The Place of Storytelling in Legal Reasoning: Abraham Joshua Heschel's Torah Min Hashamayim
57 Pages Posted: 30 Aug 2007
Date Written: 2007
This article reads the teachings of two rabbis from the Second Century through the lenses of cognitive science on legal thinking and shows the relationship of their narratives and legal opinions. Cognitive scientists posit that both logical and narrative thinking are essential modes of cognitive functioning. The stories and legal decisions of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael, as described by Abraham Joshua Heschel in his masterpiece, Torah Min Hashamayim (Heavenly Torah) support these insights.
Both rabbis lived in a critical period in Jewish history. The Temple, the central focus of the people's connection with God, had been destroyed; large numbers of Jews were exiled from the land; the practice of Judaism had been criminalized; and Jews, including prominent rabbis, were humiliated and persecuted. In this culture, both rabbis wove narratives in an attempt to give meaning to this catastrophe. Rabbi Akiva's stories centered on God's supernatural and miraculous intervention in the world; God's anthropomorphic manifestations and loving relationship with Israel; and a passive, dependent role for Israel which one day would be miraculously redeemed from its present misery. Rabbi Ishmael's narratives, on the other hand, focused on the natural cycles of the world, a clear demarcation between heaven and earth, and an autonomous role for humans in the decision-making process. Faced with the misery around him, Rabbi Ishmael composed stories, in which, humans, not God, played a prominent role in directing life.
Consistent with the findings of cognitive scientists, these narrative themes and images permeate the legal rulings of each rabbi. In his decisions, Ishmael takes a middle of the road, down-to-earth approach focusing on the humanity of the parties, the realities of the decision-making process, and the commonsense meaning of the written text. He puts into action his story that at Mount Sinai only general principles were given; the particulars were left for later real cases. Likewise, Akiva's opinions reflect his narratives. They are usually extreme, demand strict compliance with commandments, and attempt to give meaning to every word and letter given by God. His jurisprudence puts into action his story that at Sinai God gave all the law once and for all. Nothing was left for later.
Heavenly Torah also reflects Heschel's own narrative, his attempts to make meaning after the Holocaust and in the midst of 1960s America. As with Rabbis Akiva and Ishmael, Heschel's narrative infuses his own approach to legal decision making.
This article demonstrates that in rendering decisions, all judges attempt to relate abstract legal principles to actual cases using both the logical principles of their legal system and the narrative themes and images they have created to find meaning in the world in which they live.
Keywords: Jewish Law, Cognitive Psychology, Narrative, Storytelling, Mishnah, Heschel, Abraham Joshua, Law and Literature.
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