Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence

Posted On Jan 23, 2014 / 5774 | Conservative Judaism Heschel Philosophy

A discussion with Rabbi Shai Held about his book on the thought of Abraham Joshua Heschel.

On January 23, 2014, the Jewish Theological Seminary presented a provocative, illuminating, and critically important discussion.


Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972), who served on the faculty of The Jewish Theological Seminary for more than a quarter century, was a prolific scholar, impassioned theologian, and prominent activist who participated in the African American Civil Rights Movement and the campaign against the Vietnam War. He has been hailed as a hero, honored as a visionary, and endlessly quoted as a devotional writer. But rarely has his writing been subject to careful analysis that is at once sympathetic and critical. Rabbi Shai Held’s new book, Abraham Joshua Heschel: The Call of Transcendence, has been called a “watershed” in this regard,and Rabbi Arthur Green writes that “in Shai Held, Abraham Joshua Heschel has found the reader he so richly deserves.”

Rabbi Held’s work focuses on the idea of self-transcendence, or the movement from self-centeredness to God-centeredness. He puts Heschel into dialogue with contemporary Jewish thinkers, Christian theologians, devotional writers, and philosophers of religion.

“In this lucid and elegant study, one of the keenest minds in Jewish theology in our time probes the vision of one of the most profound spiritual writers of the twentieth century, uncovering a unity that others have missed and shedding light not only on Heschel but also on the characteristically modern habits of mind that impede the knowledge of God.”  — Jon D. Levenson, Harvard University


Rabbi Shai Held is cofounder, dean, and chair in Jewish Thought at Mechon Hadar. Before that, he served for six years as scholar-in-residence at Kehilat Hadar in New York City, and taught both theology and halakhah at The Jewish Theological Seminary. He also served as director of education at Harvard Hillel. A renowned lecturer and educator, Rabbi Held, who earned a PhD in Religion from Harvard University, is a 2011 recipient of the Covenant Award for excellence in Jewish education, and has served on the faculty of both the Wexner Foundation and the Shalom Hartman Institute. During the spring 2014 semester, Rabbi Held will be serving as an adjunct instructor of Professional and Pastoral Skills at JTS.

Professor Arnold M. Eisen, one of the world’s foremost authorities on American Judaism, is the seventh chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Since his appointment in 2007, he has transformed the education of religious, pedagogical, professional, and lay leaders for Conservative Judaism and the vital religious center of North American Jewry, and enhanced JTS’s reputation and global reach. Chancellor Eisen’s many publications include Rethinking Modern Judaism: Ritual, Commandment, Community and Taking Hold of Torah: Jewish Commitment and Community in America, a personal essay. His JTS initiatives include dual-track degrees for rabbis and cantors; programs in early childhood, experiential, adult, and Israeleducation; an ambitious Arts Initiative; the Center for Pastoral Education; and the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue.