Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence
by shai held
indiana, 352 pages, $38.95

Few modern theological personalities have been as widely loved as the inimitable Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. It takes a unique soul and a special voice to exhilarate at once Jew and Christian, conservative and liberal, scholar and layman. The spiritually thirsty of all stripes have found nourishment in his teachings. “Grandeur, audacity, radiance,” wrote Fr. Neuhaus, “that was ­Heschel.”

Heschel’s enduring popularity has earned for his writing a considerable secondary literature. You have your reader’s guide introductions, your scholarly investigations, your biographies, devotional meditations—throw in a selected works collection or two and you’ve got yourself a satisfying day at the beach. But abundance does not in itself meet all needs: Too much of the existing commentary on Heschel, Shai Held laments, ­collapses into “either uncritical adoration or overly facile dismissal”: Loyalists praise and exalt without pause, critics dismiss and deride out of hand. And so Held, a recently minted Harvard Ph.D. and the dean of Yeshivat Hadar (a non-denominational Jewish seminary in New York), aims to fill the gap with a treatment both “genuinely sympathetic and unapologetically critical.” Simply put, Held’s mission is to take Heschel seriously.

For many, the virtue of ­Heschel’s writing lies less in its proposi­tional content than in its electrifying spiritual lyricism and personal resonance—its incomparable capacity to set readers’ souls aflame. Those less charitably inclined cite the same qualities in dismissing Heschel’s writing as mere poetry, mere liturgy, or else just a “fountain of devotional aphorisms and lapidary formulations”; serious thinking, however, it is not. Others, of course, are more candid: Held quotes one critic’s caustic observation that “on reading Heschel, one gets the impression that inconsistency is not only tolerated but is made a virtue.” This is a representative complaint.

What is needed, Held counsels, is an approach that gives due regard to Heschel’s poetic dynamism—he is “emphatically not a systematic philosopher who just happens to write beautifully”—without ignoring the intellectually substantial reasoning at its foundation: “Heschel does seek to move his readers, but he does not seek merely to move them.” Held appeals here to Karl Rahner’s concepts of ­poetic theology and mystagogy, modes of theological discourse whose business is not only to analyze and clarify, but to enliven, awaken, and inspire. For Rahner, religiously fruitful theo­logy “must not speak only in abstract concepts about theological questions, but must also introduce people to a real and original ­experience of the reality being talked about.” It follows that to ask “­whether Heschel is a philosopher or a poet” is to posit a false dichotomy; Heschel, Held insists, is “a theologian and a poet, and to some extent he is the latter precisely because he is the former.” And he ought to be read that way.

Held’s first order of business is to engage Heschel’s thought with the kind of “sustained critique” it has so rarely received but so eminently deserves. Central among Heschel’s preoccupations is the role of wonder and “radical amazement” as the foundation of all genuine religious, moral, and indeed human experience. We moderns have come to take the world for granted, isolating ourselves in shells of indifference, ignoring any intimation that the universe might be more than a set of objects for our exploitation.

This indifference is the root of our day’s unprecedented human crimes and calamities, and, if we do not soon recover our spiritual bearings, the source of untold perils to come. (Students of C. S. Lewis, Martin Buber, Hans Jonas, Aldous Huxley, Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, Karol Wojty?a, and of course Martin Heidegger, to name a few, will find they are on familiar territory here.) Cocooned in artificial worlds governed by egocentric utility and mechanistic, ­value-allergic calculation, we moderns lose touch with that which transcends us and thereby compromise our faith, morality, and humanity. The hallmark crisis of modernity is the comprehensive eclipse of ­transcendence.

For Heschel, and in contrast to the unyielding theocentrism of thinkers like Karl Barth, natural human experience itself contains a genuine premonition of God; regarding the world with due wonder, man instinctually grasps the allusiveness of all worldly beings to something higher, beyond. Trees, rocks, oceans, the sky, and the sheer reality of existence all sing the praises of him whose concern they express—we have only to open our ears. If we do, we will find God, and we will, in realization of our natural humanity, form our lives in awe, love, and worship. Authentic belief in God is not the product of logical reasoning but the immediate result of living experience:

The certainty of the realness of God does not come about as a corollary of logical premises, as a leap from the realm of logic to the realm of ontology, from an assumption to a fact. It is, on the contrary, a transition from an immediate apprehension to a thought, from a preconceptual awareness to a definite assurance, from being overwhelmed by the ­presence of God to an awareness of His existence.

Far from a leap beyond the evidence, to assert that “God is” dramatically understates the reality of our awareness. It is an insight, not an inference.

Here Held begins his interrogation in earnest. Is Heschel’s claim, he asks, to be taken simply as a description of personal religious phenomenology—to the man of faith, the reality of God is an unquestionable given—or, as it would appear to be, an argument intended to persuade the unconvinced? Is there a truth here, some proposition that Heschel is aiming to demonstrate? Or are we to take his writing as confessional poetry and no more? As a full-fledged epistemological argument, Held avers, the reasoning “obviously fails, essentially sidestepping a question by re-asserting a conviction.” If the problem is the uncertainty of God’s existence, it is of no rational help to shout one’s ­certainty louder.

