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A.J. Heschel’s Prophetic Gift to America

Categorizing America as a Judeo-Christian creation is as analytically accurate as classifying the cold slate waters of Lake Michigan as a collaboration between Hydrogen and Oxygen. It’s obviously true, as these things go, but the bare fact should be considered more of a starting pistol for further inquiry than the finish line itself. Even the truest basic fact can distract us from the larger truth. And as a nation, we often stand guilty of intentionally downplaying some of the more vivacious contributions of our Jewish brothers and sisters to American culture. The manic, obscene ramblings of Lenny Bruce, for example, are as deeply woven into the fabric of the American character as the curse of the Bambino. Allen Ginsberg is as American as The Marlboro Man. Blurring the line between carnival barker and Old Testament prophet, the ever-recurring trope of the spiritually-inflected Jewish gadfly demands acknowledgement from anyone trying to appreciate the full sophistication of our composite culture. Some characters, such as Abbie Hoffman, served more as showmen than prophets, giving off more heat than light. Others, like Abraham Joshua Heschel, uttered weighty verities in so nearly a perfect prophetic diction that they might as well have been speaking directly from within Babylonian captivity.

Abraham Joshua Heschel isn’t as popular as he once was, when as one of the most prominent non-black civil rights leaders he strode arm in arm with Dr. King down the sun baked two-lane highways of Alabama in the 1960’s. Some of his most famous books, such as God in Search of Man, once found an appreciative audience among the midcentury youths hungry for depth against the conforming, secularizing, and increasingly data-driven culture. But these sorts of things don’t appeal to the new Savonarolas of race essentialism, and so he isn’t even well-known enough to cancel. The Polish-born refugee Heschel, who descended from generations of hyper-educated Hasidic Rabbis swaying reverently in candlelight, was fluent in at least four languages, and was as spiritually committed to the intellectual and moral work of prophetic reasoning as any human could possibly be. Unfortunately, he seems to be momentarily overshadowed by the vapid cultural amnesia he spent a lifetime pushing against.

This is what makes Thunder in the Soul: To Be Known by God such an important publication. A short, almost pithy, collection of selections from some of Heschel’s most powerful works, the book is one of the publisher Plough’s “Spiritual Guides” books, which describe themselves as “backpack classics for modern pilgrims.” It’s the perfect way to introduce Heschel’s work, which is difficult to classify or systematize in modern secular terms. But as the book itself explains, “Heschel brought the fervor of a prophet to his role as public intellectual. He challenged the sensibilities of the modern West, which views science and human reason as sufficient. Only to be rediscovering wonder and awe before mysteries that transcend knowledge can we hope to find God again.”

“Rediscover” is an important word when thinking about Heschel’s work. His insights have the timeless feel of the perennial about them and seem more like collective memories recovered through hours of Talmudic contemplation than unique and idiosyncratic insights. In one of the more moving chapters, called “Every Moment Touches Eternity”, Heschel writes:

“Not the individual man, nor a single generation by its own power, can erect the bridge that leads to God. Faith is the achievement of ages, an effort accumulated over centuries. Many of the ideas are as the light of a star that left its source centuries ago. Many songs, unfathomable today, are the resonance of voices of bygone times. There is a collective memory of God in the human spirit, and it is this memory of which we partake in our faith…”

The beauty and power of the passage is representative, as is the message itself, that “memory is the soul’s witness to the capricious mind.”

Heschel’s belief that eternity pierces and sacralizes normal time is rendered in prose which pays homage to “the moment”. It feels reminiscent of Eliot at times, but it gets to the heart of Heschel’s identity as a Jew. “Jews have not preserved monuments,” he writes, “they have retained the ancient moments.” These moments, venerated and hallowed, allow us access to eternity. In fact, they might be our only option as port of entry. The onus is on us to remember the holiness of the time as it passes in before us. As Heschel explains, “The days of our lives are representatives of eternity rather than fugitives, and we must live as if the fate of all of time would totally depend on a single moment.” Redemption, in other words, resides in all time or none at all. And the existential imperative to find eternity in the dissipating movements of time is the conclusion anyone seriously studying Jewish mysticism should reach. “The higher goal of spiritual living,” Heschel reminds us, “is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments.” Heschel’s writing in this vein is a reassuring reminder that often times we have trouble sensing God, not because of a great distance, but because of an unfathomable proximity.

