The National Catholic Review
The shared vision of Rabbi Heschel and Pope Francis

Soon after the death of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in December 1972, America devoted an entire issue to his life and work. The idea for the special issue, published on March 10, 1973, came from John C. Haughey, S.J., an associate editor, who explained that anyone who knew Rabbi Heschel “sensed the depth of his exposure to the Presence of God.” The same point appeared in the editorial that introduced the special issue: “No Christian who ever entered into conversation with Professor Heschel came away without having been spiritually enriched and strengthened.”

Pope Francis never met Rabbi Heschel, and although he is known to own a number of books by Heschel, it is not clear to what extent he has studied Heschel’s thought. Nonetheless, he may have been indirectly “spiritually enriched and strengthened” by Rabbi Heschel. A few connections between the men point in this direction. Take, for example, the testimony of Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Argentina, one of Pope Francis’ closest friends. Rabbi Skorka accompanied Francis to the Holy Land in May, and in 2010 they co-authored a book, On Heaven and Earth. About the conversations that became that book, Rabbi Skorka, who claimed Rabbi Heschel as a “formative spiritual guide,” has said that the spirit of Rabbi Heschel guided his dialogue with Francis. “In our live dialogue, one drew from the other,” Skorka explained in an email message to Rabbi Alexander Even-Chen. “In this manner, Francis undoubtedly drew spiritually from Heschel.”

Another connection exists through Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer (1930-93), one of Rabbi Heschel’s most devoted students, who became the most influential rabbi in Argentina while Jorge Mario Bergoglio served as the provincial superior of the Jesuits there (1973-79) and then as rector of the Jesuit university and seminary in San Miguel, outside Buenos Aires. Rabbi Meyer inspired not only Jews but also Christians. He was passionate about spreading Abraham Heschel’s approach to Judaism and once said he felt that Rabbi Heschel had “accompanied” him during his 25 years in Argentina.

In light of these connections, we decided to probe what Pope Francis has said and written about topics central to the religious worldview of Rabbi Heschel. We found that Francis has a strong affinity for a number of the rabbi’s core ideas.

God’s Search for Us

One of Rabbi Heschel’s greatest and most influential books is God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (1955). Like other books of his, it has been translated into Spanish and is widely read not only in Argentina’s Jewish community but also by many Argentine Catholics, especially members of the clergy. The title expresses what is perhaps Rabbi Heschel’s most distinctive or signature idea: it is not so much we who seek God, but God who seeks us.

Rabbi Heschel explains, “This is the core of all biblical thoughts: God is not a being detached from man to be sought after, but a power that seeks, pursues and calls upon man. …Israel’s religion originated in the initiative of God rather than in the efforts of man.” By this he does not mean that God does not know where we are and is looking for us. Note what he writes: “God is not a being detached from man.” For him, God is always present to us. But because we are not always, or perhaps even usually, present to God, Rabbi Heschel suggests that God must “reach out” to us (from around us and from within us) to elicit our presence, our responsiveness. We dwell within the sphere of God’s presence, yet God must strive to get us to appreciate that presence. God dwells within us, yet God must awaken us to the divine indwelling.

This idea that God searches for us, an idea that Rabbi Heschel emphasized throughout his adult life, is one that Pope Francis also advances. In his very first entry in the book with Rabbi Skorka, Francis says: “I would say that one encounters God walking, moving, seeking Him and allowing oneself to be sought by Him. They are two paths that meet. On one hand, there is our path that seeks Him, driven by that instinct that flows from the heart; and after, when we have encountered each other, we realize that He was the one who had been searching for us from the start.” Francis repeated this idea in his interview with Jesuit journals (Am., 9/30/2013). “We must let God search and encounter us,” he said. “God is always first and makes the first move.”

The Presence of God

At the core of Rabbi Heschel’s Judaism is faith in the one God, whose search for human beings has received a response from the Jewish people, who by living in a covenant with God have accepted the challenge of giving witness to God. But just as the biblical and rabbinic authors reminded the people that their being chosen to give this witness to God did not imply that they were superior to other peoples or had an exclusive relationship with God, the rabbi points out that it does not imply that the Jewish people are the only vehicle of God’s revelation.

According to Rabbi Heschel, God is, or may be, revealed through each and every human being. “The human is the disclosure of the divine,” he said in his inaugural lecture, titled “No Religion Is an Island,” as a visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York in 1965. “To meet a human being is an opportunity to sense the image of God, the presence of God.” Although the Jewish people are chosen for a special type of witness, every human being, created in the image of God, is meant to be “a witness for God,” he said. Pope Francis sounded very much like Rabbi Heschel in the interview with Jesuit journals. “God is in every person’s life,” he said repeatedly. “You can, you must try to seek God in every human life.”

