(On The Tenth Anniversary of the Death of Abraham Joshua Heschel)

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 - 1972)

(On The Tenth Anniversary of the Death of Abraham Joshua Heschel)

Edmond La B. Cherbonnier


During the lifetime of a famous thinker it is difficult to judge how well his writings will stand the test of time. When assessed on their merits, without their author to defend them, they may lose much of their persuasiveness. How quickly some of yesterday’s theological luminaries have lost much of their luster: In the case of Abraham Heschel, however, the reverse may be true. The importance of his thought may have been underestimated during his lifetime because of his personal greatness. His sympathy, sensitivity, and dedication, his generosity and integrity, the breadth of his concerns as well as the depth of his scholarship - - all these guarantee him a lasting place among the religious leaders of America. It is possible, however, that in our admiration for the man himself, we could miss the full significance of his religious thought. Now that his writings have stood on their own for ten years, no longer in the shadow of their author’s living presence, we are in a better position to appreciate their importance.

I want to discuss two of Heschel’s most original and important concepts, divine pathos and prophetic sympathy. Divine pathos refers to Heschel’s daring suggestion that God Himself is capable of emotion, is in fact more emotionally sensitive than human beings. In Heschel’s words, “He is moved and affected by what happens in the world, and reacts accordingly.”1 Prophetic sympathy, in Heschel’s technical sense, is a sharing in the emotions of God, as exemplified preeminently by the prophets of Israel. “The prophet,” he says, “is guided not by what he feels, but by what God feels.”2 These two correlative terms are central to Heschel’s religious thought. I shall speak about how he arrived at them, some objections to them, and especially their significance, for they led Heschel to creative ways of handling many traditional theological problems, and three in particular: first, the ancient dilemma of faith versus reason, or theology versus philosophy; second, the unsatisfactory alternative between mystical ecstasies, on the one hand, and the pitfalls of moralism on the other; and third, the question of why good deeds should be done, and of how to generate the right motivation for doing them.

To Jews and Christians it should hardly be news that God is capable of emotion. Does not the Bible speak constantly of God’s chesed, or loving kindness? And is not love an emotion? For that matter, the Bible speaks not only of God’s love, but also of his wrath, his rejoicing, and even pain. Though the phrase “divine pathos” is original with Heschel, he would be the last to claim to hive invented what it stands for. On the contrary, it is one of the Bible’s main themes. Yet the fact is that many if not most religious thinkers have been embarrassed by the thought of God’s emotional involvement. Some, like Maimonides, reject it outright, while others, more circumspect, assure us that although the Bible does refer to God’s love, what it means by the term has nothing to do with the ordinary meaning of the word. Anders Nygren, for example, declares: “Christian love is by nature wholly other than human love, and its prototype is nothing else but God’s agape.”3

In the early centuries of the common era there were Christians rash enough to take their stand on the testimony of the Bible, and to maintain that God does have emotions. They were summarily declared heretical, and their teaching condemned under the label of patripassionism, which thereafter was tabu to Christian thinking.

What are the grounds for objecting to the notion of divine pathos? The main objections come from the side of philosophy. Philosophers argue that if God is truly sovereign he must be self-sufficient; that is, not at the mercy of any influence outside himself. An emotion, however, is precisely a response to some external influence. Philosophers would therefore deride Heschel’s statement that God is affected by events in history, or that the failure of man is a frustration to Him. They would regard such statements as demeaning to God.

At a less technical level, the idea of divine pathos is ridiculed as crude anthropomorphism, a transparent case of projecting the human image onto the heavens. Such an image may have certain pedagogical value at the mental level of children or primitive peoples, who are unable to conceive anything “higher.” But for anyone with a modicum of sophistication, it is not to be taken literally, but as a kind of picture-thinking, a symbolic expression of what is more adequately expressed by philosophical terms like the Absolute, the Unmoved Mover, or the Ground of Being.

