Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness
By Edward K. Kaplan and Samuel H. Dresner
Yale University Press. 416 pp. $35
Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972) was the most significant Jewish thinker ever to live and work in America. His significance is such that without him no Jewish thinker of my generation (I was privileged to be his student) and the generations after could utter the name “God” with intelligent passion in the public square. The world of religious discourse for Jews in this society and culture has been forever changed by his life and work. It is now simply impossible to think through the sources of the Jewish tradition—as opposed to merely describing them—without Heschel being either in the background or at one’s side.
Nevertheless, despite Heschel’s indelible mark on American Judaism, he did not come from America but to it. That fact is extremely important to bear in mind, especially for those who are discovering Heschel’s theological works for the first time. For Heschel brought to America spiritual and intellectual resources that were not present here, certainly not during the years of his formation. Unlike most of the European Jewish scholars who came to these shores, Heschel made the transition from Europe to America in a way that not only did not dilute or dispel his deep Jewish roots, but that enabled him to grow from those roots new branches, whose emergence would have been unforeseen in the world of his youth. This first volume of a projected two-volume biography of Heschel is now the best historical source for tracing his personal and intellectual trajectory in the years before he arrived in America as a refugee in 1940.
The key to understanding Heschel’s roots and his development is to know that he was born and raised in a unique kind of Jewish royalty: the world of the hasidic “rebbeim.” The hasidim (literally the “pious ones”) are part of a mass movement that began among the Jews of Eastern Europe almost three hundred years ago, and that is still very much alive today. The movement is characterized by simplicity of life, deep religious fervor, and messianic expectation. The leader of a hasidic community (and there are many) is the rebbe. A rebbe is much more than an ordinary rabbi, one traditionally authorized to render decisions in Jewish law and teach sacred texts. In the hasidic world, a rebbe is the closest Jews have come to experiencing prophecy after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 c.e. The rebbe in very significant ways is the living connection between his disciples and God; his prayers on behalf of his disciples are considered to have extraordinary influence with God, and his counsel to his disciples has normative force. A rebbe is even considered capable of performing miracles. To be a rebbe is to be part of dynastic royalty—more often than not the office is passed down from father to son, and the mother often is also from the family of a rebbe.
Abraham Joshua Heschel was born in Warsaw in 1907 to Rabbi Moshe Mordecai Heschel, known as the “Pelzovina Rebbe,” and Rivka Reizel Perlow, the daughter of the “Noviminsker Rebbe.” Although he was not the eldest son in his family, Abraham Joshua was by virtue of his precociousness seen to be a prodigy, destined to become a rebbe himself at an early age. He drew upon the most distinguished hasidic ancestry on both sides, going back directly to Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism in the early 1700s. Although his father died when he was but eight years old, he was virtually adopted by his maternal uncle, the Noviminsker Rebbe, and educated under his tutelage. From earliest childhood, those nearest to him were convinced he was destined for greatness.
Considering his background, one would have expected Abraham Joshua to have become a rebbe in Poland and to have continued the family tradition. But his mother’s strong will opened for him a different way. Like many daughters and sisters of rebbeim, Rivka Reizel was a powerful personality in her own right, capable of getting what she wanted—in this case for her gifted son—even in a society where women were to be modestly deferential to male authority, publicly at least. Rivka Reizel exercised her power by preventing an early marriage for Abraham Joshua. For dynastic and other reasons, young men destined to become rebbeim were often married in their early teens. Had this happened to Abraham Joshua, his future as a rebbe in the ancestral mold would have been virtually sealed. Although one could ascribe a variety of motives to his mother’s nonconformist act, Heschel himself saw it as her belief that he was destined to play a role in his adult life other than that of a traditional hasidic rebbe. Her act allowed him, he thought, to become a different type of rebbe to a larger, and stranger, world.
When Heschel was eighteen he left for Vilna to spend two years at a Yiddish gymnasium. This can be seen as an unusual, but important, transition to the wider world of European culture. Ostensibly, his purpose in going to Vilna was to prepare himself for entrance to a European university, for up until that time Heschel’s education was exclusively in talmudic and hasidic texts, although he began writing Yiddish poetry even earlier. But there is more to it than that.
Although Yiddish was the spoken language of virtually all the Jews of Eastern Europe, using Yiddish as a literary language in place of classical Hebrew (the language of Heschel’s very first literary compositions) was a tremendous concession to the growing secular influences on East European Jews. For many intellectuals of Heschel’s generation, the move to literary Yiddish was a conscious move away from the tradition of Judaism and its authority, even though they remained Jewish culturally. For Heschel, though, it was a vehicle for bringing the spiritual riches of the tradition into a new Jewish milieu, showing that traditional Judaism could not and should not be surpassed by Jewish modernity. Heschel’s Vilna sojourn enabled him to move from a basically medieval Jewish milieu to a modern Jewish one before moving on to a world in which he would have contacts with assimilated Jews—and with non-Jews. One senses that without this transitional phase, Heschel might have gone the way of many Jewish intellectuals from the traditional milieu of Eastern Europe who went straight to the West, which made most of them too eager to simply interpret Judaism in an essentially non-Jewish way. Vilna helped make Heschel a modern Jew before he had to become a modern man.
After preparing himself for entrance to a German university, Heschel began his studies in 1927 at the University of Berlin, at the time one of the most avant-garde universities in the world. His main subject there was philosophy; and he did not continue his studies in the Orthodox rabbinical seminary in that city, but became a fellow of a liberal institution known as die Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, even though his personal belief and practice could still be described as “orthodox.” During his Berlin years, Heschel availed himself of the wide variety of intellectual and cultural opportunities of Berlin, and he made many significant personal contacts. Had things not radically changed in 1933, he would have no doubt become a leading intellectual presence in Germany, like his older colleague Martin Buber, whose complicated relationship with Heschel is well described in this book.
After January 1933, with the rise to power of Hitler, Heschel’s life as a Polish Jew and work as a doctoral candidate at the University of Berlin became more and more precarious. He struggled to get his dissertation published before German universities stopped granting degrees to Jewish students, a testimony to Heschel’s determination and, ultimately, good fortune.
His dissertation was a tour de force. Using the methods of the phenomenological philosophy he learned at the university, Heschel worked out a highly original view of prophetic consciousness, seeing the biblical prophets as those who were in “sympathy” with God’s concern, that is, who “felt with” what Heschel called “divine pathos.” This topic can be traced back, I think, to Heschel’s hasidic roots. The rebbeim that Heschel knew so intimately in his youth might very well have been the living models for how the ancient prophets actually functioned. The dissertation shows Heschel’s desire to bring modern Jews, indeed modern people in general, back to a relationship with the living God of the Bible. This had been the mission of the founders of Hasidism, Heschel’s own ancestors, in an earlier era; it was Heschel’s passion. Edward K. Kaplan and Samuel H. Dresner beautifully evoke Heschel’s faith and his ability to communicate it. God was never a stranger in his life, as his favorite hasidic rebbe, Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk, might have put it.
The last part of the book deals with Heschel’s attempt to escape Germany and Poland for a new life, first in England and finally in America. He would not have made it were it not for the efforts of Dr. Julian Morgenstern, the president of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, the Reform Jewish seminary, and a man very different from Heschel in background and religious outlook. It was Morgenstern who got Heschel a visa to teach in his institution, saving Heschel from the Holocaust. Many members of his family were not so fortunate.
This account of the first part of Heschel’s life is extremely well written, and is respectful without being implausibly adoring. That is an accomplishment for these co-authors, who obviously loved their teacher. Their book helps us see how an extraordinary life produced extraordinary thought. If I, as someone familiar with most of the events described in this book, having heard them from Heschel’s own mouth, could not put it down, how much more will that be true for those who did not know Heschel but can only hear about him. Even to hear about him is a blessing.
David Novak holds the J. Richard and Dorothy Shiff Chair of Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.