Author Archives: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

About Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Ph.D. (1907-1972), born in Warsaw and educated in Poland and Germany, was Professor of Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Among his books are Man Is Not Alone, God in Search of Man, The Earth is the Lord's, and Israel: Echo of Eternity.

Halakhah and Aggadah

Heschel takes the traditional division of Jewish textual material into halakhah (legal materials) and aggadah (legendary materials) and restates the division as Jewish behaviors (halakhah) and the reasons/motivations for those behaviors (aggadah). For Heschel, these categories transcend the simple categorization of literary genres. For Heschel, the division of literary form reflects all of the polarities of Jewish existence and theology. Reprinted with permission from Between God and Man.

Halakhah represents the strength to shape one’s life according to a fixed pattern; it is a form-giving force. Aggadah is the expression of man’s ceaseless striving that often defies all limitations. Halakhah is the rationalization and schematization of living; it defines, specifies, sets measure and limit, placing life into an exact system.

Aggadah deals with man’s ineffable relations to God, to other men, and to the world. Halakhah deals with details, with each commandment separately; aggadah with the whole of life, with the totality of religious life. Halakhah deals with the law; aggadah with the meaning of the law. Halakhah deals with subjects that can be expressed literally; aggadah introduces us to a realm that lies beyond the range of expression. Halakhah teaches us how to perform common acts; aggadah tells us how to participate in the eternal drama. Halakhah gives us knowledge; aggadah gives us aspiration.

Halakhah gives us the norms for action; aggadah, the vision of the ends of living. Halakhah prescribes, aggadah suggests; halakhah decrees, aggadah inspires; halakhah is definite; aggadah is allusive.

When Isaac blessed Jacob he said: "God give thee the dew of heaven, the fat of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine" (Genesis 27:28). Remarked the Midrash (an early Rabbinic commentary on Scripture): "Dew of heaven is Scripture, the fat of the earth is mishnah (the first compendium of Jewish case law), corn is halakhah, wine is aggadah."

Halakhah, by necessity, treats with the laws in the abstract, regardless of the totality of the person. It is aggadah that keeps on reminding that the purpose of performance is to transform the performer, that the purpose of observance is to train us in achieving spiritual ends.…

To maintain that the essence of Judaism consists exclusively of halakhah is as erroneous as to maintain that the essence of Judaism consists exclusively of aggadah. The interrelationship of halakhah and aggadah is the very heart of Judaism. Halakhah without aggadah is dead, aggadah without halakhah is wild.

Halakhah thinks in the category of quantity; aggadah is the category of quality. Aggadah maintains that he who saves one human life is as if he had saved all mankind. In the eyes of him whose first category is the category of quantity, one man is less than two men, but in the eyes of God one life is worth as much as all of life. Halakhah speaks of the estimable and measurable dimensions of our deeds, informing us how much we must perform in order to fulfill our duty, about the size, capacity, or content of the doer and the deed. Aggadah deals with the immeasurable, inward aspect of living, telling us how we must think and feel; how rather than how much we must do to fulfill our duty; the manner, not only the content, is important.

To reduce Judaism to law, to halakhah, is to dim its light, to pervert its essence and to kill its spirit. We have a legacy of aggadah together with a system of halakhah, and although, because of a variety of reasons, that legacy was frequently overlooked and aggadah became subservient to halakhah, halakhah is ultimately dependent upon aggadah. Halakhah, the rationalization of living, is not only forced to employ elements that are themselves unreasoned, its ultimate authority depends upon aggadah. For what is the basis of halakhah? The event at Sinai, the mystery of revelation, belongs to the sphere of aggadah. Thus while the content of halakhah is subject to its own reasoning, its authority is derived from aggadah….

To reduce Judaism to inwardness, to aggadah, is to blot out its light, to dissolve its essence and to destroy its reality. Indeed, the surest way to forfeit aggadah is to abolish halakhah. They can only survive in symbiosis. Without halakhah, aggadah loses its substance, its character, its source of inspiration, its security against becoming secularized.

