Search results for Rabbi Shai Held
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?
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.
Biblical Sound a Fitting End to Year of Anguish
Rabbi Shai Held's article on Rosh HaShanah in the Daily Forward, on Wednesday, September 24th, 2014. You can read it below or on the Forward's website.
An almost impossibly difficult year is coming to an end, and a new one, filled with new hope and new possibility, is upon us. As we do each year on Rosh Hashanah, we will stand together and listen to the piercing cries of the shofar. This year more than ever, it’s important that we stop and consider just what the sounds of the shofar signify.
The Torah refers to Rosh Hashanah as Yom Teruah, a day of teruah. In attempting to explain just what teruah means, the Talmud translates it as yevava, crying. The proof text from which this explanation is derived is fascinating — one might even say shocking: the Talmud derives the idea that teruah means crying from the tears shed by Sisera’s mother as she agonizes over the fate of her son.
Sisera was the commander of the Canaanite army and a reviled enemy of the Israelites. Yael eventually kills him by driving a tent peg through his head. There was never any love lost between the Israelites and this military figure, and the Bible never doubts that Yael’s killing him was just. And yet, his mother’s anguish registers so deeply that we hear her sobs year after year after year, every time we hear the shofar blast.
A midrash offers another basis for associating the cries of the shofar with the cries of a frightened mother. When Isaac returns home after he is bound for sacrifice by Abraham he tells his mother what his father had done to him. She asks, “Were it not for the angel’s intervention, would you have been slaughtered?” and he answers simply, “Yes.” At that moment, the midrash says, she lets out six cries and then dies — and those cries are the basis of our shofar blasts today. Here again, the blowing of the shofar conjures the experience of a mother terrified for the well-being of the child she loves.
In another version of the story, an angel approaches Sarah as Isaac is bound upon the altar and tells her what is about to happen, adding that Isaac is currently weeping and screaming. Sarah cries — and those cries, we are told, are the basis of our shofar blasts. Note the subtle difference between the two stories: In the first one, Sarah sees Isaac and knows that he has been saved; in the second, she has every reason to assume he is about to die. She cries from the utter horror that perhaps his life is ebbing away even as she and the angel speak.
The cries of the shofar correspond to the sobs of a frightened, grieving mother — whether Isaac’s or Sisera’s. A chasm divides Isaac and Sisera: Isaac is one of the patriarchs of the Jewish people — a bit hapless perhaps, but remembered as fundamentally good and righteous; Sisera, on the other hand, is an enemy and an oppressor of the Jewish people. And yet Jews come together each year to listen to the cries of both mothers, Isaac’s and Sisera’s. As the late Rabbi Yehuda Amital wrote, “There are countless differences between Sarah our matriarch and Sisera’s mother. Yet despite the worlds that divide them, there is one thing they have in common… the natural terror a mother feels for her son.”
Holding these two mothers together in memory is crucial, because at this late date, when so much blood has been shed and so many dreams shattered, perhaps the anguished cries of parents afraid of losing their children is the only thing that can actually bring people together.
No matter our political persuasion, no matter our sense of what military response is necessary at any given time, one thing ought to remain clear: It is never a crime, never an act of treachery, to hear the cries of the mother of one of our enemies. We are invited — required, in fact — to do just that on Rosh Hashanah. If we are obligated to hear the cries of the mothers of our sworn enemies, how much the more so the cries of mothers of those innocents killed in the crossfire.
I have said nothing here about just and unjust war, about possibilities or perils in charting a way forward in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; I leave all that for another day. I simply want to remind us that at some level, the cry of a parent is the cry of a parent. If we cannot hear those sobs, then let us cry for our own humanity.
Implicit in all this is a simple yearning: Maybe one day, when all other options have been exhausted, it is the shared fear of parents that will yet bring us together. Perhaps. when all hope seems to be lost, Isaac’s mother and Sisera’s will show us the way forward.
In a well-known teaching, the Talmudic Sage Shammai instructs us to “receive every person with a warm smile (be-sever panim yafot). Going further, Rabbi Yishmael teaches that we must “receive every person with joy.” Taken together, the two statements invite us to integrate how we are on the outside with who we are on the inside. Ideally, at least, we greet people warmly because we have genuinely warm feelings towards them. No one I have ever known embodied this virtue more deeply than my dear friend Rabbi David Ellenson, who passed away yesterday, leaving the entire Jewish community bereft of one of its most beloved leaders. David saw people, and more than that, he made people feel seen.
There is a great deal one could say about David Ellenson the scholar, who blazed a trail in the study of Modern Orthodoxy, and who brought a keen eye to many aspects of modern responsa literature; or about David Ellenson the institutional leader, who managed to run a major Jewish seminary with unmitigated and unfailing menschlichkeit. But the first thing one should say about David, I think, is that he was a beautiful person who really cared about people, who valued and nurtured them, and who wanted them to be and contribute all that they possibly could. And for that reason, it is no exaggeration to say that David was a role model for thousands of people.
David was big-hearted and generous. Nahmanides (Ramban) teaches that to love our neighbor is to want all good for them and to want only the good for them. I don’t know how else to say this: David was a paragon of loving our neighbor. He was noncompetitive, and he was always generous with a kind word or a warm compliment. You always left a conversation with David confident that he believed in you, that he was sure you had something significant to say or give. None of this was a show: he simply embodied the Jewish idea of ayin tovah, a kind and generous way of seeing others.
David was large, and no institution or movement could contain him. On the one hand, he was a committed Reform Jew, as he told me countless times. Yet on the other hand, if you cared about Torah and the Jewish people, you were part of his community, one of his people. Denominational boundaries, institutional rivalries– David’s heart and mind transcended all of that. That is reflected in the fact that countless leaders in the Jewish community– Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, post-denominational, or whatever– saw him as a mentor, a guide, and a fellow-traveler. When we founded Hadar, David was enthusiastic, unflaggingly supportive, and always willing to offer advice or encouragement. We consider it an honor that he was our teacher and our friend.
The late Rabbi Morton Leifman loved to say: “Soak it up, damn it!” David soaked up life. He took so much joy from learning something new, reading something stimulating, having a surprising conversation, and hearing about other people’s dreams and aspirations. That’s the David I hope the Jewish community will always remember: a person who found such delight in Torah, in the honest exchange of ideas, and in the simple art of human relationships.
May his memory be a blessing to us all.