Shai Held on Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Call of Transcendence

Shai Held on Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Call of Transcendence


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About the Book

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was a prolific scholar, impassioned theologian, and prominent activist who participated in the black civil rights movement and the campaign against the Vietnam War. He has been hailed as a hero, honored as a visionary, and endlessly quoted as a devotional writer.

In this sympathetic, yet critical, examination, Shai Held elicits the overarching themes and unity of Heschel’s incisive and insightful thought. Focusing on the idea of transcendence—or the movement from self-centeredness to God-centeredness—Held puts Heschel into dialogue with contemporary Jewish thinkers, Christian theologians, devotional writers, and philosophers of religion.

About the Author
Shai Held is Dean and Chair of Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar, an institute for Jewish prayer, personal growth, and Jewish study which he co-founded. He is winner of a 2011 Covenant Award for excellence in Jewish education, and Newsweek has twice named him one of America’s most influential rabbis. You can read and listen to his weekly thoughts on the parashah here.

Praise for Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence
In this lucid and elegant study, one of the keenest minds in Jewish theology of our time probes the vision of one of the most profound spiritual writers of the twentieth century, uncovering a unity that others have missed and shedding light not only on Heschel but also on the characteristically modern habits of mind that impede the knowledge of God. The book is especially valuable for the connections it draws with other philosophers, theologians, and spriritual writers, Jewish and Christian.
–Jon D. Levenson, Harvard University

Heschel’s work and thought have rarely been subjected to such careful, critical exploration. Shai Held’s book is a watershed in this regard. It is philosophically and theologically sophisticated, leaves no stone unturned in its effort to clarify the main themes and foundational commitments that shaped Heschel’s thinking, and employs a rich array of contextual factors, including attention to developments in Christian theology and philosophical thinking.
–Michael L. Morgan, Indiana University Bloomington

A masterful work of scholarship and careful thought. In Shai Held, Heschel has found the serious and critical reader he so richly deserves. Through Heschel, Held’s work reaches out more broadly to treat us to a profound discussion of the great issues in contemporary Jewish theology.
–Arthur Green, Hebrew College Rabbinical School

Presents a highly compelling theory about the core principles of Heschel’s corpus that demands that his thought be studied anew.
–Robert Erlewine, Illinois Wesleyan University

In this lucid and learned account, Abraham Joshua Heschel emerges as a dialectical thinker who holds together such ‘opposites’ as theology and spirituality, the transcendence and self-transcendence of God, the presence and absence of God, the humanity and divinity of the Bible, and prayer as praise and lament. A powerful challenge to Jewish and Christian readers as well as those who stand outside biblical traditions, including secular readers.
–Merold Westphal, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy. Fordham University

Book Interviews
Watch Shai Held give presentations of Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence to three organisations: Tikvah Fund, Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew College Rabbincial School.

ROGER SCRUTON on the undesirability of ‘scruting’ the inscrutable & effing the ineffable

Roger Scruton took exception to a book by Vladimir Jankélévitch, ‘Music and the Ineffable’.

Apparently, so Scruton says, ‘the argument is stated on the first page – namely, that since music works through melodies, rhythms and harmonies and not through concepts, it contains no messages that can be translated into words.

There follows 50,000 words devoted to the messages of music – often suggestive, poetic and atmospheric words, but words nevertheless, devoted to a subject that no words can capture.’

Scruting the inscrutable and effing the Ineffable refers to Alan Watts who said that the aftermath of ‘a Glimpse (of the nondual?) may require an effort to speak the unspeakable, scrute the inscrutable – and eff the ineffable’.

For me great passages of scripture and great poetry or poetic prose bridge the gap sufficiently.

For me the great master of articulating the (almost) ineffable is Rebbe Abraham Joshua Heschel. His book ‘Who is Man’? is a good place for those interested in the inter-spiritual to start. I have added some quotes from Who is Man at the end of this post.

Roger Scruton clearly wants us to go with Wittgenstein, whose Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus concludes with the proposition: “that whereof we cannot speak we must consign to silence.”

Scruton says that it is alright to refer to the ineffable; the mistake is to describe it. Wouldn’t we lose most great scripture and most great poetry if the rule was universally applied? Wouldn’t us lesser mortals make little or no progress without the spiritual adventurers who try to describe their experiences? Surely the issue is that, as in other fields, there is useful writing and less useful writing – and it varies from person to person and time to time as to which writings are useful. We do need to have the means of sorting the wheat from the chaff. That is the challenge.