For Heschel, religion doesn’t simply precede the political but subsumes it entirely.

But like all prophets worthy of the tradition, Heschel brings more than sweetness and light. He also exhorts us to improvement and challenges us to take a clear-eyed look at all the ways in which we collectively, as a society, repudiate God’s will. Some of these passages have a political veneer, but as deep spiritual insight they challenge convenient political categories and easy social solutions. For Heschel, religion doesn’t simply precede the political but subsumes it entirely. So for instance when he writes in the chapter ‘God Demands Justice’ that “…righteousness is not just a value; it is God’s part of human life, God’s stake in human history” [italics in original]. What he goes on to write is worth quoting at length:

“The world is full of iniquity, injustice, and idolatry. The people offer animals; the priests offer incense. But God needs mercy, righteousness; His needs cannot be satisfied in the temples, in space, but only in history, in time. It is within the realm of history that man is charged with God’s mission.

Justice is not an ancient custom, a human convention, a value, but a transcendent demand, freighted with divine concern. It is not only a relationship between man and man, it is an act involving God, a divine need. Justice is His line, righteousness His plummet (Isa. 28:17). It is not one of His ways, but in all His ways. Its validity is not only universal, but also eternal, independent of will and experience.”

These are challenging but uplifting words. It’s easy to discern the direct line that runs from such writing directly to Heschel’s involvement with the civil rights movement. Drawing attention to justice as a religious fact, as an attribute of God within history, is Heschel’s greatest strength as a spiritual teacher. But it also might be (as most strengths are) a weakness as well. How do we know for certain that we’re serving justice? What about two competing visions of justice, each calling down the authority of God to justify its case? Justice is easy in many instances—African Americans deserve to be treated with respect and reverence as fellow creatures created in the image of God—but what about the difficult cases?

Here Heschel reverts back to his subtle and often complex rendering of tradition. “Judaism,” explains Heschel, “demands the acceptance of some basic thoughts or norms as well as attachment to some decisive events. Its ideas and its events are inseparable from each other. The spirit manifests itself through God’s presence in history, and the acts of manifestation are verified through basic thoughts or norms.” Balanced precariously against this almost Burkean reverence for norms is Heschel’s admonishment of calcification. “In the realm of the spirit,” he writes, “only he who is a pioneer is able to be an heir. The wages of spiritual plagiarism is the loss of integrity; self-aggrandizement is self-betrayal.” Sounding a strikingly similar chord to Ezra Pound’s dictum to “Make it new”, Heschel chooses to emphasize the “new” instead of the “it”, even though he admits that these inherited norms, the accumulated thought and experiences of countless generations, are truly in the end the only final arbiter of our moral sensibilities. He misdiagnosed the problem with his worrying about “spiritual plagiarism”. Our particular form of self-aggrandizement, then as now, has involved ripping the script into confetti as we begin a poor improvisational performance. We’ve never stood guilty of adhering too close to the letter. But Heschel, as someone able to draw from the deep well of, not just his own religious traditions, but a kind of European secular education that (mostly) disappeared with the Second World War, was understandably myopic to this particularly American symptom. 

For the reputation Heschel had as a scholar of mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary, from reading his words one gathers that the legacy he would be most proud of is the role he played as a public intellectual who brought deep theological wisdom to bear on the events of the day, particularly civil rights and the Vietnam war. Plough has done a mitzva by publishing this collection of his works, and in a form that honors Heschel’s own subordination of intellectual systemization to the breath of God moving over the human heart. “The prophet is a man who feels fiercely,” Heschel reminds us. “God has thrust a burden upon his soul, and he is bowed and stunned at man’s fierce greed.” Ultimately, this spiritual burden was Heschel’s prophetic gift to America—a weight that liberates and redeems through the crushing demand of its divine heft.