In most philosophies, the conception of God serves as the model toward which human beings should aspire. Since the God of the philosophers is emotionally neutral, it is not surprising that the ideal human being is also conceived in the same way. For the Stoics, the ideal was not pathos but its opposite, apathy; for Spinoza, human emotions represented a kind of bondage from which philosophy could liberate the intelligent few; for Immanuel Kant, “the wise man must never succumb to emotions, even to that of sympathy for the evils which befall his best friend.”4 For most philosophers, therefore, prophetic sympathy, like divine pathos, is irrational.

It is no exaggeration to say that Heschel’s reply to this criticism breaks fresh ground in the history of religious thought. Historically, Christians and Jews have seen only two alternatives, the one as unsatisfactory as the other: They could be biblical, or they could be rational, but not both - - at least, not consistently both. Theology consequently runs the entire gamut from Tertullian’s famous exclamation, “I believe because it is impossible,” with its disregard for reason, to Paul Tillich’s “Godbeyond God,” which bears no discernible relation to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They one sacrificed reason to the Bible, the other sacrificed the Bible to philosophic orthodoxy.

Heschel saw the futility of both approaches, and proposed a way out of the dilemma. Unintimidated by the prestige of traditional philosophers, he engaged them on their home ground, that of rationality. “Take another look,” he said, “at your heartless God.” On closer inspection, he is not so sovereign after all, for there are things he cannot do - - or rather, things the philosopher will not allow him to do. Suppose, for example, that this God wanted to become emotionally involved in human history, with all the heartache that would entail. The philosopher would forbid it as unbecoming a deity. It is thus clear who is calling the tune: The philosopher’s god is a prisoner, the victim of restrictions imposed by human speculation. The biblical God, by contrast, “does whatever he pleases,” as the psalmist says. To the philosopher this God might have said, “My ways are not your ways, and my thoughts are not your thoughts. In my position you would never choose to identify with human kind, to share their joys and sufferings. Yet that is my choice.”

Heschel proceeded to argue that the God of pathos, not the neutral God of the philosophers, has the stronger rational credentials. For centuries, no one had challenged the philosophers’ claim that theirs was the only rational God. What Heschel did was to break their monopoly, by showing that it is possible to be both biblical and rational at the same time. He even argued that biblical thinking, as he called it, was more rational than traditional rationalism, precisely because it does contain an emotional element.

He would have agreed with Pascal that “the heart hath its reasons which the reason does not know,” but for him this did not entail a choice between reason and emotion. Rather, the highest rationality is attained only when reason and emotion are in harmony. As he boldly puts it, “We have to love in order to know.”5

Never again, therefore, need Jew or Christian apologize or make excuses for the God who cares. Heschel showed that such a God is in fact not a philosophic liability, but an asset. He is not the Unmoved Mover of Aristotle, but the Most Moved Mover of the Bible. As against Paul Tillich, who defined religion as man’s ultimate concern, Heschel contended that Tillich had it backwards. For more often than not, the human attitude toward God is not concern but indifference. For the Bible, it is man who is the object of God’s ultimate concern, rather than vice versa. God has a stake in our destiny.

Are such statements merely symbolic or metaphorical? Heschel was emphatic that they are not. They are “not a compromise - - ways of accommodating higher meanings to the lower level of human understanding.” 6 To regard them as such is to vitiate the entire biblical message. “We do not suffer symbolically,” he said, “we suffer literally, truly, deeply. Symbolic remedies are quackery. The will of God is either real or it is a delusion.”7 He therefore did not hesitate to speak of God in the same terms which distinguish human beings from animals. “God is absolutely personal - - devoid of anything impersonal”8, “endowed with will and freedom.”9 “A being that lacks the characteristics of personal existence is not our problem.”10 God is “a Being Who wills and acts . . as personal God to personal man.”11

Is this anthropomorphism? It depends upon what one means by the term. If the gods of polytheism are anthropomorphic, then the biblical God is not. The differences are many, but for our purposes it will suffice to note the contrast in emotion. It is exactly the difference one would expect as between a real God and man-made ones. The emotions ascribed to the deities of Mount Olympus are petty jealousy, murderous vengefulness, vanity, amorous desire, self-pity - - all narcissistic emotions. No wonder Plato was scandalized by them. Obviously, there is nothing of this in the Bible. On the contrary, the emotions of the biblical God are not capricious, or arbitrary, or egocentric. There is an integrity about them because they are a function of his purpose for human history: the creation of the kind of community in which everyone loves his neighbor as himself.

