Remembering Heschel: From March 10, 1973

Editors note: When Abraham Joshua Heschel died in 1972, America published an entire issue on his life and work. Among the contributors was Jacob Neusner, who here remembers a man who he says was both loved and exploited.

The Christian world knew Abraham Joshua Heschel chiefly in his roles of holy man and politician. He was a hero to the religious sector of the left, which knew nothing of the man or the intellect, but found in Heschel an evocative symbol, a kind of authentic prophet. Heschel himself fostered that impression and enjoyed the adulation of circles responsive to his political stance, even though along with the adulation came exploitation. That his trip to Selma proved a disaster to the Jewish communities of Alabama and Mississippi hardly registered within his liberal and radical constituency; they were safe at home and able to enjoy a clean conscience.

Yet I claim this side of Heschel is superficial and unimportant and will be forgotten very soon, when the issues of the day have changed. Heschels good heart and good will led him, in the 1960s, to ignore the complexities of social issues and the difficulty of discovering, in political life, the entirely moral or the entirely immoral position. Heschel followed his emotions and acceded to the styles and fads of his particular circle and political sect. It was natural. It will not matter for very long.

The Heschel that will last is in his books, and that is exactly as it should be. For Heschel spent most of his time in his study, not on the political platform or in dramatic, symbolic gestures of protest, and he was above all else a very serious intellectual. None of this shows in the public Heschel, but it will, as I said, endure.

Heschels authentic existence, not his public role as a shaman for the left, focused upon his theological and scholarly enterprise. He spent most of his life in his study. He was an exceptionally poor classroom teacher, but a brilliant teacher in the study, and as guide, counselor and friend, he raised up many disciples. In the classroom he was on the public platform, and this brought out the worst in him, a kind of second-rate academic showmanship. In his study he was fully himself, a good talker, a good listener, with wellsprings of sympathy and, above all, infinite learning.

He stood for theology in a Jewish community which does not know the importance of theology. To the Jews theology is defined in the narrowest way, as proofs for the existence of God or, at most, discussion of the nature of God. For the many larger religious questions subsumed, for Christians, under theology, the Jews have different words. They speak of Jewish thought or philosophy of Judaism, and very commonly of ideology--all of them highly secular words. Heschel insisted on calling his work theology and bravely did so in the midst of secular and highly positivistic scholars, who measured the world in terms of philological learning and thought of theology as something you do on Purim, when youre drunk. It somehow is not Torah-only philology and other safe, antiseptic subjects are Torah.

This made Heschels life as a theologian difficult and sometimes bitter. He had not only to establish the legitimacy of his endeavor and to vindicate its value, but also to do it define the work, carry it out, defend it and change the entire context in which it is to be received. No wonder he found his political role so easy. He did not have to define the task, or create the audience, or establish the occasion. He had only to come and radiate sanctity. By contrast, his everyday task was exceedingly challenging.

If you think I exaggerate, then read the reviews of his theological books. I doubt that any important theologian has found so little understanding of his task, let alone of his achievement of it, as Heschel. He was called a poet and a mystic, un-Jewish, and dismissed as a vapid rhetorician. I cannot recall a single review (though there may have been some) which both understood what he was about and offered interesting critical comment. Either he was dismissed or he was given uncritical, often unintelligent, praise.

What then did he try to do, and what makes his work of lasting importance?

Heschel attempted to create a natural theology for Judaism, a theology which would begin where people actually are, in all their secularity and ignorance, and carry them forward to Sinai. He did not define his task in cultural or philosophical terms. That is to say, he did not announce his position or his doctrine of evil. He did not evade the theological task by announcing his definition of the God-concept, as if by defining matters, you solve something. What had come before him were two sorts of Judaic theologizing.

First were scholarly accounts of the mind of the rabbis and other efforts at a historical account of what some interesting Jews have thought in the past. These accounts exhibit many conceptual flaws, but chief among them is their unrelenting historicism. So far as the scholarly theologians have a theological agendum, it is to describe what those they regard as normative have had to say. The unstated corollary is that since the biblical or Talmudic authorities indeed are authoritative, when we have found out what they said, we have an account of Jewish theology what we are supposed to affirm. That is why, in Heschels days at Jewish Theological Seminary, the course in theology consisted in Louis Finkelsteins comments on The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan, a rabbinic text probably of medieval origin, while Heschel was reduced to teaching elementary courses in medieval biblical exegesis to beginning students in the Seminarys Teachers Institute, a college-age program, but not allowed to teach his own theology in the Rabbinical School.

The second kind of theology that preceded him was done primarily by people trained in philosophy, particularly philosophy of religion, sometimes also social thought. They would posit a static, concrete, one-dimensional thing called Judaism. They would produce a set of propositions, Judaism and... statements, to show often, as in the case of Herman Cohen, that Judaism and German culture constitute the highest achievement of man. In the instance of Mordecai Kaplan, knowledge of philosophy of religion in the model of John Dewey led to abandoning the effort to think within, and through, the classical literature of Judaic religious experience, though Kaplan knows this literature and has given evidence of deeply understanding it.

Other Jewish theologians had and have a much less satisfactory knowledge of the classical literature to begin with. Heschel told me that Martin Buber, for instance, received his first copy of the Talmud from Heschel on the occasion of his 60th birthday, and thanked Heschel, saying: Ive always wanted one. For a person to claim to be a Jewish authority and not to know the Talmud is simply a contradiction in terms. Rosenzweig, much more celebrated than Heschel, exhibits a very thin Jewish education indeed, which accounts for the external, homiletical and evangelical quality in his writing. He had to convert to Judaism at a mature age. He knew why he affirmed, but he had to learn what. His writing, in contrast to Heschels, exhibits little profound learning, which probably accounts for his wide appeal to the American rabbinate.

