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Modern Judaism 23.3 (2003) 211-225

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A. J. Heschel's Rabbinic Theology as a Response to the Holocaust

Robert Eisen

Until recently, scholars have assumed that A. J. Heschel did not grapple seriously with the Holocaust, and for many that assessment has been indicative of a critical weakness in his thought. 1 Yet of late this view has begun to change. Edward Kaplan has argued that Heschel formulated at least an outline of a theological position on the Holocaust that can be discerned if one reads his writings carefully. Morris Faierstein has shown that Heschel addresses the Holocaust in his Yiddish works, writings that are generally overlooked by scholars evaluating Heschel's views on the Holocaust. 2 No one claims that Heschel formulated a comprehensive theology of the Holocaust of the kind that we find in writers such as Richard Rubenstein, Emil Fackenheim, and Eliezer Berkovits. Nonetheless, there is enough material to refute the view that Heschel simply turned a blind eye to the Holocaust.

In this article, I would like to extend the claims of Kaplan and Faierstein by arguing that the Holocaust informs Heschel's analysis of rabbinic theology in his two-volume work Torah Min ha-Shamayim be-Aspeklariyah shel ha-Dorot (The Torah from Heaven in the Mirror of the Generations). 3 The thesis of this work is that early rabbinic theology is defined by two schools of thought, that of R. Ishmael and that ofR. Akiva. It is generally assumed that, as the title suggests, the main focus of Torah Min ha-Shamayim be-Aspeklariyah shel ha-Dorot is revelation and that Heschel's goal is to show that rabbinic views are by no means uniform on this important issue, for here too R. Ishmael andR. Akiva have widely different positions. I have no desire to challenge this reading. However, to my knowledge, what has not been commented on is that Torah Min ha-Shamayim be-Aspeklariyah shel ha-Dorot is dedicated to Heschel's relatives who perished in the Holocaust. Moreover, the dedication is followed by a suggestive midrashic source from Tanhuma that reads as follows:

"The Rock!—His deeds are perfect, / Yea, all His ways are just" (Deut. 32:4): If another person had said this, they would have derided him saying: How does this one know the ways of the Holy One, blessed be He? However, Moses our rabbi—of whom it is said, "He made His ways known to Moses, / His deeds to the children of Israel" (Ps. 103:7)—he is fit to proclaim, "The Rock!—His deeds are perfect, / Yea, all His ways are just." 4 [End Page 211]

This source, which emphasizes God's justice, is clearly tied to the book's dedication. Heschel appears to be telling us that, even in the face of the Holocaust, this principle must be supported.

The question here is whether the opening dedication and accompanying midrashic citation have any connection to the theology of the rabbis, which Heschel goes on to explicate in the body of Torah Min ha-Shamayim be-Aspeklariyah shel ha-Dorot. My thesis is that it does. I will attempt to show that a significant portion of the first volume of Torah Min ha-Shamayim be-Aspeklariyah shel ha-Dorot, which deals with the issue of divine justice and human suffering, is an attempt on Heschel's part to grapple with the Holocaust and that the dedication and midrashic citation tie in directly with that section of the work. 5

I would like to begin by summarizing in greater detail what others have said about Heschel's theological views on the Holocaust. Kaplan provides the most comprehensive treatment of this issue in his recent book, Holiness in Words: Abraham Joshua Heschel's Poetics of Piety, in a chapter entitled "Confronting the Holocaust: God in Exile." 6 Kaplan opens his discussion with the admission that in most of his writings Heschel does not deliberately focus on the Holocaust. Nonetheless, Kaplan claims that Heschel struggled with the Holocaust from the 1940s onward and that this struggle...


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