Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Insights Elucidated for a New Generation

Photographs and other items from the Abraham Joshua Heschel Papers at Duke University's David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, including a 1935 Nazi-issued work permit; courtesy Duke University.
Photographs and other items from the Abraham Joshua Heschel Papers at Duke University’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, including a 1935 Nazi-issued work permit; courtesy Duke University.

by Rabbi Jack Riemer

Whenever a new book on the life and thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel appears, I always have two reactions.

One is to marvel at the fact that Heschel is the only one of the star-studded Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) faculty to which he belonged who is still studied and written about today. No one would have believed back in the days when I was a student at JTS that Heschel – and Heschel alone – would be the subject of continued study in our time, for back then he was isolated and even made fun of by many members of the faculty and many of the students.

The second reaction I have whenever I read a new book on Heschel is to hope that the author will focus on his spiritual insights, and not just on his involvement in civil rights, the anti-Vietnam movement, and the cause of Soviet Jewry. For Heschel was above all a religious thinker, and even if his involvement with these causes was important to him, they should not be the only things for which he is remembered.

Shai Held’s new book, “Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence,” does precisely what needs to be done if Heschel is to be properly understood by a new generation. Held focuses on Heschel’s religious insights, for although Heschel was a scholar who made significant contributions to every field of Jewish studies, at his core he was a philosopher of religion whose goal was to make the spiritual insights of Judaism understandable to a generation that needed to know them.

Readers will come away from Held’s book with an understanding of why Heschel was so lonely in his time. He was a Yiddishist and a Hebraist of inordinate ability, yet he was worlds away from the secularism that characterized both of those movements. He was poles apart from both the fundamentalism of many of the Orthodox thinkers of his time, and from the naturalism of many of the Reform and Reconstructionist thinkers of his time. He was passionate about social justice, like the Reform, and he was deeply concerned with the Jewish people, like the Reconstructionists, but he saw social justice and Jewish peoplehood through the lens of a yearning to do the will of God. He was an academic, like the rest of his colleagues at JTS, but he saw his task not as editing manuscripts or studying history, as they did, but as articulating the insights of the Jewish heritage to a generation that was starved for meaning in life. Held therefore is right to focus on the central spiritual insights in Heschel’s thought, and not just celebrating his political or social activities.

Held begins, as Heschel did, with the concept of wonder, which he explains as the ability to recognize and respond to the God who calls on us to share His dreams and work with Him to make this a better world. He explains that for Heschel, God is the very opposite of the Unmoved Mover of Greek Philosophy. He is the “Most Moved Mover,” the One who transcends Himself in order to reach out to man, and who calls upon man to transcend himself in order to respond to God.

Heschel lived through what was perhaps the most barbaric and demonic period in all of human history. He lived in Germany during the years when the Nazis rose to power, and he lost much of his family in the Holocaust, and so he knew the ability of egotism and selfishness to wreak havoc on humanity. He saw the dehumanizing effects of scientism up close, and so he argued for an awareness of the holy dimension of life, and for the need to control the self for the sake of that which is more than the self.

The unique barbarism of our time, Heschel believed, stems from unlimited self-assertion and from callousness to the call of God. The only hope for humanity lies, he believed, in a rediscovery of wonder and a renewed openness to demands that come from beyond us. As he put it, “There must be a counterpart to the immense power of man to destroy. There must be a Voice that says No to man, a voice not vague, faint and inward, but equal in spiritual might to man’s power to destroy.”

Held’s study of Heschel is meticulous and careful. Unlike some of the others who have written about him, his is not a work of uncritical adulation, but an honest wrestling with what is valid in Heschel’s work and what needs greater clarification.

The purpose of this book is to make the insights of Heschel clear for a new generation. The first chapter, on wonder, speaks about the sense of radical amazement that is, for Heschel, the response to the awareness of the gift of life. The second chapter, on religious anthropology, sets Heschel within the context of the religious thinkers of his time and ours. The third chapter, which Held calls “On revelation and co-revelation,” struggles with the issue of the role and the limitations of human beings in the understanding of God’s word. The fourth chapter deals with the concept of the Divine Pathos, God’s ability to transcend Himself and to empathize with us, which is central to Heschel’s understanding of God. The fifth deals with Divine Silence, and the question of how can we hold on to faith despite the evil that we see in this world. The final chapter deals with prayer, not only as a moment for self-expression, as we usually think of it, but as a moment for self-transcendence, as a moment for opening ourselves up to the God who seeks our partnership. In each of these chapters, Held not only teaches Heschel’s ideas and clarifies them when necessary, but also occasionally challenges them.

This is an important book for everyone who wants to understand one of the most significant religious thinkers of modern times. It brings the man whom Reinhold Neibuhr described as “one of Eastern Europe’s greatest spiritual gifts to America” to the attention of a new generation, which needs his warning and his vision.

“Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence,” by Shai Held. Indiana University Press, 2013. 332 pages. $30.