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Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence

By: Shai Held
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Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was a prolific scholar, impassioned theologian, and prominent activist who participated in the black civil rights movement and the campaign against the Vietnam War. He has been hailed as a hero, honored as a visionary, and endlessly quoted as a devotional writer. In this sympathetic, yet critical, examination, Shai Held elicits the overarching themes and unity of Heschel’s incisive and insightful thought. Focusing on the idea of transcendence—or the movement from self-centeredness to God-centeredness—Held puts Heschel into dialogue with contemporary Jewish thinkers, Christian theologians, devotional writers, and philosophers of religion.

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1 Wonder, Intuition, and the Path to God

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WONDER, INTUITION, AND THE PATH TO GOD

Abraham Joshua Heschel begins his discussion of wonder in God in Search of Man by declaring that “among the many things that religious tradition holds in store for us is a legacy of wonder.1 This opening sentence ends with something of a surprise: one might have expected Heschel to invoke a legacy of “fidelity,” “commitment,” or “piety.” But wonder? Can a sense of wonder be passed from generation to generation? Can one, in fact, inherit a “legacy of wonder”? This perhaps counter-intuitive sentence can serve as an interpretive key to one of Heschel’s primary projects as a religious writer: he seeks to subvert the views of those, like Martin Buber, who insist on an inherent tension between spontaneous religious expression and received tradition.

In one of his most famous early lectures, Buber paints a stark contrast between “religion” and “religiosity.”2 Religiosity, Buber writes, is “man’s sense of wonder and adoration . . . an ever anew [sic] articulation and formulation of his feeling that, transcending his conditioned being yet bursting from its very core, there is something that is unconditioned.” Religion, in contrast, is “the sum total of the customs and teachings articulated and formulated by the religiosity of a certain epoch in a people’s life.”3 Although Buber recognizes that religion and religiosity can in theory go hand in hand, his profound skepticism about the former, and its potentially deadening effects on the latter, are evident throughout. Thus Paul Mendes-Flohr, Buber’s foremost contemporary commentator, can write that, for the latter, “Religion is antithetical to religiosity.”4 Religion, Buber tells us, is governed by “rigidly determined . . . prescriptions and dogmas,” and in thwarting authentic religiosity, it all too readily becomes “uncreative and untrue.”5 In a rather dramatic formulation, Buber writes: “Religiosity induces sons, who want to find their own God, to rebel against their fathers; religion induces fathers to reject their sons, who will not let their fathers’ God be forced upon them. Religion means preservation; religiosity, renewal.”6 Now, Heschel is well aware that religion can serve to undermine and even destroy authentic religious devotion and practice. He does, after all, polemicize against the stultifying state of the American synagogue, at one point even asking whether “the temple [has] become the graveyard where prayer is buried.”7 Moreover, he evinces an ongoing fascination with the Hasidic master R. Menahem Mendl of Kotzk, who was nothing if not suspicious of the role of habit and imitation in religion as it is all too often practiced.8 But Heschel insists whole-heartedly that far from constituting an inevitable consequence of religion, the suppression of religiosity is, instead, the result of the dilution and falsification thereof. In fact, much of Heschel’s work is an attempt to revitalize what he regards as the fruitful polarity of qeva and kavvanah, or fixed practice and inner devotion. As he puts it in consecutive chapter titles in Man’s Quest for God, “Spontaneity is the goal . . . Continuity is the way.”9 If for Buber, modern man needs to break free from the shackles of inherited tradition, for Heschel, in stark contrast, he needs to be saved from the “callousness” induced by modernity—and his salvation may be found precisely in inherited tradition, and the commitment to wonder and responsiveness it transmits. According to Heschel, in other words, religious tradition holds out a legacy of wonder that can elicit and awaken our own. It is on this possibility, as we shall see, that he thinks the very future of humanity depends.

