No Religion is an Island:
Heschel and Interfaith Concerns
Heschel’s experience of the Holocaust, in which he lost his mother and three sisters, was an all-too-real evocation of what can happen when people of religious faith do not stand up against evil and oppression. Speaking out of his Jewish tradition, Heschel saw religion as the antidote to the ills of modernity, including the problem of nihilism, which denies meaning and value. In 1965, Heschel became a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York (the first non-Christian to be so honored), and gave an inaugural lecture on ecumenism called “No Religion is an Island.” In that lecture, Heschel argues that religious pluralism is the will of God—that no religion exists in isolation from the others—and that, in the modern world, religious persons must choose between being interfaith or “inter-nihilistic.” “The voice of God reaches the spirit of man in a variety of ways,” Heschel writes. The 1965 lecture exemplifies Heschel’s approach to and engagement with persons and institutions of other faiths, particularly Christianity.
Heschel didn’t simply speak about interfaith cooperation, he lived it. In the early 1960s, he was instrumental in helping to shape relations between Christians and Jews through early and ongoing critiques of Nostra Aetate, a revolutionary statement on Jewish-Christian relations that came out of Vatican II. In his work with Catholic scholars who were preparing this statement, Heschel urged the Catholic church to address and reject historic anti-Semitic attitudes and teachings, which it did. Likewise, Heschel organized religious leaders of different faiths to come together to confront the violence and injustices of the Vietnam War, co-founding the influential organization Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam, which included King, William Sloan Coffin, and others. At the end of his life, Heschel was still seeking out interfaith dialogue and cooperative action, visiting activist friend and Catholic priest Philip Berrigan upon the latter’s release from prison for nonviolent disobedience. Philip and his brother Daniel, both Catholic priests, were among the high-profile figures from other religious traditions who joined Heschel in opposing the violence of the Vietnam War.
Questions to Consider
- Heschel wrote his dissertation on the prophets as Nazism was gaining influence in Germany. In what ways might his interpretation of the prophets reflect Heschel’s own circumstances as a Jew in Germany in the early 1930s?
- In the film, Shai Held suggests that Heschel went back to the prophets at times when the need to assert human dignity and justice was greatest. That is, in the 1930s in Germany and again in the 1960s in America. (Heschel published The Prophets in 1962.) For Heschel, the Hebrew prophets were foremost advocates for social justice. Do you agree with this interpretation of the prophets? Do they have special relevance in times when human dignity and the ideal of justice are threatened?
How might some German scholars’ dismissal of the Hebrew Bible in the 1920s and ‘30s, largely due to anti-Semitism have influenced the German church’s ability to counter Nazism?
- What, according to Heschel, are the primary characteristics of a prophet? Are the Hebrew prophets men and women with a special knowledge of the future or a special knowledge of or identification with God?
- Susannah Heschel suggests that it was their shared appreciation for the Hebrew prophets that cemented the friendship of Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr. and which drove much of their own activism. Do you see a connection here between Heschel’s interpretation of the prophets’ message and the work of both men in civil rights, against the war in Vietnam, and on behalf of marginalized groups (in Heschel’s case, Jews under Soviet oppression)?
- Arnold Eisen suggests that Heschel’s work on the prophets is a “call to action,” a challenge to modern-day readers to address injustice and inequity and to challenge oppressive authority as the Hebrew prophets did. Is this how you read the prophets, as exemplars of a way of living and of action that contemporary readers are to follow?
- Heschel interprets the Hebrew prophets as men who are imbued with the divine pathos; that is, they feel what God feels for humankind and experience God’s own joy or disappointment at human behavior. Can you imagine feeling what God feels? Do you envision God as having feelings or emotions, or of being affected by human actions in any way? Does this seem plausible to you?
- At a birthday celebration for Heschel shortly before his own death, Martin Luther King, Jr. called Heschel a “true prophet.” In fact, both men have been described as prophets by others within and beyond their own lifetimes. Do you consider Heschel a prophet? Do you think he saw himself as one, or simply someone who helped amplify the voices of the classical prophets?
- Like the ancient Hebrew prophets, Heschel also critiqued the religious institutions of his time, seeing much of contemporary Judaism as being wrapped in platitudes and inauthentic rituals. Is there a place for the prophet in critiquing contemporary religious practices, in whatever tradition? Is this a helpful role, in your opinion, or a destructive one? Can the prophet ever be a popular figure?
What price do prophets pay for challenging the status quo, in ancient times or today? Did Heschel pay a price for some of his stances, especially regarding civil rights and the Vietnam War?
- Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann praises Heschel for going beyond the established historical approach to the prophets. What do you think Heschel adds to the centuries-old discussion and understanding of the Hebrew prophets? What role does poetry and metaphor play in Heschel’s conception of the prophet?
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