By inwardness alone we do not come close to God. The purest intentions, the finest sense of devotion, the noblest spiritual aspirations are fatuous when not realized in action. Spiritualism is a way for angels, not for man. There is only one function that can take place without the aid of external means: dreaming. When dreaming, man is almost detached from concrete reality. Yet spiritual life is not a dream and is in constant need of action. Action is the verification of the spirit. Does friendship consist of mere emotion? Of indulgence in feeling? Is it not always in need of tangible, material means of expression? The life of the spirit too needs concrete actions for its actualization. The body must not be left alone; the spirit must be fulfilled in the flesh. The spirit is decisive; but it is life, all of life, where the spirit is at stake. To consecrate our tongue and our hands we need extraordinary means of pedagogy.

It is impossible to decide whether in Judaism supremacy belongs to halakhah or to aggadah, to the lawgiver or to the Psalmist. The rabbis may have sensed the problem. "Rav said: The world was created for the sake of David, so that he might sing hymns and psalms to God. Samuel said: The world was created for the sake of Moses, so that he might receive the Torah" (Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 98b)….

There is no halakhah without aggadah, and no aggadah without halakhah. We must neither disparage the body nor sacrifice the spirit. The body is the discipline, the pattern, the law; the spirit is inner devotion, spontaneity, freedom. The body without the spirit is a corpse; the spirit without the body is a ghost. Thus a mitzvah is both a discipline and an inspiration, an act of obedience and an experience of joy, a yoke and a prerogative. Our task is to learn how to maintain a harmony between the demands of halakhah and the spirit of aggadah.

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and one of the outstanding Jewish philosophers and theologians of modern times.

What Death Should Teach Us About Life and Living

One of the great Jewish spiritual teachers of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argues that facing death gives life meaning; that life and death are both part of a greater mystery; that by virtue of being created in no less than God’s image, we can imagine an afterlife for humanity–yet at the same time death itself is an antidote to human arrogance; and that in death we pay gratitude for the wonder and gift of our existence. These passages are excerpted from Heschel’s essay "Death as Homecoming", published in Jewish Reflections on Death, edited by Jack Riemer (Schocken Books).

Death as a Way to Understand the Meaning of Life

Our first question is to what end and upon what right do we think about the strange and totally inaccessible subject of death? The answer is because of the supreme certainty we have about the existence of man: that it cannot endure without a sense of meaning. But existence embraces both life and death, and in a way death is the test of the meaning of life. If death is devoid of meaning, then life is absurd. Life’s ultimate meaning remains obscure unless it is reflected upon in the face of death.

The fact of dying must be a major factor in our understand­ing of living. Yet only few of us have come face to face with death as a problem or a challenge. There is a slowness, a delay, a neglect on our part to think about it. For the subject is not exciting, but rather strange and shocking.

What characterizes modern man’s attitude toward death is escapism, disregard of its harsh reality, even a tendency to ob­literate grief. He is entering, however, a new age of search for meaning of existence, and all cardinal issues will have to be faced.

Life as a Way to Understand the Meaning of Death

Death is grim, harsh, cruel, a source of infinite grief. Our first reaction is consternation. We are stunned and distraught. Slowly, our sense of dismay is followed by a sense of mystery. Suddenly, a whole life has veiled itself in secrecy. Our speech stops, our understanding fails. In the presence of death there is only silence, and a sense of awe.

Shabbat as a Sanctuary in Time

Reprinted with permission from The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, published by Noonday Press.

Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, quality-less, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.