Scruton’s excellent essay is HERE


Heschel quotes – go to WikiQuotes to see them all;

Who Is Man? (1965)

We manipulate what is available on the surface of the world; we must also stand in awe before the mystery of the world.

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 our confrontation with that which transcends the given.
Ch. 4.
It would be a contradiction in terms to assume that the attainment of transcendent meaning consists in comprehending a notion. Transcendence can never be an object of possession or of comprehension. Yet man can relate himself and be engaged to it. He must know how to court meaning in order to be engaged in it. Love of ultimate meaning is not self-centered but rather a concern to transcend the self.
Ch. 4.
Ultimate meaning is not grasped once and for all in the form of timeless idea, acquired once and for all, securely preserved in conviction. It is not simply given. It comes upon us as an intimation that comes and goes. What is left behind is a memory, and a commitment to that memory. Our words do not describe it, our tools do not wield it. But sometimes it seems as if our very being were its description, its secret tool.
Ch. 4.
The anchor of meaning resides in an abyss, deeper than the reach of despair. Yet the abyss is not not infinite; its bottom may suddenly be discovered within the confines of a human heart or under the debris of might doubts.
This may be the vocation of man: to say “Amen” to being and to the Author of being; to live in defiance of absurdity, notwithstanding futility and defeat; to attain faith in God even in spite of God.
Ch. 4.
The sense of meaning is not born in ease and sloth. It comes after bitter trials, disappointments in the glitters, foundering, strandings. It is the marrow from the bone. There is no manna in our wilderness.
Thought is not bred apart from experience or from inner surroundings. Thinking is living, and no thought is bred in an isolated cell in the brain. No thought is an island.
Ch. 5.
Ultimately there is no power to narcissistic, self-indulgent thinking. Authentic thinking originates with an encounter with the world.
Ch. 5.
Human being is both being in the world and living in the world. Living involves responsible understanding of one’s role in relation to all other beings. For living is not being in itself, but living of the world, affecting, exploiting, consuming, comprehending, deriving, depriving.
Ch. 5.
There are two primary ways in which mans relates himself to the world that surround him: manipulation and appreciation. In the first way he sees in what surrounds him things to be handled, forces to be managed, objects to be put to use. In the second way he sees in what surrounds him things to be acknowledged, understood, valued or admired.
Ch. 5.
Fellowship depends on appreciation while manipulation is the cause of alienation: objects and I apart, things stand dead, and I am alone. What is more decisive: a life of manipulation distorts the image of the world. Reality is equated with availability: What I can manipulate is, what I cannot manipulate is not. A life of manipulation is the death of transcendence.
Ch. 5.
Acceptance is appreciation, and the high value of appreciation is such that to appreciate appreciation seems to be the fundamental prerequisite for survival. Mankind will not die for lack of information; it may perish for lack of appreciation.
Ch. 5.
As a result of letting the drive for power dominate existence, man is bound to lose his sense for nature’s otherness. Nature becomes a utensil, an object to be used. The world ceases to be that which is and becomes that which is available.
It is a submissive world that modern man is in the habit of sensing, and he seems content with the riches of thinghood. Space is the limit of his ambitions, and there is little he desires besides it. Correspondingly, man’s consciousness recedes more and more in the process of reducing his status to that of a consumer and manipulator. He has enclosed himself in the availability of things, with the shutters down and no sight of what is beyond availability.
Ch. 5.
Exclusive manipulation results in the dissolution of awareness of all transcendence. Promise becomes a pretext, God becomes a symbol, truth a fiction, loyalty tentative, the holy a mere convention. Man’s very existence devours all transcendence. Instead of facing the grandeur of the cosmos, he explains it away; instead of beholding, he takes a picture; instead of hearing a voice, he tapes it. He does not see what he is able to face. There is a suspension of man’s sense of the holy. His mind is becoming a wall instead of being a door open to what is larger than the scope of his comprehension. He locks himself out of the world by reducing all reality to mere things and all relationship to mere manipulation. Transcendence is not an article of faith. It is what we come upon immediately when standing face to face with reality.
Ch. 5.
The perceptibility of things is not the end of their being. Their surface is available to our tools, their depth is immune to our inquisitiveness.
Things are both available and immune. We penetrate their physical givenness, we cannot intuit their secret. We measure what they exhibit, we know how they function, but we also know that we do not know what they are, what they stand for, what they imply.
Ch. 5.
Man is naturally self-centered and he is inclined to regard expediency as the supreme standard for what is right and wrong. However, we must not convert an inclination into an axiom that just as man’s perceptions cannot operate outside time and space, so his motivations cannot operate outside expediency; that man can never transcend his own self. The most fatal trap into which thinking may fall is the equation of existence and expediency.
Ch. 5.
The supremacy of expediency is being refuted by time and truth. Time is an essential dimension of existence defiant of man’s power, and truth reigns in supreme majesty, unrivaled, inimitable, and can never be defeated..
Ch. 5.
Authentic existence involves exaltation, sensitivity to the holy, awareness of indebtedness.
Existence without transcendence is a way of living where things become idols and idols become monsters.
Denial of transcendence contradicts the essential truth of being human. Its roots can be traced either to stolidity of self-contentment or to superciliousness of contempt, to moods rather than to comprehensive awareness of the totality and mystery of being.
Denial of transcendence which claims to unveil the truth of being is an inner contradiction, since the truth of being is not within being or within our consciousness of being but rather a truth that transcends our being.
Ch. 5.
