A Philosopher, a Poet, or a Prophet?

Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence
by Shai Held
Indiana University Press, 2015

The cover of Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of TranscendenceHow should we interpret Heschel's thoughts? According to Heschel himself, as he writes in the introduction to The Prophets, it depends upon his own methodology:

Proper exegesis is an effort to understand the philosopher in terms and categories of philosophy, the poet in terms and categories of poetry, and the prophet in terms and categories of prophecy.

In my opinion, Shai Held’s Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence is one of the most important works of scholarship on Heschel, resulting from serious, comprehensive, and sensitive reading. Unlike many Heschel scholars, Held has clearly immersed himself in every word of his works. At the same time, his own book is written in language that makes it quite readable.

Moreover, Held’s comprehensive and analytical method demonstrates an understanding of Heschel as a philosopher, recognizes his terminology, and presents him to us as one of the great theologians of the twentieth century.

One of the great contributions of Held’s work is his summary and critique of the study of Heschel. From now on, no one will be able to write any creditable academic work about Heschel without referring to Held’s words and notes.

Held’s footnotes are a treasure for the scholar. In few words he summarizes a huge dispute among previous scholars and shows how every one of them bases his or her claim on just a partial view—often of only one of Heschel’s texts—without including his other relevant works and texts.

Held’s footnotes also reveal which scholar disturbs him more than any other: Alexander Even-Chen. Indeed, Held and Even-Chen present two different perspectives and methodologies in search of Heschel. While Even-Chen dedicates sensitive reading to the emotional richness of specific texts and understands Heschel as, in his own words, a “poet in terms and categories of poetry,” Held understands him as a self-proclaimed “philosopher in terms and categories of philosophy.”

The question at hand is, what kind of understanding has either of these methods brought to us? Do they reflect “proper exegesis,” as Heschel saw it? How would Heschel himself expect us to understand him—as a poet, as a philosopher, or maybe as a prophet?

Indeed, Heschel used poetic language in his writings and saw his two great works as “a philosophy of religion” and “a philosophy of Judaism” (the subtitles of Man Is Not Alone and God in Search of Man). But the question still remains: What was Heschel’s methodology, and what was his deepest identity? Was he a poet or philosopher? Or perhaps his poetic writing and philosophical discourse are only tools in his prophetic-Hasidic hermeneutics?

An Exegesis of Exegesis of Exegesis

We find some clues for interpreting Heschel in the way Heschel himself described the act of interpreting prophecy. In the introduction to The Prophets, he writes:

Understanding prophecy is an understanding of an understanding rather than an understanding of knowledge; it is exegesis of exegesis. It involves sharing the perspective from which the original understanding is done…. It is upon the right understanding of the terms and categories of prophetic thinking that the success of our inquiry depends. To rediscover some of these terms and categories requires careful exploration of the kinds of questions a prophet asks, and the sort of premises about God, the world, and man he takes for granted.

Here, Heschel calls his method “an exegesis of exegesis,” “an understanding of an understanding.” Understanding is like point of view; in order to understand understanding, one has to look from within it. Knowledge can be understood by any category or context, while a person’s perspective has to be understood by his own categories. In order to understand someone’s perspective, you must interact with and respond to them. When she tells you, “I love you,” for instance, you can’t understand her understanding without sharing it.

According to Heschel, a prophecy is the sharing of divine perspective, not merely divine knowledge. Thus, he explains that one cannot understand prophecy using either objective or subjective categories. An interpreter of the prophets cannot be a subject who gives meaning to an object of knowledge. On the contrary, the prophet is a “living author,” a subject who calls his interpreter for a response to the prophet's terms and categories.

And what about Heschel himself? If Heschel’s method is “an exegesis of exegesis,” his words concerning the prophet relate also to his own work. Heschel implies that his “understanding of an understanding” is also a perspective and not merely knowledge. Therefore, we can add another “exegesis” to Heschel's phrase—we can say that understanding Heschel’s thought is an understanding of an understanding rather than an understanding of knowledge; it is exegesis of exegesis of exegesis!

Here is a very deep challenge: in order to understand Heschel, one has to “share the perspective from which the original understanding is done.” An analytical method is not enough here, nor is mere poetic sensitivity. Like the prophets, Heschel has to be understood by sympathizing with his pathos.

In A Passion for Truth, Heschel writes:

The Baal Shem sought to add a personality dimension to the study of the Talmud … He urged students to seek communion with the sages.... One had to live with them, to enter their minds and souls, not just grasp their thoughts.

Indeed, Heschel was not only a “descendant of the prophets” (as he said in his last interview, shortly before his death, to Carl Stern of NBC); first and foremost he was a “descendant of the rebbes.” And just like his ancestors, Heschel urged readers to seek communion, a dialogical response to his perspective and categories, in order to understand his thought.

A famous Hasidic story tells us about the first meeting of Rabbi Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezeritch, with the Jewish mystic known as the Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov asked the Maggid to explain a mystic text, and the Maggid sat and explained its literal meaning, using an analytical approach. “No, you didn’t understand it. Stand on your feet!” called the Baal Shem Tov. And then, when the Baal Shem Tov read the names of the angels in the pages of the book, the whole house was illuminated by fire and angels appeared. “Indeed,” the Baal Shem Tov said to the Maggid, “the literal meaning is just like you said, but your learning was without a soul!”

Are we, as Heschel’s scholars and readers, prepared for this challenge? Do we adhere to an analytical understanding or to Heschel's mode of understanding? As I will show, in addition to Held's work's contributions, it contains two crucial problems, which result from his analytical method.

When Poetic becomes Polemic

For readers inspired by Heschel’s poetic style, the first striking problem is Held’s style of writing. One of the disturbing aspects of this problem is the way Held quotes Heschel. Held doesn’t let his readers meet Heschel’s words in context: most of Heschel’s quotes are introduced in the middle of Held’s sentences. One simply can’t be inspired by Heschel’s radical amazement when encountering it sandwiched into a polemical or academic sentence. The first condition for understanding radical amazement is to be radically amazed, to respond by an “understanding of an understanding.”

Held understands that Heschel’s poetic style is a result of his theology, as if Heschel was a poet because he was a theologian. But I doubt that one can understand the depth of Heschel’s theology without being deeply inspired by its style. For a prophet, the style is an essential part of the understanding. As Heschel wrote in God in Search of Man:

Presence is not a concept, but a situation. To understand love it is not enough to read tales about it…. One must be inspired to understand inspiration…. It is through the Bible that we discover what is in the Bible. Unless we are confronted with the word, unless we continue our dialogue with the prophets, unless we respond, the Bible ceases to be Scripture…. In the Bible to speak is to act, and the word is more than an instrument of expression … when the prophet speaks, he uncloses the source of the meaning.

Subjective-objective or Transubjective?

Held’s analytical method is problematic for another, more crucial reason. The examination of many issues starts by presenting a contradiction in Heschel's writings and then solves it by explaining it as a dichotomy.

For example, throughout the first chapter of his book, Held finds contradictions between subjective and objective statements by Heschel, between epistemological and ontological claims. In his footnotes he astutely shows how previous scholars chose to consider only one set of these claims. However, in his own suggested solutions he fails to consider the possibility that his assumption, namely, the very dichotomy of subjective-objective, is not Heschel’s.

Let us consider a passage that Held cites as evidence, from Heschel’s Man Is Not Alone:

What the sense of the ineffable perceives is something objective which cannot be conceived by the mind nor captured by imagination or feeling, something real which, by its very essence, is beyond the reach of thought and feeling. What we are primarily aware of is not our self, our inner mood, but a transubjective situation, in regard to which our ability fails. Subjective is the manner, not the matter of our perception. What we perceive is objective in the sense of being independent of and corresponding to our perception. Our radical amazement responds to the mystery, but does not produce it. You and I have not invented the grandeur of the sky nor endowed man with the mystery of birth and death. We do not create the ineffable, we encounter it. 

Held explains that “if wonder is a subjective state, the mystery is its objective correlative.” But is there perhaps a third option? Indeed, Heschel starts with the term “objective,” but when he later indicates its meaning, he uses dialogical language: “a transubjective situation.” In my opinion, Held misses here the deep meaning of one of Heschel’s most important terms—response. In this quote from Who Is Man? Heschel concluded that “our radical amazement responds to the mystery”:

The sense of wonder is not the mist in our eyes or the fog in our words. Wonder, or radical amazement, is a way of going beyond what is given in thing and thought, refusing to take anything for granted, to regard anything as final. It is our honest response to the grandeur and mystery of reality.

Does Heschel try here to say something objective? Or might it be that he is suggesting an alternative consciousness? When man is alone, he has only the subjective mode of being; when God is in search of man, he calls him to become responsive to Him. Indeed, Heschel offers some explanation in Man is Not Alone:

Where self-assertion is no more; when realizing that wonder is not our own achievement; that it is not our own power alone that we are shuddered with radical amazement, it is not within our power any more to assume the role of an examiner, of a subject in search of an object.

Here lies Heschel’s alternative to both modern and postmodern consciousness: man is not a subject, nor only an experience. A human being can live as a responsive partner of God. However, in Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence, Held understands postmodernity as proof that Heschel’s thought can’t survive:

The appeals to pre-conceptual experience … so prevalent in Heschel’s work, simply cannot survive the challenges put to them by the post-modern realization of the linguistically and culturally conditioned nature of experience.

In this sense, I am not sure that Held’s core term, “self-transcendence,” is the perfect term for describing Heschel’s thought. Indeed, Heschel calls us to transcend the self, but his uniqueness lies in the understanding that self-transcendence is a response to God. Heschel doesn’t view a human being as a subject in need of self-transcendence and has never spoken about the objective essence of God. As Heschel explains in God in Search of Man, he tries to respond to God’s call to man:

Our certainty is the result of wonder and radical amazement, of awe before the mystery and meaning of the totality of life…. Faith is the response to the mystery…. “The heaven” is a challenge. When you “lift up your eyes on high”, you are faced with the question. Faith is an act of man who transcending himself responds to Him who transcends the world.

In his book, Held accuses Heschel of being disrespectful toward secularists because he writes about God as a fact. But in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Heschel himself tries to explain that he is only a witness to a responsive dialogue between God and man:

The question was asked what is my attitude toward the prayer of those who do not accept the conception of God that I discussed. Now, I have not spoken of a concept or demand the acceptable of a definition. We Jews have no concepts; all we have is faith, faith in His willingness to listen to us…. Israel is not a people of definers of religion but a people of witnesses to His concern for man. 

There is no "call of transcendence,” nor silence of immanence. God is not omnipotent, nor has he lost his power (as Held and Even-Chen assert, respectively). Heschel does not define God. Instead, he witnesses what happens between God and man, between God’s question and man’s answer, between God’s disappointment and man’s alienation.


One thought on “A Philosopher, a Poet, or a Prophet?

  1. In 1994, as a catholic, I went for confession in the monastery of St Francis in São Paulo, Brazil. The confessor (a franciscan fray), who I did not know, told me past, present and future overwhelmingly events of my life. Right after the confession, he said: “Go to the church, get down on your knees, say ‘Lord, here is your servant Samuel, talk to me and I shall hear you’.” When I did as requested, a woman went to the front of the altar during a mass, opened the Bible and read Ecclesiastes, chapter 3, verses 1 to 11, precisely the same text that I wrote down in my copybook a couple of weeks before the confession. What I experienced (the grandeur of God, His presence and His concern for man) is accurately described in Heschel’s books, notably Part II of the Prophets. By experience, I am certain that Heschel was a true prophet. He knew by personal experience what he wrote. No one on Earth would understand the grandeur of my experience but Heschel.

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