The Book of Heschel

Extract from an article in Issue 23, March 3, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Justice is done to one of American Jewry's greatest spiritual leaders in this authoritative biography Three and a half decades after his death, the stature of Abraham Joshua Heschel remains unchallenged in the United States. His standing as one of the most important Jewish theologians of modern times, comparable, at the very least, to Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, is secure. Yet in Israel he is seldom noted by Orthodox or secular alike. In some respects, this anomaly is easy to explain. Heschel neither lived nor taught in Israel, as Buber did. Widely remembered now for the political radicalism of his later years, he was a hugely influential figure in the strengthening - and the return to more traditional Judaism - of the Conservative and Reform Jewish movements and he is widely regarded as the spiritual father of New Age Judaism. None of that would commend him to either the ultra-0rthodox or the national religious communities in Israel, although the modern Orthodox in the United States treat him with great respect. Heschel was a deeply observant and believing Orthodox Jew all his life. He came from a family of hasidic aristocracy. He was named after his grandfather, the Rebbe of Apt. His theology was profoundly traditional: One of his many great achievements was to make traditional Jewish religious beliefs accessible to modern men and women. He reformulated ancient concepts of divine interaction and communication with human beings in ways that made the essence of faith understandable, believable and achievable in the scientific and secular world. He built, therefore, bridges between heaven and earth: And they have stood the test of time. In this reformulation, achieved by using contemporary understandings and philosophical tools taken from the secular world, Heschel even bears comparison with Philo of Alexandria 2,000 years ago, and with the Rambam, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, 800 years ago. Heschel, in fact, revered the Rambam and wrote a magnificent biography of him. It is no coincidence that another of his books, "Prophetic Revelation After The Prophets," engages so strongly and sympathetically with the Rambam's work too. However much he has been overlooked in Israel, in the American Jewish and wider world today, Heschel's light shines stronger than ever. In the past two years, we have seen two major new books published that significantly expand his legacy: First, the long-awaited complete edition of his three volume "Heavenly Torah," now available in a massive, 814-page paperback edition published by Continuum Books in 2007, with superb translation from the original Hebrew, commentary and introduction by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, former dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. And now there is "Spiritual Radical," the second and concluding part of the biography by Edward Kaplan, eagerly anticipated since the first volume came out in 1998. The book is well worth the wait: It looks sure to remain the definitive biographical study of Heschel for decades to come. The new volume deals with the years of Heschel's flowering and great career in the United States after he came, a brand snatched from the genocidal fires of Europe, first to Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati from his native Poland in 1940, then to New York City and JTS in 1945. Kaplan's book is a remarkable achievement on many levels. It does full justice to Heschel's spiritual and intellectual accomplishments, meticulously traces how he absorbed and refracted the influences he acquired during his prior decades in Europe, and brings the private man to vivid life as well. Heschel spent the World War II years miserably at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. The Reform movement was not for him. But HUC saved his life, as it did for many other eminent European Jewish scholars, by enabling them to get through the needle's eye of the draconian U.S. immigration restrictions at the time. Heschel was eager to move to JTS in 1946 when the opportunity arose. Although always strictly Orthodox in his observance, he had absorbed and grappled with the intellectual challenges of modernity from an early age, as Kaplan and Samuel Dresner, his co-author on the first volume of this biography, have documented. Heschel maintained the warmest connections with the hasidic world in America to the end of his life, but intellectually he was always drawn to the wider challenges of American Jewry and the wider society around it. Heschel was the nearest thing to an incarnation of the classic Jewish-tanakh biblical conception of a prophet that we have seen in the modern age. He did not predict the future with crazy irresponsible guesses, or wildly claim that the coming of the Messiah was imminent. Instead, in books such as "God in Search of Man," "Man is not Alone" and "A Passion for Truth," he taught new generations long cut off from the great Jewish religious tradition how divine revelation and inspiration worked and why they were not only still alive and well but more needed than ever. Heschel is today best remembered for the apparent personal flamboyance and bold political radicalism of his later years. He marched with Martin Luther King for civil rights at Selma, Alabama. He fiercely opposed U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Like Gandhi, he started out quietly, soberly and conventionally dressed with short, neat haircuts, but in old age became very much a spiritual showman. He did not choose to sport a homespun loincloth and a staff, as did the Mahatma. But he let his hair grow spectacularly long and wore extroverted multicolored tallits in public, a fashion that aging Jewish New Age gurus have taken from him. Jealous, less publicly visible colleagues at JTS grumbled that Heschel owed much of his continuing fame to simply not getting a haircut. But Heschel correctly recognized, as Einstein did, that a spectacular personal appearance would work wonders in spreading the moral message he cared about above all else. However, Kaplan reclaims the very different and arguably far more important role Heschel played through his writings from the late 1940s into the 1960s in reviving the very concepts of spirituality and belief in an immanent and caring God for an American Jewish world reeling from the horror of the Holocaust. Far from watering down or trivializing Orthodoxy, he was the most effective of all the communicators of its riches to the wider Jewish world. Martin Sieff is chief news analyst for United Press International and a veteran foreign correspondent. His most recent book is "The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Middle East." Extract from an article in Issue 23, March 3, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.