Jewish Ideas Daily: Heschel in Yiddish and Hebrew

The Torah was given, as the world was created, in and through language.

March 18, 2012 22:36
A worshiper holds up a Torah scroll

A worshiper holds up a Torah scroll 370. (photo credit: Reuters)


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Standing at Sinai, “All the people were seeing the thunder” (Exodus 20:15), seeing the sounds. The word “revelation” would be somewhat misleading, since nothing was unveiled: The mountain was wreathed in cloud and smoke. But God spoke, in words and images, in the hope that the people were listening.

The Torah was given, as the world was created, in and through language; and language, in order to communicate – in order to be language at all – must be human. That is a paradox at the core of revelation. Torah is both the junction of God and humanity and the record of disjuncture (the whole and the broken Tablets, both in the Ark), a channel of infinite communication and a vessel of infinite longing. It is at once the world made by God, the measure of our distance from Him, and the field we walk to find Him. This multiplicity exists because, as the Talmud says, “Torah speaks a human tongue” – yet there is no one human language in this splintered world or our splintered minds. Perhaps that accounts for the Psalmist’s wonderment that “God has spoken one thing, two things have I heard” (Psalms 62:12).

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Few, if any, 20th-century Jewish thinkers tried so hard to summon revelation to their readers as Abraham Joshua Heschel. Revelation, as human event and dialogue, was central to his quest to make us understand that God really is in search of us, seeking not our assent to some creed but our willingness to live in our own lives His justice and mercy.

Heschel’s ideas are inseparable from his language; there is no way to lay out his teachings as a series of propositions, which is perhaps the difference between a religious virtuoso and a theologian. Even his categories – divine pathos, radical amazement, palaces in time – reflect his richly poetic, sometimes baroque, idiom. It can captivate readers or put them off and, regularly, does both at once.

Arthur Cohen, in his perceptive study of Heschel, characterized Heschel’s project as the “rhetoric of faith,” in the classic sense of the word “rhetoric”: The music of the language is of the essence of the truth being conveyed. It conjures a new reality, “piercing the veil which separates the living God from creation.”

In 1925 Heschel, age 18, left his native Warsaw for Vilna.

He joined the circle of secular modernist poets known as Yung Vilne but never quite fit into it. Two years later he moved to Berlin for university studies. He kept writing poems, a counterpoint to the academic métier. He never quite fit into that, either.

The centrality of the music of language and the poetic mode of seeing emerges in Heschel’s very first book, Der Shem Ha-Meforash: Mensch (“The Ineffable Name [of God]: Man”), a collection of Yiddish poems published in Warsaw in 1933. The poems are saturated with traditional spirituality but far from Orthodox and, with regularity, are theologically daring. An English translation appeared several years ago and has been set to music by the singer Basya Schechter in her recent album Songs of Wonder.

Schechter’s songs display her trademark world music sound. She is a wonderful craftsman, with not a note out of place; and the stronger songs on the album succeed. “At Dusk,” the most Hasidic or East European-style song on the album, and “I and You,” in which Heschel counters Martin Buber’s dialogue with the idea of human-divine mutual dissolution, avoid smug aesthetics by conveying the eeriness of religious experience. The song “Snow on the Fields” wonderfully evokes the sparseness of the poem’s images.

But Schechter’s lovely melodic lines seem to work against the words, leaving their deeper meanings just out of reach, and the poems are angrier with God than the music conveys: “Your silence – hell on earth. ...God Himself is our prosecutor!” “God’s heart seems to pound a confession....

Why doesn’t God say ‘I’m sorry?’” Perhaps blessedly, Schechter doesn’t have that kind of bitterness.

Yiddish was the language of Heschel’s first book (and his last), and much of his work concerns the spiritual retrieval and reinterpretation of Eastern Europe for American Jewry.

Where, in all this, was Israel, or Hebrew? A wonderful new anthology, Elohim Ma’amin b’Adam (“God Believes in Man”), edited by Dror Bondi, a young scholar and activist, with a lengthy afterword by Heschel’s daughter Susannah, is the latest effort to bring Heschel to Israelis. It includes Hebrew translations of many of Heschel’s English writings along with essays and some letters and poems that he wrote in Yiddish and Hebrew.

Bondi’s book follows two other Hebrew translations of Heschel in the past decade, his magnum opus God in Search of Man and his brief, powerful classic The Sabbath.

The Sabbath shows why Heschel has had a hard time traveling. Published in 1951, it declares and revels in Judaism’s “sanctification of time.” Presented as a protest against technological civilization’s “conquest of space,” it also reflects ambivalence about Zionism, for which there is no Jewish life in the absence of space. (In an earlier volume of his, Bondi observed that, taken together, The Sabbath and The Earth is the Lord’s, Heschel’s 1948 elegy to Eastern Europe, suggest that the land is God’s only in exile.) In 1957 Heschel visited Israel for the first time. The transformative experience impressed on him Israel’s centrality to Jewish existence. Yet the “rebirth of religion,” he said in a speech he delivered during his visit, will come only through the renewal of inner perplexity, through the travails of thought standing before the hidden and obscure in each and every thing, including in thought itself.... [F]aith is none other than the individual’s response and answer to God’s voice proceeding through the Garden and asking, ‘Where are you?’” This powerful critique of 1950s American Jewish Babbittry could not be appreciated by the Zionist ideology of the time. Heschel was calling for a dissolution of the bounded concepts of religious and secular but was speaking to a polity that defined itself precisely in terms of that dichotomy, which it deemed necessary to the pressing business of nation-building. Heschel was here decrying secularism’s emptiness, not to bourgeois all-rightniks, but to socialist revolutionaries for whom secularism was a prophetic religion of its own.

Today, Heschel’s savage critiques of postwar American Jewish complacency and the religious establishment might fall on more fertile ground in Israel, where the moral obtuseness and spiritual vacuity of the religious establishment become clearer by the day, younger activists seek to link their passion for justice with Jewish spirituality, and the secular religion has largely exhausted itself.

In an introduction to Bondi’s anthology, Micah Goodman writes that Heschel simply dissolves familiar Israeli antinomies: social and political activism, Zionism, or “Ahavat Yisrael”; all, to him, are expressions of piety. Goodman adds that Buber’s description of the historical task of Hasidism – to teach the secular world that holiness exists and teach the religious what holiness is – could be Heschel’s potential role in Israeli society.

The Jerusalem Talmud says that the heavenly Torah was written in fires, black inscribed on white. The former was the Oral Torah, which we can read and which we ourselves speak; the latter was the Written Torah, ultimate and eternal, and unknowable without the medium of human words. The heavenly Torah that abides must be in Hebrew, the linguistic canvas on and out of which the responsive Torah will emerge, speaking and singing in many tongues.

This article was first published by Jewish Ideas Daily ( and is reprinted with permission.

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