Held sees this as a ubiquitous feature of Heschel’s thought: “He raises epistemological questions again and again, only to invalidate them or swat them away,” with the result of a “double-edged deficiency in his writing—he neither fully repudiates epistemological criteria nor successfully meets them.” Heschel rejects out of hand the possibility that his own spiritual experiences are personally or culturally conditioned, and categorically condemns those whose ­experiences supposedly differ as dishonest, arrogant, or at best foolish. At its passional height, Heschel’s writing is less reasoned argument than authoritarian pronouncement.

A charitable critic, Held labors to reevaluate the nature of Heschel’s project: “[His] formulations are so extreme that we ought to stop and ask what he is trying to accomplish with such statements. . . . Are they meant as straightforward declarations of his position, or as rhetorical attempts to shake his readers free of their assumptions, to jolt them into another quality of awareness?” While careful to avoid saying that Heschel “does not mean these dramatic declarations at all,” Held does favor an interpretation in terms of hyperbolic excess: Overwhelmed by modern man’s near-total callousness to faith, ­Heschel feels himself “out of options, as it were” and so elects a kind of rhetorical counteroffensive as a last resort.

The result: “One of the fundamental problems in Heschel’s writing is that he . . . cannot always distinguish between an argument for faith and a description of faith. . . . This methodological confusion—the lack of clarity about what he is or is not doing—contributes greatly to those moments where he descends from forceful and compelling to dogmatic and shrill.” If Held’s aim was to show that, contra appearances, ­Heschel’s writing is not only spiritually but also intellectually compelling, it seems the results may have, by his own lights, fallen somewhat short of his ­ambitions.

Heschel’s corpus is massive, varied, and freewheeling—“systematic presentation was not his forte.” His lyrical prose ranges widely across and beyond disciplines and genres. Yet Held claims that, in contrast to the work of contemporaneous Jewish luminaries like Martin Buber and Joseph Soloveitchik, Heschel’s ­theology is notable for its “exceptional coherence and consistency” and its “remarkable stability over time.” In this spirit, Held argues that the motif of self-transcendence, the call to open ourselves to that which is beyond ­ourselves, is throughout the ­animating and organizing core of ­Heschel’s thought.

Sustained focus on this theme, therefore, offers a “fresh perspective on what ultimately underlies and unifies Heschel’s various writings.” Religious awareness is the result of selfless receptiveness to the world’s voice; genuine ethical regard a function of the self’s openness to the existential other; prayer an exercise in realizing that God, not the personal self, is the world’s true center; and so on. The whole of Heschel’s literary career, Held explains, may be fruitfully read as an extended meditation on the motif of self-transcendence.

The insight is powerful. But are Heschel’s articulations of self-transcendence sufficiently substantial to ground, as Held says, a “lucid and consistent interpretation of Judaism”? Held is persistently emphatic that Heschel’s understanding of self-transcendence does not involve the kind of total self-annihilation found in the work of mystical writers like ­Evelyn Underhill and Thomas Merton. Heschel cautions that “elimination of the self is in itself no virtue. . . . Regard for the self is not evil.” Ultimately, “A man entirely unconcerned with his self is dead.” Maintaining a strong individual self is essential because God desires genuine covenantal partnership with man, not mere lordship. Judaism, for Heschel, is about joining our interests with God’s in forging a common mission and destiny.

Yet Heschel’s formulations often take a less conciliatory turn. In prayer, he says, “I leave the world behind as well as all interests of the self.” It is by assuming that “the self is not the hub but a spoke, neither its own beginning nor its own end” that we may come to affirm the possibility of “eliminating self-regard” (here Held ­acknowledges that this is “­uncharacteristically strong language for Heschel”). And generally statements like “In prayer we shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender” suggest more of a unilateral arrangement than a covenantal, two-party solution.

Doubtless Held would insist that these inconsistencies are best taken as the effects of hyperbole, the words at times exceeding their intended meaning in a desperate attempt to shake the reader from spiritual paralysis. But the de facto result is that Heschel’s thinking on self-transcendence is less than fully transparent. Precisely how, in the end, ought the individual integrate self-interest with full-hearted devotion to the divine Other? Does it depend on the particular type of self-interest? Or is it a matter of proportion? Perhaps self-regard and self-transcendence can somehow reinforce rather than antagonize each other?

The point is not that Heschel would not have answers to these questions, but that we have yet to see a sustained, systematic effort to clarify them. Here, as often, in place of reasoned demonstration we have impassioned assertion; instead of perspicuity we have alluring allusion; rather than proof and explanation we receive song and exaltation. Or, as Held more pithily puts it, “Heschel is keenly aware that his task may well be better served by the evocative mode than by the argumentative.” That is all fine and well, of course, but then if Heschel, ­Rahner, and Held are right, we justly look for more than poetry from our poetic theologians. 

Alex Ozar is a fellow at the Tikvah Fund.

Articles by Alex Ozar