Heschel and the Christians
Chester, Michael A., Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Jewish theologian and social activist Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-72) died three decades ago, yet his major books are still in print, many in new editions, and it seems that his work is more appreciated now among his coreligionists than it ever was in his own lifetime. This essay suggests that, at a time when there is a swing toward conservatism (and fundamentalism) in Christian and Jewish theology and when interfaith dialogue has moved to the back burner, Jewish-Christian dialogue has much to be grateful for, and much still to learn from, Heschel's positive approach to Christian individuals and institutions.
Born and brought up in an Orthodox hasidic family in Warsaw, educated at the liberal Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin, successor to Martin Buber at Frankfurt, expelled by the Nazis, one of Morgenstern's "Refugee Scholars" at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati (Reform), Heschel taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York (Conservative) for the last twenty-seven years of his life. In the ten years before his death, he became best known as a social activist, particularly in the causes of the civil-rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, and as the voice drawing attention to the plight of the Russian Jews. However, his particular contribution to the theological enterprise has been enormously influential and has become more so in the years since his death. Most of today's Christian theologians who have come to appreciate Heschel's contribution have discovered him through the work of Jurgen Moltmann, who has made extensive use of the "Divine Pathos" that brought Heschel into direct c onflict with classical Jewish and Christian metaphysics.
I. Heschel's Influence on Christians
The primary source of Heschel's influence on Christians is his writings about Judaism for Jews. His Jewish philosophy of religion, expounded in Man Is Not Alone, and God in Search of Man, (3) first brought him to the attention of Christians. Before the publication of Man Is Not Alone, Heschel was little known outside the world of Jewish scholarship. In a review for The New York Herald-Tribune Book Review, Reinhold Niebuhr predicted that the book's author would become "a commanding and authoritative voice not only in the Jewish Community but in the religious life of America." (4) By the time Niebuhr reviewed God in Search of Man, almost exactly five years later, he was able to state that Heschel's books "have had an increasing bearing among both Jews and Christians." He also affirmed that God in Search of Man was "not merely an exposition of the 'philosophy of Judaism"' but also "a treatise which will be found illuminating to all who regard Biblical thought as the source of one of the main streams of Western r eligious life.... Naturally, much of what he writes has equal relevance for Christians as well as Jews." (5)
Indeed, like Buber, Heschel is sometimes accused of being more appreciated in Christian than in Jewish circles. Certainly, he became increasingly important to Christians, although "[t]his was not because he was looked upon as a crypto-Christian but because he was so incurably and consistently Jewish." (6) W. D. Davies, speaking at the memorial service held at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City on January 21, 1973, a few weeks after Heschel's death, explained:
Through his faith in the God beyond all mystery he ministered to our ultimate human need and, therefore, to us all. In his books and speeches, in which the cadences and rhythms and patterns of ancient synagogal prayers and sermons reverberate, his very prose is instinct with a poetry which strangely recalls us to primordial certainties. In all these he called into being the emotions which he described, and summoned not only Jews, but non-Jews also, to the depth of awe, wonder and mystery which life should evoke in all men. (7)
Jacob Neusner, in his contribution to the Heschel memorial issue of the Jesuit journal America, expressed his concern that the Christian world's knowledge of Heschel was "chiefly in his roles of holy man and politician," a side of Heschel that Neusner considered to be unimportant: "The Heschel that will last is in his books." For Neusner, then, Heschel's authentic existence focused not on his "public role as a shaman for the left" but on "his theological and scholarly enterprise," (8) which, in Neusner's opinion, was not appreciated among Heschel's colleagues. Doubtless there would have been some envy over the devotion of some of Heschel's students, his successes as an author, his popularity on the lecture circuit, and his status as a public figure. There was a certain lack of sympathy for his personal piety and observance among academics who prided themselves on their detachment, and there must have been some suspicion of the way he was feted by Christians. There was also the fact that he "stood for theology in a Jewish community which does not know the importance of theology." (9)
Heschel's theology, then, was more accessible to his Christian neighbors, who at least understood the theological issues that motivated him, even when they failed to appreciate the distinctiveness of his Jewish theology. He was aware of the main issues of contemporary philosophy of religion. He followed what was happening in Protestant theology; he knew and respected the work of Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, and they knew and respected his. Like them he had been trained (in his case at the Berlin Hochschule) in critical-biblical scholarship, within a liberal theological tradition committed to social action. Indeed, Niebuhr's positive view of Hebrew Scripture and of Judaism must have come as a refreshing surprise to one whose academic work had begun in the Germany of the 1930's, when Protestant leaders had reopened the Marcionite debate as to whether the "Old Testament" had any place in the Christian canon of scripture, and distinguished Protestant theologians had supported the rise of National Socialism. (10)
The early contacts between the tall, American-born Protestant and the short, Polish-born Jew grew into a close friendship. When Niebuhr died in 1971, Heschel spoke at the memorial service, and quoted Niebuhr's claim to have "sought to strengthen the Hebraic-prophetic content of the Christian tradition." (11) He could have been writing his own obituary when he said of his late friend:
He began his teaching at a time when religious thinking in America was shallow, insipid, impotent--bringing life and power to theology, to the understanding of the human situation, changing the lives of many Christians and Jews.
