People have the habit of treating the philosopher and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel as if his work is a gift for the people who put the fortunes in fortune cookies.
Or, as Shai Held more gently puts it, “people are so swept away by Heschel’s poetry that they begin to treat him like a Jewish ‘Bartlett’s Book of Quotations.’”
It’s not that Rabbi Dr. Held doesn’t frequently find himself moved by Heschel’s writing. He does. But Rabbi Held — who graduated from Ramaz and then Harvard, has smicha from the Jewish Theological Seminary and a doctorate from Harvard, clinched with a dissertation about Heschel, and is a cofounder and the rosh yeshiva of Mechon Hadar — sees Heschel more as a theologian and a profound thinker than a poet — although he also sees him as very much a poet. Heschel, he makes clear, is complicated.
“People often react to him by either dismissing him or worshipping him,” he said. “I want to do neither. I want to engage with him.”
He’s done that in his book “Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence,” and he will talk about it Wednesday, January 25, at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston. (See box.)
“I want to bring people into Heschel’s religious and ethical world, and to use that perspective to think about what’s compelling and what might be problematic about it,” he said. “It’s an invitation to engage with one of the 20th century’s most influential Jewish thinkers — and influential not just in the Jewish world. He also has a pretty significant Christian readership.”
What will he talk about next Wednesday? Heschel’s world is wide, and Rabbi Held’s grasp of it is comprehensive. But, he said, he might “focus on the idea of wonder, and try to show why wonder is not just an aesthetic experience but an ethical and religious one. Wonder is foundational to Heschel’s understanding of what it means to be a Jew.”
Wonder, Rabbi Held explained, “is the sense that none of this had to be”; therefore, the existence of anything is a source of awe. “In this formulation, wonder is not about this fact or that fact, but to paraphrase Wittgenstein, the fact that there are facts at all.
“Why is there something rather than nothing? In Heschel’s mind, that is where religious life begins. For him, when you realize that you’ve been given something, you have an urge to repay it. So the sense of wonder comes with the sense that — to use a phrase that he loved to repeat — ‘something is asked of us.’
“It is that sense that for him gives rise to a sense of religion and ethics. Religion asks the question, ‘What does God ask of us?’ Without a sense of wonder, we essentially don’t care what is asked of us. Heschel thinks that wonder opens the door to that question.”
Rabbi Held thinks that beyond what he calls the beauty of Heschel’s poetry — and he is aware that many people are blind to its beauty, consider it to be not very good, and remain entirely unmoved by it — “there is something beautiful about a phenomenology of religious awareness. Heschel writes as a poet because that is who he is — a poet — and also he wants to evoke something in his readers.
“And Heschel’s poetry does work for a lot of readers,” Rabbi Held continued. “I continue to be amazed by the people I meet when I travel who are religious conservative or liberal, politically conservative or liberal, who tell me that ‘The Sabbath’” — Heschel’s 1951 classic — ‘made me a good Jew.’”
Heschel also was politically active.
“One of the things that is interesting and important about Heschel is that already in the 1950s he was trying to articulate a radical Jewish alternative to consumerism, materialism, and all that is broken about American society,” Rabbi Held said. “And if anything, that project obviously is even more relevant now than it was in 1955, when ‘God in Search of Man’ came out.”
Heschel’s relationship to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — Heschel famously joined King in protests — continues, coincidentally but symbolically. This year, as often happens, King’s birthday was celebrated on the same day that Heschel’s yahrzeit was marked.
“So much of America has turned Martin Luther King into a teddy bear, who told us all to get along,” Rabbi Held said. That’s a profound oversimplification of King’s life. “He was a critic of racism, militarism, and materialism, and all of them are alive now,” he continued. “Jews often turn Heschel into a teddy bear, too, but he was a brutal critic of those things that King criticized. It is one thing to turn him into a hero, but it is another to overlook the criticism. I think it would be wonderful if we could actually hear his voice.
“We have an impulse to celebrate Heschel joining King on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as if that means that we’re the good guys,” as if that bought us all permanent status on the side of justice. “But what are the contemporary struggles that people like King and Heschel would direct us to?
“It’s not that hard to figure that out.”
Rabbi Held’s next book, “Judaism Is About Love,” set to be published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux early next year, is “essentially about recovering love for Judaism,” he said. “When I travel around the country listening to Jews, I talk about God and love, and I hear them say that ‘I thought that love is a Christian idea.’
“My work is to show how fundamental love is to Jewish theology, ethics, and spirituality. In some ways it’s a logical extension of the Heschel work. It begins with the implications of gratitude for the gift of life, which in many ways is totally Heschelian. It’s occupied with the idea that the God of the Bible is a God of love.
“It’s about developing a theology of love, a spirituality of love, and an ethics of love, in a way that is both deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition and a new way of talking, put together in what I hope are new and fresh ways.”
Who: Shai Held
What: Talks about “Living a Spiritual and Ethical Life: A Vision by Abraham Joshua Heschel”
Where: At Temple Beth Shalom, 193 East Mount Pleasant Avenue, Livingston
When: On Wednesday, January 25, at 7 p.m.
Why: For Beth Shalom’s Heritage Center
What else: It’s free; reservations are appreciated. Email firstname.lastname@example.org