Balance or bias?

Abraham Joshua Heschel was a man of contradictions - and so is this book about him.

By JACK RIEMER
November 22, 2007 10:48
heshel book 88 224

heshel book 88 224. (photo credit: )

 
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Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America By Edward K. Kaplan Yale University Press 544 pages; $40 Abraham Joshua Heschel was capable of enormous acts of kindness, and he was also capable of enormous petulance. He was conscious of having been raised as the prince of a noble hassidic dynasty, but he was also conscious of having been raised in a sect that stressed humiliation as a means of character training. He was capable of enormous vision, but also of enormous insecurity. He was a mixture of many different qualities, which were sometimes held together in an uneasy balance. In his youth, Heschel (1907-1972) moved to Vilna where he wrote remarkable Yiddish poetry. He later went on to Berlin, where he graduated the Hochshule and received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Berlin. He was one of those who was rescued by the Hebrew Union College, where he taught from 1940 to 1945. He then moved to the Jewish Theological Seminary, and taught there until his death in 1972. He wrote a number of books, including The Earth Is The Lord's, a eulogy for Eastern European Jewry, Man Is Not Alone and God In Search of Man. He was also appointed visiting professor at the Union Theological Seminary, where he taught Jewish values to Protestant clergymen. Heschel moved from academic scholarship to social action and became a leader in the struggle for civil rights, in the protest against the Vietnam War, in the Soviet Jewry movement, and in the advocacy for Israel. He marched with Martin Luther King at Selma, Alabama, and was the representative of the Jewish people at the Second Vatican Council. Since his death, Heschel has attracted more and more interest. He is the subject of a great many doctoral dissertations, by Jews and Christians, including several that have been done in Israel. This book, the second volume of the biography of him by Edward K. Kaplan, has some of the same virtues and some of the same faults that he himself had. Let me begin with its faults, for they are painful to discuss. The primary problem in this book is that Kaplan is so determined to make this a work of objective scholarship, and not of uncritical adulation, that he sometimes errs too much on the side of technical scholarship and copious documentation and fails to give voice to the enormous reverence and admiration for his teacher that he most assuredly feels. For instance, the author spends much too much space recording the haggling that went on over the contracts for some of Heschel's books and the interminable delays in preparing them for publication. Do we really need to know all these facts - some of them embarrassing, some of them trivial? Would it not have been better to have dealt more substantively with their contents? Even more disturbing is the author's account of Heschel's role at the Vatican Council. In 1962, Heschel was sent to the Second Vatican Council by the American Jewish Committee in an effort to persuade the church to condemn anti-Semitism, to renounce the charge of deicide and to give up the mission to the Jews. Kaplan portrays him as inept and insecure, alienating the leadership of the Vatican, offending the people with whom he worked and, in the end, yielding to his own vanity and putting a false face on what took place. Much of this damning account is based on the testimony of one person, the only other person who was present with him at a private session with the pope. But even if the meeting was unproductive, we should not lose appreciation for what Heschel tried to do at the Vatican and what he very nearly accomplished. He knew that the effort to represent the Jewish people and Judaism at the Vatican Council was a noble but a risky venture, and that there were many Christians, Muslims and Jews who wished fervently for him to fail. I think he went not out of vanity, but because he saw himself as more suited to represent the Jewish people than anyone else would have been, and because he saw himself as having been given the opportunity to do something to prevent a future Holocaust. And if he failed - and this is not yet proven - he surely deserves sympathy for having tried. In the end his goals were simply too much for the conservative elements within the Vatican to accept, and it would have made little difference whom the Jews sent to speak on their behalf. Knowing the depth of Kaplan's love and reverence for Heschel, I can only imagine how painful it must have been for him to record this chapter. I can only surmise that the demands of scholarship and the documents in the archives that testify to what happened gave him no choice. And yet, somehow I wish that he had been able to follow the advice that my mother gave me when I began writing book reviews. She said to me: "A ligint, mein kint, tor minit zogen; dem emes iz mir nit michuyov tsu zogen" - a lie, my child, you are allowed to say: the truth you are not always obliged to say. In this chapter, as elsewhere in the book, Kaplan includes too many truths that are trivial, petty, distracting or unnecessarily embarrassing. LET ME move on to pay tribute to the positive qualities of this biography, which are many. Kaplan has managed to capture the magnitude of the man - and that is the real achievement of this book. We have simply had no one else like him in this last century who could speak with the passion of a prophet, and who could talk about God, not as a process and not as an idea, but as a living reality the way Heschel could, and Kaplan captures that quality. Who else but Heschel could write that "in the relation between man and man, God is at stake"? No one else in his time and no one since has spoken or written about the relationship between God and humanity as he did, and Kaplan has captured his ringing rhetoric, his passion and his determination brilliantly in this book. He has given us the Heschel who told people what they needed to hear and not what they wanted to hear, the one who told Conservative rabbis that mere observance without intention is insufficient, and then traveled the very next day to the convention of the Reform rabbis and told them that mere intention without observance is also insufficient. He was booed and jeered at both places, but he deserves our lasting gratitude for having told the truth. Kaplan does a remarkable job of portraying Heschel's loneliest years, which he spent at the Hebrew Union College during World War II. Those were the years when the Holocaust was going on, and there he was, teaching elementary Judaism to students who knew little and cared little, living in a fancy dormitory, with black waiters and treif food, while the world from which he came was on fire. And Kaplan does a first-rate job at tracing the way in which this ivory-tower professor, who did research in medieval Jewish philosophy, Kabbala and Hassidism emerged onto the world scene to become a central figure in the civil rights movement, in the anti-Vietnam movement, in the struggle to free Soviet Jewry and in interfaith dialogue. And at the same time, he carefully traces the way in which this man somehow balanced the demands of his life as a social activist with his concern for the inner life. We will not have the likes of Abraham Joshua Heschel perhaps ever again, but at least we have this spellbinding biography that Edward Kaplan has blessed us with, which will enable a new generation to grasp something of who he was and what he did. By recording Heschel's remarkable journey so carefully, Kaplan has put us all in his debt. The writer is a rabbi and co-editor of So That Your Values Live On: A Treasury of Ethical Wills and editor of The World of the High Holy Days.

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