AJ Heschel’s prophetic gift to America
The categorization of America as a Judeo-Christian creation is just as analytically correct as the classification of the cold shale water of Lake Michigan as a collaboration between hydrogen and oxygen. It is obviously true how these things go, but the mere fact should be viewed as a starting pistol for further investigation rather than the finish line itself. Even the truest basic fact can distract us from the greater truth. And as a nation, we are often guilty of deliberately downplaying some of the more vivacious contributions of our Jewish brothers and sisters to American culture. The manic, obscene ramblings of Lenny Bruce, for example, are as deeply woven into the fabric of the American character as the curse of Bambino. Allen Ginsberg is as American as The Marlboro Man. The recurring troop of the intellectually inflected Jewish gadfly, blurring the line between carnival barque and Old Testament prophet, demands recognition from anyone who tries to appreciate the full sophistication of our composite culture. Some characters, like Abbie Hoffman, served as showmen rather than prophets and gave off more warmth than light. Others, like Abraham Joshua Heschel, uttered weighty truths in near-perfect prophetic language, so they might as well have spoken straight from their Babylonian captivity.
Abraham Joshua Heschel is no longer as popular as it was when he was one of the most prominent non-black civil rights activists in the 1960s, arm in arm with Dr. King strode down the sunburned two-lane highways of Alabama. Some of his most famous books, such as God in Search of Man, once found appreciative audiences among mid-century youth who hunger for depth against the conformist, secularizing, and increasingly data-driven culture. But that kind of thing doesn’t appeal to the new savonarolas of racial essentialism, and that’s why he’s not even known enough to call off. The Polish-born refugee Heschel, who came from generations of highly educated Hasidic rabbis who staggered reverently in the candlelight, spoke at least four languages fluently and was as spiritually committed to the spiritual and moral work of prophetic thinking as any human being could be. Unfortunately, he currently seems to be overshadowed by the faint cultural amnesia that he has been pushing against for his entire life.
This is what makes Thunder in the Soul: God Known such an important release. The book is a short, almost pithy collection of selections from some of Heschel’s most powerful works. It is one of the publisher Plow’s “Spiritual Guides” books that describe themselves as “backpack classics for modern pilgrims”. It’s the perfect way to introduce Heschel’s work, which is difficult to classify or systematize in modern secular terms. But as the book itself explains: “Heschel brought the passion of a prophet to his role as a public intellectual. He challenged the sensibility of the modern West, which sees science and human reason as sufficient. Only to rediscover wonder and awe of mysteries beyond knowledge can we hope to find God again. “
“Rediscover” is an important word when thinking of Heschel’s work. His insights have the timeless feel of the perennial and appear to be collective memories restored through hours of talmudic contemplation, rather than unique and idiosyncratic insights. In one of the more moving chapters entitled “Every moment touches eternity”, Heschel writes:
“Neither the individual human nor a single generation can build the bridge that leads to God on their own. Faith is the achievement of the age, an effort that has accumulated over centuries. Many of the ideas are like the light of a star that left its source centuries ago. Many songs that are unfathomable today are the resonance of voices of yesteryear. There is a collective memory of God in the human mind, and in this memory we share in our faith … “
The beauty and power of the passage is representative, as is the message itself that “the memory is the soul’s testimony to the capricious spirit”.
Heschel’s conviction that eternity permeates and sacralizes normal time is presented in prose that pays homage to the “moment”. It is sometimes reminiscent of Eliot, but it sums up Heschel’s identity as a Jew. “Jews have not received any monuments,” he writes, “they have preserved the old moments.” These revered and sacred moments give us access to eternity. In fact, they might be our only option as a port of entry. It is up to us to remember the sanctity of time that passes before us. As Heschel explains, “The days of our lives are more representative of eternity than refugees, and we have to live as if the fate of all time depends entirely on a single moment.” In other words, salvation occurs at all times or not at all. And the existential imperative to find eternity in the disintegrating movements of time is the conclusion to which anyone seriously concerned with Jewish mysticism should arrive. “The higher goal of the spiritual life,” Heschel reminds us, “is not to collect a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” Heschel’s writing in this sense is a reassuring reminder that we often have difficulty sensing God, not because of a great distance but because of an unfathomable closeness.
