"Torah min Hashamayim B'aspaklariya shel Hadorot" (תורה מן השמים באספקלריה של הדורות) was written by R' Abraham Joshua Heschel and published by Soncino Press and JTS Press in 1962. It was translated into English by R' Gordon Tucker in "Heavenly Torah as Refracted through the Generations" in 2006.

The book is based on the thesis that there were two main schools in the times of the Tanaim which differed on a wide range of fundamental issues, halachic and aggadic (although the book deals mainly with the aggadic topics). These were the school of R' Akiva and the school of R' Yishmael. R' Akiva was representative of a more mystical approach to things, while R' Yishmael typified a more rational approach. The book moves through the many topics on which they differed chapter by chapter and not a page goes by without several quotes or references to Talmudic or midrashic literature to support this thesis. (I am aware that Heschel was not the first to state this observation; however, he is possibly the first to elaborate on it at such great length and with so many sources, certainly with respect to the aggadic issues.)

I'm specifically looking for a review of this book by a more traditional figure within Orthodox Judaism. (I say this because although it is unclear to me just from online information the state of R' Heschel's religious affiliation, it is at least clear that he is not what we would call a "traditional" source.) [Also, I am familiar with R' Gil Student's review posted when the translation was published. I am looking for the review of a more prominent and authoritative figure, if it exists, and preferably more in-depth.] However, I would also be satisfied with a (in-depth) discussion of this topic (R' Akiva vs. R' Yishmael) offered by a more traditional source.

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    "Also, I am familiar with R' Gil Student's review...I am looking for the review of a more prominent and authoritative figure..." I do not know him and I am not an avid reader of his blog, but I think it should be pointed out that Gil Student has successfully established himself as among the most learned and smartest, and certainly among the most prolific and well-respected, writers and thinkers in the Modern-Orthodox-right-of-center circle that you may be looking to hear from.
    – Seth J
    Commented May 23, 2012 at 18:22
  • Having said that, looking for a more comprehensive treatment is understandable.
    – Seth J
    Commented May 23, 2012 at 18:23
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    @SethJ, I understand and agree. When I said "more prominent and authoritative", I meant more along the lines of R' Moshe Feinstein. No disrespect to R' Student.
    – jake
    Commented May 23, 2012 at 18:33
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    I would see Tradition 6:2, where R. Berkovits infamously reviewed Heschel's theology. It's not the book you mention, but it is a damning critique of Heschel's worldview from a traditional perspective.
    – Curiouser
    Commented May 24, 2012 at 6:42
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    @SethJ - When you say Modern-Orthodox-right-of-center, what do you regard as the center? Commented Jun 20, 2012 at 20:30

2 Answers 2


The Lubavitcher Rebbe has a talk in Likutei Sichot volume 6 page 119-129 (Adapted into English by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks here) where he discusses the arguments between R' Yishmael and R' Akiva regarding what the Jews saw at Sinai and how they responded to the Commandments.

The Rebbe explains that R' Yishmael and R' Akiva's disagreements stem from the different places they came from. R' Akiva was a Baal Teshuva and R' Yishmael was a Kohen Gadol. From Rabbi Sacks' essay:

Rabbi Ishmael was a High Priest (a Kohen Gadol) and the nature of a priest is to be “sanctified to his G-d.” His service is that of the righteous, to transmit holiness to this world (to take the high and bring it low). This is why he saw the greatest miracle as being that G-d Himself came down to this world, so far as to be perceived by the normal senses (“they saw what is normally seen”).

But Rabbi Akiva was a man of repentance (a Ba’al Teshuvah), whose descent was from converts and who only started to learn Torah at the age of 40. Repentance colors his whole manner of service: The desire to ascend higher than this world (and, as is known, he longed throughout his life to be able to martyr himself in the cause of G-d). So that for him the greatest miracle was the transcending of all physical limitations (“they saw what is normally heard”).

In footnote 33* of the Sicha, the Rebbe says that this was the rationale of the argument between R' Akiva and R' Yishmael in Sotah (3A), where there are several Mitzvot that R' Akiva says are an obligation while R' Yishmael says the are optional.


To answer the first part of your question Heschel was not considered part of mainstream orthodox Judaism, he was faculty at JTS, as such no mainstream "Gadol" would have reviewed his work in any meaningful capacity (nor given haskamot). Wikipedia lists several reviews of this work, the most orthodox leaning to my mind is Alan Brill. His review may be read here.

Regarding the overall thesis my understanding is that the exact opposite is true. Rebbi Akiva is generally the more rational ("Akiva, what are you doing trying to expound aggadic material, go to negaim and oholos") which is why the sojourn he leads into "Pardes" was was marred by death and apostasy of his colleagues, whereas Rebbi Yishmael is the protagonist of the heichalot literature.

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    First, being faculty at JTS is no standard by which to judge someone's Orthodox standing. (Hacham Jose Faur יוכיח.) Second, I don't see your reasoning with regard to the Akiva/Yishmael issue. The division of rationalism/mysticism is with respect to approaching aggadah. Thus, the "Akiva, what are you doing..." from disapproving students of R' Yishmael. The "sojourn" into Pardes was marred by the death of his colleagues, but not himself. And not that I know much about Heichalot literature, but isn't R' Akiva the protagonist (as in "אותיות דר' עקיבא"), not R' Yishmael?
    – jake
    Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 2:30
  • far be it for me to judge anyone, however JTS is described as the spiritual center of conservative Judaism so it would stand to reason, b'mechilas kevod hachacham, that one associated with that institution would not be considered by mainstream orthodox gedolim to be, shall we say, in the same camp. Essentially my argument regarding Rebbi Akiva's mystical proclivities is not that he is absent but rather a novice in comparison to Rebbi Yishmael. Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 2:41
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    @jake I was able to track down Rabbi Dr. Alan Brill's review. hope this is helpful - yctorah.org/component/option,com_docman/task,doc_view/gid,312 Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 4:21
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    R. Yishmael has about half of the "mishnas" stated in his name in the main book for Heichalot Literature. Theres a link to it in some of the questions here. R. Akiva is barely mentioned.
    – avi
    Commented Jun 19, 2012 at 15:53

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