Abraham Joshua Heschel: Exploring His Life and Thought
Author: Edited by John C. Merkle
Publisher: New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., A Division of Macmillan, Inc. & Collier Macmillan Publishers-London
171 pages, including index, Hardcover
Reviewed by Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
This festschrift of sorts is comprised of several essays written by Jewish, Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars, who in some way knew Abraham Joshua Heschel and were inspired by his life and work.
It is divided into four parts: Part One: Remembering Abraham Joshua Heschel; Part Two: Heschel As Biblical Theologian; Part Three: Heschel As Philosopher And Poet; and Part Four: Heschel As Social Critic And Ecumenist.
In the opening essay by Samuel H. Dresner, “Heschel the Man,” Dresner suggests that Heschel appealed to and was respected by all three monotheistic faiths, as well as: Blacks, the aged, the “Six Million” who perished in the Shoah, and the Russian Jews.
Dresner regards Heschel as a prophet, a shalem—i.e. a complete, whole person, and a zaddik—i.e. a Hasidic master.
Citing Heschel’s The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence, Dresner includes gems like this on Heschel’s critique of religion: “Religion has declined,” he told religious leaders, “not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid….When religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless.” (p. 23)
In Ursula M. Niebuhr’s essay, “Notes on a Friendship Abraham Joshua Heschel and Reinhold Niebuhr,” she includes this thought-provoking quote, which Heschel had written in his important book, The Prophets: “Prophecy is a sham unless it is experienced as a word of God swooping down on man (sic) and converting him (sic) into a prophet.” (p. 40) Another quote Niebuhr includes from Heschel’s God In Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism on awe: “Awe enables us…to sense in small things the beginnings of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple.” (p. 41) Such an understanding of awe reminds this reviewer of how many Christians view the Incarnation.
In Bernhard W. Anderson’s essay, “Coexistence With God Heschel’s Exposition of Biblical Theology,” he includes a couple of amazing quotes epitomizing Heschel’s gift as a creative scholar and poet. As Heschel puts it, speaking out of and to the Jewish community, “every one of us has stood at the foot of Sinai” in the presence of the Holy God who speaks and calls for us to answer. “Only in moments when we are able to share in the spirit of awe that fills the world are we able to understand what happened to Israel at Sinai.” (p. 52)
The Bible he says, is “holiness in words, that is, these human words are the vehicles that God uses to establish relations with a people. It is as if God took these Hebrew words and breathed into them of His power, and the words became a live wire charged with His spirit. To this very day they are hyphens between heaven and earth.” (p. 54) As a reviewer somewhat biased towards hyphens, this definitely resonates. “The Bible,” he says, “is not a book to be read but a drama in which to participate.” In this drama, it is God who takes the initiative. (p. 54) Many Christians would also agree with Heschel here.
In each of the other essays, the authors in their own unique way, pay tribute to Heschel by sharing stories, anecdotes, insights, etc., on how Heschel influenced them; how much they appreciated his friendship; and how his academic works inspired their own scholarship; and how his faith was a manifestation in acts of loving kindness, which inspired and motivated others to go and do likewise; in response to the awe, mystery, beauty and love of God’s grace.