While it is a traditional Jewish teaching that every person, created in the image of God, may somehow reveal the presence of God, Rabbi Heschel goes beyond this claim in suggesting that Judaism is not the only religion of divine revelation. Speaking about different religious traditions in the lecture at Union, Rabbi Heschel insisted that divine revelation reaches the human spirit “in a variety of ways, in a multiplicity of languages.” And in an interview shortly before his death, he said, “God is to be found in many hearts all over the world—not limited to one nation or to one people, to one religion.” In the dialogue with Rabbi Skorka, Pope Francis revealed his spiritual affinity to Rabbi Heschel. “God makes Himself felt in the heart of each person. He also respects the culture of all people. Each nation picks up that vision of God and translates it in accordance with the culture, and elaborates, purifies and gives it a system.”

In Rabbi Heschel’s view, religions may be considered valid to the extent that they foster awareness of God’s love and also love for God and God’s creatures. Even non-monotheistic religions may be considered valid to the extent that they foster love for human beings, which, for Rabbi Heschel, “is a way of worshiping God, a way of loving God,” as he writes in Israel: An Echo of Eternity (1967). Regardless of their theologies, of whether or not they have a monotheistic understanding of ultimate reality, all religions that cultivate such love are, in Rabbi Heschel’s view, valid and vital ways of serving God.

In his lecture at Union, Rabbi Heschel said, “In this aeon diversity of religions is the will of God.” So far, Pope Francis has not spoken explicitly on this issue, so it is uncertain if he would go as far as Rabbi Heschel. In his apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel,” however, Francis seems to offer something in the same spirit as Rabbi Heschel when he writes: “The same Spirit everywhere brings forth various forms of practical wisdom which help people to bear suffering and to live in greater peace and harmony. As Christians, we can also benefit from these treasures built up over many centuries, which can help us better to live our own beliefs.”

The Failure of Religion

For Rabbi Heschel, God may be present in and through diverse religions, yet these same religions often fail to manifest God. He begins God in Search of Man:

It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.

To this summary of Rabbi Heschel’s countless critiques of religion, Pope Francis would surely say “Amen.” As a parallel to Rabbi Heschel’s criticism of faith being “replaced by creed” and how “the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past,” Francis warned in the interview with Jesuit journals that “faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies” in those who long for “an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security,’ those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists.” Like Rabbi Heschel, Francis wants faith to be a “living fountain” rather than an “heirloom.” The pope put it this way: “If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God.”

Francis also shares Rabbi Heschel’s criticism of religion when it “speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion.” The pope has repeatedly warned against clericalism, for example. “The risk that we must avoid is priests and bishops falling into clericalism, which is a distortion of religion,” he explained in his dialogue with Rabbi Skorka. “When a priest leads a diocese or a parish, he has to listen to his community, to make mature decisions and lead the community accordingly. In contrast, when the priest imposes himself, when in some way he says, ‘I am the boss here,’ he falls into clericalism.”

Since becoming pope, Francis has denounced clericalism with even greater force. In a closed-door meeting with religious superiors in November 2013, later reported by La Civiltà Cattolica, Francis called clericalism “one of the worst evils.” This is reminiscent of Rabbi Heschel’s claim at the convention of the American Medical Association in 1964 that striving for personal success, when it becomes the object of “supreme and exclusive concern,” is both “pernicious and demonic.” And the pope’s warning to newly appointed bishops in September 2013, that careerism is “a form of cancer,” sounds just like Rabbi Heschel’s remark in the A.M.A. address: “According to my own medical theory, more people die of success than of cancer.”

Rabbi Heschel did not shy away from making harsh criticisms—not of specific people but of what many people do and pursue. Neither does Pope Francis shy away from making such criticisms. But for both men the voice of religion, while necessarily involving prophetic criticism, is ultimately meant to be “the voice of compassion.” And for both the rabbi and the pope, interreligious dialogue is urgently needed for people of different traditions to develop that voice and to recognize it in each other.

The Urgency of Dialogue

In Rabbi Heschel’s view, one of the principal reasons for the failure of religion is the inflation of its importance, treating a given religion as if it were itself divine rather than a human response to the divine. “Religion is a means, not the end,” he said in the lecture at Union Seminary. “It becomes idolatrous when regarded as an end in itself.” To assume that there is only one valid way of responding to God is—precisely by absolutizing that way—to equate a religious means with the divine end. About this, Rabbi Heschel was emphatic: “To equate religion and God is idolatry.”

