Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972

by Edward K. Kaplan

Yale University Press, 544 pages, $40

Abraham Joshua Heschel is probably best remembered today for his political activism during the 1960s and early 1970s. Whenever newsreels taken during that time are shown, one will inevitably see Heschel alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in the march from Selma, or see him in front of the White House protesting the war in Vietnam. It is common to say, however, that there is little in Heschel’s ­earlier work, written or oral, that intimates he would move into this kind of public role in the last years of his life.

Heschel’s early writing was primarily concerned with the theological question of the relation between God and humans, especially as that relation is experienced by humans and even by God himself in ­revelation, specifically at Sinai. That concern found expression in what many still consider Heschel’s most important book in English, his 1955 God in Search of Man .

At first glance, this appears to have little to do with his work as a political activist. Indeed, as some of Heschel’s detractors saw it, his activism was merely a way for Heschel to catapult himself out of relative obscurity. I reject, however, the division between Heschel the theologian and Heschel the political activist. Insisting that Jewish praxis cannot coherently and effectively respond to the great moral problems posed by politics without a constant affirmation and skillful employment of its theological foundations, he was already laying the groundwork for his political activism in his ­theological reflections on divine pathos and humans as the imago Dei .

With the publication of Edward Kaplan’s Spiritual Radical , the arc of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s life can now be traced. Spiritual Radical is the second and concluding volume in the biography that began with the 1998 Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness (cowritten with Samuel Dresner). That first volume followed Heschel from his birth in 1907 through his work years in Poland, Lithuania, and Germany. This new volume covers his life and work in America, from his arrival here as an obscure refugee scholar in 1940 until his death in December 1972 as a celebrated thinker and public intellectual.

In reviewing the first volume back in 1998, I claimed that no one in my generation of Jewish thinkers would have been able to speak or write cogently the name God in English were it not for ­Heschel’s project of rooting his God-talk so profoundly in the Jewish tradition. The new volume makes abundantly clear that the claim is not an exaggeration.

Because of my own relationship with Heschel, and because I was involved in Prof. Kaplan’s (and Rabbi Dresner’s) project from its inception, it would be deceptive of me to write a review of Spiritual Radical that assumed the usual dispassionate distance expected of a reviewer. Nevertheless, let me say at the outset that this newly published second volume is an exciting read: well written, accurate, and sympathetic without being hagiographic. (Kaplan’s discussions of Heschel’s tribulations and anxieties”even some of his foibles”­dispel any possible accusation that he is uncritical.) As such, it tells the reader not only much about Heschel’s fascinating life in America but also just as much about the American religious and intellectual scene from 1940 to 1972.

Heschel was both theoretical and practical. But these two realms of his work and life were not essentially disparate. His theory truly motivated his practical involvements, just as his practical involvements concretized his theory. On the theoretical side, his greatest achievement, arguably, was his two-volume Hebrew work on rabbinic theology, Torah min Hashamayim , which, available in an excellent English translation, Heavenly Torah , can be studied and appreciated by many more people than those who have read it (and often misunderstood it) in the original Hebrew. On the practical side, his greatest achievement was arguably his involvement in the American civil-rights movement, especially his close working relationship with Martin Luther King Jr.

Many of Heschel’s theologically charged political statements are found in a collection of essays he published in 1966, The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence . The essay that epitomizes Heschel’s approach to what Spinoza called the theological-political question is “Religion and Race,” originally a 1964 lecture he delivered to the National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago during the height of the civil-rights struggle. (Kaplan gives this essay a historical contextualization that makes it truly come alive again.) One can read and reread the lines of that powerful essay and see Heschel’s theology skillfully undergirding his politics. And one can read between the lines of that essay and see how Heschel is rejecting (by offering a better alternative to) Jewish liberalism while still appreciating its commitment to social justice. One could say, extrapolating from Heschel, that most Jewish liberals don’t know what to do with the particularity of Jewish revelation and how it correlates with the universality inherent in Jewish ethics.

Heschel saw racism to be an issue of the denial to a group of Americans the basic dignity that is the right of every human person. Thus Heschel writes: “There is a form of oppression which is more painful and more scathing than physical injury or economic privation. It is public humiliation .” Here Heschel is employing the rabbinic principle of human dignity ( kevod ha-beriyot ), which, as the Talmud teaches, can even be invoked to override certain religious restrictions when such restrictions would lead to the public humiliation of another person. Accordingly, the antithesis of upholding human dignity is the public humiliation or denigration of any other human being.

In September 1963, about four months before Heschel uttered this condemnation of public humiliation, I was in Lumberton, North Carolina, as a student-rabbi, leading Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services for the one small synagogue in town. I remember walking to the synagogue early Yom Kippur morning from the rooming house where my wife and I were staying. It had rained heavily the night before, and the gutters in the street were full of mud. Approaching me on the narrow sidewalk from the opposite direction was an old black woman, toothless, dressed in a faded calico dress, a ragged straw hat on her head, and tennis shoes with holes in them on her feet. Her head was bowed. And when she was about twenty feet or so from me, she stepped in the muddy gutter to let me pass.

