When the “professor” suggested we begin our Philosophy of Religion course work with G-d In Search Of Man by Rabbi Heschel, I was both excited (for the above mentioned reasons) and apprehensive. I was apprehensive because to my limited understanding on the subject, Rabbi Heschel is not considered Orthodox. I know that he taught at JTS a Conservative Seminary, but I don’t really know his positions on various issues.
I enjoy discovering wisdom and insight from any source regardless of their religious beliefs. However, there is a certain tension when I read a non-Orthodox author and delve into philosophical issues. There is a certain vigilance and wariness ingrained within me that is on the lookout for heretical theories that inherently contradict the core of my faith and the essence of religion.
For example I once attended a retreat with Rabbi Zalman Schechter-Shalomi the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement and I was apprehensive that I would encounter philosophies that are counter to my religious sensibilities. I was very pleasantly surprised that I agreed completely with all his public speeches and teachings during the time I was there. When I spoke privately with him about various subjects I was even more surprised at how much he is in synch, at the core, with Torah Judaism.
I am not familiar with all his statements on various issues and there might very well be issues that he and I differ greatly on. My point is that when people of any religious persuasion are truly seeking understanding and the focus is not about proving a particular viewpoint – great minds can discover truths and insights that are not contradictory to ones individual religious beliefs. It’s truly beautiful when this happens because it allows for great dialog and discovery amongst people with very different religious views and practices.
It’s interesting to note how I have a different degree of vigilance when I read Rabbi Heschel versus when I read Rabbi Soloveitchik or Rabbi Sacks. There is a certain trust that I have with the latter that I don’t have with the former. Perhaps I do a disservice to my own growth by not having the same vigilance with Rabbi’s Soloveitchik and Sacks. Obviously if anyone, regardless of religious affiliation, states a troublesome notion, I will challenge it regardless. However, with people who I don’t fully trust religiously I am more wary of subtleties that I wouldn’t be by other authors. It will be interesting to discover (self-discovery) my differing approaches to their various magnum opuses.
The most interesting current tension with Rabbi Heschel is that he has extensive chapters on the issue of Torah from Sinai. I literally have to repeatedly stop myself from jumping ahead and reading his viewpoint on what I consider the most fundamental and defining of religious beliefs. I am resisting doing so because I fear that if my fears are substantiated about his beliefs regarding Torah from Sinai, I would have a harder time being open to his other dialogs and viewpoints. (Please don’t ruin it for me by stating his position until the appropriate time – when I reached his chapters on the subject.)
Based on what I have read so far I am immensely impressed with Rabbi Heschel’s thinking, clarity, and honesty. These are traits that I rarely encounter in my dialogs about religion (both within Orthodoxy and other denominations and religions.) I am very much looking forward to reading how one who has such honesty, deeper, non skeptical, non egotistical reasoning, deals with the Torah from Sinai issue. Can’t wait to get to those chapters and I really hope that I can respect his viewpoint – even if it is not on the same page as mine.
It should be a grand adventure!