A Review of
Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence
Reviewed by Alden Bass
Many of us first encountered the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel through his work The Prophets, a title which, despite its 1962 publication date, continues to surface in seminaries and theology courses. Prophets was unique not only because of its vivid prose, but because in the midst of an academy ruled by historical criticism, the book returned our attention to the ancient prophets themselves, granting them new voice and making them present to us once again. Moreover, Heschel himself, with his great white Gandalf beard and oracular prose, embodied the venerable tradition of the schola prophetarum through his activism and scholarship.
Just as his scholarly work placed the prophets within their historico-political context, integrating thought and life, Heschel’s own mission exceeded the university’s walls. As a child, he fled with his family from Hitler’s Europe, and for the rest of his life he engaged tough moral questions in public. Throughout the 1960’s, Heschel was involved in the American civil rights movement, famously marching to Montgomery with Martin Luther King Jr. Heschel also participated in the anti-war movement; it was he who encouraged King to speak out against Vietnam. In ’68, the rabbi spoke at King’s funeral.
Shai Held does not delve into many biographical details in his new book, concentrating instead on his theological legacy. This is a welcome contribution: Heschel’s life story, and his association with King, is so dramatic that it’s easy to dismiss his theological achievements or reduce them to a few pithy quotes (of which there are many candidates). Even in his own lifetime Heschel was considered more of a catechist than an academic theologian, and was relegated by his colleagues at Jewish Theological Seminary to teaching in the Rabbinical school rather than the graduate school. His work belonged more to the field of “spirituality,” they thought, rather than to theology proper.
According to Held, however, this position needs to be reconsidered; in Heschel’s body of work, theology and spirituality compose a single piece. Privately, Heschel considered himself to be a prophet, or at a “prophet of the prophets,” with a mission of reorienting human life away from self-centeredness and toward God-centeredness. This is the key concept in his throughout his theological publications – self-transcendence. Heschel distinguished between “reflexive concern” – concern for one’s self and one’s future – and “transitive concern,” or concern for the interest of others. Self-transcendence is the move from self-centeredness to other/God-centeredness; in other words, transitive concern. This anthropology is based on a conception of the divine in which God is always already self-transcendent. Unlike creatures, God has no need at all for reflexive concern; God is completely free, in a way humans are not, free to love others fully and without regard for self. God is always in search of Man (as one of his book title’s states), not the other way around. Religion is not humanity’s search for the divine, but humanity’s openness to God’s a priori concern.