 

2 Theological Method and Religious Anthropology: Heschel among the Christians

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THEOLOGICAL METHOD AND RELIGIOUS ANTHROPOLOGY: HESCHEL AMONG THE CHRISTIANS

What kind of theologian was Heschel? Since, like many Jewish thinkers, Heschel talks very little about theological method, it falls to us to piece together what he is doing. With his strong theocentric thrust, Heschel can at moments sound very much like his contemporary, the neo-Orthodox Protestant theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968). Consider, for example, Heschel’s insistence that “the Bible is primarily not man’s vision of God but God’s vision of man. The Bible is not man’s theology but God’s anthropology, dealing with man and what He asks of him.”1 In a strikingly similar vein, Barth declares that “it is not the right human thoughts about God which form the content of the Bible, but the right divine thoughts about men.”2 But Heschel’s theocentrism should not blind us to the fact that, in the tradition of modern liberal theology, he begins his theology not with divine revelation, but with human experience. He commences not by asking what it is that God has revealed, but rather, as we have seen, by asking what aspects of human nature and experience can render us receptive to revelation. Or, to put it somewhat differently, Heschel begins not already within the contents of revelation, but rather with anthropological prolegomena, with a “critical, transcendental inquiry into the possibility of . . . belief.”3 Although it most assuredly does not end there, Heschel’s theology begins in anthropology. In what follows, I bring Heschel into conversation with some of the major figures in twentieth-century Christian theology as a basis for exploring Heschel’s approach to the intertwined issues of theological method and theological anthropology.4

 

3 Revelation and Co-Revelation

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REVELATION AND CO-REVELATION

If wonder leads to a sense that “something is asked of us,” revelation seeks to address the obvious next question: what, precisely, is asked of us? “The Bible,” Heschel writes, “is an answer to the supreme question: what does God demand of us? Yet the question has gone out of the world.”1 In a spiritually robust environment, in other words, the experience of wonder would elicit from humanity an openness to, indeed, an eagerness for the message of revelation. But our world, Heschel is at pains to insist, is anything but spiritually robust: in casting off its capacity for wonder, humanity has closed itself off from, and abandoned all interest in, God’s expectations. The Bible is thus rendered mute, irrelevant; it is an answer to a question long since silenced and forgotten. If, as I have suggested, the project of part I of God in Search of Man is to restore humanity to a wonder-filled response to the world as a whole, the project of part II is to accomplish something similar in regards to the Bible—to reactivate humanity’s appreciation for, and receptivity toward, God’s revelation. Put differently: whereas part I seeks to re-elicit an interest in “the supreme question,” part II seeks to inspire a commitment to the ultimate answer as Heschel conceives it—the revelation of God as found in the Hebrew Bible.

 

4 The Pathos of the Self-Transcendent God

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THE PATHOS OF THE SELF-TRANSCENDENT GOD

In talking to a group of Jewish educators in 1968, Heschel warned of an “insidious danger” that constituted nothing less than a “block to Jewish theology”; “I refer,” he said, “to the Hellenization of Jewish theology.”1 This process, which began as early as Philo (20 bce–50 ce), was based on the dangerously misleading assumption that, at bottom, “Plato and Moses”—that is, Greek and biblical thinking—“say the same thing. Only, Plato would say it in Greek and Moses in Hebrew. Consequently, you can say that Moses was a sort of Hebrew Plato.” This conflation of two very different modes of thinking dominated the world of medieval Jewish philosophy, Heschel insists, and, as a result, Jewish philosophers too often “talk about God in the language of the Greeks.”2

Heschel is careful to note that he is not opposed to Jewish students being exposed to the non-Jewish world and its ideas. But he worries that in thinking in “non-Jewish terms,” Jews run the very real risk of losing what is most distinctive and original about Jewish thought. Whatever the strengths of non-Jewish thought, Heschel argues,

 

5 “Awake, Why Sleepest Thou, O Lord?”: Divine Silence and Human Protest in Heschel’s Writings

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“AWAKE, WHY SLEEPEST THOU, O LORD?”: DIVINE SILENCE AND HUMAN PROTEST IN HESCHEL’S WRITINGS

Auschwitz is in our veins. It abides in the throbbing of our hearts. It burns in our imagination. It trembles in our conscience.

IEE, 206.

The ultimate meaning of God’s ways is not invalidated because of man’s incapacity to comprehend it; nor is our anguish silenced because of the certainty that somewhere in the recesses of God an answer abides.

PT, 293.

