Faith as the Leap of Action:
The Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel
ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and author of numerous books and articles on the nature of Judaism, has become for many the leading Jewish theologian in this country. Yet, unlike the majority of his predecessors, Heschel does not believe that Reason can furnish us with the clue to ultimate reality. He does not assume that Reason can answer the questions posed by Faith, or even that Reason is able to ask the kind of question to which Faith has the answer. This break with the rationalist tradition in Jewish theology may account, on the one hand, for the popularity which Heschel (along with Buber and Will Herberg) is currently enjoying on the American Jewish scene. On the other hand, it also makes it more difficult for those who are accustomed to looking for theological truth along the paths of customary rational discourse to appreciate his religious thought.
As early as 1935, when he published an extremely sensitive and perceptive biography of Maimonides in German (still untranslated), Heschel’s notion of the role of reason in religion had begun to emerge. Discussing the reputation of Maimonides as the “classical representative of Rationalism,” Heschel points out that Maimonides might better be thought of as the man who, time and again, used his ratio in order to define the limits of reason. He then describes the last years of Maimonides’ life in terms of “a change from contemplation to practice, from cognition to imitatio Dei. God is no longer the object of cognition. He becomes the example to be followed. His works, the creatures of the world guided by His providence, take the place of those abstract concepts which constitute the spiritual act in the intellectual cognition of God. In place of the abstract contemplation come the observation of, and absorption in, the concrete event.” [My translation from the German original.]
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