Introduction
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I ntroduction Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972) was one of the most influential religious fig­ ures of the twentieth century. A prolific scholar, he wrote important works on the whole history of Jewish thought; an eloquent and impassioned theologian, he penned several classics of modern Jewish theology and spirituality; a prominent activist, he spoke out in theological terms on behalf of the civil rights movement and against Ameri­ can involvement in the Vietnam War.1 Heschel has been hailed as a hero, honored as a visionary, and endlessly quoted as a devotional writer. His work has generated a large and growing corpus of sec­ ondary literature, some of it both incisive and insightful.2 But unfortunately, many scholarly treatments have tended toward either uncriti­cal adoration or overly facile dismissal. Thus, for the most part, Heschel’s work has not received what it so clearly warrants: scholarly investigation that is at once genuinely sympathetic and unapologetically criti­cal. This work is an attempt toprovidejustthat,andthustofillasignificantlacunainthescholarship on modern Jewish thought. All interpreters of Heschel’s work are indebted to Fritz Rothschild and John Merkle, who blazed the trail for Heschel scholarship by drawing out the philosophical and theological assumptions underlying his work, organizing his of­ten meanderingly presented ideas into an orderly whole, and refusing to treat him as a mere fountain of devotional aphorisms and lapidary formulations.3 Yet for all the insight Rothschild and Merkle offer into Heschel’s theological world, a reader would search their worksinvainforanycriti­calperspectiveonHeschel’swork.Bothwriters seek to present Heschel’s thought in the best possible light and simply 1 2 Abraham Joshua Heschel stop there, presumably leaving the task of constructive criticism to others . Even many more recent writers have tended toward reticence where criticism is concerned. To take but one example, Alexander Even-­Chen hasauthoredanimportant volumediscussingmanyofthekeythemesin Heschel’s work and engaging a broad range of Heschel’s commentators and interpreters, but he, too, mostly shies away from sustained critique. Thus, some of the most problematic aspects of Heschel’s thought—his notionofuniversal,pre-­conceptualreligiousexperiences,forinstance,or his assumption that a separation of theology from chronology is in itself an adequate response to the challenges posed by his­ tori­ cal criticism of theBible—arepresentedwithoutsomuchasawhiffofcriti­calappraisal. At the other extreme are critics like William Kaufman, who makes the startlingly ungenerous claim that “on reading Heschel, one gets the impression that inconsistency is not only tolerated but is made a virtue,”4 or Eliezer Berkovits, who portrays Heschel as a simple-­minded literalist espousing a theology perilously close to Christianity.5 And yet a close perusal of Rothschild’s study shows that something else is also missing. Reading Rothschild, one could almost come away with the impression that Heschel is, at bottom, a systematic philosopher , preoccupied above all with constructing an alternative to West­ern ways of approaching ontology and metaphysics. Conspicuously absent from the essay is any hint either of Heschel’s lyrical prose or of his ardent piety. So striking is the omission that one wonders whether, despite his obvious achievement in exhibiting the internal coherence of Heschel’s thought, Rothschild has not lost something of the heart of the latter’s work. ­ Hes­ chel’s evocative style is not somehow incidental to his project; he is emphatically not a systematic philosopher who just happens to write beautifully. On the contrary, Heschel communicates as he does because he wants to galvanize the heart as well as the mind; to rouse his readers from their existential slumber, not just to present them with a series of intriguing ideas or philosophical approaches. Moreover,­ Heschel’s blazing fervor is not an adventitious aspect of his writing; it is not subsidiary to something else that is primary and more essential. For Heschel, the poetry, the piety, and the theology are all inextricably intertwined.­Heschelisdecidedlynotatheologianoradevotionalwriter; on the contrary, he is both simultaneously. Indeed, he is to some extent Introduction 3 one because he is the other.6 For Heschel, the two projects cannot be disentangled —the goal of theology is not, ultimately, to know something about God, but to know God, and this demands passion, not just cognition . This is why the poetry is so integral to the writing: Heschel strives to (re)introduce his readers to the experience of wonder and the living realityofGod,andforthat,discursive,analyticalprosealonesimplywill not do. But the reader of Heschel must be careful to avoid the opposite extreme as well. When Jacob Petuchowski writes, for example, that what emerges from Heschel’s writings is...