Tradition Today: Abraham Joshua Heschel - an appreciation

Heschel did not denigrate observance of Jewish practices, but he asked that people understand what they are intended to accomplish and not to become bogged down in religious behaviorism for its own sake.

Torah scroll (photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)
Torah scroll
(photo credit: Baz Ratner/Reuters)
 I think it would not be an exaggeration to say that no day goes by with- out news reports on religious crises. It could be a scandal concerning some rabbi or other, a problem with a law that enforces some religious practice, conversion difficulties, divorce problems, kashrut supervision, rabbinic rulings about Arabs, army service, struggles over governmental financing, control of the Kotel, elections in which secularists are pitted against extremist religious groups – you name it. Unfortunately one gets the impression that in Israel religion is a constant irritant rather than a source of strength, inspiration and challenge to lead a better way of life.
Of course that is not the whole picture. There are rabbis of all denominations who disseminate the best of Jewish learning, and families for whom Judaism is a positive value. But for the general public, the situation is often otherwise, and in many observant circles, Judaism is focused solely on observing details of practice, with little thought about the purpose of these observances.
I thought of this recently when reading Shai Held’s Abraham Joshua Heschel –The Call of Transcendence, an important new book about the writings of Heschel, of blessed memory.
Prof. Heschel was one of my teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
He was probably the most influential Jewish theologian of the 20th century, not only among Jews, but for Christians as well. He not only taught and wrote about Judaism in a series of beautiful, poetic books, but also served as a personal example to multitudes – through his active participation in the struggle for black civil rights, in the anti-Vietnam War movement, in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry, and in the support of the State of Israel during times of crisis such as the Six Day War. Reading his books was a major factor in my own decision to pursue a rabbinic career.
Held’s study of Heschel’s thought is a well-researched and long-needed volume that presents a systematic account of Heschel’s ideas, clarifying many things that are obscure or difficult to understand, pointing to both the strengths and the weaknesses of his work. It is not, however, “Heschel for beginners,” and requires a knowledge of theological fundamentals that is probably not in the grasp of most lay people. But then, that was not its purpose.
Most important for me was that this book reminded me of Heschel’s main message – namely that Judaism is a call for all of us to appreciate the world and our lives as a gift from God, to see everything through the eye of radical amazement and not to take the world for granted. For Heschel, reawakening humankind to a feeling of awe would bring us to a realization that we are called to act, that our lives have to be a response to a higher Divinity who needs us to bring the world to a better state. He calls on us to seek in the Bible and in Jewish tradition the answer to the question “What does the Lord require of you?” and to look outside ourselves to do for others and fulfill the highest ethical demands of Judaism.
Heschel did not denigrate observance of Jewish practices, but he asked that people understand what they are intended to accomplish and not to become bogged down in religious behaviorism for its own sake. For him, Judaism was not some provincial religion intended for a small and isolated group of fanatic believers, but a profound message for all of humanity.
Unfortunately Heschel is little known in Israel. Most of his works have not been translated into Hebrew and have had little impact on religious thought here, even in academic circles. It is time for that to change. But most of all, it is time for Israeli society to transcend the narrow view of religion that denies its importance and relegates it to the world of politics, government, finances and controversy. The titles of two of Heschel’s most important books say it all – Man Is Not Alone and God In Search of Man. Only by searching in Judaism for answers to the ultimate questions of life will we turn Israel into a true expression of the renaissance of Judaism, and not only a place of refuge for Jews. ■
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, is a two-time winner of the National Book Award. His latest book is The Torah Revolution (Jewish Lights).