4. The Pathos of the Self-Transcendent God
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f o u r T he P athos of the S elf -­T ranscendent G od In talking to a group of Jewish educators in 1968, Heschel warned of an “insidious danger” that constituted nothing less than a “block to Jewish theology”; “I refer,” he said, “to the Hellenization of Jewish theology.”1 This process, which began as early as Philo (20 bce–50 ce), was based on the dangerously misleading assumption that, at bottom, “Plato and Moses”—that is, Greek and biblical thinking—“say the same thing. Only, Plato would say it in Greek and Moses in Hebrew. Consequently, you can say that Moses was a sort of Hebrew Plato.” This conflation of two very different modes of thinking dominated the world of medieval Jewish philosophy, Heschel insists, and, as a result, Jewish philosophers too of­ten “talk about God in the language of the Greeks.”2 Heschel is careful to note that he is not opposed to Jewish students being exposed to the non-­Jewish world and its ideas. But he worries that in thinking in “non-­ Jewish terms,” Jews run the very real risk of losing what is most distinctive and origi­ nal about Jewish thought. Whatever the strengths of non-­Jewish thought, Heschel argues, it is not biblical thinking. It is not rabbinic thinking. It is not Hasidic thinking. It is non-­Jewish thinking. A non-­Jewish philosophy is fine. But we would also like to have in our thinking a Jewish view of things. We would like to apply the Bible and Hazal [the sages of the talmudic period], and they are of­ten incongruent [with Greek thought]. If you take biblical passages or biblical documents or rabbinic statements, and submit them to a Greek mind, they of­ten are absurd. They make no sense. But we do want to educate Jews. We wish to maintain Judaism. What can we do about it? Here Heschel offers an important window into his own theological and educational project: 135 136 Abraham Joshua Heschel May I say to you personally that this has been my major challenge, ever since I began working on my dissertation, that is: How to maintain a Jewish way of thinking? This was the major concern and the major thesis of my dissertation Die Prophetie. Since that day I consider this to be my major effort. It is not an easy enterprise.3 More concretely, Heschel insists that Jewish theology is rooted in the claimthat“Godisinsearchofman.”Thisstatement,which“summarize[s] all of human history as seen in the Bible . . . is the fundamental statement about God in Judaism.”4 Why is God in search of man? Because,­Heschelmaintains,“Godisinneedofman.TheideaofGodbeinginneed of man is central to Judaism and pervades all the pages of the Bible, of Hazal, of Talmudic literature.”5 But the “simple formula: God in search of man,” Heschel points out, is “not a Hellenistic formula. It is a biblical formula. It is a rabbinic formula.”6 As we shall see, according to Heschel Greek thought cannot permit or make space for such a claim. And yet,­ Heschel argues, it is the very heart of Jewish theology. Jewish thought must proclaim its truths rather than surrendering them on the altar of Greek notions of philosophical respectability. Why is Heschel so insistent that the biblical and rabbinic idea of God in search of man is incompatible with Hellenistic (and by extension , Hellenized Jewish) philosophy? Consider the case of Maimonides (1135–1204).7 The towering philosopher and legist is known as perhaps themostuncompromisingproponentofnegativetheologyintheMiddle Ages. According to Maimonides, we can never say what God is, but only what God is not; and to say that God is not “dumb,” for example, is, at its deepest level, to say something quite radical: namely, that dumbness and smartness do not apply to God at all. Thus, any term that we use in speaking both of God and of human beings must be understood “­ equivocally”—that is, as a homonym. Despite appearances, then, to say both that God is wise and that a person is wise is not to assert any commonality or even analogy between them. No such analogy is possible ,sincenosharedscaleofwisdom(oranyothervirtue),ofwhichGod could be said to be at the top and we at the very bottom, could possibly exist. The very notion of such a scale violates the fundamental truth of theology: God is absolutely other, and incomparable to creation in every way.8 As students of Maimonides, we must always be on guard lest, in- The...


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