The Return of a 60-Year-Old Dispute between Two of American Jewry’s Leading Theologians, and Why It Matters

In 1964, Eliezer Berkovits of the Orthodox Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Illinois and Abraham Joshua Heschel of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan were two of the leading lights of rabbinic thought in America. Both men were born and educated in Eastern Europe (Berkovits in Hungary, Heschel in Warsaw) in the early 20th century, both attended the University of Berlin, and both were committed Zionists. That year, Berkovits wrote an essay in Tradition—then as now the flagship journal of Modern Orthodox thought in America, closely associated with Yeshiva University—sharply criticizing Heschel’s theology, and in particular his idea that God suffers in ways only humans can fix. To Berkovits, this approach came far to close to the Christian doctrine of Jesus suffering on the cross. Todd Berman, writing in Tradition, recently wrote an essay in in the same journal defending Heschel against Berkovits’s attack.

The revival of this 60-year-old dispute has provoked a number of responses. Although the controversy hinges on rarefied theological and kabbalistic concepts, it ultimately involves the limits of Orthodoxy, the legitimacy of the mystical tradition, and Heschel’s famous notion of “God in search of man.” It also reflects the gap between Heschel’s ḥasidic upbringing and Berkovits’s non-ḥasidic one. Berman writes:

In brief, Heschel created a theological interpretation of the prophetic experience, which he termed “divine pathos.” The construct incorporates three interlacing aspects: that God cares about the world, that the prophets experience and sympathize with God, and that, as a result, the prophets press humans to act in ways that impact God’s feelings towards the world. Berkovits challenged all three components of Heschel’s theology and argued that Heschel’s theology reflected Christian interpretation of the Bible.

Heschel claims that God communicates some sort of “feelings” and that the role of the prophet is to have sympathy with that emotion or, in other words, to share the emotional state of the Divine, to understand God’s aspirations for the world, and respond by helping to bring them to fruition. For Heschel, without the notion of pathos, there can be no prophecy. “The fundamental experience of the prophet is a fellowship with the feelings of God.”

For Berkovits, it is inappropriate to attribute any form of emotions to Him. Even if one claimed that God has an emotional stake in the world, how would the finite human bridge the gap and sympathize with Him? At Heschel’s hand God becomes too human.

Read more at Tradition

More about: Abraham Joshua Heschel, American Judaism, Eliezer Berkovits, Kabbalah, Theology

The Right and Wrong Ways for the U.S. to Support the Palestinians

Sept. 29 2023

On Wednesday, Elliott Abrams testified before Congress about the Taylor Force Act, passed in 2018 to withhold U.S. funds from the Palestinian Authority (PA) so long as it continues to reward terrorists and their families with cash. Abrams cites several factors explaining the sharp increase in Palestinian terrorism this year, among them Iran’s attempt to wage proxy war on Israel; another is the “Palestinian Authority’s continuing refusal to fight terrorism.” (Video is available at the link below.)

As long as the “pay for slay” system continues, the message to Palestinians is that terrorists should be honored and rewarded. And indeed year after year, the PA honors individuals who have committed acts of terror by naming plazas or schools after them or announcing what heroes they are or were.

There are clear alternatives to “pay to slay.” It would be reasonable for the PA to say that, whatever the crime committed, the criminal’s family and children should not suffer for it. The PA could have implemented a welfare-based system, a system of family allowances based on the number of children—as one example. It has steadfastly refused to do so, precisely because such a system would no longer honor and reward terrorists based on the seriousness of their crimes.

These efforts, like the act itself, are not at all meant to diminish assistance to the Palestinian people. Rather, they are efforts to direct aid to the Palestinian people rather than to convicted terrorists. . . . [T]he Taylor Force Act does not stop U.S. assistance to Palestinians, but keeps it out of hands in the PA that are channels for paying rewards for terror.

[S]hould the United States continue to aid the Palestinian security forces? My answer is yes, and I note that it is also the answer of Israel and Jordan. As I’ve noted, PA efforts against Hamas or other groups may be self-interested—fights among rivals, not principled fights against terrorism. Yet they can have the same effect of lessening the Iranian-backed terrorism committed by Palestinian groups that Iran supports.

Read more at Council on Foreign Relations

More about: Palestinian Authority, Palestinian terror, U.S. Foreign policy