And then there is Heschel. What is remarkable is that he knew everything he had to know to do what he wanted to do. First, let us survey simply the subjects on which he composed interesting books: the prophets, Talmudic theology of revelation, medieval philosophies (many), medieval mysticism, Hasidism, American Jewish community life, Zionism, the life of Jewish piety (Sabbath, prayerbook). In point of fact, there is not a single record of Jewish religious experience, not a single moment in the unfolding of the Jewish spirit, which Heschel did not take into his own being and reshape through the crucible of his own mind and soul. By now it should be clear to the reader that a Jewish theologian who does not know and master Jewish literature in all its breadth and variety is simply not to be taken seriously when he tells us about Judaism.

Heschel also knew the main issues of modern and contemporary philosophy of religion and followed Protestant theology. He knew and respected Tillich and Niebuhr, and they knew and respected his work. (I do not think he was equally close, in the period of his active theological work, down to the early 1960s, to any Catholic theologian, though later on, primarily on a political basis, several entered his life. I cannot find in Heschels major writings, however, an equivalent interest.) Much of Heschels theology constituted a post-Kantian exercise, through the medium of Judaic religious experience, in a solution of the problems raised by Hume and answered by Kant.

Heschels argument was intended, as I said, to move from natural to Judaic theology. He proposed further to demonstrate that this way led not merely to God or generalized religiosity, but specifically to Sinai and to Torahyet not through a leap of faith. What philosophy of religion did not attempt was the apology for the specific claims of revealed religion. What theology did not dare to do was to join natural theology to Torah. This is what Heschel proposed to accomplisha very brave venture. His argument begins in this world, with that part of men and women left untouched by the critique of the Enlightenment: emotions and responses. He reaches into the inner life and looks for those elements which, present and accepted in a this-worldly framework, speak of the next world and testify to God, to the image of God impressed upon man and woman. People exhibit the capacity for wonder and awe. How so? It means that not everything can be explained. The opposite of religion is taking things for granted. Wonder is a form of thinking, an act that goes beyond knowledge.

The next stage is to take seriously the awesomeness of our very capacity to think and to respond, to wonder: The most incomprehensible fact is the fact that we comprehend at all. Out of wonder comes awe, out of awe, wisdom: Awe is an intuition for the creaturely dignity of all things...a realization that things not only are what they are, but also stand for something absolute. Awe is a sense for the transcendence, for the reference everywhere to Him who is beyond all things. Awe precedes faith and is at its rootbut itself testifies to its implication: The ineffable is there before we form an idea of it. Yet what we affirm is the intellectual certainty that in the face of natures grandeur and mystery we must respond with awe. What we infer from it is not a psychological state but a fundamental norm of human consciousness. This I take to be the ontological response to Kant.

This mode of argumentation is striking, for it combines two things. First, Heschel looks for natural experience accessible to everyone. But second, he claims that that experience constitutes the experiential aspect of the supernatural, of Torah. Therefore all things are to be linked to the Hebrew Scriptures, to Talmudic literature, to the holy writings of Judaism, above all to the experience of Torah in life.

Heschel thus proposes to move from the shared experience of ordinary people to the distinctive truth of Torah. This constitutes his primary effort to locate the foundations of natural theology and to endow them with supernatural and revelatory meaning.

When I offered this two-stage interpretation of his thinking to Heschel, he said: Yes, youre right. But there is a third stage. I asked, What is left out? He said: I wont teIl you. Im working on it now. But youre right as far as you go.

Now, alas, we shall never know. Clearly, his theology was an exploration of ontological issues, not epistemological ones. But where he would have gone had he lived, I cannot say.

Heschel, therefore, should not be left in the hands of the politicians and the seekers after holy men. The story of his life is not what matters. Theologians and scholars should have no biographies: their work is all that matters. Heschel, to be sure, was very human, and therefore the great size, ambition and accomplishment of his work are splendid. It is the frailty of the man that makes his achievement great. His extraordinary learning was no birthright. He worked hard. His writings were not dictated into his ear by a kindly angel. He struggled. His ideas were born in anguish and intellectual daring and courage. He was tough-minded, and his was a luminous intelligence. This should not be obscured by the public, and more easily accessible, personality.

For those within the Jewish tradition, holiness comes of learning, the luminous stands before and points toward the numinous. Heschel knew this; he spent the largest part of his life in his study because he was a rabbi and knew what a rabbi was meant to be and do. In a Jewish community by and large indifferent to Judaism and hermetically closed to learning and religiosity, led by men of wealth among the laity, or of an attenuated and false, manufactured charisma among the clergy, Heschel stood for something alien and authentic. To remember him is to learn what we are not, but might become.

Mary Keelan
9 years 8 months ago
Thanks for the archive reprint. It does help to understand the current article/interview about Heschel in a context that conveys some deeper significance about the man and his thinking --what is luminous and lasting. Also appreciated is the reference to the America issue on Heschel.Readers are enriched knowing this is available and that America was "with it" then.
Mary Keelan
9 years 8 months ago
Thanks for the archive reprint. It does help to understand the current article/interview about Heschel in a context that conveys some deeper significance about the man and his thinking --what is luminous and lasting. Also appreciated is the reference to the America issue on Heschel.Readers are enriched knowing this is available and that America was "with it" then.

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