The Heschel Exchange, Part 1: Rabbi Shai Held in conversation with Shmuel Rosner

Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Op-Eds by Faculty

Rabbi Shai Held's first exchange with Shmuel Rosner was featured in the Jewish Journal on October 1st, on the topic of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. You can read this below.

A great Jewish thinker and a victim of his own eloquence

Dear Rabbi Held,

Your new book examines a transformative figure in 20th century American Judaism, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. In the forward you mention there is a lack of well balanced critical literature on Heschel's thought. I'll keep my introductory question simple - what are the main misconceptions about Heschel's thought which you sought out to rectify, and what kind of thinker can we expect to find at the end of your reassesment?




Dear Shmuel,

Let me first explain a bit about the critical literature.  There has been an unfortunate tendency among readers of Heschel either to dismiss him or to worship him.  I wanted to write a book that in a deep sense shows Heschel more respect than either his detractors or his admirers tend to. 

First, his detractors: one often hears it said that Heschel is “a poet rather than a philosopher,” that he is a master of the epigram but that there is no coherent body of thought underneath the heart-stirring prose.  I sought to show that this is a misapprehension of Heschel, and a bad one at that.  Heschel is a not a poet rather than a philosopher; he is a poet at least in part precisely because he’s a philosopher.  He thinks the problem that modern men and women face is that we are totally closed off to the transcendent, that we live entirely confined within what Charles Taylor has called an “immanent frame.” But Heschel is also aware that you cannot argue people into an intuition; you have to show them that somewhere, albeit somewhere dormant and buried, they already share that intuition—or could, if they peeled away their callouses.  So Heschel’s project as a writer is not just to convince but also to evoke and elicit—and in order to accomplish that, poetry is far more effective than prose.  One also hears people say that Heschel is “just a poet,” to which I can imagine Heschel responding: the “just” in that sentence reveals such spiritual impoverishment, as if dry, discursive prose were somehow a higher mode of speaking and thinking than poetry.  (Rilke, too, was “just a poet.”)  But in any case, Heschel is not “just a poet,” he is also a profound theologian, an important critic of modernity, and a bold and compelling interpreter of the Jewish tradition.

As for his admirers: many people who are taken with Heschel begin to imagine that he is a flawless hero, a figure to be worshiped rather than wrestled and engaged with.  I recently mentioned to a serious scholar of Heschel that his book contains not a single word of criticism.  His response?  “There is nothing there to criticize.”  This is a bizarre view to take of any thinker, in my view, and in my estimation treating Heschel as he wanted to be treated—as a philosopher of religion and a theologian—and engaging with his ideas rather than just summarizing and interpreting them is a much higher form of respect than aspiring to be his Hasid.

In many ways, Heschel has been the victim of his own eloquence.  At first glance, this might seem like a strange thing to say, given how much his books and ideas have meant to so many people.  But what I mean is that Heschel writes so beautifully that many rabbis and educators have turned him into a kind of Jewish Bartlett’s Book of Quotations.  They go to the shelf, find a line that touches them deeply, and they’re off to the races.  There is nothing inherently wrong with that—it is a tribute to Heschel that his work repays that kind of reading.  But one of the negative consequences of this phenomenon is that it is quite rare for people to work to uncover the deep structure of his thought.  I took that as the first project of my book—to show what Heschel is doing as a thinker and to demonstrate how his thinking holds together (and, of course, to probe the places where it doesn’t).

Heschel made that situation worse for himself because he was, to say the least, not a linear writer.  The work of reconstructing Heschel’s thought into a coherent whole is a serious undertaking, and it requires reading his corpus again and again, pulling from here and from there, until a more orderly picture begins to emerge.  (As I worked on the book, I often found myself thinking about the dictum of the Talmudic Sage R. Nehemiah: “The words of Torah are sparse in one place, and enriched in another.”)  There are dangers to such an approach—a synchronic reading runs the risk of missing or flattening changes over time, but on the whole, I think Heschel’s writing shows remarkable consistency over the course of his career, and hence this seems to me to be not only a defensible reading strategy but also, if one really wants to grasp the depth of Heschel’s thought, a necessary one.

