Martyrdom and the sublime in the thought of A.J.Heschel

In the days leading up to the Six-Day War, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “the darkness of Auschwitz is still upon us, it’s memory is a torment forever”. While contemporary critics of Heschel’s thought have tended to interpret such statements simply within the context of religious sublimity and the psychoanalytic discourse on mourning, the careful reader of Heschel will entertain no doubts that he is equally concerned with the process of community renewal that follows any period of suffering and misery.

The vision of another Holocaust in the future tormented Heschel for all his life. Much of the anxieties and prophecies are displayed in his Hebrew works, the most illuminating of which remains Heavenly Torah:as refracted through the Generations. Emil Fackenheim was right that Heschel did not create a speculative theology of the Holocaust. Heschel’s response to the atrocities of the past century was not intelligible but Messianic. He continued the heavenly thinking of the ancient prophets of Israel who sought redemption in the Messianic era. At the center of Heschels’s religious imagination stood Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael. These Jewish martyrs rejected idolatry and accepted the unconditional love of the Divine Presence. […]

In A Passion For Truth, Heschel emphasizes that theodicy is a problem for God, not only for man. This is a complete novum for dogmatic theology. According to Heschel, God is like Job going into exile and weeping with the persecuted people. In the last chapters of A Passion for Truth, he compares mankind to chains that limit the omnipotent Creator. The aim of the Chosen People is to free God from the heavenly prison. Severe Judge converts into a merciful Father who desires partners for dialogue. Heschel’s counter-testimony against the Holocaust is fully manifested in his conception of covenant. The Holy bond made on Mount Sinai between God and Israel is not a single act but repetitive event. He applies the Talmudic commentaries in order to revise them. In A Passion for Truth, he takes the same approach as the biblical dissenters in relation to the prophetic pathos. In his theory of divine pathos Heschel shows the ultimate concern of God who pays infinite attention to man. It’s man responsibility to question God and stop His withdrawal from the world. […]

The author of Between God and Man provides biblical categories of the sublime, wonder, mystery, awe and glory. He insists that the sublime has no connection with a purely aesthetic perception of the reality. Heschel’s rebuke of aesthetic vision must be seen in the religious context of the Jewish refusal of idolatry and figurative representation. […] In Heschel’s works the sense of the sublime is regarded as the source of man’s creative activities, a passion for truth and noble living. It follows that no philosophical system, work of art or theory can grasp its vitality. For Heschel, the sublime is revealed in the lives of the martyrs, saints and artists. [..]

In The Earth is the Lord’s, Heschel unfolds the biblical idea of life as a work of art. East European Jewry found the beauty of the divine music through halakhic practices. Good deeds sounded like arias and chorus. The music of the soul mirrored the harmony of the Universe. In his marvelous summa, Heschel gives his unique response to the Holocaust. Devoted Ashkenazi Jews converted silence into a meaningful song and uplifted existence to spiritual perfection.

A close reading of such books as Israel: An Echo of Eternity, A Passion for Truth, The Earth is the Lord’s shows that Heschel’s theology of the sublime is not based on the discourse of mourning and the rhetoric of despair. Serious misperceptions can be easily worked through. Auschwitz is not a safe past, but an epoch-making event that should still transform historical consciousness and Divine-Human relationships.

The streets of the charismatic city are like palimpsests, which restore the memory of the ancient prophets. Although History is a burning bush, there is hope that evil will be consumed. The postmodern world demands a new meeting between the Athenian philosopher and the prophet of Jerusalem. The universal voice of revelation is audible in Jerusalem:

“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation; neither shall they learn war any more”.

About the Author
Anna Banasiak is a poet and literary critic from Lodz, Poland. She studied Polish philology and culture studies at the University of Warsaw. She is the winner of poetry competitions in Berlin, London and Bratislava. Her poems have appeared online via New York, London, Surrey, Australia, Canada, India and South Africa.
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