Piety and Moral Consciousness: Contributions from the Mystical Realism of Abraham Joshua Heschel

By Britton, Joseph | Anglican Theological Review, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Piety and Moral Consciousness: Contributions from the Mystical Realism of Abraham Joshua Heschel


Britton, Joseph, Anglican Theological Review


The pious man is alive to what is solemn in the simple, to what is sublime in the sensuous, but he is not aiming to penetrate into the sacred. Rather, he is striving to be himself penetrated and actuated by the sacred, eager to yield to its force, to identify hintself with every trend in the world which is toward the divine.... Piety is the realization and verification of the transcendent in human life....

Piety is a life compatible with God's presence.1

I. Introduction

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) exerted a profound influence on the American religious scene from his post as professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City from 1945 until his death.2 To the broader community, he is perhaps best known for his active involvement in the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and '70s, and for his more accessible books such as Who Is Man? (1965). Within more theologically aware circles, he is often acknowledged as having exerted a significant influence at the Second Vatican Council, advocating many of the perspectives on Jewish-Christian relations which were articulated in Nostra Aetate (1965), the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. Within academic circles, Heschel is widely celebrated for having united the insight of his Hasidic roots in Eastern Europe with the intellectual rigor of modern western philosophy (especially the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl), for having contributed a prodigious study of biblical prophecy in The Prophets (1962), and for having produced a pair of books on the philosophy of religion, Man is Not Alone (1951), and God in Search of Man (1955). Within Jewish circles, Heschel is especially noted for the spiritual insight and inspiration of such works as The Sabbath (1951), which have been significant sources of renewal in contemporary Jewish life, and for a monumental two-volume study of rabbinical learning (published in Hebrew, but currently being translated into English), Theology of Ancient Judaism (1961/65).

These contributions have been studied in numerous articles, books, and conferences, and yet a key issue in Heschel's theology remains largely unexplored (the very question suggested by his position as a professor of both mystical and moral theology): the place of ethical theory in his theological system, over and above the more limited issue of the pious deeds of mitzvoth in Jewish observance of the law. Heschel has been accused by some critics of lacking systematic strength in his writing; indeed, his style is often aphoristic, coming at the essential point from a variety of directions rather than moving linearly toward it. Yet the style is deceptive and masks a profound and provocative rethinking of the fundamental questions of theology which anticipates many of the themes of so-called "postmodern" or "postliberal" theologies. To Heschel, before theology can begin to consider the dogmatic content of faith, it must first consider the very phenomenon of faith: the pre-theological experience of the ineffable which opens humankind to theological reflection. This "first-order" experience of the divine is at the heart of Heschel's understanding of religious life, and it is the primary purpose of this paper to argue that the piety which it evokes is the formative link between religious experience and ethical action. Yet Heschel's analysis is valuable not only within his native Jewish tradition, but also has strong resonance with-and was often a generation or two in advance of-similar trends in Christian systematic and moral theology. While exploring Heschel's own treatment of piety, therefore, this study will have the additional goal of indicating points of convergence with several important Christian theologians, and of suggesting how this work might continue to be mined in contemporary Christian reflection.

As we shall see, "piety" (hasidut) itself is a dominant term in Heschel's thinking, with a theological rather than emotive meaning. …

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