He appeared among us like a sublime figure out of the Hebrew Bible. Intent on intensifying responsibility, he was impatient of excuse, contemptuous of pretense and self-pity. (12)
Simply by living and teaching and practicing his faith where, when, and as he did, putting himself in positions where he was in relation to non-Jews, Heschel had a profound influence on Christian thinking about Judaism. He succeeded in communicating the grandeur of Judaism to non-Jews, thus facilitating the process by which Christians have turned to Jewish rather than Christian interpreters for their understanding of Judaism. John C. Bennett (president of Union Theological Seminary when Heschel was invited to be the first non-Christian visiting professor) stated:
Abraham Heschel belonged to the whole American religious community. I know of no other person of whom this was so true. He was profoundly Jewish in his spiritual and cultural roots, in his closeness to Jewish suffering, in his religious commitment, in his love for the nation and land of Israel, and in the quality of his prophetic presence. And yet he was a religious inspiration to Christians and to many searching people beyond the familiar religious boundaries. Christians are nourished in their own faith by his vision and his words. (13)
All of Heschel's major articles on the Christian situation were written in response to specific requests from Christian bodies; they were never gratuitous or unsolicited but, rather, the sharing of his perceptions with Christians who had asked him for them. In 1963 he wrote on Protestant renewal for the editors of Christian Century. (14.) "The Jewish Notion of God and Christian Renewal" was the text of an address he was invited to give to the (Roman Catholic) Congress on the Theology of the Church in Montreal in 1967. (15) The major themes of Heschel's reflections on Christianity include the dejudaization of Christianity, the desacralization of the Bible, the dogmatization of theology, and the necessity for a common critique of society (for a discussion of the latter, see Section IV, below).
According to Heschel's analysis, the emergence of a predominantly gentile church in a world dominated by Hellenism resulted in focusing Christianity's self-understanding not on its vast indebtedness to Judaism but on its divergences from Judaism: "The result was a conscious or unconscious dejudaization of Christianity, affecting the church's way of thinking and its inner life as well as its relationship to the past and present reality of Israel--the father and mother of the very being of Christianity. The children did not arise and call the mother blessed; instead, they called the mother blind." (16) The issue for the church, then, is whether to look for its roots in Judaism and to understand itself in relation to Judaism or to look for its roots in pagan Hellenism and understand itself as the antithesis of Judaism.
Heschel was also concerned lest modem scholarship result in the Bible's being treated as something about which we have so much to say that we no longer hear what the Bible has to say. The presumption that the Bible should be treated "like any other book--with objectivity and detachment" (17) has led to alienation from the Bible:
The Bible is holiness in words. How are we to preserve within our involvement in critical studies the awareness of the holy; how are we to cultivate the understanding that the authority of the Bible is not merely an issue of either philology or chronology? More decisive than the dogmatic attempt to define the date and authorship of the biblical documents is the openness to the presence of God in the Bible. Such openness is not acquired offhand. It is the fruit of hard, constant care, of involvement; it is the result of praying, seeking, craving. (18)
Then, says Heschel, we have forgotten that "[t]he primary issue of theology is pretheological"--the total human situation. Dogma is a means of preserving rare moments of "rapport with the reality of the divine" (19) so as to make them available for the long hours of functional living, and its adequacy depends on whether it claims "to formulate or to allude." (20)
Unless we realize that dogmas are tentative rather than final, that they are accommodations rather than definitions, intimations rather than descriptions; unless we learn how to share the moment and the insight to which we are trying to testify, we stand guilty of literalmindedness, of pretending to know what cannot be put into words; we are guilty of intellectual idolatry.... The time has come to break through the bottom of theology into depth theology. (21)
It was the paradox of Heschel that "he was most Jewish and yet most universal." (22) In being so, he helped some Christians appreciate the enduring grandeur and validity of Judaism, enabling them to put behind them the misunderstanding and prejudice that has so often fanned the flames of Antisemitism. However, more than thirty-five years after Vatican II and the promulgation of "Nostra aetate," it is difficult to accede to Bennett's …
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Publication information: Article title: Heschel and the Christians. Contributors: Chester, Michael A. - Author. Journal title: Journal of Ecumenical Studies. Publication date: Spring-Summer 2001. Page number: 246+. © 1998 Journal of Ecumenical Studies. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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