Heschel: The Prophets. Begin at the beginning…

At the very beginning of Heschel’s The Prophets is the dedication:

To the martyrs of 1940-45

and a quote from Psalm 44:

All this has come upon us,

Though we have not forgotten Thee,

Or been false to Thy covenant.

Our heart has not turned back,

Nor have our steps departed from Thy way…

…for Thy sake are we slain…

Why dost Thou hide Thy face?

It is hard to imagine anything more poignant – and challenging. These were not theoretical words, uttered from afar. Heschel’s mother and three of his sisters were killed, either by the Nazis or in the camps (his father died when Heschel was nine.) If this book is to mean anything, it is going to have to deal with the terrifying implications of that dedication – and, one way or another, confront that last quoted line of the Psalm.

In his Introduction, Heschel sketches out what he is doing, and why. He looks for a position which neither pychologises the prophet, nor claims a God-given revelation unmediated by human experience.

The prophet is a person, not a microphone.’

But Heschel is a phenomenologist. He wishes to examine the experience of the prophet as accurately as he is able before attempting to explain. ‘What I have aimed at is an understanding of what it means to think, feel, respond and act as a prophet.’ Insight is the tool for this, ‘an attempt to think in the present,’  which comes only after much intellectual dismantling and perplexity and, he notes, is ‘accompanied by a sense of surprise.

Heschel explains that the bulk of this initial wrestling took place many years previously, before the publication of the essential part of the book in Berlin and Krakow in 1936. Since that publication, he writes, there has – not surprisingly – been a change. But how he characterises the change is worth noting: where, before, it might just have been possible to maintain an air of  detached impartiality, now Heschel emphasises the ‘relevancy’ of the prophets. In a characteristically pithy observation, he states:

To comprehend what phenomena are, it is important to suspend judgement and think in detachment; to comprehend what phenomena mean, it is necessary to suspend indifference and be involved.

We will see why ‘relevancy’ becomes so central a little later. At this point, we might wonder how this study of the Prophets is to be undertaken? Encountering the prophet, says Heschel, means entering into their words, which are ‘onslaughts, scuttling illusions of false security, challenging evasions, calling faith to account, questioning prudence and impartiality.’  This is thinking ‘not about [the prophets] but in them.’

Heschel goes still further. He plunges deep into the world of the prophet, into their situation and, in an extraordinary turn, sees their work as ‘a divine understanding of a human situation.’ This is a tour de force – a modern thinker, a philosopher, who will seek to explain what it might mean that the prophet is speaking God’s words, rather than, for example, imagining what the situation might look like from God’s perspective.

Prophecy…may be described as

exegesis of existence from a divine perspective.

What can this mean? It is beyond our normal understanding. As modernists, or post-modernists, we have to make a leap if we are to comprehend what the prophets are saying, in for example, ‘the word of God came to me…’ and Heschel, as the book progresses, will initiate us. Just as an understanding of what it might mean to speak of “God” is going to become central, so also we shall have to find meaning in God hiding God’s face.

‘What do the prophets mean to God?’ If our minds and consciousness are insufficiently confused in a whirlpool of new ideas and perspectives, Heschel now forces us to yet another new level. The question, he says, is not, ‘What do the prophets mean to us?’ but ‘What do they mean to God?’

How can we begin to answer – even if we felt that we understood what was meant? Heschel does provide some hints to guides us:

Proper exegesis is an effort to understand the philosopher in terms and categories of philosophy, the poet in terms and categories of poetry and the prophet in terms and categories of prophecy.

We may still ask why Heschel, especially after all that he had suffered, was bothered about all this? The first words of the introduction take us back to those of the dedication:

This book is about some of the most disturbing people who have ever lived: the men whose inspiration brought the Bible into being – the men whose image is our refuge in distress [emphases added] and whose voice and vision sustain our faith.

The final words of the Introduction develop these thoughts. As a philosophy student (he gained his doctorate in Berlin,) Heschel had found the academic environment remote and ‘self-subsisting and self-indulgent.’

The answers offered were unrelated to the problems, indifferent to the travail of a person who became aware of man’s suspended sensitivity in the face of stupendous challenge, indifferent to a situation in which good and evil became irrelevant, in which man became increasingly callous to catastrophe and ready to suspend the principle of truth…some of the terms, motivations and concerns which dominate our thinking may [still] prove destructive to the roots of human responsibility and treasonable to the ultimate ground of human solidarity.’

It was this that led Heschel to study the thought of the prophets, in search of a new set of presuppositions, a ‘different way of thinking.’ What he discovered led him to the issue of pathos, which becomes a key term. He searched for both what happened to and in those men who ‘said No to…society, condemning its habits and assumptions, its complacency, waywardness, and syncretism.’

This is the start of a major book by the man who stood with Martin Luther King, and whose work and writings are still relevant to us today, at a time when we too may find ourselves needing to stand ‘against the crowd.’


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