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Preparation Materials for Monday’s Call with Rabbi Shai Held

R. Shai Held

June 2014

 Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence

There’s still time to sign up! The conference call will take place on Monday, June 23rd from 12-1 pm.


1)     The greatest beauty grows at the greatest distance from the ego (God in Search of Man, p. 404)

2)     A man entirely unconcerned with his self is dead; a man exclusively concerned with his self is a beast.   The child becomes human…by becoming sensitive to the interests of other selves.  Human is he who is concerned with other selves.  Man is a being that can never be self-sufficient, not only by what he must take in but also by what he must give out.  A stone is self-sufficient, man is self-surpassing… A vital requirement of human life is transitive concern, a regard for others, in addition to reflexive concern, an intense regard for self.  At first the other selves are considered as means to attain the fulfillment of [a person’s] own needs.  The shift from the animal to the human dimension takes place when, as a result of various events, such as observing other people’s suffering, falling in love or by being morally educated, he begins to acknowledge the other selves as ends, to respond to their needs even regardless of personal expediency (Man is Not Alone, pp. 137-139).

Wonder and Self-Transcendence:

3)     The soul is endowed with a sense of indebtedness, and wonder, awe, and fear unlock that sense of indebtedness. Wonder is the state of our being asked.

In spite of our pride, in spite of our acquisitiveness, we are driven by an awareness that something is asked of us; that we are asked to wonder, to revere, to think and to live in a way that is compatible with the grandeur and mystery of living.

What gives birth to religion is not intellectual curiosity but the fact and experience of our being asked (GSM, p. 112).

4)     How shall we ever reciprocate for breathing and thinking, for sight and hearing, for love and achievement? (Man is Not Alone, p. 39).

5)     The more deeply we meditate, the more we realize that the question we ask is a question we are being asked; that man’s question about God is God’s question of man (GSM, p. 132)


God and Self-Transcendence:

6)     To the prophet, God does not reveal himself in an abstract absoluteness, but in a specific and unique way—in a personal and intimate relation to the world. God does simply command and expect obedience; He is also moved and affected by what happens in the world and he reacts accordingly. Events and human actions arouse in Him joy or sorrow, pleasure or wrath. He is not conceived as judging facts, so to speak, “objectively,” in detached impassibility. He reacts in an intimate and subjective manner, and thus determines the value of events. Quite obviously in the Biblical view, man’s deeds can move Him, affect Him, grieve Him, or, on the other hand, gladden and please Him. This notion that God can be intimately affected, that He possesses not merely intelligence and will, but also feeling and pathos, basically defines the prophetic consciousness of God (Between God and Man, pp. 116-117).

7)     The God of the philosophers is all indifference, too sublime to possess a heart or to cast a glance at our world (MNA, p. 244).

8)     Biblical religion begins with God addressing man, with His entering into covenant with man.  God is in need of man.  A Supreme Being, apathetic and indifferent to man, may denote an idea, but not the living God of Israel (The Prophets, vol. 2, p. 15).

9)     Implicit in Heschel is an interesting hierarchy: the God of Israel is all transitive concern, the human being is an alloy of transitive and reflexive concern (not to mention bald egocentrism and self-assertion), and the God of Aristotle is nothing but reflexive concern (or perhaps better: no concern at all). In the ways that matter most to Heschel, then, Aristotle’s God is less than a human being, not more (Shai Held, Abraham Joshua Heschel, pp. 140-141).

10)  To respond to God is, quite simply, to bring an end to callousness and indifference. It is in this context that Heschel’s polemic against what he considers the Hellenization of Jewish theology should be understood… Heschel deems the God of Aristotle, Philo, and Maimonides to be so transcendent and self-contained as to be altogether heartless and aloof. In a world of genocide and atomic devastation, a world in which human beings are heedless and uncaring, what good is such a God? In a world in which man is impervious to the suffering of his fellow, what could be more otiose than a God who is an Unmoved Mover? In what we might imagine as a perverse form of imitatio dei, according to Heschel an indifferent God can only yield an indifferent humanity. But the God of the prophets is entirely different, profoundly affected by the cries of the oppressed and downtrodden. The God of Israel is a God of pathos and concern, and to worship this God–really to worship this God–is to have our indifference shattered, and our stubborn selfishness torn to shreds (Shai Held, Abraham Joshua Heschel, p. 232).


11)   We do not step out of the world when we pray; we merely see the world in a different setting.  The self is not the hub, but the spoke of the revolving wheel.  In prayer we shift the center or living from self-consciousness to self-surrender.  God is the center toward which all forces tend.  He is the source, and we are the flowing of His force, the ebb and flow of His tides.

Prayer takes the mind out of the narrowness of self-interest, and enables us to see the world in the mirror of the holy.  For when we betake ourselves to the extreme opposite of the ego, we can behold a situation from the aspect of God (Man’s Quest for God, p. 7).

12)   What intrinsic connection is there between self-transcendence and the aspiration to bring God back into the world? For Heschel, I would suggest, human selfishness and divine immanence are at eternal loggerheads: an excess of self, the kind of self-centeredness that values only expediency and utilization, closes off one’s capacity to hear and respond to the call of the other (as well as of the Other). This is true both of individual lives, and of the collective life of humanity: the more focused we are on ourselves, the less porous we are, and thus, the less able to be penetrated by the word, will, and presence of God we render ourselves. Self-transcendence, in contrast, is a kind of tzimtzum, a self-contraction that allows the other (and the Other) to make a claim upon us. In the act of overcoming myself (in prayer or elsewhere), then, I create an empty space, as it were, in which the word of God can be heard and the presence of God can dwell. Thus, in transcending the self, the human being invites God’s return into his own life, and into the life of humanity as a whole… Overcoming oneself, then is a form of opening oneself. God dwells, the Kotzker famously taught, wherever we let God in (Shai Held, Abraham Joshua Heschel, pp. 227-228).


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