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.