Wrestling With Heschel

Shai Held takes on the iconic rabbi’s theology and spirituality in new biography.

02/04/2014
Culture Editor
Rabbi Shai Held says his biography of Heschel is “sympathetic and critical.”  Courtesy of Indiana University Press
Rabbi Shai Held says his biography of Heschel is “sympathetic and critical.” Courtesy of Indiana University Press

When Rabbi Shai Held was a college freshman, the late Professor Isadore Twersky told his seminar class, in a moment of candor, that Maimonides had been his life companion. Rabbi Held recalls that he found the comment strange, but now, decades later, he understands. For Rabbi Held, it is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel with whom he has spent considerable time, whether reading his works, wrestling with his ideas, or teaching about him — and finding his words overwhelmingly beautiful, challenging or even infuriating.

“It has been an ongoing tempestuous love story since I first read him at yeshiva in Israel,” he says in a recent interview. Now dean and chair of Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar in New York, Rabbi Held continues to teach and ponder Heschel’s words, and has just published “Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence” (Indiana University Press).

“I wanted to write a book about someone I was in awe of, someone who would make me want to stand up when he walked into the room,” he says.

It’s a very good match. Rabbi Held praises Rabbi Heschel’s rare abilities to describe what religion looks like from the inside. And Rabbi Held is able to open up that uncommon view to readers, whether scholars or general interest readers.

Rabbi Heschel, who died in 1972, was “one of the most influential religious figures of the 20th century,” Rabbi Held says. Born in Poland, he was a scholar, theologian, activist, poet, historian and author; he was a religious teacher “in the prophetic tradition.” He may be best known for the iconic photograph of him marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King in Selma in 1965; he later said, “I felt my legs were praying.”

This new book is not so much about the person, but about his ideas and their development. Others have written biographies, and Rabbi Heschel was prolific: He’s the author of 10 books (and another volume of essays that was published posthumously), many of which are widely read and quoted.

But, as Rabbi Held explains, while Rabbi Heschel is held in the highest esteem by many Jews who know him through his books (“Man in Search of God,” “The Sabbath” and others) and quotes that have become aphorisms (“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement”), he is often dismissed by academics as too facile.

Rabbi Held set out to write a book that was both “genuinely sympathetic and unapologetically critical,” which he feels has not been done before. He urges those who don’t take Heschel seriously to go back and reread, that there’s much more there than they thought.

The theme that underlies much of Rabbi Heschel’s work is self-transcendence, the notion of shifting concern from the self to the other, from ego-centeredness to other-centeredness, as Rabbi Held writes, “to cultivate a posture of responsiveness to God and to others rather than remaining mired in the abyss of unrestrained self-assertion and self-regard.” It’s helpful, Rabbi Held explains, to think of self-transcendence as something that might be achieved in brief moments.

“The greatest beauty grows at the greatest distance from the ego.” Rabbi Held quotes this “deceptively simple sentence” that could “serve as an interpretive key for Rabbi Heschel’s entire approach to theology and spirituality.”

About Rabbi Heschel’s writing style, Rabbi Held emphasizes that not only is he so eloquent, but he’s eloquent in a language that he only learned in his 20s.

To those who would say that Rabbi Heschel is a poet rather than a theologian, Rabbi Held counters that he’s a “poet at least in part because he’s a theologian.

“One of the things I’m trying to argue in the book is not just that he writes beautifully, but writing in that mode serves one of his goals as an educator — the realization that you can’t argue someone into wonder or gratitude, you can only evoke it.”

Rabbi Held’s own writing style fits his subject. He’s clear and eloquent, attuned to capture and explicate Rabbi Heschel’s complexity.

While Rabbi Heschel wrote a lot about prayer, Rabbi Held has worked to figure out Rabbi Heschel’s theology of prayer, his sense of what a truly religious person does in the moment of prayer. For Rabbi Heschel, prayer is about having space with God, letting go of ego. He was most interested in praising God, and for him even prayers of petition became a form of praise.

“He really thinks that prayer is necessary for profound self-transcendence,” Rabbi Held says. “The key dichotomy in Rabbi Heschel is seeing the world as something to appreciate and respond to, as opposed to something to exploit — it’s wonder versus expediency.”

When asked at a recent lecture whether Rabbi Heschel was an optimist, as many believe, Rabbi Held responded that “the notion that he was an optimist disregards the depth of crisis he thought humanity was facing.” He suggests instead that Heschel was a possible-ist. “He really does believe that humans have the capacity to respond to the call of God and have the momentous capacity for self-transcendence.”

Rabbi Held also discusses Rabbi Heschel’s approach to revelation, prophecy and divine silence, and places Rabbi Heschel’s thought in the context of other theologians and philosophers. He combs through Rabbi Heschel’s books, and especially his final work, “A Passion for Truth,” about the chasidic master Reb Menahem Mendl of Kotzk (1787-1859). Heschel discovered his teachings when he was a child, and for Heschel, the Kotzker was a steady companion. Held provides a close reading of Rabbi Heschel’s very close reading of the Kotzker.

In person, Rabbi Held is rabbinic in the best sense, a wise teacher with warmth, intelligence and openness. He’s pensive as he speaks, weighing his words. For him, theology isn’t about theory and footnotes, but about how life can best be lived.

He is one of the co-founders of Mechon Hadar, an institute for Jewish prayer, personal growth and Jewish study, committed to the full equality of women. The winner of a 2011 Covenant Award for his work in Jewish Education, he has twice been named by Newsweek as one of the most influential rabbis in America. He received his rabbinical ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and has taught theology and halachah there.

Rabbi Held never met Rabbi Heschel, but his father, the late Moshe Held — in whose memory the book is dedicated — was a professor of Semitic languages and culture at Columbia and an adjunct professor at JTS, who knew Rabbi Heschel. In fact, Rabbi Heschel may have been at Shai Held’s bris, held at JTS.

Does Rabbi Held still feel as he’s walking with Rabbi Heschel?

“I feel more distance from him than at other times in my life, as I’ve gotten older and my doubts are deeper. But I’m still talking to him all the time, imagining the conversation I would have with him, imagining his response to things I have written,” he says. Still, he’s in awe.

Rabbi Shai Held will speak about “Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence” in conversation with Rabbi Dov Lerea on Wednesday, Feb. 19, at 7:30 p.m., at Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, 3700 Henry Hudson Parkway, Riverdale.
 

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