restricted access 6. The Self That Transcends Itself: Heschel on Prayer
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s i x T he S elf T hat T ranscends I tself : H eschel on P rayer Heschel’s final work, A Passion for Truth (1973), is a vivid portrayal of the HasidicmasterRebMenahemMendlof Kotzk(1787–1859),knownabove all for his zealous pursuit of truth and integrity in the religious life. One of the central preoccupations of both the Kotzker and his biographer is their insistence that falsehood and self-­ centeredness are inextricably linked,andthatso,too,aretruthandself-­transcendence.1 ForMenahem Mendl, there is no greater spiritual and theological problem than humanity ’s obstinate self-­concern. “The ‘I’,” Heschel writes, “becomes the central problem in the Kotzker’s thinking; it is the primary counterpart to God in the world. The sin of presumptuous selfhood is the challenge and defiance that God faces in the world.”2 The Kotzker had “contempt for the self-­centeredness of man,” and he demanded “the abandonment of all self-­interest.”3 He insisted, in fact, that an authentic quest for truth is predicated on a “total abandonment of self.”4 To strive to be a Jew, the Kotzker taught, is “to disentangle the self from enslavement to the self” and to struggle against “the inexhaustible intransigence of self-­interest.” Indeed, “for the Kotzker, one became an authentic Jew only when he moved out of the prison of self-­ interest, responding with abandon to Heaven’s call.” To have faith, the Kotzker taught, “meant to forget the self, to be exclusively intent on God,”5 and to “disregard self-­regard.”6 All too of­ten, human beings succumb to the temptation to worship themselves, “to act as if [their] own ego[s] were the hub of the world, the source and purpose of existence. What a shameless affront to deny that God is that source and purpose, the sap and the meaning.”7 Extreme self-­ love is inherently tied to idolatry: “In its depths,” Heschel writes, 198 The Self That Transcends Itself 199 “egocentricityamountstoademonicattempttodeposeGodandremake the world in the image of man.”8 The goal of the spiritual life, then, is not just to transcend the self, but to move God to the center of consciousness, to place God where previously there was only self. Faith, then, is “the beginning of the end of egocentricity.”9 If spiritual life requires us “to transcend self-­interest for the sake of God,” then it makes sense that Judaism would “disparage [even] religious acts motivated by self-­ interest.” Indeed, Heschel notes, “Spiritual existence dominated by striving for a reward is easily degraded to opportunism .”10 The pursuits of internal purity or of “personal salvation” are also problematic, since the danger of idolatry—that is, of “do[ing] the Holy in order to please oneself”—is ever-­ present.11 “A striking feature of the Kotzker’s thinking,” Heschel tells us, “is that while he strongly emphasized the importance of the individual’s spiritual striving, he was averse to his concentrating on his own salvation, for this would constitute surrender to self-­ centeredness.”12 One who wants to serve God truly must remain vigilant, lest spiritual pursuits themselves become merely more subtle opportunities for self-­seeking. Toward the end of the book, Heschel is careful to distance himself from what he perceives as the Kotzker’s extremism. The either/or position according to which “every man’s pursuit ha[s] either God or the ego as its focus and goal—this dilemma [Heschel points out] is based upontheassumptionthatGodandtheegoaremutuallyexclusive.”13 But such stark dichotomization, Heschel insists, is not necessary. In fact, it is foreign to the biblical worldview, according to which “the satisfaction of man’slegitimateneedsisablessing.Thereisnoreasontomaintain,then, that in all circumstances disregarding the self should be the norm.”14 While one must strive to overcome self-­centeredness, this quest for self-­ transcendenceneednot—indeed,mustnot—givewaytoself-­hatred.On the contrary, says Heschel—the self is important enough to be called to the service of God: “The Divine and the human are not by nature conceivedtobeatoddsorinconstanttension .ManiscapableofactinginaccordwithGod ;heisabletobeHispartnerinredemption,toimitateHim in acts of love and compassion.”15 Although Heschel does not develop this insight, he is making a crucial point about self-­ transcendence and covenant—namely, that the quest for the former must always keep the 200 Abraham Joshua Heschel latter in mind. Although the spiritual seeker is obligated to transcend selfishness, she must pay heed not to develop a concomitant sense of derision or disdain for the very fact of her selfhood. The self, after all, has a covenantal role to play in furthering God...