Book Review | Before Heschel Became Heschel

By | May 29, 2019

At the height of his fame, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) towered as America’s foremost Jewish public intellectual, playing much the role Reinhold Niebuhr took on for America’s Protestants. Indeed, it was Niebuhr himself, later to become Heschel’s best friend, who first brought the emigré Polish scholar to wide public attention with his review of Man Is Not Alone (1951), calling Heschel “the most authentic prophet of religious life in our culture.”

Admirers during Heschel’s lifetime praised many aspects of his varied career: his impassioned theological scholarship, ecumenical outreach to other religions and spirited activism for social justice, which included marching with Martin Luther King in Selma, protesting the Vietnam War and igniting the campaign to free Soviet Jews. Judaic scholar Jacob Neusner judged Heschel “the most productive and by far the best theological mind in modern and contemporary Judaism.” Martin Marty, the magisterial scholar of religion, praised Heschel for a body of work “directed not only at the mind but at the heart and the will.”

Given Heschel’s dramatic trajectory from Poland to Germany to England and eventually the U.S., his multiple dimensions all made sense. The descendant of generations of esteemed Hasidic rabbis on both sides of his family, Heschel piously mastered classic Jewish texts by his late teens and then headed to Vilna and Berlin to balance his theological training with a secular education. During the 1930s, as Jewish life in Berlin grew dangerous, Heschel still managed to earn his doctorate, publish Jewish scholarship, poetry and journalism and get tapped by Martin Buber to direct the Judisches Lehrhaus in Frankfurt.

Things darkened considerably once Germany expelled all Polish-passport-holding Jews in 1938. Heschel ended up detained for months in a squalid border camp before his Warsaw family intervened to free him. He finally obtained a visa to the U.S. six weeks before the Nazis invaded, but his mother and three of his sisters were killed during the war. Arriving in the U.S. in 1940 and teaching first at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, he gradually recognized that his own devotion to Jewish law meshed poorly with the institution’s Reform ideology. Moving to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the center of Conservative Judaism, Heschel remained there till his death, publishing his landmark books—among them Man Is Not Alone and God in Search of Man (1955)—and growing more famous and influential by the year.

Today, while many Jewish congregations and readers continue to discuss his ideas, his philosophical star in academe has dimmed, certainly by comparison with such figures as Buber and Gershom Scholem. Is that a fair judgment by posterity? Is it the occasional rebuke delivered to university intellectuals who get too big for their britches, become too publicly famous in their time? Was Heschel not systematic enough for the pros, a little too gushy about all the awe, wonder and mystery of God?

Wherever one stands on that, In This Hour is unlikely to make much difference to Heschel’s reputation, though it provides a fine occasion to reconsider him more broadly. This collection of Heschel’s writings from his German and English period before coming to the U.S.—a large number appear in English translation for the first time—foreshadows many of the themes Heschel developed with greater literary art in his American years.

Among the writings here are Heschel’s articles for the newspaper of Berlin’s Jewish community, a London speech on the idea of Jewish education as the embrace of Spirit, short portraits of eight mishnaic rabbis from Johanan ben Zakkai to Rabbi Hiyya, short essays on prayer, repentance and suffering and his slim volume, originally published in Berlin, on the philosopher Don Yitzhak Abravanel (1437-1509).

The latter publication highlights one of the oddities of In This Hour, or at least its title. A reader unfamiliar with Heschel’s writings might assume that the book presents Heschel, the omnipresent 1960s crusader for social justice, excoriating the Nazis back in the 1930s. But the times, of course, did not allow for that. Heschel’s direct commentary on the rise of Nazism is scant in this volume.

But Abravanel suffered in the expulsion of the Jews from Iberia, so Heschel’s telling of his tale in the 1930s certainly stood as brave signaling. And the book contains the Yiddish poem Heschel published anonymously in 1933 after watching a Nazi bonfire of Jewish books. Yet the volume does not contain his 1938 address to the anti-Nazi Quaker community of Frankfurt, his most direct attack during the 1930s on Nazism and passive German clergy.

In just a few places here, we see the early stirrings of the future lyrical writer who broke out beyond a purely academic audience. To some extent the appeal came from Heschel’s core ideas themselves. Key to all his thought was the Hasidic joy in a personal relationship with God and the fervent belief, as he put it in varying formulations, that “God’s dream is not to be alone,” but “to have mankind as a partner in the drama of continuous creation.” He described his work as “depth theology,” an attempt to probe the “antecedents” of faith, not just its content.

Yet how the mature Heschel phrased key matters in Jewish life—the renowned Reform rabbi Balfour Brickner called him “a jeweler of words”—also heightened his influence. The Heschel who wrote, “God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance.” The Heschel who declared that “to speak about God and remain silent on Vietnam is blasphemous.” The Heschel who, when asked if he was an Orthodox, Conservative or Reform Jew, replied that he was not “a noun in search of an adjective.”

For readers already deeply familiar with Heschel’s life and work, or curious about his approach to Jewish pedagogy, In This Hour usefully displays his early efforts to articulate a spiritual account of Jewish education, and the commentary by Helen Plotkin is consistently illuminating. For those, however, unfamiliar with the Heschel who strode prophet-like onto the world stage, In This Hour is not the best place to start.

What an admirer takes away from reading it is an echo of that immortal apostrophe by Wordsworth, “Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour…” For it was in crusading for social justice in the 1960s that Heschel became Heschel. In his last interview in 1972, he explained that writing his two-volume work The Prophets (1962) changed him: “Early in my life, my great love was for learning, studying….I’ve learned from the prophets that I have to be involved in the affairs of man, in the affairs of suffering man.”

Some of his most trenchant observations beautifully explained that resolve. “In a free society,” he wrote, “all are involved in what some are doing. Some are guilty, all are responsible.” Another memorable line asserted that “The thought of God and indifference to other people’s suffering are mutually exclusive.”

To hear those messages, start with Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity (1996), edited by Susannah Heschel, the philosopher’s daughter and the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth. She provides a thorough, touching introduction to her father’s life and work. That volume contains many of Heschel’s most powerful short pieces, such as “No Time for Neutrality” and “No Religion Is an Island.” In her introduction, Susannah Heschel describes her father as “a unique combination of a Hasidic voice of compassion and mercy, always seeing the goodness in other people, and a prophetic voice of justice, denouncing hypocrisy, self-centeredness, and indifference.” She adds, tellingly for our time, “He used to remind us that the Holocaust did not begin with the building of crematoria, and Hitler did not come to power with tanks and guns; it all began with uttering evil words, with defamation, with language and propaganda. Words create worlds, he used to tell me when I was a child.”

In this hour, he’d be protesting at the U.S.-Mexican border. He’d be testifying before Congress against Saudi Arabia’s U.S.-supported war on Yemen. He’d be forming an ecumenical coalition, “Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Venezuela.” He’d be decrying China’s “retraining” camps in Xinjiang. He’d be explaining how all of that simply meant being Jewish in a troubled world.

In this hour, he might well be the thinker of the hour.

Carlin Romano, Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at Ursinus College, is the author of America the Philosophical

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