In recent years, Cornel West — the outspoken political activist, social critic, author, hip-hop artist and professor of philosophy, African-American studies and Christian theology, who has also acted in two of the “Matrix” films,
and appears regularly on TV and radio — has become best known for his headline-making salvos against President Barack Obama (whom he called a “Rockefeller Republican in blackface”). Before that was the 2002 squabble with then-Harvard President Lawrence Summers that led to West’s leaving his professorship at Harvard for a post at Princeton.
So for many it may come as a surprise to learn that West is now writing a book and teaching a course about a philosopher whom he describes as “a soul mate, part of my heart, mind, soul and witness”: the Jewish theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
But in an interview with West in his Upper West Side book-lined office at New York’s Union Theological Seminary, where, after retiring from Princeton last year, West is now professor of philosophy and Christian practice — his connection to Heschel makes perfect sense. It is the first interview he has granted about the Heschel project.
The link begins by way of the connection between Heschel and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Part of my mission is to make the world safe for the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.,” said West, riffing on Woodrow Wilson’s goal of making the world safe for democracy. “And Heschel is one of the major figures who enables King.”
Indeed, perhaps the most famous photograph of Heschel shows him marching arm in arm with King and other civil rights leaders in a demonstration in Selma, Ala., in 1963. “Heschel puts the stress on deeds, courage, sacrifice, service to others,” West said. “He is a bearer of that great spiritual moral revolution all the way back to Hebrew Scripture.”
Another connection is Christian theologian (and longtime professor at Union) Reinhold Niebuhr, said West. He points out that while Niebuhr said that Heschel was the greatest prophetic voice of contemporary America, Heschel himself said that the future of American depends on the legacy of King.
A third connection: UTS is located on the Upper West Side, across the street from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where Heschel was a professor for many years. UTS also was the venue for Heschel’s 1965 lecture “No Religion Is an Island” — a lecture that West calls “probably the most powerful essay written for ecumenical exploration that we have from the last few decades.”
And one more: West himself had studied and taught at Union in the late-1970s while he was completing his Ph.D. at Princeton. No wonder he views both his return to UTS and his decision to focus on Heschel as a kind of homecoming.
West’s admiration for Heschel is also a longtime matter of public record. It can be heard in a 1994 taped conversation (available on YouTube) between West and Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, then chancellor (and now chancellor emeritus) of JTS, to commemorate Heschel’s death a little more than 20 years before. In 1995, West and co-author Michael Lerner dedicated their book, “Jews & Blacks: Let the Healing Begin,” to “the legacies of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Joshua Heschel.” (The desire to mend the relationship between blacks and Jews that had frayed over the decades since Heschel and King had marched together is what had led them to team up for the book.)
More recently, in Newsweek, in 2008, West listed Heschel’s “The Prophets” as one of his five most important books, saying that Heschel “lays bare the roles of righteous indignation and indifference in justice.” And West has appeared on panels about Heschel alongside Heschel’s daughter, Susannah Heschel, who is a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth.
According to Heschel biographer and Brandeis University professor Edward K. Kaplan, Heschel has become increasingly influential among theologians and religious leaders both within Jewish communities and in Christianity.
“I think the uniqueness of Heschel is to combine a profound understanding and knowledge of Jewish classical sources and especially spirituality and social action,” Kaplan said. Both Christian and Jewish communities find in Heschel’s works a rich source for “devotional readings in terms of spirituality and the inner life of religion, as well as sharp moral and political judgments.”
And while much has been written about Heschel, West’s book-in-progress (he has a contract with Princeton University Press) strikes Kaplan as “a wonderful opportunity to approach Heschel from a bold point of view, not just parochial.” West, Kaplan says, “represents the kind of activism that is very rare among writers of theology, so he would provide a unique approach to Heschel, I think.”
West first discovered Heschel’s writing in the early 1970s at Harvard, where he majored in Near Eastern languages and literature and studied biblical Hebrew and biblical Aramaic. Browsing the shelves of one of the bookstores in Harvard Square, he opened a copy of Heschel’s “God In Search of Man: Philosophy of Judaism.”
In the interview, West waxed eloquent as he described Heschel as “a grand figure of spiritual and intellectual integrity. Who was willing to bear witness in the face of society in which more and more everything was for sale. … Heschel called it a form of spiritual absenteeism that would lead to spiritual malnutrition. … That’s a message that is as relevant now as it was then.”
West plans to focus his book on what he sees as the three pillars that form the foundation of Heschel’s work: poetry, prophecy and piety. He will pay special attention to Heschel’s roots in chasidic tradition and his place in the Jewish tradition, while also exploring Heschel’s message to those of every tradition.
“Heschel has a lot to say not just to Jews but to everyone — Christians, agnostics, pagans, atheists,” West said. “But I don’t want to in any way de-Judaize or de-Jewify Heschel. He is a profoundly and deliberately Jewish figure, grounded in the best of Jewish tradition. … And it’s precisely because he’s so candid about his particularity that he touches the universality that a black brother like me would view him as a soul mate. He goes deep down in his tradition. I go deep down in my tradition. And boom, we meet each other.”
It is the idea of the prophetic that seems to most interest West. Not only is Heschel’s book “The Prophets” a classic, he said, but the prophetic tradition itself is “probably the greatest gift of the Jews. … The notion that to be human is to preach chesed, lovingkindness, beginning with the orphan and the widow and the stranger and the fatherless and the motherless that is moral sublimity. In fact, I would argue, it constitutes a moral revolution in the species.”
West continued: “I’ve always believed that Christianity is a footnote to prophetic Judaism. It’s a very rich footnote, but the Jewishness of Jesus is fundamental. It’s central. And the coming out of the prophetic Judaic tradition is central and fundamental to Christianity. And unfortunately, given the vicious anti-Semitic dimensions of Christianity, the way it was invented and executed, there has been a distance from the radical Jewishness of Jesus.”
In Heschel, he said, “I think you find an acknowledgment of a flawed yet grand humanity that can never create paradise or heaven on earth but through prophetic witness can keep alive the notion that every individual made in the image of a god that has value, that has significance, a distinctive individuality that is worthy of kind treatment. … He had a hypersensitivity to the suffering of others. A righteous indignation, holy anger, moral outrage at the plight of others, especially those who are subordinate and dominated by others. And a willingness to do something about it. The wonderful thing about Heschel is that he was not just a theorist of the flames. He was the fire itself.”
Maybe a bit like Cornel West himself.
Diane Cole, the author of the memoir “After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges,” writes for The Wall Street Journal and other publications. She is a faculty member of the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El in New York.