I once gave a talk where I asked the audience: What do Heschel, Soloveitchik, and Pope John Paul II have in common? The answer is that they all used the writings of Max Scheler to defend in the modern world the role of sacred action. Heschel defended mizvot, Soloveitchik defended the halakhic man, and Pope John Paul II defended the prayer and sacraments. Scheler pointed toward the eternal nature in man that transcends the biological through the transformation process of religion on the self. Rabbi Shai Held in his new book Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence deals with the role of self-transcendence, prayer, and mizvot in Heschel’s thought- so go buy it.
Shai Held is Co-Founder, Dean and Chair in Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar. Shai has a PhD in religion from Harvard; his main academic interests are in modern Jewish and Christian thought and in the history of Zionism. His book Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence is a clear exposition of Heschel’s thought on these topic and Held, in a clear and readable manner, situates Heschel within contemporary theology and philosophy of religion.
This blog was graced by a detailed interview with Rabbi Held two years ago that allow us to see the influences on his theological thinking. Held writes a thoughtful weekly essay on the parashah here that you can subscribe to for a weekly mailing. People can sign up to receive his weekly essay on the parashah here:
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Back issues of his mailings, which only started this season, are available here. http://www.mechonhadar.org/shaiheld
There is another answer to the question: What do Heschel, Soloveitchik, and Pope John Paul II have in common? (someone actually called it out in that lecture) They were all born in Poland. Heschel was raised as a potential rebbe in the center of Polish Jewish life and went off to study poetry, aesthetics, as well as philosophy. Heschel’s personality and writings dripped heavily with real Polisher chassidus- Kotzk, Gur, and Reb Zadok. Later, when he entered the modern world, Heschel shined best as a Kotzker prophet by rising to the occasion when situated next to spiritual figures such as Hillel Zeitlin, Cardinal Bea, Daniel Berrigan, or Martin Luther King. This work dries Heschel off from the Hasidic outbursts and pietistic unpredictability in a way that will allow him to be apart of contemporary discussions of what God wants from us and what it means to lead a God centered life in 21st century America.
1) What is the main theme of your new book?
Heschel wrote: “The greatest beauty grows at the greatest distance from the ego.”
The core of my argument is that the theme that animates Heschel’s whole body of work, the thread that connects almost everything he wrote, is a preoccupation with self-transcendence. Self-transcendence, for Heschel, means that I really internalize that my ego is not the center of the universe. As he puts it, “Faith is the beginning of the end of egocentricity.” This notion of self-transcendence is closely connected to what Heschel calls “transitive concern” (as opposed to “reflexive concern”)– the care and concern that one manifests for other selves.
You can’t live if you don’t have any concern for yourself, but you can’t be fully human, Heschel insists, if you care only for yourself. In the book, I show that for him self-transcendence is the highest spiritual level a human being can reach (what medieval philosophers would have called takhlit ma’alat ha-adam). The God of Tanakh, Heschel argues, is a God of transitive concern, a God who is beyond ego and who loves widows and orphans. Worshiping a self-transcendent God, we are (or ought to be) moved to strive for self-transcendence.
Self-transcendence is key to Heschel’s understanding of just about everything that matters to him– the nature of the good, the nature of God, the meaning of revelation, the project of prayer and spirituality, and the meaning of fighting for justice on behalf of the weak and downtrodden.
2) What is Heschel’s greatest theological theme?
He affirmed a God who is personal, who loves and cares, and whose love and concern extend to all of humanity.Sometimes Jews fall into the very dangerous trap of imagining God as just a big Jew. But the God of Tanakh is a universal God, even as He enters into a unique covenant with Israel. God cannot just be domesticated into a cosmic cheerleader for the Jews.
By the way, this is an important point of contact for Heschel and the Rambam. In very different ways, both are very preoccupied with creation as a theological category, and a focus on creation obviously opens the door to a more universalistic way of thinking than does an exclusive focus on Exodus or Sinai. Both Heschel and the Rambam begin with the human as opposed to the exclusively Jewish.
3) Do you feel that you are moving Heschel vibrant sense of God’s immanence to a more of a theology of transcendence and covenant?