Judaism teaches us to be attached to holiness in time, to be attached to sacred events, to learn how to consecrate sanctuaries that emerge from the magnificent stream of a year. The Sabbaths are our great cathedrals; and our Holy of Holies is a shrine that neither the Romans nor the Germans were able to burn; a shrine that even apostasy cannot easily obliterate: the Day of Atonement. According to the ancient rabbis, it is not the observance of the Day of Atonement, but the Day itself, the “essence of the Day,” which, with man’s repentance, atones for the sins of man.hourglass

Jewish ritual may be characterized as the art of significant forms in time, as architecture of time. Most of its observances–the Sabbath, the New Moon, the festivals, the Sabbatical and the Jubilee year–depend on a certain hour of the day or season of the year. It is, for example, the evening, morning, or afternoon that brings with it the call to prayer. The main themes of faith lie in the realm of time. We remember the day of the exodus from Egypt, the day when Israel stood at Sinai; and our Messianic hope is the expectation of a day, of the end of days.

In a well-composed work of art an idea of outstanding importance is not introduced haphazardly, but, like a king at an official ceremony, it is presented at a moment and in a way that will bring to light its authority and leadership. In the Bible, words are employed with exquisite care, particularly those which, like pillars of fire, lead the way in the far-flung system of the biblical world of meaning.

Shabbat as a Reminder of Creation

Reprinted with permission from The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, published by Noonday Press. 

He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man. Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.

When the Romans met the Jews and noticed their strict adherence to the law of abstaining from labor on the Sabbath, their only reaction was contempt. The Sabbath is a sign of Jewish indolence, was the opinion held by Juvenal, Seneca, and others.

In defense of the Sabbath, Philo, the spokesman of the Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria, says, “On this day we are commanded to abstain from all work, not because the law inculcates slackness. . . . Its object is rather to give man relaxation from continuous and unending toil and by refreshing their bodies, with a regularly calculated system of remissions to send them out renewed to their old activities. For a breathing spell enables not merely ordinary people but athletes also to collect their strength with a stronger force behind them to undertake promptly and patiently each of the tasks set before them.”

Here the Sabbath is represented not in the spirit of the Bible but in the spirit of Aristotle. According to the Stagirite, “we need relaxation, because we cannot work continuously. Relaxation, then, is not an end”; it is “for the sake of activity,” for the sake of gaining strength for new efforts. To the biblical mind, however, labor is the means toward an end, and the Sabbath as a day of rest, as a day of abstaining from toil, is not for the purpose of recovering one’s lost strength and becoming fit for the forthcoming labor. The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work. “Last in creation, first in intention,” the Sabbath is “the end of the creation of heaven and earth.”

Holiness in Time, Not Only in Space

Reprinted with permission from The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, published by Noonday Press.

We are all infatuated with the splendor of space, with the grandeur of things of space. “Thing” is a category that lies heavy on our minds, tyrannizing all our thoughts. Our imagination tends to mold all concepts in its image. In our daily lives we attend primarily to that which the senses are spelling out for us: to what the eyes perceive, to what the fingers touch. Reality to us is thinghood, consisting of substances that occupy space; even God is conceived by most of us as a thing. 

The result of our thinginess is our blindness to all reality that fails to identify itself as a thing, as a matter of fact. This is obvious in our understanding of time, which, being thingless and insubstantial, appears to us as if it had no reality.

clockIndeed, we know what to do with space but do not know what to do about time, except to make it subservient to space. Most of us seem to labor for the sake of things of space. As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face. Time to us is sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives. Shrinking, therefore, from facing time, we escape for shelter to things of space. The intentions we are unable to carry out we deposit in space; possessions become the symbols of our repressions, jubilees of frustrations. But things of space are not fireproof; they only add fuel to the flames. Is the joy of possession an antidote to the terror of time which grows to be a dread of inevitable death? Things, when magnified, are forgeries of happiness, they are a threat to our very lives; we are more harassed than supported by the Frankensteins of spatial things.

It is impossible for man to shirk the problem of time. The more we think the more we realize: we cannot conquer time through space. We can only master time in time.

The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments. In a religious experience, for example, it is not a thing that imposes itself on man but a spiritual presence. What is retained in the soul is the moment of insight rather than the place where the act came to pass. A moment of insight is a fortune, transporting us beyond the confines of measured time. Spiritual life begins to decay when we fail to sense the grandeur of what is eternal in time.