Shai HELD. Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Call of Transcendence. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2013. pp. 300. $39.00 hbk. ISBN 978-0-253-01126-8. Reviewed by Francis BERNA, La Salle University, Philadelphia, PA 19141
Teaching Christology at a Catholic University continuously provides the professor with keen insight into what students have “heard” in Catholic high schools, parish religious education, and Sunday school. While Marcion faced condemnation for his rejection of the sacred texts of Judaism, his spirit lives on. Students all too frequently recount that the God of the Hebrew Bible is not the God of the Christian Scriptures. Ancient Judaism, they contend, believes in a God of war, violence, and punishment. Christianity professes faith in a Jesus who was nice to everyone, and a God of love. These students would be well served to meet the God in whom Abraham Joshua Heschel believes.
While Held’s text would be well beyond their reach, and even the reach of many graduate students in Master’s programs, the text provides an amazing study of Heschel’s work. Professors of undergraduate and graduate students should study the text.
Though only vaguely familiar with the person of Heschel, and having read none of his original works, this reviewer found that Held’s text provides a clear and systematic treatment of the Rabbi’s work. And the text prompts the reviewer to read two or three of Heschel’s own texts. Wanting to provide neither adoration nor dismissal of Heschel’s theology, the author accomplishes his task to offer an overview that is both “sympathetic and critical” (p. 1). The text moves in a logical manner with increasing force as Held moves toward his conclusion.
In addition to offering my undergraduates a better perspective on the Holy and Blessed One of the Hebrew Scriptures, Heschel, as Held develops, writes passionately of the absence and hiddeness of God in modernity. As human beings increasingly turn away from the Divine, so the Divine turns away from the world. Human freedom becomes self-assertion with all its attendant selfishness and violence. In contrast, according to Heschel, human beings have the capacity for self-transcendence. Held expresses this as coming to appreciate “how deeply we are able to give” (p. 230).
As higher education has become a path to employment and higher levels of income, so too has religious faith often become, “what do I get out of it?” Both attitudes reflect a loss of “Wonder” as understood by Heschel. Held explains this well. He notes Heschel’s contention that Wonder is the antithesis of “taking things for granted (p. 231). Prayer makes room for God to re-enter the world. Even in times of God’s hiddenness the believer prays, not only petitioning God, but also arguing with God, and praising the Holy and Blessed One who abides even when hidden.
Shai Held engages the reader with scholarship of great breadth and depth. Chapter Two offers one example of his breadth. He examines Heschel’s theological method in relation to the methodology of Barth, de Lubac, Rahner, and Tillich. In a later chapter he considers Heschel as a mystic against the background of Evelyn Underhill and Thomas Merton. He likewise considers similarities and differences between Heschel and Martin Buber. With over 283 notes for the first chapter, no reader could doubt the level of scholarship.
The author appears to get it right in identifying Heschel as both an anti-mystic and a mystic. He appreciates that Heschel has a preference for the Prophet. And, Held gets it right that the Prophet, according to Heschel, sees him/herself in communion with the Holy and Blessed One, coming to see the world as God sees the world. Where Held might improve lies in the mystic’s ability to see “both/and.” Held in his analysis of Heschel tends to see too much as “either/or.” While this is helpful for critical analysis, a goal of the text, it generally fails to capture the mystic’s experience.
More than anything else, this reader would like to have undergraduates, and graduates, come to appreciate Heschel’s understanding of the “pathos of God.” Here they would come to appreciate Heschel’s disdain for the God of Greek philosophy, and perhaps become engaged with the God of the Bible. And, perhaps taken up with the Holy and Blessed One of Scripture, these same students may come to appreciate as Heschel writes “It is for us to decide whether freedom is self-assertion or response to demand.” As Held explains, this means our freedom lies in our capacity to rise above the selfish ego (p. 234). Herein lies a prophetic word and vision much needed for people of every faith in a post-modern world.