Surely the Torah teaches, and basic human decency affirms, that I was the one who should have stepped down to let her pass. Doesn’t the Torah command “Before the old you shall stand,” and didn’t the Talmud teach that this includes any person who is old? But to that old black woman, I did not represent the Torah or basic human decency. To her I represented centuries of those who have publicly humiliated her people. Her long experience had taught her that her safety, maybe even her life, depended on humiliating herself. So, on the holiest day of the year, when I was supposed to feel that I was being cleansed before God, I felt profoundly dirty”not for what I had done, but for what I represented to the image of God who had so debased herself because of my very presence before her. And in the essay on religion and race, my teacher best expressed, after the fact, what I felt at that moment: “My very presence inflicting insult!”

The liberal audience to whom Heschel spoke of the obscenity of racism later, in 1964, resonated to his words. But did they really understand what Heschel meant? If any of them had uttered these words, would they have had the same long-lasting meaning? Heschel was calling for liberals to transform their concern for social justice into the seeking of the compassionate community envisioned by the prophets and sages of Israel. He was asking for liberal Jews to become theologically grounded in a way that was unknown to them.

Heschel was calling for a just society (at least in principle if not always in fact) to become a loving, compassionate, inclusive community. That transition requires our answering key questions: First, Who are the persons making up this community and how are they to be essentially conceived? And second, Who made these persons who they are and how are they to make up this community?

For Heschel, these questions cannot be answered by the law (halakhah) or by any such political institution. Only when theology ( aggadah ) has answered these questions can the law implement those answers. And, as the ancient rabbis teach us, it is from aggadah that we learn the ways of God that inspire our imitation of God, even before and after we are to be obedient to what God’s law ordinarily requires.

In answer to the first question about who are the persons who make up the community and how are they to be essentially conceived, Heschel invokes the biblical doctrine of the human being as the image of God ( tselem elohim ). “ The symbol of God is man , every man . . . every man must be treated with the honor due to a likeness representing the king of kings.” Yet liberals might argue at this point that this theological idea is ethically unnecessary. Instead, couldn’t one just postulate rather than actually constitute a notion of human dignity? Why does humanity have to be symbolic of anything real beyond itself?

How would Heschel answer liberals who would look on his invocation of the biblical doctrine of the image of God as being a superfluous postulate for the idea of human equality, or a sentimental recognition of the biblical background of the idea of human equality that can now stand on its own, or even a needless theoretical diversion from the urgently practical task of political equalization?

Clearly, Heschel invoked as reality the biblical doctrine of humanity made in the image of God, and that reality presents itself to us as a task to be instantiated in the present historical moment toward a future messianic horizon. As such, the doctrine of the image of God is not a theoretical diversion from an urgent political task, and it is more than a postulate, and certainly more than a nostalgic residue. That doctrine is an ever present goad to action from now on.

For Heschel we could appreciate ourselves as the image of God only in the experience of revelation”even when the experience is only repeating the scriptural accounts of what happened when God spoke to us at Sinai and we answered God. In the essay on religion and race, Heschel speaks of human equality as being “due to God’s love and commitment to all men.” To be the image of God, humans must be aware of being beloved. Accordingly, to be the image of God is not to share with God some divine attribute such as intelligence or freedom of will; instead, to be the image of God means the capacity God has created in his human creatures for us to respond to his love for us. That might be like a self-portrait of an artist thanking the artist both for having so lovingly painted it and beseeching the artist to continually show his love for it by constantly touching it up.

It is important to keep in mind, Heschel would say, that love is experienced by humans before they can respond to it. And that response is twofold: back to God in the active commandments that have God as their object (like the commandment to pray), and forward to all other humans in the active commandments that have human objects (like the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves). Authentic love, on the part of human creatures, is essentially responsive.

From a theological standpoint such as Heschel’s, God’s love for humans in not a metaphor for inter-human love, rather, God’s love for humans is the archetype for all authentic love between humans. And that comes out in the traditional Jewish interpretation of Song of Songs : The human love spoken of by the text is symbolic of the deeper and truer meaning of the text, which is God’s initiatory love for his people and his people’s responsive love for God. (This biblical text is what Heschel discussed with Augustin Cardinal Bea in 1963, in German, and that is still the high point in the ­dialogue that changed the relationship of Jews and ­Christians forever. Here too, Edward Kaplan, in ­ Spiritual Radical , provides excellent historical contextualization of that great encounter.)

So, was Heschel’s theology for the sake of his political activism and thus, in the end, a form of apologetics? I think not. To paraphrase a famous rabbinic text: Only moral action grounded in theological learning and reflection can rise above mere political activism . Abraham Joshua Heschel was first and foremost a Jewish theologian who, when the hour was right, allowed his great theological learning and reflection to bring himself (and others with him) to authentic, Jewishly informed political praxis.

His action, then, was the necessary practical effect of all he had learned and all he had thought about so profoundly. Thus it was supremely intelligent action, action that comes out of wisdom. It was unlike the action of those who in truth do not know why they are doing what they are doing as Jews. And it was unlike the inaction of almost all his scholarly colleagues, who preferred to reinforce the secularist ­condemnation of the Torah”that the Torah has nothing important to say in and for the world of here and now in which we live.

As usual, my teacher was more intelligent than the pragmatists and more worldly than the theorists. For him, learning was more than a pragmatic tool. And action resulted from learning rather than learning becoming an escape from action. He combined seeming opposites by transcending the limitations of both.

David Novak is the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. An earlier version of this essay was delivered as a lecture at the Heschel Centenary Conference at Brandeis University on March 12, 2007.

Articles by David Novak

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