Essential to education for being human is to cultivate a sense for the inexpedient, to disclose the fallacy of absolute expediency. God’s voice may sound feeble to our conscience. Yet there is a divine cunning in history which seems to prove that the wages of absolute expediency is disaster.
Happiness is not a synonym for self-satisfaction, complacency, or smugness. Self-satisfaction breeds futility and despair. Self-satisfaction is the opiate of fools.
Ch. 5.
New insight begins when satisfaction comes to an end, when all that has been seen, said, or done looks like a distortion. … Man’s true fulfillment depends on communion with that which transcends him.
Ch. 5.
In our reflection we must go back to where we stand in awe before sheer being, faced with the marvel of the moment. The world is not just here. It shocks us into amazement.
Of being itself all we can positively say is: being is ineffable. The heart of being confronts me as enigmatic, incompatible with my categories, sheer mystery. My power of probing is easily exhausted, my words fade, but what I sense is not emptiness but inexhaustible abundance, ineffable abundance. What I face I cannot utter or phrase in language. But the richness of my facing the abundance of being endows me with marvelous reward: a sense of the ineffable.
Ch. 5.
Being as we know it, the world as we come upon it, stands before us as otherness, remoteness. For all our efforts to exploit or comprehend it, it remains evasive, mysteriously immune. Being is unbelievable.
Ch. 5.
Our concern with environment cannot be reduced to what can be used, to what can be grasped. Environment includes not only the inkstand and the blotting paper, but also the impenetrable stillness in the air, the stars, the clouds, the quiet passing of time, the wonder of my own being. I am an end as well as a means, and so is the world: an end as well as a means. My view of the world and my understanding of the self determine each other. The complete manipulation of the world results in the complete instrumentalization of the self.
Ch. 5.
The world presents itself in two ways to me. The world as a thing I own, the world as a mystery I face. What I own is a trifle, what I face is sublime. I am careful not to waste what I own; I must learn not to miss what I face.
We manipulate what is available on the surface of the world; we must also stand in awe before the mystery of the world. We objectify Being but we also are present at Being in wonder, in radical amazement.
All we have is a sense of awe and radical amazement in the face of a mystery that staggers our ability to sense it.
Ch. 5.
Awe is more than an emotion; it is a way of understanding, insight into a meaning greater than ourselves. The beginning of awe is wonder, and the beginning of wisdom is awe.
Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme. Awe is a sense for transcendence, for the reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things. It enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple: to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal. What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe.
Ch. 5.
Faith is not belief, an assent to a proposition, faith is attachment to the meaning beyond the mystery.
Knowledge is fostered by curiosity; wisdom is fostered by awe. Awe precedes faith; it is the root of faith. We must be guided by awe to be worthy of faith.
Forfeit your sense of awe, let your conceit diminish your ability to revere, and the world becomes a market place for you. The loss of awe is the avoidance of insight. A return to reverence is the first prerequisite for a revival of wisdom, for the discovery of the world as an allusion to God.
Ch. 5.
In his great vision Isaiah perceives the voice of the seraphim even before he hears the voice of the Lord. What is it that the seraphim reveal? “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.”
Holy, holy, holy — indicate the transcendence and distance of God. The whole earth is full of His glory — the immanence or presence of God. The outwardness of the world communicates something of the indwelling greatness of God.
The glory is neither an aesthetic nor physical quality. It is sensed in grandeur, but it is more than grandeur. It is a presence or the effulgence of a presence.
The whole earth is full of His glory, but we do not perceive it; it is within our reach but beyond our grasp. And still it is not entirely unknown to us.
Ch. 5.
In English the phrase that a person has “a presence” is hard to define. There are people whose being here and now is felt, even though they do not display themselves in action and speech. They have a “presence.” … Of a person whose outwardness communicates something of his indwelling power or greatness, whose soul is radiant and conveys itself without words, we say he has presence.
Standing face to face with the world, we often sense a presence which surpasses our ability to comprehend. The world is too much with us. It is crammed with marvel. There is a glory, an aura, that lies about all beings, a spiritual setting of reality.
To the religious man it is as if things stood with their backs to him, their faces turned to God, as if the glory of things consisted in their being an object of divine care.
Ch. 5.
Being is both presence and absence. God had to conceal His presence in order to bring the world into being. He had to make His absence possible in order to make room for the world’s presence. Coming into being brought along denial and defiance, absence, oblivion and resistance.
Ch. 5.
Being points beyond itself.
Accustomed to think in terms of space, the expression “being points beyond itself” may be taken to denote a higher point in space. What is meant, however, is a higher category than being: the power of maintaining being.
Ch. 5.
Being is either open to, or dependent on, what is more than being, namely, the care for being, or it is a cul-de-sac, to be explained in terms of self-sufficiency. The weakness of the first possibility is in its reference to a mystery; the weakness of the second possibility is in its pretension to offer a rational explanation.
Nature, the sum of its laws, may be sufficient to explain in its own terms how facts behave within nature; it does not explain why they behave at all. Some tacit assumptions of the theory of insufficiency remain problematic.
Ch. 5.
The idea of dependence is an explanation, whereas self-sufficiency is an unprecedented, nonanalogous concept in terms of what we know about life within nature. Is not self-sufficiency itself insufficient to explain self-sufficiency?
Ch. 5.
Being is transcended by a concern for being.
Our perplexity will not be solved by relating human existence to a timeless, subpersonal abstraction which we call essence. We can do justice to human being only by relating it to the transcendent care for being.
Ch. 5.