Heschel does have a robust sense of God’s immanence, but he insists on God’s transcendence being fundamental. God is not the world, and the world is not God. The world is God’s, but it is decidedly not God. In that sense, Heschel is ever the biblical thinker, not the mystical one. At one point, he goes so far as to say that God is “essentially transcendent and only accidentally immanent.”
All of this is connected to another fundamental question. Was Heschel a mystic? If we interpret mysticism expansively to mean the view that human beings are capable of direct encounter with God, then Heschel is definitely a mystic.
But if we interpret mysticism in the narrower sense of believing the possibility of true mystical union and the dissolution of the self in God, then Heschel is not only not a mystic, he is an anti-mystic. He is, in this sense, a covenant theologian, not a mystic. I talk about this at length in the book– the self that transcends itself, for Heschel, nevertheless remains a self, separate from but eternally connected to God. (He has no sympathy at all for pantheism or monism, whether popular or philosophical).
4) How do you envision a hypothetical Maimonides- Heschel discussion?
One of the things I think mattered to Heschel most was his attack on the way the Rambam talks about God (or, maybe better, makes talking about God impossible). Heschel agrees that theology has to emphasize God’s otherness, but an exclusive focus on divine otherness, such that we can say nothing at all about who God is, leaves us without a God who can be said to care for the oppressed– and this, for Heschel, represents a complete abandonment of the God of the Bible.
The fascinating question he raises is: why is it that whenever people think they have achieved synthesis between philosophy and revelation, you look a little closer and you realize that revelation has essentially surrendered to philosophy? At the deepest level there is no give and take. I would put this in the following way: Heschel disputes the notion that one can arrive at a synthesis between scriptural, covenantal religion, on the one hand, and abstract philosophical monotheism on the other.
I often imagine Heschel and the Rambam exchanging barbs– the Rambam accuses Heschel of being an idolator (“What do you mean, God cares?”) and Heschel retorts that the Rambam flirts with atheism (a charge Michael Wyschogrod makes more or less explicitly).
For the Rambam the enemy was idolatry, and just as Moses shattered external idols, the Rambam will shatter internal pictures of God we have in our mind. For Heschel, in contrast, the enemy is indifference, the disregard of other people’s pain and suffering.
I agree with Heschel that the idea that one can fully synthesize Amos and Isaiah with Aristotle or Plato is a fantasy. But at the most fundamental level, I think the question about Heschel’s God– the God of pathos, the God who is outraged and wounded by every act of oppression by the strong against the weak– is not whether it’s Jewishly defensible (that question is much better posed to the Rambam than to Heschel), but whether it’s metaphysically believable in this day and age.
5) Heschel was know for exclaiming things like “Gevalt, prayer is a proof for God” or “prayer is not symbolism but God himself” How does your book develop this theme?
The last two chapters of my book are about Heschel’s approach to prayer. I explore two key elements:
First, the idea that prayer is an attempt to de-center the ego, to remember that the self is not the center of the universe.
This entails a radical re-orientation: instead of asking how the world can serve me and fulfill my every want, I now begin to ask how I can serve, what God needs me to do in the world. As Heschel puts it at one point, prayer is “the least expedient, the least worldly, the least practical” thing we do. The biggest obstacle to God being present in the world is human selfishness and egocentricity. Not coincidentally, Heschel much prefers prayers of praise to prayers of petition; he is more confident that the former facilitate moments of self-transcendence than the latter.
There is another crucial element to Heschel’s vision of prayer: the idea that since God is in exile, prayer is an attempt to bring God back, to open a space in the world where God can dwell. This is what I call the spiritual discipline of enabling immanence, making a space for God in our hearts and, through that, in the world more broadly.
6) What is Heschel’s approach to Halakha?
Heschel believed that Halakha is fundamental to Jewish religious life, that it is an essential component of Avodat Hashem. But he was also passionately opposed to what he called pan-Halakhism or religious behaviorism. He insisted that a view of Judaism whereby being religious simply equals observing Halakha is a falsification of the Jewish tradition and is both morally dangerous and religiously bankrupt. There is no Halakha without Aggada (just as, he insists, there is no Aggada without Halakha), or else Halakha is just a set of rules with no larger meaning. The rules have to be about something.