In another sense, however, the biblical conception of God is unashamedly anthropomorphic. In Heschel’s words, “The language the prophets employed to describe God’s supreme concern was an anthropomorphism to end all anthropomorphisms.”14 By that he meant that God is best understood by analogy with human emotions. He therefore also called this usage anthropopathism. Of course human emotions, by comparison with God’s are misguided and fickle. Hence the Bible, said Heschel, is not so much man’s theology as it is God’s anthropology - - the poignant contrast between human emotions as they actually are and as God would have them.

When God’s purpose is thwarted, the divine pathos is manifest as wrath, though a sorrowful wrath, which God regrets: “Thus says the Lord of hosts, Why do you commit this great evil against yourselves? . . . Why do you provoke me to anger?”12 Such anger is not vindictive but corrective, designed to bring men to their senses. Heschel calls it “suspended love.”

The mode of pathos to which Heschel devotes most attention is the frustration God experiences at human perversity, “his disillusionment at people’s disloyalty,”13 his anguish at human suffering, with which he completely identifies. The classic expression of this aspect of pathos is of course the book of Hosea, where God’s feelings with regard to Israel are compared to those of a husband betrayed by his wife. And it is not beneath God’s dignity to plead with his people to return (Hosea 14: 1).

Finally, God looks to the day when there will no longer be any occasion for these negative modes of pathos, when his purpose will have been accomplished, and men will indeed live :in mutual affection: “For behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and her people a joy. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and be glad in my people “ (Isaiah 65: 18-19). In every case, the divine pathos is God’s emotional reaction to the fortunes of his moral purpose, which is to evoke human love.

The correlative of divine pathos is prophetic sympathy. The prophet is someone whose emotions are in tune with God’s. “To be a prophet,” says Heschel, “means to identify one’s concern with the concern of God.”15 This emotional unanimity is the Bible’s distinctive kind of religious experience, an alternative to the mystical ecstasy in which the soul is swallowed up by the all-inclusive infinite.

Christians and Jews have rightly resisted this mystical summons to self-obliteration, a summons nowhere found in the Bible. Yet it will always exert a powerful appeal as long as the only alternative to it is duty for duty’s sake, which can so easily become tedious, burdensome, impersonal, and even destructive. Hence Heschel’s distaste for the word “obedience” as giving a false impression of the relation between man and God. Indeed, where the English translation says “obey”, the Hebrew original says “hear” (shema); the meaning of torah in Hebrew is not “law,” but rather “the ways of the Lord”; and not only are the ten commandments themselves called in Hebrew the ten words; they are written, not in the imperative, but in the future tense.

The Bible thus offers an alternative both to mystical rapture on the one hand, and to sheer grudging obedience, on the other, one that can touch a person at the deepest levels while at the same time preserving his separate identity, and indeed enhancing it: prophetic sympathy, the awesome privilege of sharing in the emotions of God himself.

This is a very different thing from the mystical urge to merge. Pathos and sympathy are relational, person-to-person. By sharing God’s emotions, the prophet becomes not less of a self, but more. Are there any more striking portraits in all literature than those of Elijah, or Isaiah, or Jeremiah? Of course we cannot all be prophets. But their example shows us what the Bible means by religious experience, and how we, in our own small way, may partake of it too, by attuning our own emotions to God’s.

