Heschel’s fundamental insight concerning God’s concern translates effortlessly into ethics; to approach the divine means re-directing the self outwardly. Heschel boldly advocated the “God of the prophets,” over and against the “God of the philosophers.” He scandalously invoked God’s human traits, God’s person, and startlingly, even God’s dependence. Held claims that the most-used phrase across Heschel’s corpus is the simple statement: “God is in need of man.” Once again, a theological commonplace – humans need God – is flipped on its head, and even identified as idolatry. Essential to human nature is the need to be needed, by one another and ultimately by God. God and humans work together in relationship. The Jews have always understood this, which is why Jewish faith focuses on covenant, or partnership.
Crucially, God’s dependence is not necessary, but voluntary taken on; God chose to work with humans in creation and redemption, and in doing so God limited God’s self. God’s self-limitation is necessary to make space for human freedom. No relationship can endure if one member holds all the power, so God surrenders some of God’s power for the sake of the humanity. God’s withdrawal from the world is thus the act of divine self-transcendence par excellence.
Humans have utterly failed to imitate God in giving up their power over one another, as witnessed for Heschel by Auschwitz and Hiroshima. The only remedy for a humanity drunk on power and destruction is transitive concern, for humans to make room for God. The act of self-transcendence cannot simply be willed, however; the redemptive insight that human life is ordered by mutuality and reciprocity rather than consumption can only come when life is seen as pure gift. This most basic religious experience which leads to God and shalom is called “the way of wonder,” and contrasted with the “way of expediency” which leads to destruction of ourselves and the earth. The beauty and wonder of the world, amazement at the very fact of existence, pushes humans beyond themselves to perceive the transcendent. When we acknowledge that we are not our own, that something is asked of us, we make divine immanence possible. God can return once again to the world.
Shai Held ably lays out the theme of wonder, as well as other important motifs such as revelation, divine pathos, the hiddenness of God, and prayer which span Heschel’s corpus. In choosing a synchronic approach, he missed the opportunity to link the Rabbi’s insights with his history, but the theological richness which results from this decision more than compensates for the loss. Always the prophet, Heschel calls all humans to participate in the prophetic vocation, not necessarily by preaching or through social activism, but simply through the act of prayer. “[J]ust as the prophet transcends and decenters himself, so, too, does the human being at prayer…. Just as the prophet shares in God’s pain, so also does the human being at prayer…. just as the prophet shatters the screens that divine God from humanity, so, too, does the human being at prayer…. in the act of prayer, each of us is enabled to participate in the ethos of prophecy” (227).