Commentary Magazine


A. J. Heschel's Philosophy

To the Editor:

Professor Cherbonnier (“A. J. Heschel and the Philosophy of the Bible,” January) has contributed so illuminatingly to the clarification of Heschel’s religious approach from a metaphysical point of view that I gladly suffer being turned into a straw man, if demolishing my “position” can aid this enterprise. Let it be stated for the record, however, that my article in the May 1958 issue of COMMENTARY was written neither as a defense of “conventional theology” nor as an attack upon Heschel. What was intended was a sympathetic appraisal of Heschel’s thought as it must strike the reader who has not yet (and the “yet” may be important here) made the “leap.” The difference between Cherbonnier’s approach and mine is apparently in the fact that he is writing from the point of view of someone who has already taken the “leap”—howbeit within the framework of his own religious tradition.

Also, instead of simply “ranking Heschel with the Existentialists,” what I did write was: “By rejecting ‘conceptual thinking’ in favor of what he calls ‘situational thinking,’ and ‘scholasticism’ in favor of ‘depth-theology,’ Heschel demonstrates his general affinity with the Existentialist and Neo-Orthodox schools of thought, but it is an affinity which must be understood with specific Jewish reservations.” Surely, there is—from a metaphysical point of view—all the difference in the world between making an identification and asserting a “general affinity.” Nor need it be assumed that the “specific Jewish reservations,” which I stated are negligible.

These reservations likewise apply to my description of Heschel as a mystic. Professor Cherbonnier will not want to deny that Hasidism, by which Heschel sets so much store, is a form of mysticism—even though, as Leo Baeck has shown in various writings, there is a significant difference between Jewish mysticism and mysticism in general.

Finally, the Jew who reads the word mitzvah—in Biblical and Rabbinic literature or in Heschel’s writings—understands the term somewhat differently from the sense given to the word “commandments” in I John 2:3, 4. The illustration I brought from Deuteronomy 25:9 also describes a mitzvah; and I remain less than convinced that its performance would yield, in Cherbonnier’s terms, “a dimension of knowledge which otherwise remains closed.”

It would seem to me that, while I attempted to evaluate Heschel’s contribution to modern Judaism in terms of a “situational thinking,” based on current Jewish thought and practice, Cherbonnier, paradoxically enough for a “defender” of Heschel, subjects my article to a thorough analysis of “conceptual thinking.”

Jakob J. Petuchowski
Cincinnati, Ohio

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