Exploring the significance of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. 

Helpful links to other prophets in this collection | Amos | Buber | Marx and Engels

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Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-72)


What is revelation? Ask many Christian folk and they are not sure at all. And non-religious people are usually sceptical, and sometimes quite certain it’s all nonsense - even when they are totally ignorant of what revelation all about.


Revelation is a difficult subject, for sure. Yet, in truth it is crucial for both Judaism and Christianity. Much hinges upon it. We believe some things are given to us that do not spring just from the human imagination. So revealed truth is foundational to faith. But it is not easy! I’ve been looking for a way into the subject.


After some thought, it seems to me that a better way to get into the subject of revelation is to look instead at prophets. For in Biblical times and ever since it has been the prophets of God who have conveyed the revelation. I would like to concentrate on a statesman of modern Judaism, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.


It is almost impossible to know where to begin with Heschel. So I had better begin at the beginning. In a curious way I have known about Heschel since I was about 14 years old. I used to catch the bus to the Auckland City Public Library on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. It was go there or go to the zoo. I'm not sure which had more to do with my change of heart about Christianity later on. Anyway, I have no idea why, but in the library I would wander among the books on philosophy and religion. I do not remember Heschel's name but his book Man is Not Alone was on the shelves, drawing my eye like a magnet.


I was in my militant atheistic stage. Like the young Freud I raged against the nonsense of religion, but unlike him I was basically ignorant of what it was all about. So why did I return time and time again to that book Man is Not Alone by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel? Initially, I recall, it was because I thought it was about life on other planets! That thought appealed to me. But it didn’t need too much delving between its covers to realise I was in unfamiliar country. I didn't understand Heschel’s book, but I was sure that this idea he had about God's existence was wrong, wrong, wrong. Or so it seemed to a hormonally charged adolescent. Now, after 40 years I read and reread it as one of the most sublime books ever written.


Well, it is the first 30 years in the life of Heschel which is most significant and it is to that I shall return. But let us start by considering the background that gives rise to one of his most sublime statements, which, in my opinion, made him one of God's greatest prophets. A person called by God, and knowing God in the intimacy of his heart and the fire of his intellect.


Heschel had escaped the Nazi tyranny just before the outbreak of war. In America he became aware of the evil of a wicked and demeaning racism. As the civil rights movement gathered momentum, Heschel knew in the depths of his being what God required of men and women who strove to be authentic Christians.


Hence, Heschel the rabbi joined the activists like Martin Luther King as they strode for human rights in the long marches from Selma to Washington. Heschel said, “I felt my legs were praying.” Almost all prayer I hear uttered is not like that, but simply idle words.


Did the spirit of his murdered mother, his murdered sisters, his murdered friends, acquaintances and fellow Polish Jews walk with him? Yes, I believe so. As one who had witnessed the entire eradication of a civilisation - the Hasidim of Poland, their customs, their ways, humour, insights, their universities, their synagogues - he not only had the right he had the duty to pronounce on America’s evil and shame. Moreover, he was impelled to pronounce not like a fire and brimstone preacher but like a statesman of God.


There are those Christians, of course, who think the Church has no business “meddling in politics”. That view can only be the result of having read the Bible without an iota of understanding or commonsense. Prophets always take a stand. They are not necessarily applauded. They may be hated by extremists and people with axes to grind. But ultimately they will not be ignored.


Sometimes they may even be honoured. Like his teacher Martin Buber, the Polish rabbi Heschel was indeed honoured, from Pope Paul to President Kennedy to Martin Luther King to theologians like Paul Tillich and Reinhold Neibhur, and by others as well. But his life was not always so illustrious. At one point it seemed that a terrible end awaited him in Auschwitz or a similar concentration camp, as happened to his family.


Heschel's life literally hung in the balance for three years over the granting of his doctorate. The University of Berlin had a requirement that a doctorate could not be conferred until the thesis was published. Now this did not necessarily mean a huge print run, such works may not have sold more than a few hundred copies across Germany. Quantity was unimportant, but publication was everything.


Heschel, however, faced a special problem over publication. He had taken the oral examination. He had passed. This was just three weeks after Hitler came to power in February 1933.


A Jewish teacher, one of the Hasidim, writing about the Jewish prophets of the Bible - would anyone even look at it? Of course not. No publisher large or small throughout Germany would touch it. It took three years before a Polish institution said it would publish, and even then permission had to be sought to sell it in German bookshops. The University of Berlin had to grant a special dispensation recognizing a non-German publisher.


Remember what Fahrenheit 451 stands for? It is the temperature at which paper burns. In April 1933, the year of Heschel's thesis, in the square of the University of Berlin, the Nazis began to burn books. Anything vaguely critical, anything Jewish, especially.


So it remains a minor miracle in the scheme of God's providence that the thesis was ever published at all, and the doctorate granted.


The thesis turned out to be a major triumph in the academic world, praised by Jewish and Christian scholars alike in Germany and America. Without the conferring of that doctorate, however, Heschel could not have left Europe and the concentration camp would have been inevitable. He escaped Poland just six weeks before the German Army invaded.


Well, those are long gone days, but in 1965 at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, Heschel said, “ Nazism has suffered a defeat, but the process of eliminating the Bible from the consciousness of the western world goes on. It is on the issue of saving the radiance of the Hebrew Bible in the minds of man that Jews and Christians are called upon to work together. None of us can do it alone. Both of us must realize that in our age anti-Semitism is anti-Christianity and that anti-Christianity is anti-Semitism.”


