Drawing on Abraham Joshua Heschel's Torah Min Ha-Shamayim (translated into English as Heavenly Torah), this article considers four classical perspectives on God's relationship to seemingly-unjustified human suffering:
(the school of
|Transcendentalists (the school of |
(God is responsible for suffering)
|God causes suffering to benefit human beings and to show intimate involvement with them||God causes suffering in accordance with the often-inscrutable laws of justice|
(God is not responsible for suffering)
God deeply identifies with those who suffer but cannot prevent their suffering
God has compassion for those who suffer but cannot prevent their suffering
Out of these four views, Heschel paid the least attention to the view that suffering reveals a transcendent God whose hand does not intervene in history. This lack of attention is not so surprising, given that, when it came to challenging the doctrine of divine omnipotence, Heschel was personally committed to the non-interventionist model associated with the immanentism of Rabbi Akiva.
But the non-interventionist views that can be linked with Rabbi Yishmael's transcendentalism are also worthy of significant attention....
Heschel should be admired for recovering, in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim, the often-neglected non-interventionist theology of Rabbi Akiva's school. But, out of his attachment to Rabbi Akiva's vision of God's identification with suffering human beings, he neglected the non-interventionist theology of Rabbi Yishmael's school. As a result, readers of the chapters focusing on suffering in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim may be left with the impression that, for the Rabbis, God's compassion must be expressed through God's identification with human beings; and readers may be left with the impression that divine transcendence must be associated with interventions in history which transcend human understanding. To correct such misimpressions, I have sought to highlight the alternative model of divine transcendence which Heschel hints at in Torah Min Ha-Shamayim but ignores in those key chapters: a model which sees God as compassionate without blurring the lines between the human and the divine; a model which recognizes God as transcendent not because of God's inscrutability and God's direct power but because of God's transcendent goodness—which does not control but which commands from beyond. As a theologian collecting neglected but valuable traditions in rabbinic thought, and especially as a theologian seeking to help modern readers to make sense of God's role in history, Heschel should have given more attention to this alternative vision of a transcendent, non-interventionist, compassionate God.The article is available on Project Muse here (and as a PDF here).