But one doesn’t just need a theology; one needs to affirm a God worthy of worship. One can all too easily fall into the trap of worshiping a God who is small-hearted and small-minded. For example, a God who hates all the same people I do (as popular writer Anne Lamott so wonderfully puts it), or a God who does not love the oppressed but is instead used as a bludgeon to hurt them even further (cf. Vayikra Rabbah 32:8). One needs Halakha to be in conversation with a story, a narrative, a set of religious and moral imperatives and aspirations.
Nothing Heschel says about this is really new or revolutionary. That Jewish piety requires inwardness– one can start with Rabbenu Bachya; that the cultivation of virtue is fundamental– one should read the Rambam, Ramban, and the history of Musar; and that what God you worship matters.
Sometimes I imagine Heschel being inspired the old Hasidic canard about Misnagdim: “A hasid is a yerei shamayim, but a misnaged is a yerei shulkhan arukh.” I can imagine him saying: There is a lot of yirat Shulkhan Arukh nowadays, but how much Yirat Shamayim is there?
Implicitly, Heschel says something startling (it seems to me this should be pashut peshat, but it is anything but): you can be medakdek in a million mitzvot and still not have a clue what Avodat Hashem means. Avodat Hashem asks you to observe mitzvot, yes, but also to work on yourself to grow in love and compassion, to care for those who are vulnerable and suffering– just as God does. The Kotzker says that’s the essence of yiddishkeit– arbeitn af zikh. Who talks that way anymore?
7) How is Heschel a critic of materialistic society?
Modernity is all about homo faber, the human being who uses the world, who wants to be served rather than stepping forward to serve. The culture of technology blots out the voice of God’s command and the sense that the suffering of the other is my responsibility. Acquisitiveness, possessiveness, etc. are enemies of the spirit, and modernity only amplifies those very problematic impulses.
In brief, Heschel thinks that modernity is like acid for the capacity for self-transcendence. In general, he thinks there are two ways of carrying ourselves in the world– he calls them “the way of wonder” and “the way of expediency.” In the way of wonder, I realize that God and other people make a claim on me (probably the sentence he wrote more often than any other is “something is asked of us”), whereas in the way of expediency, I only ask how things and people (and ultimately God) can serve me. I instrumentalize the world and turn into a toolbox for the satisfaction of my own wants (the echoes of Heidegger’s critique of technology are clear).
Religion is not just another tool for my own satisfaction. God does not exist to serve me and give me everything I want; rather, God summons me and rips my selfishness to shreds.
8) Why do you think it’s important for Modern Orthodox Jews to read Heschel?
I think all Jews who are serious about piety and Avodat Hashem ought to read Heschel, because he lays down the gauntlet in the most powerful way: do you want to serve God? If Torah has not made you more compassionate, more gentle, more able to listen to the sufferings of another human being, then it is not Torah you have learned.
About Orthodoxy in particular: there is a tendency in certain circles to think that Halakha is the only thing, so much so that Halakha goes from being a core component of Avodat HaShem to being a kind of idol. Heschel provides a much-needed antidote to that form of spiritual illness and impoverishment.
Read Heschel and you are reminded again and again that Rahmana Liba Ba’ei, that God wants the heart, and that religion is about love. Love does not exclude law– ideally, in Judaism, it is thoroughly integrated with it– but law without a focus on love of neighbor and love of stranger is barren and bankrupt, plain and simple.
Modern Orthodoxy (or what used to be called that) is atheological– which is not the same thing as atheistic. It’s not that people don’t believe in God, necessarily (though there is no shortage of atheism), but that they don’t think about what that means, don’t engage with the deep questions faith raises, or they engage with theology in a childish manner. There is little meaningful theological discourse to speak of in Orthodoxy, and Heschel’s challenge is scary and threatening to many.
9) What is your next book?
I am working on two books. The first is about gratitude and compassion as the two pivots of Jewish spirituality. Along the way, I develop the argument that religion ought to teach us to live with and embrace complexity rather than seeking to dissolve it. The second is an attempt to lay out a theory of human personhood and human dignity from a Jewish perspective, with a focus on what it means to talk about human beings as images of God.