Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Reciprocity and Responsiveness: Self-Transcendence and the Dynamics of Covenant in the Theology and Spirituality of Abraham Joshua Heschel
by Held, Shai, Ph.D., Harvard University, 2011, 430; 3472230
Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation seeks to fill a major lacuna in the scholarship on Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972), one of the most influential Jewish thinkers in modern times. Although academic study of Heschel's work has burgeoned in recent years, nearly four decades after his death we still do not have a book-length investigation of his work that is at once sympathetic and critical. This work explores the central themes in Heschel's thought, clarifying his approach to key questions while also exposing the weaknesses and evasions therein.

Heschel's rich and evocative style has led many to mine his vast oeuvre for spiritual insights and devotional aphorisms, but it has, unfortunately, also caused many to miss the overarching unity in his thought. This dissertation argues that the animating theme of Heschel's work, altogether unnoticed by many scholars and underappreciated by virtually all, is his concern with self-transcendence. The primary meaning of self-transcendence, for Heschel, is the overcoming of egocentricity and the development of concern for the well-being of others.

Heschel's theology pivots around the idea of a God who is absolutely selfless and completely concerned for the well-being of others, especially the oppressed and downtrodden; his attendant spirituality focuses on the human attempt to achieve moments of self-transcendence, to cultivate what he calls "transitive" concern in addition to "reflexive." According to Heschel, the covenants between God and Israel, and between God and humanity more generally, are essentially about a self-transcendent God beckoning human beings to self-transcendence.

The dissertation uncovers and probes another crucial dimension of self-transcendence in Heschel's theology and spirituality. In his view, God restrains His own power in order to make space for human freedom. But human freedom all too easily runs amok, with horrific and murderous consequences. Like God, then, human beings must learn to restrain their immense power so as to make room for others. Thus, according to Heschel, the covenants between God and Israel, and between God and humanity, are also about the self-limiting God beckoning human beings to limit themselves.

The discussions in this study necessarily involve the investigation of a variety of topics in which Heschel's characteristic concern for self-transcendence in a covenantal framework manifests itself, often in subtle ways, such as his phenomenology of wonder, awe, and indebtedness; his insistence on the reality of pre-conceptual experiences of God; his approach to theological method and to religious anthropology; his attempt to take historical criticism seriously while continuing to affirm that the Bible is divine revelation; his understanding of the pathos of God, and his polemic against the hellenization of Jewish theology; his complex and multi-faceted theological response to the Shoah; and his conception of prayer as an act of human self-transcendence in order to make space for God in the world.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Levenson, Jon D.
School: Harvard University
School Location: United States -- Massachusetts
Source: DAI-A 72/11, Dissertation Abstracts International
Subjects: Religion, Theology, Judaic studies
Keywords: Covenant, Heschel, Abraham Joshua, Holocaust, Judaism, Mysticism, Revelation - Judaism, Self-transcendence, Wonder
Publication Number: 3472230
ISBN: 978-1-124-85990-3
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