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  • Abraham Joshua Heschel. The Call of Transcendence by Shai Held
  • Edward K. Kaplan
Abraham Joshua Heschel. The Call of Transcendence Shai Held. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014. xiv + 333 pp.

This important book successfully applies careful textual analyses (the “academic dimension”) in the service of an open-minded traditional Judaism that the author himself represents. Heschel is not easy to understand, but he is often enthralling. His discourse is too rich, too musically organized (repetitious within bounds of rhythm and meaning), and many readers may not take theology seriously. That recognized, Shai Held has provided new readers with a sophisticated guide through Heschel’s major works—especially God in Search of Man, Man’s Quest for God, Heavenly Torah (torah min ha-shamayim), and A Passion for Truth—and scholars will be grateful his meticulous interpretations and forthright criticism of Heschel’s characteristic weaknesses. Held’s sympathetic understanding of Heschel’s embrace of canonically opposing perspectives—the “polarities” of Jewish tradition—convincingly demonstrates Heschel’s significant contribution to twentieth-century theology, both before and after the Shoah. And, for the first time in Heschel scholarship, Held develops comparisons with Christian theologians Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, Paul Tillich, Johann Baptist Metz, and others.

Shai Held is a lucid guide, respectful of his reader. The introduction (1–27) clearly defines Heschel’s central focus on transcendence: to pass from the human perspective of “reflective” self-concern to God as absolute “transitive concern.” This “recentering” of the human ego to God as Subject is indeed the fundamental dynamic of Heschel’s thought. Held quotes generously from Heschel’s works, with the inevitable repetitions. I for one appreciate the repetitions as we become increasingly familiar with the consistency of Heschel’s terminology, the broader, deeper theological context of his aphorisms. In this way Held advances the book’s double goal: to combine critical analysis and reverence for Heschel’s witness to the living God, his “theology.”

Among his definitive contributions are, first and foremost, his account of Heschel’s phenomenology of radical amazement. Chapter 1, “Wonder, Intuition, and the Path to God,” completes the pioneering work of John Merkle while admitting to some of Heschel’s flaws, such as his dismissal of religious doubt. Held adds some helpful distinctions: “Heschel’s insistence on the universality of his experiences may be regarded, however quixotic, to generate what I wold call ‘universal subjective certainty,’ which is as good, [End Page 120] for his purposes, as objective certainty” (65). This is part of Held’s excellent account of Heschel’s ambivalence toward epistemology, as is his study of Heschel’s rejection of the term “mysticism”—based on comparisons with Evelyn Underhill and Thomas Merton.

Held’s analysis of Heschel and Heidegger is a major contribution (see esp. 46–51), based on their common critique of modernity: “both lament the culture of expediency and manipulation (though not technology itself . . .), and both point to another path, constituted by openness and receptivity—there are crucial differences. For one thing, Heschel’s attempt to restore wonder to its rightful place is aimed at generating responsiveness to the commanding presence of the biblical God; the openness Heidegger advocates is to Being, surely not to the God of Israel” (48).

The relatively brief chapter 2, “Theological Method and Religious Anthropology: Heschel Among the Christians,” provides a transition to the major contribution of chapter 3, “Revelation and Co-Revelation.” Held clears up once and for all the naive rejection (or appreciation) of Heschel as a “poet,” a master of language that remains ornamental. Not only do Heschel’s theory and use of poetic language train readers to think religiously, but he also demands a bold independence of interpretation: “at the same time that he defends scripture against charges of barbarism or cruelty, Heschel unambiguously champions ‘the independence of human understanding and its power to challenge a prophet’s claim’[See 272n116]. For Heschel, these two commitments are inextricably intertwined” (121). There are many insightful comments about Heschel facing theological ambiguities and contradictions, more or less successfully.

With chapter 4, “The Pathos of the Self-Transcendent God,” Shai Held delves into Torah min ha-shamayim (edited and translated as Heavenly Torah) and elucidates...


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