. This was so much so that, within their contemporary memory, a serious effort had been made to merge RIETS and the Seminary during the Depression. (This was blocked primarily by Dr. Revel’s objection to the continued prominence of Mordechai Kaplan on the Seminary faculty. It is interesting to recall as well that during the same Depression lay leaders of The Jewish Center and the Reconstructionist SAJ had the same merger idea, thwarted by the vigorous objections of R. Leo Jung.)

As is often true of individuals or movements, we reserve our most vigorous animus and invective for those closest to us in outlook and ideology. There are numerous examples of this in intellectual and political and religious history and it was certainly true of the relationship of Orthodox and Conservative intellectual leadership at the time. In addition, in those days Orthodoxy felt itself very much on the defensive. Less than a decade earlier sociologist Marshall Sklare had famously described Orthodoxy as “a case study of institutional decay,”  and others had predicted the imminent demise of Orthodoxy in the United States. The Orthodox response was vigorous and hard-line, perhaps exemplified by Rabbi Soloveitchik’s determination that it was preferable to miss the Torah-mandated shofar on Rosh Hashana rather than to enter a Conservative synagogue.

The competition expressed itself in a struggle for students and for the minds and hearts of the young people (all men at the time) who were training for the rabbinate. I can distinctly remember sitting in the Seminary restaurant while in law school in the late 1950s (the only kosher eatery on the Upper West Side then) and seeing a flurry of excitement when a report that “another” YU semikha student had decided to switch to JTS. There were many reasons for this, including the economics of the respective rabbinates of the time, and the competition was palpable. 

In that atmosphere, Berkovits, representing the Orthodox world, would be anxious to distance himself and Orthodox thinking from Heschel, who was most visibly and publicly tied to the Seminary and the Conservative movement. As stated at the outset, I can point to no texts or documents but can only rely on my recollection of the intense feelings then prevalent. In addition, Heschel’s perceived focus on Christian theological content may have been related to the conflict over Jewish cooperation with the efforts of the Second Vatican Council, then in midst of its work, supported by Heschel but vigorously opposed by R. Soloveitchik.

Another possible, more personal, and probably subconsciously felt reason was the position that Berkovits himself occupied in the traditional Orthodox intellectual world. He had come under criticism for some of his writing by what we would today characterize as the “right wing.” The idea of conditional marriage as a means of avoiding the aguna problem and some of his views concerning the development of halakha and its adjustment and response to modern questions and conditions invited those criticisms. In such a context, one might suppose that Berkovits was particularly anxious to demonstrate his Orthodox bona fides and his distance from any of the standard bearers of the liberal denominations. 

Whether any of these recollections serve to respond to the astonishment evident in Todd Berman’s excellent contemporary recitation is for him and the reader to consider.

Lawrence A. Kobrin

Mr. Kobrin, an attorney in New York and a long-time member of TRADITION’s Editorial Committee, was the Managing Editor of the journal at the time of the original Berkovits article.

Leave a Reply