Heschel and the Christians

By Chester, Michael A. | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Spring-Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

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. …

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