Let me say two things about misapprehensions of Heschel’s thought.  First, Heschel is often held up as a liberal Jewish lion, the hero of Jewish political activism.  And he was indeed a powerful voice for justice and goodness—for Soviet Jews, for African-Americans, etc. (Were one to collect the dozen or so most iconic photographs of the American Jewish experience, the picture of Heschel marching with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the bridge in Selma, would surely qualify.)  And yet, if we seek to understand Heschel, it is important that we resist the temptation to secularize him, either explicitly or implicitly.  The primary concern of Heschel’s life, the axis around which everything else rotates, is God.  He is theocentric—that is, focused on God—in the extreme.  Heschel does not say, “Work for justice”; he says, in effect, because this is what he insists the prophets are saying, “Serve God.  And since God seeks justice, you must, too.”  In his own own words: “Since the prophets do not speak in the name of the moral law, it is inaccurate to characterize them as proclaimers of justice.  It is more accurate to see them as proclaimers of God’s pathos, speaking not for the idea of justice, but for the God of justice, for God’s concern for justice.”  In this regard, Heschel’s words can serve as a powerful critique of American Jewish discourse in two ways: first, in the face of an American Jewish community which finds it so difficult to talk about God, he places the question of God front and center.  When he says that “a Jew without God is obsolete,” he is laying down a profound challenge to the American Jewish status quo, to much of the community’s ways of thinking and talking about Judaism and Jewishness.  One need not necessarily accept Heschel’s profound God-centeredness, but one should not simply elide it.  And second, his insistence on God’s radical concern with ethics, on God’s insistence that indifference to the suffering of others is the highest crime against God, pushes back against those theologians who think that one properly serves God by being willing to sacrifice or abandon one’s moral intuitions. 

I often hear it said that Heschel is just Hasidism in English.  This, it seems to me, is far too superficial and simplistic a statement.  From the Hasidic milieu in which he grew up, Heschel absorbed a sense of the piercing reality of God’s presence—God was right there, calling, beckoning, and ever-present.  (Sometimes I think Heschel’s greatest obstacle in addressing American Jews where they were was that he could not really understand their secularity from the inside.)  And yet some ideas that are crucial to Hasidism Heschel rejects outright, most prominently the idea that human beings can achieve mystical union with God.  For Heschel, God is God and people are people (that is, they are not God), and although people can attain great intimacy with God, their identity never merges with God.  In this sense, Heschel is first and foremost a biblical theologian—I think his understanding of Hasidism is actually filtered through a primary commitment to the Bible.  For the same reason, by the way, he would have no time for Jewish pantheism.  After all, if Genesis 1 teaches one thing, it is that God created the world, and that the world is not God.  The world is God’s, but it is not God.  For Heschel, that distinction makes all the difference in the world.

Reading my book, one will encounter a thinker who thinks that the modern world has gone badly awry, that it has drawn out all of humanity’s worst impulses—our selfishness, our egotism, our indifference to other people’s suffering, and our proclivity to value things (and people) only to the extent that we can use them.  One will meet a figure who is entirely convinced that the Bible represents a powerful alternative to the ills of modernity, in that it affirms the inviolable metaphysical dignity of every human being and shifts our focus away from the question of how the world can serve me to the question of how I can best serve. 

Heschel sets himself the Herculean (some would say Sisyphean) task of restoring to modern men and women their openness to the transcendent; he challenges us to wrestle with the God of the Bible and with the idea that we are commanded to care for and see those who are cast off and abandoned; he reminds us— this is the central thesis of my book—again and again (and again) that our egos are not the center of the universe.  There are some serious problems in Heschel’s philosophy—perhaps we can explore some of those in the next exchange—but when all is said and done, he was a giant of the spirit and a figure who still has a tremendous amount to say to us, as Jews and as human beings, as we make our way through our gloriously beautiful and horrifically broken world.