Rabbi David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. In a new Scroll series, Wolpe will examine a work of Jewish scholarship, either contemporary or classic, which has relevance for modern Jewish life.
Many years ago my mother told me a story about Abraham Joshua Heschel’s arrival at the Jewish Theological Seminary. My father was a rabbinical student and he and my mother went to attend the inaugural lecture by this new professor about whom they had heard so much. My mother told me that Heschel looked at the audience and said, “I would like to begin with a niggun,” covered his eyes, and began to chant. She vividly recalled the embarrassment in the room, and the sense that he had stepped off another planet.
But ‘planet Heschel’ has since drawn many into its powerful orbit. With charged poetic prose, deep learning, and spiritual power that radiates off the page, Heschel has a unique ability to speak to the human soul. His aim is to strip away our callousness: “The surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God and the importance of worship is to take things for granted.” But as with any poet/philosopher, to read Heschel is not always to understand him. Penetrating the depths of his approach requires a learned, clear and passionate teacher. Enter Rabbi Shai Held.
Held’s new book, Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence, requires focused attention; it is an academic work with scores of footnotes. But it is also for the general reader who wants to know what exactly Heschel is trying to say in the sometimes repetitive maze of his beautiful utterances. What does Heschel mean when he insists, over and over again, that “God is in need of man?” What kind of reminder or awakening is Heschel proposing when he tells us, “We do not have to discover the world of faith, we only have to recover it. It is not terra incognita, an unknown land; it is a forgotten land.”
Held explains, patiently and clearly. He places Heschel’s thought against the background of other Jewish texts and thinkers from Maimonides to the Kotzker Rebbe, but also explains him in relationship to the Christian thought of his time: Merton, Underhill, Barth, Brunner, and others. How does a Jewish thinker differ from his Christian contemporaries, with whom he was close? (Heschel delivered a eulogy at the funeral of his friend, the great Christian thinker Reinhold Niebuhr).
Held’s emphasis is not on Heschel’s life but on his thought. How does he use the idea of ‘hester panim,’ the concealment of God, to show God’s presence? As Held writes, “Human beings have the terrifying power to drive God into exile, and to cause God to hide His face, but we also have the awesome potential to solicit and enable God’s return.” This helps us understand Heschel’s social passion; when most scholars believed their only task was with books and students, Heschel was marching alongside Martin Luther King Jr.
The principal aim of the book is to explain what Heschel means by his constant call to human (and even divine) self-transcendence. Gems of compressed thought stud the text, as when Held explains that Heschel urges us to confront the world not as “a thing I own” but rather as “a mystery I face.” He explores Heschel’s power and points to flaws, such as Heschel’s tendency to substitute intuition for argument. Shai Held’s book is a master class in one of the most significant Jewish voices of our time.
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David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles and is the author, most recently, of Why Faith Matters. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiWolpe