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Thinking Out Loud

An Artist of Wonder: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

by Michael Jinkins | Jan 25, 2016

HeschelAll my best ideas I've stolen. Usually from my friends. So it was that I stole my friend Ted Wardlaw's idea of asking our faculty "surprise questions" at the dinners we host twice a year for prospective students visiting our campus.

In one of those dinners a few years back, I asked our faculty, "Of all the theological figures from the past, with whom would you most like to spend an evening conversing?" Among the people who got a vote were John CalvinKarl Barth and Mother Teresa. But at least four professors (myself included), each from very different scholarly disciplines, selected one person: Abraham Joshua Heschel (pictured).

I never knew Abraham Heschel personally. He died in 1972, the year I graduated from high school. Yet, from my days in seminary, his wisdom has remained a touchstone for my thought and life.* My high regard for Heschel is far from unique. He continues to exert a tremendous influence on people from across the spectrum of faiths.

What is it about Rabbi Heschel that causes him to be revered, honored and beloved by persons of so many different faith traditions over forty years after his death?

In the introduction to a recent anthology of Heschel's thought, its editor, Samuel Dresner, provides at least a partial answer to this question, reminding us of the breadth of soul of this remarkable person. Ten days prior to Rabbi Heschel's death, Dresner tells us, in an interview with NBC, he addressed young people saying: "Remember that there is meaning beyond absurdity. Know that every deed counts, that every word is power. … Above all, remember that you must build your life as if it were a work of art. …" This advice from a man who, the very day before he died (nine days after giving this interview), stood in the snow before a federal prison adding the final brushstrokes to his own work of art, "waiting for the release of a friend, a priest, who had been jailed for civil protest." [Abraham Joshua Heschel, I Asked for Wonder, edited with an introduction by Samuel H. Dresner (New York: Crossroad, 2014), 9.]

As I sit here, near dusk on a mid-winter Sabbath, Heschel's classic study of the Sabbath beside me, I recall why I came to love Heschel in the first place. Here was a scholar, a teacher and a faith leader who, like a prophet of the Old Testament, did not believe that spirituality and social concern are polar opposites that need to be reconciled but are essential aspects of the same character, the love of neighbor flowing naturally and necessarily from our wholehearted love of God. Heschel believed deeply that either God is all-important or not important at all. And his devotion to God led him to claim people the world over as God's children and his neighbors. As Dresner notes, when Heschel died there were two books at his bedside: one a classic of Hasidic spirituality, the other a study of the war in Vietnam. "The combination was symbolic," writes Dresner in his introduction. For Christians, Jews and Muslims, as well as practitioners of other faiths in this tragically torn world, perhaps there is no better example of a person convinced that humanity "dwells on the tangent of the infinite, within the holy dimensions; that the life of [humanity] is part of the life of God." (Heschel, Wonder, 10-11.)

In a time when people are bewitched by the accumulation of the things that consume their lives, when we feel threatened by the very forces of violence that promise to give us security, and when those who compete to lead us speak out of the emptiness of their own lust for power, Heschel's voice is more than prophetic, it is sane. And it is a sanity which recognizes that the world in which we live is not a mere accident but an act of God, and that this God is both merciful and just. As Heschel's daughter, Susannah, said in an interview in the Catholic magazine, America, in 2007: "For my father, religion may begin with a sense of mystery, awe, wonder and fear, but religion itself is concerned with what we do with those feelings. … God poses a challenge to go beyond ourselves and it is precisely that going beyond, that awareness of challenge, that constitutes our being." (Doris Donnelly, “Lovingly Observant: An Interview with Susannah Heschel,” America, June 18, 2007. Accessed December 13, 2015. http://americamagazine.org/issue/618/article/lovingly-observant.)

Reading the new anthology assembled by Dresner, as good as it is, only whetted my appetite to go back to Heschel's classics. I started with Rabbi Heschel's magisterial two-volume study of the prophets of ancient Israel, where I came across this passage:

"Others may suffer from the terror of cosmic aloneness, the prophet is overwhelmed by the grandeur of divine presence. He is incapable of isolating the world. There is an interaction between [humanity] and God which to disregard is an act of insolence. Isolation is a fairy tale.... The prophet's word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven." [Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper, 1962), Vol. 1, p. 16.]

And in what is possibly the most remarkable textbook ever written for the study of philosophy of religion, Heschel confronts us, not with chapters on abstruse and abstract ideas of speculation, but with subject matter that places us in the bull’s-eye of obligation, such as: "The awareness of grandeur," "philosophy begins in wonder," "the mystery within reason," "to be is to stand for," "the problem of the neutral," and "needs are not holy." [Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951).]

Of course, I had to return to The Sabbath, a book that by the sheer power of its evocation of the beauty of God's purpose for humanity puts to shame every pale attempt we make to construct our little imitation "sabbaths" and "sabbaticals." Just a sample must do, as when Heschel writes in this amazing book:

"For where shall the likeness of God be found? There is no quality that space has in common with the essence of God. There is not enough freedom on the top of the mountain; there is not enough glory in the silence of the sea. Yet the likeness of God can be found in time, which is eternity in disguise. The art of keeping the Sabbath day is the art of painting on the canvas of time the mysterious grandeur of the climax of creation." (Abraham Joshua. Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951), 16.]

Few theologians of the twentieth century were better prepared to speak to the modern human condition. Heschel was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1907. He was, as one biographer has said, "a prince among Hasidim," the successor to Martin Buber in Frankfurt, arrested and deported from Germany in 1938 by the Nazi regime, and eventually arriving in America where he flourished at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City for the remainder of his life. With a voice tempered by human loss and divine hope, Heschel taught and wrote against the backdrop of the Shoah that had devastated his own people, the rise of nuclear armament that threatened the entire world, and the raging wars of post-colonialism. It was, in part, because of Heschel's influence that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. joined the anti-Vietnam War movement. He suffered greatly, at times, because of some of the positions he took. Yet, his involvement in the political world was integral to his faith in God. He knew personally the high social cost that must be paid if persons of faith and good will refuse to stand against evil.**

Drawing this blog to a close is much more difficult than usual. Once one begins, there is so much from Heschel's thought and life one wants to share. But I shall close by returning to Dresner's fine brief introduction to the new anthology. Dresner tells the story of visiting Abraham Heschel in his apartment in New York City when the rabbi was recovering from a heart attack. Quietly, and with great difficulty, Heschel spoke to Dresner about the inevitability of death, and the fact that he was ready and willing to offer his life back to God. "Take me, O Lord," Heschel said, not in despair or resignation, but with great joy. "I have seen so many miracles in my lifetime. … That is what I meant when I wrote [in the preface to his book of Yiddish poems]: 'I did not ask for success; I asked for wonder. And you gave it to me.' "

Perhaps, of all the gifts we may pray from God, this is the greatest. May we all ask not for success, but for wonder.


*One of the most joyful activities of my ministry as a young pastor was to help organize, together with Christian and Jewish leaders in Dallas, Texas, an event honoring Heschel's memory some ten years after his death. Byron L. Sherwin, author of the small volume on Heschel for the Makers of Contemporary Theology series published by John Knox Press in 1979, spoke for that event. And one of my greatest joys as a scholar was being asked by Heschel's Dutch publishers to allow an essay I had written on wonder in the presence of the Holy to serve as the foreword to a new edition of Heschel's writings in the Netherlands.

**Biographical information in this paragraph is principally drawn from Byron Sherwin's book, mentioned above, pp.1-8; also of value was the introductory note Heschel himself wrote for his posthumously published book, A Passion for Truth (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973), viii-xv.

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