Academic journal article Shofar

I Am What I Do: Abraham Joshua Heschel Seen from Two Perspectives: Secular Jewish and Christian

Academic journal article Shofar

I Am What I Do: Abraham Joshua Heschel Seen from Two Perspectives: Secular Jewish and Christian

Article excerpt

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

Selves-goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

from "As Kingfishers Catch Fire" by Gerard Manley Hopkins

A Secular Jewish Perspective

Shoshana Ronen

Warsaw University

This article shows how a thoroughly religious thinker like Heschel can be relevant also for a secular way of thinking. Heschel believed in the inseparability of life and that intellectual and social activities go hand in hand. This belief, inspired by his study of the biblical prophets, was realized in his active social advocacy for human rights.

Heschel's analysis of religion and its weakness in modern times also appeals to secular thinking. He did not blame the secular world for the decline of religion, but looked directly into religion, which as he felt, had ceased to be a living entity, and became degenerated, petrified, frozen.

Heschel's God is merciful but not omnipotent. This concept is a religious answer for the difficulty to believe after Auschwitz. Using the Kabalistic term tzitnlzum, Heschel recovers the idea of God

I would first like to clarify what is meant by "secular Judaism." Judaism is more than just a religion, and being a Jew is more than just being a member of a religious community. Judaism, as Mordecai Kaplan defined it, is a whole civilization.1 Judaism is a culture, a historical narrative of a group of people held together by a special attitude to a collection of texts and historical memories. Whether or not these texts or memories are entirely true is less important than the fact that they form a common ethos. Being a secular Jew doesn't mean simply that you were born Jewish but don't cleave to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; secular Jews are those who have consciously chosen to identify themselves as a bead in a long chain of Jewish existence and creativity and yet are willing to look at Jewish tradition and history with a critical eye. Being a secular Jew does not necessarily mean being indifferent to the Hebrew Bible, to the Talmudic texts, to Jewish philosophy, or Jewish literature through the generations. My agnosticism does not mean I am blind to the mystery of existence, which can be defined by believers as divine, nor does it mean I believe that reason is the ultimate answer to all questions.

Heschel was a thoroughly religious thinker; he was the embodiment of a religious creative soul in constant dialogue with God. How then can a person like me, for whom God is a cultural construct of humankind, be fascinated by Heschel's thinking? Why do I see him as a challenge for my secular spirit? In short, what made me fall in love with him? We all know the saying that love is blind, so perhaps trying to rationalize that love is doomed to failure, but I will try my best.

Life and Thinking

You might find my personal tone surprising, but I believe that when dealing with Heschel's thinking one cannot be detached or reserved. In his writing and philosophy, Heschel could not, and never tried to, separate his life from his thought. More than that, he suggested that writing and understanding without involvement are not valuable. He was wary of claims of impartiality. He thought that if we write about something that is relevant to us, then impartiality is only a pretense, and if the subject is irrelevant, why would we have dealt with it in the first place? Concerning the divine, which was the most significant and vital question for him, he wrote:

In asking about God, we examine our own selves: whether we are sensitive to the grandeur and supremacy of what we ask about, whether we are wholeheartedly concerned with what we ask about. Unless we are involved, we fail to sense the issue.2

I would like to refer to two philosophers who are very dear to me, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein. I wrote something about them that I think is very relevant to Heschel:

In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche wrote: "It has gradually become clear to me what every great philosophy has hitherto been: a confession on the part of its author" (BGE #6). …

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