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God and Suffering in Heschel's Torah Min Ha-Shamayim
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God and Suffering in Heschel's Torah Min Ha-Shamayim

When confronted by the reality of unjustified human suffering, many modern Jewish theologians have argued that God is not omnipotent, that God's hand does not intervene to alter the course of history, that the human and natural forces which cause suffering are beyond God's control. Some of these thinkers have stressed that God identifies with and suffers along with righteous human beings; unjust suffering, in their view, reveals God as deeply immanent in the world. Other thinkers who have denied God's omnipotence have also rejected the idea that God identifies with human beings; unjust suffering, in their view, is a time when God remains transcendent, clearly separate from human beings.

These two viewpoints would seem to correlate with two perspectives in classical rabbinic theology. As Abraham Joshua Heschel argued in the first volume of his Torah Min Ha-Shamayim Ba-Aspaklaria Shel Ha-Dorot1 (recently translated as Heavenly Torah),2 one paradigm in classical rabbinic thought emphasized God's immanence in the world and a second paradigm emphasized God's transcendence. What Heschel described as "the school of Rabbi Akiva" depicted God as extremely close to human beings, often completely identifying with them.3 What Heschel described as "the school of Rabbi Yishmael," on the other hand, argued that God left human beings a considerable amount of space, making it impossible for God to completely close the gap between the human and the divine.4

Did either of these ancient schools question God's power to directly intervene in history? According to Heschel, many representatives of the school of [End Page 17] Rabbi Akiva did question God's omnipotence, seeing God as suffering alongside human beings. But, Heschel suggests in the early chapters of Torah Min Ha-Shamayim, the school of Rabbi Yishmael was committed to belief in an omnipotent God. The students of Rabbi Yishmael, who emphasized God's transcendence, also believed in God's power to direct the course of natural and human events, viewing God as directly responsible for human suffering.

Such a presentation, I believe, reveals Heschel's own biases. Heschel himself was a theologian who acknowledged the limits of God's power and who favored the immanentist paradigm which he associated with Rabbi Akiva when it came to discussions of suffering. God, for Heschel, was experienced as an immanent presence who experienced human suffering as God's own suffering, and Heschel showed some reluctance to explore the possibility that God might be simultaneously transcendent and less than all-powerful. If human beings were suffering because of God's lack of power to intervene in history, then surely, Heschel thought, God should be thought of as radically close at hand.

Rabbinic sources, however—including some sources which Heschel cites in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim—indicate that the transcendentalist paradigm linked with Rabbi Yishmael was indeed compatible with the view that God lacks the power to intervene in history. While many of the "Yishmaelians" worshipped a transcendent and all-powerful God, others worshipped a transcendent God who was lacking in direct power. Many of the rabbinic texts showing divine powerlessness may fit into the immanentist paradigm of Rabbi Akiva, but some of these texts fit into the transcendentalist paradigm which Heschel associated with Rabbi Yishmael.

Each paradigm, in fact, contained both interventionist and non-interventionist5 perspectives. Some who stressed God's immanence held God responsible for afflicting human beings; other immanentists, whom Heschel favored, denied God's responsibility, and they viewed unjust suffering as revealing the presence of a God deeply injured by such injustice. Some who stressed God's transcendence held God responsible for suffering, which they saw as the result of divine justice; other transcendentalists denied God's responsibility, suggesting that suffering is caused by forces in creation which a transcendent God cannot stop. What Heschel described as two basic paradigms of rabbinic theologies of suffering should be subdivided to illustrate four basic perspectives: [End Page 18]

Immanentists (the school of Rabbi Akiva) Transcendentalists (the school of Rabbi Yishmael)

Interventionists God is responsible for suffering) God causes suffering to benefit human beings and to show intimate involvement...