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Heschel, the First Fifty Pages


By Cyd Weissman

On May 8th, at Yachdav, our yearly gathering of the Coalition of Innovating Congregations we will learn with Rabbi Shai Held the author of Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call to Transcendence. Shai, a Jewish celebrity these days, is the co-founder of Mechon Hadar and known as “an amazing teacher.” All sixty congregations will receive a copy of his book. My assignment: Read it first. Second assignment: Understand it.

Moving from thumbs scanning text messages and mind numbing news headlines to reading a book of deep thought requires adjustment.  I have to quiet down and focus. So I’m trying to use my usually silent train ride to read a real book that has pages that actually turn – No Swipe. Making my assignment more difficult is the man sitting next to me who hasn’t stopped talking to his female colleague across the aisle. She hasn’t stopped chanting “Right,” “I know,” and “ok.” (Is that all you want to hear? Apparently).

I realize I’m actively participating in the very technology deafening-leave-me-alone so I-can-do-what-I-want existence addressed by Heschel in the first 50 pages of the book. We live in a time, he wrote decades ago, where technology leads to us to live with “callousness.”

As a Jewish educator, I’m reading the book guided by the question: In what ways will The Call to Transcendence revive my soul and my work with children and families? As if speaking directly to me, I can imagine, while he pushed his up his glasses that are as au currant as his answer: “there is no education for the sublime. We teach the children how to measure, how to weigh. We fail to teach them how to revere, how to sense wonder and awe.” (p. 43)

Yes, I want to say, we know how to teach them to recite, to engage in activities but for what purpose?
He responds, “The task of religion [religious education] is to instill a sense of “perpetual surprise, a willingness to encounter the world, again and again as if for the first time.” (p. 30)

Without wonder, according to Heschel, we are consumed with self and then we are a “beast.. an animal” concerned only with self satisfaction. The world, the space on the train, and even God, is here to serve my need, we’ve come to believe. According to Heschel technology has led us believe “the only criterion of value is what is useful for the fulfillment of my own desires and aspirations.” (p. 39)

The logic I hear from the first 50 is that technology and routinization lead to us to take the world for granted. “The world is my toolbox.” The remedy for this “the world is my oyster approach” that leads us to turn so inward we lose connection to others is wonder.

With wonder, we have a sense of indebtedness. “In receiving a pleasure, we must return a prayer; in attaining a success, we radiate compassion.” (p.37 & 29). So if our purpose is to release a will to  wonder, which enables gratitude/indebtedness which can lead to faith. “What we lack is not a will to believe, but a will to wonder…we can will ourselves to wonder.” (p. 52)

What will we do differently if our work is to release a will to wonder?

What is the learning that moves us from “self enclosure” to a “deeper sense of compassion and empathy for others”?

What is the learning that intensifies our search “for meanings that somehow lie just beyond sensory appearances” (Fuller, p. 51) and overcomes “the exclusive realty to the stubbornly selfish ‘I’?” (Held, p. 51)

What learning might help me respond differently to the noise, (a.k.a. people)  sitting next to me? What do you recommend? Let me see if the answer is in the next 50 pages.


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