This past weekend, I read Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence, by my teacher and friend, Rabbi Shai Held. As someone whose theology was primarily influenced by Heschel, it was a joy to see Rabbi Held synthesize Heschel’s many writings and make the case that Heschel sees Judaism as urging each of us to step outside of ourselves, go beyond our selfish needs, and care deeply about the world around us. Heschel argues that we are obligated to transcend ourselves because the whole notion of God’s covenant makes the radical claim that God takes an active interest in humanity, if we are to walk in God’s ways, we too must take an active interest in humanity.
I wanted to share one passage from Rabbi Held’s book that particularly moved me, as it helped me think about how one might translate Heschel’s theology into daily obligations for religious practice. Held writes:
“Heschel’s project is to show us that we are, in fact, significant, but not in the ways in which modernity has trained us to think: we are important not because we have a bottomless capacity for self-assertion (which, tragically, we do), but rather because we have an all-too-rarely realized capacity for self-transcendence. We matter not because of how much we can acquire, but because of how deeply we are able to give. Our dignity lies not in our raw power, but in our capacity for commitment, for responsiveness and reciprocity, for gratitude and indebtedness. At some level, human beings are cognizant of all of this; the pressing question is how to reawaken our now disastrously dormant awareness” (Shai Held, Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence, 230).
This passage, taken from the final chapter of Held’s book, makes the claim that most of humanity improperly utilizes their potential, taking the power given to us by God and using it to make us more selfish, rather than more giving. However, we can only succeed in fulfilling God’s mission for the Jewish people and humanity if we use that power to transform ourselves for the betterment of everyone. Heschel’s challenge is a challenge worth embracing, and Held’s book is an analysis worth reading for anyone who takes Jewish theology seriously, and for anyone who believes that each person has the potential to be passionate about something greater than their own selfish needs. If we answer Heschel’s call, we not only will transform our world, but we will send a clear message to all of humanity that the ideas of Judaism, or any religious tradition, possess a power to transform how we think and how we live.
Read the book, and embrace the challenge.