It remains to distinguish prophetic sympathy from mere sentimentality, and all the self-deceptions that go with it. There must be safeguards against merely luxuriating in an emotional vapor bath. Heschel again finds them in the Bible, the most important of which is the test of action. If, instead of merely nurturing an emotion, one is willing to act on it, as Heschel so conspicuously did, even at great personal cost, one is unlikely to be indulging in emotion for its own sake. Just as the biblical God is a God who acts, the prophets follow his example. And when their actions demonstrably do promote the purposes of God, as Heschel’s did, that is a further safeguard against self-deception.

But what if we are not capable of prophetic sympathy, if our hearts are still hardened? Must we then do nothing for fear of being hypocrites? Heschel’s answer to that question is full of psychological insight: we do not have to wait for the right motive in order to do a good deed. On the contrary, he said, the deed itself can create the emotion. That is, by doing God’s work we become conscious of sharing his pathos. “There is power in the deed that purifies desire. It is the act. . . that educates the will. The good motive comes into being while doing the good.”16

It is of course the glory of Judaism to have insisted unequivocally upon the primacy of action. Heschel provided a powerful motivation for it. Biblical man responds to the word of the Lord, not like a soldier obeying an order, but in the hope of rising to the level of prophetic sympathy, and thereby of cooperating with God in creating a community of mutual friendship. “The purpose of all mitsvoth is to purify the heart,”17 “to sanctify man.”18 “All observance is training in the art of love. To forget that love is the purpose of all mitsvoth is to vitiate their meaning.”19

There is an important lesson for Christians in Heschel’s analysis of action. For that matter, the entire New Testament is illumined by what he calls biblical thinking. In order to understand it as originally in tended, one must see it from the perspective of its authors, who shared all the hard-won premises and convictions of their Hebrew ancestors. Viewed in that light, it is a continuation, almost a postscript, of the Hebrew Bible. Hence Heschel’s remark that one never fully understands the New Testament until one reads it in Hebrew. For no other language can fully do justice to the context of ideas, the conceptual framework, from which its authors wrote, and without which the New Testament is regularly misunderstood.

In the matter of action specifically, or “good works,” to follow Christian usage, Heschel’s point is exemplified in the recent work of Pinchas Lapide on the sermon on the mount. By transposing them back into their Hebraic context, Lapide clarifies many of the controversial passages about being perfect, about turning the other cheek, about going the extra mile, about loving one’s enemies.

Traditionally, these injunctions have been understood as unrealistically Utopian; or as unattainable ideals toward which we should nevertheless aspire; or as a prescription for self-abasement; or as proof of humanity’s utter sinfulness and consequent need for the mercy of God. Lapide argues that such interpretations are a perfect illustration of the change in meaning that occurs when the words of Jesus are wrenched out of their natural habitat, the context of biblical thinking, and transplanted into some other conceptual framework. The Bible, he says, echoing Heschel, is concerned with actions, and especially with actions that overcome enmity between people. In that strict sense, it is wholly pragmatic; that is, concerned with means to accomplish the purposes of God in history:

The answer comes to light only when Jesus’ command is re-translated back into the Hebrew. When that is done, it is clear that. . it is actions that are required. “Doing” is one of the most frequent terms in the vocabulary of Jesus. . . What is demanded is. . . practical proofs of love, as for example the visiting of the sick, the secret giving of alms, the comforting of mourners, providing bread for the hungry - - in a word, all the practical proofs of love that issue in deeds and foster love.