Sometimes rain drips like a tear.
It’s God’s confession in the world—
But I feel: God is sad-embarrassed,
for His sake, and for ours.

But our distress demands:
Have mercy! Instead of tears, give deeds;
Help, not remorse.

—Heschel, “Repentance,” 201.

 

In his posthumously published A Passion for Truth, Heschel speaks of the Kotzker Rebbe’s anger at God. Enraged by hypocrisy and deceit, Menahem Mendl railed at humanity. But the Kotzker’s anger extended further, beyond human beings and toward their Creator. “Under [the Rebbe’s] reverence,” Heschel writes, “was dissent and contentiousness, a sense of outrage at the depth of falsehood afflicting the world as well as silent animadversion. . . . Was only man to blame? The Kotzker uncompromisingly castigated his fellow men. But did not castigation itself cast reproach upon their Maker?”1 In addition to his anger, the Kotzker was plagued by “serious doubts.” If mendacity enraged him, uncertainty tortured him. “If only I could be certain that there is punishment in the world to come,” he told one of his students, “I would go out into the streets and dance for joy. If only I could be certain . . .”2

 

6 The Self That Transcends Itself: Heschel on Prayer

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THE SELF THAT TRANSCENDS ITSELF: HESCHEL ON PRAYER

Heschel’s final work, A Passion for Truth (1973), is a vivid portrayal of the Hasidic master Reb Menahem Mendl of Kotzk (1787–1859), known above all for his zealous pursuit of truth and integrity in the religious life. One of the central preoccupations of both the Kotzker and his biographer is their insistence that falsehood and self-centeredness are inextricably linked, and that so, too, are truth and self-transcendence.1 For Menahem Mendl, there is no greater spiritual and theological problem than humanity’s obstinate self-concern. “The ‘I’,” Heschel writes, “becomes the central problem in the Kotzker’s thinking; it is the primary counterpart to God in the world. The sin of presumptuous selfhood is the challenge and defiance that God faces in the world.”2 The Kotzker had “contempt for the self-centeredness of man,” and he demanded “the abandonment of all self-interest.”3 He insisted, in fact, that an authentic quest for truth is predicated on a “total abandonment of self.”4 To strive to be a Jew, the Kotzker taught, is “to disentangle the self from enslavement to the self ” and to struggle against “the inexhaustible intransigence of self-interest.” Indeed, “for the Kotzker, one became an authentic Jew only when he moved out of the prison of self-interest, responding with abandon to Heaven’s call.” To have faith, the Kotzker taught, “meant to forget the self, to be exclusively intent on God,”5 and to “disregard self-regard.”6

 

7 Enabling Immanence: Prayer in a Time of Divine Hiddenness

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ENABLING IMMANENCE: PRAYER IN A TIME OF DIVINE HIDDENNESS

In his essay “On Prayer,” published in 1970, Heschel speaks again of the centrality of self-transcendence to the act of prayer. He writes that in prayer, “I leave the world behind as well as all interests of the self. Divested of all concerns, I am overwhelmed by only one desire: to place my heart upon the altar of God.”1 Prayer, Heschel insists, “must never be a citadel for selfish concerns but rather a place for deepening concern over other people’s plight.”2 And in one of his more poignant formulations, he avers that “in order to be human, one must be more than human.”3 But in this essay, Heschel’s deepest concerns lie elsewhere. At its heart, “On Prayer” is a meditation on the dynamics and significance of prayer in an age of divine hiddenness.4

“The fundamental statement about God in Judaism,” Heschel writes elsewhere, is that “God is in search of man”; this bold statement, he insists, can be said to “summarize all of human history as seen in the Bible.”5 And yet, as we have seen, human beings consistently ignore and defy God’s call. God’s interaction with Adam and Eve in the garden is paradigmatic for much of human history: human beings hide from the God who seeks them. But God finds this situation intolerable, and He turns away from humanity even as we turn away from Him. Thus, humanity’s stubborn defiance has led to a calamitous cosmic predicament: the world is plagued by a kind of double-concealment in which humanity’s hiding leads God to hide in turn. Heschel laments that “God is hiding and man is defying. At every moment God is creating and self-concealing.”6

 

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