Never was a heart more filled with forgiveness in uttering those words, for among those who had participated in the rise of Nazism were the members of the German Christian Party. Learned professors, pastors, laity: all alike wanted a church that set people apart, namely the Jews, in order to dehumanize them.


Let's now go back to Heschel's thesis, which is on prophets and prophecy. In it he examines why the Biblical prophets were certain, absolutely certain, they were being addressed by God and why they were speaking the word of the Lord. This phrase is weakly and mistakenly identified as verbal inspiration by many Christians. It is not. That is a false trail, and one which has led too many churches to make some remarkably ill-founded comments on the nature and content of the Bible.


Prophet inspiration is the awareness of God's presence within our obviously limited vision, our particular circumstances, within the human condition. The prophet does not apprehend or see or even seek a vision of God. Rather, God apprehends and sees and seeks the prophet, and the human knows that he is apprehended, seen, sought. He is deeply distressed to be found by the living God in this way.


Whereas Martin Buber placed the emphasis on I-thou, encounter, dialogue and relationship between the human and God, I understand Heschel to go several steps further. “The prophets did not intend to afford man a view of heaven, to report about secret things they saw and heard, but to disclose what was happening in God in reference to Israel.”


Let me put the process Heschel envisages into my own words. The prophet having being seen by God, having been found by God, now knows that he must now communicate the human condition, the particular circumstances, to the divine presence. He must address God and tell God what God has done wrong in the circumstances. If that sounds foreign, strange, even absurd to you: read the psalms. If it still sounds odd read Heschel’s comment about the expulsion of Spanish Jews in 1492. If it still sounds blasphemous read the Gospels: my God, my God, cries Jesus in his agony, why have you forsaken me?


For it is this very condition, of being forsaken, forgotten, expelled, that the prophet will be required to address when he speaks to the word to the people: God knows! Only when the prophet has learned to speak to God about our condition, our circumstances, can he go out and prophesy. And when he does this, when he speaks in God's name, it will have be in speech, thought and action forged in the divine fires of ultimate reality. For, says Heschel, “the act of revelation takes place in the Beyond; it is merely directed upon the prophet.”


No wonder some of the Biblical prophets cowered and grovelled on the ground, no wonder they did not want to be prophets at all. Of course, there's no honour in being a prophet, a prophet hardly ever has honour in his own land. God wants more than just a voice crying in the wilderness. He wants the crying voice to address him, the living God. God has sought the prophet for that very reason. Then in God’s ecstasy of love for his Creation the prophet sees into the heart of God, glimpses the mind of God, experiences the reality of a revelation that occurs outside of himself.


Which is why he says, to Ezekiel, stop grovelling before me, get up, stand up straight, look me in the eye: address me, God, not as if you were a worm but as you really are, a man. For I have sought you as a man. Stand up.


Thus God called his prophets: Amos and Hosea, Marx and Freud, Buber and Heschel. But Marx and Freud could not enter into the universe of God’s ecstasy. They rejected it. It is true they were great prophets in a secular sense. In truth, Marx and Freud laid the horrors of the human condition before the world and before the God whose existence they denied. But they could not experience the certain knowledge of a prophet. God called them, but they could not bring themselves to address God himself. Primitive nonsense, according to Freud. The opium of the masses, according to Marx. Thus God’s truth, anger, justice, mercy, compassion were just words to them, rather than the “surging, sweeping inwardness of divine reality,” as Heschel suggests.


He goes on to say, “The idea of revelation remains an absurdity as long as we are unable to comprehend the impact with which the reality of God is pursuing man.” There is a profound truth in this, as anyone familiar with the story of the prodigal son will readily recogmose.


In the 20th century Buber and Heschel stood up and were counted, like their Biblical forebears Amos and Hosea. God burned as the fires of the spirit in their souls. But I still do not believe that God discounted Marx and Freud. God never discounts any good done by anyone in any circumstance. But the spirit moved in a different way in Heschel and Buber. They, as Jews, addressed Christians. And we found ourselves wanting. We needed to be changed. We needed to be converted. We still do. Another Jew whom we follow, whom we call Lord, asked no less. Be found by God. Then get up and begin to do the works of God. Without fear or favour. You will soon discover, to your heart's delight what it truly is to be, as Heschel said, a need of God.


A J Heschel | A Prophet For Today?

Explusion of the Jews 1492

Heschel read this as part of a speech to the Catholic Congress:

In 1492 the Jews of Spain were given the choice to be converted or to be expelled. The overwhelming majority left their homeland. Ships overcrowded with fugitives found difficulty landing, owing to the disease breaking out among them while on board ship. One of the boats was infested with the plague. The captain of the boat put the passengers ashore at some uninhabited place. There most of them died. Some of them set out on foot and gathered strength in order to search for settlement. There was one Jew among them who struggled on foot together with his wife and two sons. The wife grew faint and died, not being accustomed to such difficult walking. The husband picked up his children and carried them in his arms until he and they fainted from hunger. When he regained consciousness, he found that his two sons had died also. In great grief he rose to his feet and raised his eyes to heaven and cried out, “Lord of the Universe, much have you done to make me deserve my fate, but this is a certainty, that a Jew I am, and a Jew I shall remain. Nothing you have brought on me is likely to be of any avail.” - If you analyze the theology of this occurrence, you will find a kind of audacity that defies the usual definitions of faith.


American Politics Today?