TAGS” Roger Scruton, Alan Watts, nonduality, ineffable, Abraham Joshua Heschel

The first and most important prerequisite of interfaith…

The first and most important prerequisite of interfaith is faith.

page 10
It is only out of the depth of involvement in the unending drama that began with Abraham that we can help one another toward an understanding of our situation.Interfaith must come out of depth, not out of a void absence of faith. It is not an enterprise for those who are half-learned or spiritually immature. If it is not to lead to the confusion of the many, it must remain a prerogative of the few.
Faith and the power of insight and devotion can only grow in privacy. Exposing one’s inner life may engender the danger of desecration, distortion and confusion. Syncretism is a perpetual possibility. Moreover, at a time of paucity of faith, interfaith may become a substitute for faith, suppressing authenticity for the sake of compromise. In a world of conformity, religions can easily be levelled down to the lowest common denominator.

Both communication and separation are necessary. We must preserve our individuality as well as foster care for one another, reverence, understanding, cooperation. In the world of economics, science and technology, cooperation exists and continues to grow. Even political states, though different in culture and competing with one another, maintain diplomatic relations and strive for coexistence. Only religions are not on speaking terms. Over a hundred countries are willing to be part of the United Nations; yet no religion is ready to be part of a movement for United Religions. Or should I say, not yet ready ? Ignorance, distrust, and disdain often characterize their relations to one another. Is disdain for the opposition indigenous to the religious position ? Granted that Judaism and Christianity are committed to contradictory claims, is it impossible to carry on a controversy without acrimony, criticism without loss of respect, disagreement without disrespect ? The problem to be faced is : how to combine loyalty to one’s own tradition with reverence for different traditions ? How is mutual esteem between Christian and Jew possible ?