Commentary Magazine

The Wonderer

Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence
By Shai Held
Indiana University Press, 352 pages

Among the rabbinic figures of the 20th century, none looms as large for liberal American Jews as Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972). Through his strong support for the civil-rights movement and fierce opposition to the Vietnam War, Heschel seemed to be the living reconciliation between the demands of traditional Jewish theology and a universalist concern for social issues affecting non-Jews. His work spawned a generation of Jewish activists who think nothing of marshaling Jewish texts to bolster their fashionable causes.

Despite Heschel’s undeniable influence as a role model and a political activist, Shai Held is concerned that Heschel’s theological ideas have been insufficiently appreciated. In Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence, Held, a Conservative rabbi, seeks to make the case for Heschel’s contributions to Jewish religious thinking. He succeeds in distilling Heschel’s wide-ranging, idiosyncratic, and sometimes contradictory thought for the lay reader in clear and accessible prose. Most refreshing, he is unafraid to criticize aspects of Heschel’s theology that deserve censure.

For Heschel, the primary religious vantage point is “wonder”—by which he means mankind’s perception of the transcendent. The experience of wonder demands that we overcome our selfish interests and look to better the lives of others. God is our model in this regard because, according to the prophetic tradition, He enjoins us to imitate His utter lack of self-concern. “Forfeit your sense of awe,” Heschel wrote, undoubtedly speaking in part of the American Jews who constituted his primary audience, “and the world becomes a marketplace for you.”

Heschel believed that the modern era had severely diminished our capacity for wonder. The chief culprit was scientific thinking, which taught students “to measure…to weigh” rather than “to revere…to sense wonder and awe.” As a result, they had come to view their fellow human beings only as means to an end, not as sacred individuals for whom they bore responsibility. “The only question that interests them,” Heschel once said, “is whether and how the world can serve them.”

Heschel believed that modern man had also turned God into (in Held’s words) “a mere tool”—to serve, as Heschel put it, “as a guarantee for his self-fulfillment.” Such a mistaken belief, in his view, was responsible to some degree for the 20th century’s genocidal horrors. By eschewing a sense of transcendent wonder, modern man presumed himself to be “the only source and judge of value in the world.” That made him unable to develop true concern for his fellows; worse, it justified his descent into depravity.

Perhaps. But then again, perhaps not. After all, man was degrading man long before the advent of the scientific method or the theory of relativity. Throughout all of recorded history, human beings have needed little excuse, much less a diminished sense of wonder, to place their own needs above those of their fellow men.

Held wants us to view Heschel’s thought not only as a response to contemporary cultural trends but as a critique of the non-Jewish Western philosophical tradition. “Hebrew thinking,” Heschel argued, “operates within categories different from those of Plato and Aristotle.” As Held explains Heschel’s thinking, the ideas that grew out of Greek philosophy led to the conception of a divine order that does not interest itself in the fate or condition of human beings. “The God of the philosophers,” Heschel said, “is all indifference.” Heschel believed that by associating the divine with calm detachment, the Greeks ruinously elevated reason at the expense of empathy. By contrast, in Heschel’s view, humanity is the only concern of the God of Israel—and since we are to act in his image, we are required to overcome our tendency toward excessive self-concern.

But there is another logical inconsistency in Heschel’s thought here. For he also believed it was far from clear how we are supposed to interpret God’s demands. According to Held, Heschel thought that the divine will was forever “shrouded in mystery.” While holy writ records God’s concern for mankind, it does not and cannot perfectly transmit His will. Heschel counseled against viewing the Bible as a fixed, inerrant text that corresponds directly with God’s intent, since mortals can never fully capture it. To Heschel, therefore, the Torah and its 613 laws are “the result of revelation,” observes Held, “rather than the very content thereof.” Even more telling, Held notes, Heschel believed that “fidelity to God may at times necessitate active resistance to his word” since “the heavenly wisdom is more profound than what the Torah contains in its present form.”

Thus, according to Heschel, Judaism demands both an acceptance of uncertainty and an unending search for meaning. How, then, is it different from any other philosophical tradition? The fact that we can even ask such a question displays a deep flaw in Heschel as a writer and thinker. He tends not to argue for his position; rather, he asserts, very grandly. As a result, he can be an unpersuasive advocate for his own views and an imperfect critic of the views of others. His entire theological project rests on a problematic foundation: He assumes that everyone experiences moments of transcendence. “The validity and requiredness of awe,” Heschel wrote, “enjoy a degree of certainty that is not even surpassed by the axiomatic certainty of geometry.” For his part, Held says Heschel “characterizes the experience as so forceful, so utterly compelling, that one cannot legitimately or coherently entertain doubts about it.”

Heschel’s penchant for grandiose claims unsupported by convincing argument leads Held to offer an impressionistic defense of his subject. Heschel’s descriptions of wonder are sometimes best read as a lyrical description of “the inner life of the person of faith.” That may have been true when it came to Heschel’s faith and, as such, may resonate with those whose faith is constructed on similar terms, but it will do nothing to convince religious skeptics or those whose practice of religion or whose core beliefs do not derive from “wonder.”

Though Held is a profound admirer of his subject’s work, his study helps explain why Heschel’s theology might not resonate with the American Jewish community as a whole, its many invocations of his memory notwithstanding. American Jews may love Heschel for his capacious liberalism, but his complaint that religion has become a solipsistic means of self-fulfillment will likely puzzle many who have no experience with Judaism’s rigor.

Similarly, Heschel’s exhortation to embrace mystery in religious life will alienate the many American Jews who seek easy answers from religion. Heschel’s Judaism provides no such satisfaction; in fact, it demands that we persist in the difficult, and always unfinished, task of interpreting God’s will. Heschel asks American Jews to put in more work than many are inclined to undertake. Despite Held’s best efforts, then, American Jews will probably always appreciate Heschel more for his activism than for his ideas.

About the Author

Judah Bellin is assistant editor of Minding the Campus.

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