Heschel’s Heavenly Torah- Lost in Translation

In the Fall issue of Modern Judaism 29/3 October 2009, there is a devastating review of Gordon Tucker’s translation of Heschel’s Heavenly Torah in which he claims the original meaning of Heschel is lost in translation. He seems to be bending over backwards not to be scathing,but his bottom line is that Tucker omitted paragraphs essential for arguments, manipulated the material to make Heschel seem like a pluralist, and even worse, he inserted his own pluralist editorial comments into the text of Heschel without any indication that these are not Heschel’s words.

Haber also claims that Heschel sought to determine a correct position in Aggadah, that he uses traditional phrases like “principles of faith,” that he often follows Rabbi Akiva and Tucker will present Heschel as following Rabbi Yishmael when he really was following Rabbi Akiva.. The worst is that in the crucial section on Maimonides position on Torah from Sinai, Tucker added his own explanation at the expanse of Heschel’s own words. Therefore, I must correct what I wrote in my own review of Heschel, based on the English translation, that the discussion of Maimonides was “not theology or halakhic,” what I need to say is that Tucker’s additions are the problem.

Lost In Translation: Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “Heavenly Torah”—A Review Essay- Gedalia Haber

Although Heschel is aware of the plurality of opinions shared by the Sages, I found that he nevertheless strives to determine which opinion is correct, according to its compatibility with the simple meaning of the biblical text (Peshuto shel Mikra).However, when I compared certain words and phrases in Tucker’s translation to Heschel’s original text, to my surprise, I discovered that Heschel’s intent was often obscured or omitted entirely.

In the pages that follow I shall demonstrate a few basic differences between “my Heschel” and “Tucker’s Heschel.” … This juxtaposition will reveal critical areas where Heschel’s intent has been altered, and will retrieve “lost” ideas that were omitted or adapted in Tucker’s work. This will help to reconsider the question of Heschel’s views regarding religious pluralism and the diversity of opinions characteristic of Aggadah.

Heschel’s explicit parallel between Jewish law and Jewish thought is omitted in Tucker’s translation, and all that remains is the dichotomy between Halacha and matters beyond Halacha….Tucker does not translate this passage, although it seems that Heschel is stating a fundamental principle.

Tucker’s translation undermines Heschel’s certainty, and while it may render Heschel’s ambitious claim more digestible, at the same time it reverses Heschel’s opinion completely.

Another example of Heschel’s decisive attitude toward Aggadic material is his discussion of R. Akiva’s view regarding revelation. According to Heschel, R. Akiva claimed that Moses ascended to heaven in order to receive the Torah. Heschel claims that “this matter of the ascent of a mortal to heaven is very important in the Torah of faith. Judaism demands that man should acknowledge his place. A basic rule in Israel: ‘God is in heaven, and you are on earth’ [. . .].

The phrase “Torah of faith” should be understood as the doctrine of faith, since the context is “Judaism’s demand” of man. However, Tucker subverts Heschel’s intention by transforming Heschel’s prescriptive, dogmatic style into a historical, descriptive one: “The theme of human ascent to heaven is of great importance in the study of religion, but Judaism demands that humans should know their place. Israel lives by the rule: “God is in heaven, and you are on earth.”4

Heschel’s critique of Maimonides’ view of Torah from Heaven is the climax of TMS II,… Although Tucker retains Heschel’s title (“Maimonides’ Ruling”), he transforms Heschel’s discussion from a Halachic attack on Maimonides to a criticism of Maimonides’ “perfectionist” attitude. Tucker’s version does read that “Maimonides came down on the more stringent side,” but Tucker adds an interjection which is not present in the original text: “Is such perfectionism possible?”.Tucker proceeds to omit the phrase ‘if the Halacha is established according to the Sifrei,’ and shifts Heschel’s Halachic polemic to the realm of criticism of the high “standard” that Maimonides set for us.

I disagree with his claim that Heschel is promoting the more pluralistic exegesis of the Yishmaelian School.

What is the meaning of Heschel’s critique? Alan Brill rightfully points out that in Heschel’s discussion of rabbinic sources in TMS, “there is no historical change or driving force to history.” Heschel holds an ahistorical conception of Jewish thought. Contrary to the view that Jewish thought and practice developed in certain directions, and what was once considered legitimate might be considered heretical today (and vice versa), Heschel claims that there is a unity between generations. However, this lenient or  liberal view is not pluralistic, and it does not leave room for Maimonides’ “perfectionist attitude.” Heschel sees it as the objective truth, which demands submission.

Tucker comments on this that the “halachic pluralism” implied by the Talmud is a “long established fact,”…However, Heschel restricts this pluralism one paragraph later and states:

The Divine Voice declares: “These and these are [both] the words of the living God, but Halacha is established according to the school of Hillel.” Many students who have not studied sufficiently have regarded this saying according to the rule: “split the sentence”; they took its beginning and ignored its ending [. . .] as if the world were chaotic. As if permission had been granted for each person to build an altar for himself.

Moreover, is the power of every scholar equal to the power of Hillel and Shammai or R. Akiva and R. Yishmael? Is an innkeeper’s wife equal to wife of a priest? Does the trivial discussion of idlers compare to the complete Torah of the forefathers? Many scholars who have not studied sufficiently cannot be considered laymen anymore but did not reach the level of the great [rabbis]. ”

These omissions and rewordings obscure what Heschel tried to convey and are barriers between Heschel’s thought and the English reader…However, as I have shown, Tucker eliminates fundamental passages and phrases without commenting on their absence. I believe the message they convey is no petty matter.

5 responses to “Heschel’s Heavenly Torah- Lost in Translation

  1. I guess I’ll have to bite the bullet and plow slowly through the Hebrew, then.

  2. lawrence kaplan

    I would be happy to redo the job if a rich “gevir” would be willing to sponsor me, and the legal isues could be sorted out.

  3. Sadly Edah is no more and your review seems to be lost to the vagaries of the internet, any chance you will reprint it here?

  4. If one were to read Tucker’s commentary closely you can see his urge to influence the reader to his (Tucker’s) position – that is pointing out in his (Tucker’s) opinion, citing’s as to where AJH considered that the Torah may have been written by Man. In his effort to bring this incredible work to the masses of one he (Tucker) so admired, he contributed to a diminishing of his
    (Heschel’s) importance.

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