Jesus. . . demands. . . a reconciling mode of dealing with the opponent which aims at his ”de-hostilization” (Entfeindung). It aims at making the enemy cease being an enemy. . . Jesus was about “dehostilization” through powerful deeds - - and by no means was about a fanatical self-obliteration. . . Jesus lifts up this de-fossilization method as a concrete strategy for the shrinking of conflicts,. . . one to be practiced through pragmatically doable methods that are within the capacity of any sober thinking human being as a collaborator of God.20

Lapide’s interpretation on the injunctions of Jesus are. thus hardly distinguishable from Heschel’s understanding of a mitsvah. Heschel’s method thus restores to the New Testament not only a more plausible meaning, but also the vigor and vitality of its proper matrix, the Hebrew Bible. One would only want to add, in reference to “sober thinking human beings,” that perhaps what Jesus had in mind was rather the exercise of imagination, the ingenuity and inventiveness to see what healing word or deed the circumstances call for. By way of illustration, he may have tossed off, on the spur of the moment, suggestions like turning the other cheek, or going the extra mile, as examples of the extremes to which one should be prepared to go not as an exercise in selflessness, but in order to convert an opponent into a friend.

To sum up: Heschel has shown what the consequences are if we take seriously the biblical affirmation that God has a heart. By following where that clue leads, he was able to illumine three areas of theological controversy, and to suggest biblical solutions. First, the dilemma of faith versus reason could be overcome by the development of thinking that would be faithful to the Bible, and at the same time rigorously rational: a philosophy based upon the concept of a living God, the God who cares. Second, the choice between mystical self-annihilation, on the one hand, and the emotional hunger of moralism, on the other, would be superseded by the notion that, for the Bible, religious experience consists in sharing the emotions of God himself. Third, as to the problem of motivation, good deeds would no longer be seen as obedience to arbitrary imperatives, but as opportunities to defuse hostility and nurture mutual esteem, thereby fulfilling oneself, one’s neighbor, and however unexpectedly, even God as well.

If such conclusions are optimistic, they also entail a negative side, a warning. Heschel frequently reminds his readers that in abandoning the God who cares, humanity would become heartless. For him, “heartless” was synonymous with “pagan.” As if to confirm his apprehension, a recent article by Martin E. Marty is entitled “The Winter of the Heart,”21 in which the author laments the callousness of the world toward the massacres in Assam, in the Middle East, in Central America, and especially toward the human suffering in our midst. Would that Heschel were here to quicken our consciences again, as he did at Selma and during the war in Viet Nam, before it is too late.

Arthur Koestler once remarked that even the most sensational scientific discoveries, once they have been made and the novelty has worn off, are apt to seem almost embarrassingly obvious. The same might be said of Heschel’s work. On the one hand, the concepts of divine pathos and prophetic sympathy, as he develops them, are highly original; on the other hand, once he has pointed them out, one wonders why their significance was not perceived long since. Thanks to him, they now seem to leap out from nearly every chapter of the Bible. Heschel’s mission was thus comparable to that of the prophets themselves: to open our eyes, not just for the sake of seeing, but to soften our hearts.


1Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, Vol. II; New York: Harper and Row, 1962. p. 4.

2Ibid., p. 94.

3Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros; London, S. P. C. K., 1953. p. 2 .

4Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, Vol. II; New York: Harper and Row, 1962. p. 35.

5Abraham J. Heschel, God in Search of Man, New York: Farrar, Straus, an Cudahy, 1955. p. 281.

6Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, Vol. II; New York: Harper and Row, 1962: p. 51.

7Abraham J. Heschel, “Symbolism and Jewish Faith,” Religious Symbolism; F. Ernest Johnson, ed., New York: Harper and Brothers, 1955. p. 79.

8Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, Vol. II; New York: Harper and Row, 1962. p. 5.

9Abraham J. Heschel, God in Search of Man, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, 1955, p. 129.

10Ibid., p. 126.

11Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets, Vol. II; New York: Harper and Row, 1962. p. 266.

12Ibid., p. 74.

13Ibid., p. 93.

14Ibid., p. 52.

15Ibid., p. 89.

16Abraham J. Heschel, God in Search of Man, New York: Farrar, Straus, and Cudahy, 1955, p. 405.

17Ibid., p. 337.

18Ibid., p. 311.

19Ibid., p. 307.

20Martin E. Marty, “Of Winter in the Heart”; Christianity and Crisis, Vol. 43, no. 2, February 21; 1983.

pp. 28 ff.