For Heschel, religion not only precedes the political, but sums it up completely.
But like all prophets worthy of tradition, Heschel brings more than sweetness and light. He also exhorts us to improve and asks us to take a clear look at all the ways we as a society collectively reject God’s will. Some of these passages have a political veneer, but as deep spiritual insight they challenge comfortable political categories and simple social solutions. For Heschel, religion not only precedes the political, but sums it up completely. For example, when he writes in the chapter “God Requires Justice” that “… justice is not just a value; It is God’s part of human life, God’s part of human history. ” [italics in original]. What he continues to write is worth quoting in detail:
“The world is full of injustice, injustice and idolatry. People offer animals; The priests offer incense. But God needs mercy, justice; His needs cannot be satisfied in temples, in space, but only in history, in time. In the realm of history, man is entrusted with God’s mission.
Justice is not an old custom, not a human convention, not a value, but a transcendent demand that is filled with divine care. It’s not just a human-human relationship, it’s an action that God is involved in, a divine need. Righteousness is his line, righteousness is his sinking (Isa 28:17). It is not one of his ways, but of all of his ways. Their validity is not only universal, but also eternal, regardless of will and experience. “
These are challenging but uplifting words. It is easy to see which direct line from such a letter leads directly to Heschel’s commitment to the civil rights movement. To draw attention to justice as a religious fact, as an attribute of God in history, is Heschel’s greatest strength as a spiritual teacher. But it could also (like most strengths) be a weakness. How do we know for certain that we are serving justice? What about two competing visions of justice, each calling down the authority of God to justify their fall? Justice is easy in many cases – African Americans deserve to be treated with respect and awe as fellow creatures made in God’s image – but what about the difficult cases?
Here Heschel returns to his subtle and often complex portrayal of tradition. “Judaism,” explains Heschel, “requires the acceptance of some fundamental thoughts or norms and the commitment to some crucial events. Your ideas and events are inextricably linked. The spirit manifests itself through God’s presence in history, and the acts of manifestation are verified by basic thoughts or norms. “Heschel’s admonition against calcification is precariously weighed against this almost Burkish reverence for norms. “In the realm of the spirit,” he writes, “only someone can be a pioneer, be an heir. The reward of intellectual plagiarism is the loss of integrity; Self-glorification is self-betrayal. “Heschel sounds strikingly similar to Ezra Pound’s dictum“ make it new ”and emphasizes the“ new ”instead of the“ it ”, although he admits that those inherited norms, the accumulated thoughts and experiences of countless generations, really are the only ones in the end final arbiter of our moral sensibility. He misdiagnosed the problem because he was concerned about “spiritual plagiarism.” Our particular form of self-enlargement then, as now, has been tearing up the script in confetti while we begin a poor improvisational performance. We were never guilty of clinging too close to the letter. But Heschel, as someone who could draw from the depths not only of his own religious traditions but also of a type of European secular education that (largely) disappeared with World War II, was understandably short-sighted of this particularly American symptom.
For the reputation that Heschel had as a scholar of mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary, reading his words one realizes that the legacy he would be most proud of is the role he played as a public intellectual, the profound theological one Wisdom brought to the events of the day, particularly civil rights and the Vietnam War. Plow made a mitzvah in publishing this collection of his works in a form that honors Heschel’s own subordination of intellectual systematization to the breath of God moving over the human heart. “The prophet is a man who feels violent,” Heschel reminds us. “God has put a burden on his soul and he is bowed and stunned by man’s wild greed.” Ultimately, this spiritual burden was Heschel’s prophetic gift to America – a weight released and redeemed by the crushing claim of its divine weight.