For Rabbi Heschel, genuine monotheistic faith demands an attitude of openness to the validity of various religions precisely because it is opposed to absolutizing—that is, deifying—anything other than God, including a cherished tradition that fosters faith in God. “We must not regard any human institution or object as being an end in itself,” he writes in God in Search of Man. “A temple that comes to mean more than a reminder of the living God is an abomination.” So, contrary to what many people seem to assume, true monotheistic faith means that we must not make our faith the object of our faith. “There is great merit,” Rabbi Heschel explains, “in our having no absolute faith in our faith.” He said in the Union lecture: “Human faith is never final, never an arrival, but rather an endless pilgrimage, a being on the way.” Therefore, Rabbi Heschel asserts emphatically in Man Is Not Alone: “To rely on our faith would be idol-worship. We have only the right to rely on God.”

While Pope Francis has not gone so far as to suggest that reliance on our faith may be a form of idolatry, he has spoken of how faith can be transformed into ideology, which for him is tantamount to idolatry. During a homily at a weekday Mass in October 2013, he said that a Christian can become “a disciple of ideology.” He explained, “The faith passes, so to speak, through a distiller and becomes ideology.” Because “ideologies are rigid, always” and because Christian ideology is “rigid, moralistic, ethical, but without kindness,” the pope said that this Christian ideology is a “serious illness.”

For both Rabbi Heschel and Francis, it is clear that pride and arrogance are at the root of idolatrous and ideological approaches to religion and that the key to genuine religious faith is humility. “A major factor in our religious predicament is due to self-righteousness,” Rabbi Heschel said in the Union lecture. “Religion is often guilty of the sin of pride and presumption.… But humility is the beginning and end of religious thinking, the secret test of faith.” Speaking about religious ministers, Francis made the same point in his dialogue with Rabbi Skorka: “Humility is what gives assurance that the Lord is there. When someone is self-sufficient, when he has all the answers to every question, it is proof that God is not with him. Self-sufficiency is evident in every false prophet.”

Self-sufficiency is also a mark of a false understanding of religion. “The religions of the world are no more self-sufficient, no more independent, no more isolated than individuals or nations,” Rabbi Heschel said. “No religion is an island. We are all involved with one another. Spiritual betrayal on the part of one of us affects the faith of all of us. Views adopted in one community have an impact on other communities. Today religious isolationism is a myth.” Claiming that nihilism is “world-wide in extent and influence,” Rabbi Heschel emphasized the urgency of interfaith dialogue and cooperation:

We must choose between interfaith and inter-nihilism. Cynicism is not parochial. Should religions insist upon the illusion of complete isolation? Should we refuse to be on speaking terms with one another and hope for each other’s failure? Or should we pray for each other’s health, and help one another in preserving one’s respective legacy, in preserving a common legacy?”

Pope Francis takes a similar position. In an address to civic and religious leaders in Brazil in July 2013, Francis emphasized the need for dialogue “in a spirit of openness and without prejudice.” He said: “Only in this way can understanding grow between cultures and religions, mutual esteem without needless preconceptions, in a climate that is respectful of the rights of everyone. Today, either we take the risk of dialogue, we risk the culture of encounter, or we all fall; this is the path that will bear fruit.”

For both Rabbi Heschel and Pope Francis, interreligious dialogue is not simply an option but an obligation, because it “is a necessary condition for peace in the world,” as Francis writes in “The Joy of the Gospel.” Reflecting on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Heschel puts it bluntly in Israel: An Echo of Eternity: “The choice is to love together or to perish together.” And beyond peaceful coexistence, interreligious dialogue also yields spiritual enrichment for those engaged in it. Believing it presumptuous for anyone to think that his or her religion is exclusively true and fruitful, Heschel said in the Union lecture that “the purpose of religious communication among human beings of different commitments is mutual enrichment and enhancement of respect and appreciation.” Cardinal Bergoglio, S.J., echoed this sentiment in an interview published in 2010, when he explained that we can build a true community only by recognizing the value of others and “celebrating the diversity that is enriching for us all.”

Pope Francis has inspired countless people of diverse religions and of no religion to seek a path and find a way toward spiritual enrichment. Perhaps through Francis some of the signature insights of Rabbi Heschel are reaching far more people than he could have ever imagined.

Harold Kasimow is the emeritus George A. Drake Professor of Religious Studies at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. John Merkle is a professor of theology at the College of Saint Benedict, St. Joseph, Minn., and Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minn.

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