History is a Call and Response: New Books on Abraham Joshua Heschel

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Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–72) was a rabbi, scholar, and philosopher. In 1937 Martin Buber appointed him as his successor at the central organization for Jewish adult education in Frankfurt am Main. In time he became one of the most influential modern philosophers of religion in the United States. He formulated an original philosophy of Judaism, expressed in such foundational books as Man Is Not Alone (1951) and God in Search of Man (1955). In 2019 the Jewish Publication Society published two books honoring this colossal figure in Judaism.

In This Hour presents a selection of Heschel’s writings—some appearing for the first time in English, others appearing for the first time in print—written during his tumultuous years in Nazi-ruled Germany and months in London exile, before he found refuge in the United States. These translations convey the spare elegance of Heschel’s prose, and the introduction and detailed notes make the volume accessible to readers of all knowledge levels. As Heschel teaches history, his voice is more than that of a historian: the old becomes new, and the struggles of one era shed light on another. Even as Heschel quotes ancient sources, his words address the issues of his own time and speak urgently to ours.

In addition to Heschel’s own words from one time frame in his life, JPS also released a biography spanning Heschel’s entire life and influence. In Abraham Joshua Heschel: Mind, Heart, SoulEdward K. Kaplan takes readers on a soulful journey through the rollercoaster challenges and successes of Heschel’s emotional life. As a child he was enveloped in a Hasidic community of Warsaw, then he went on to explore secular Jewish Vilna and cosmopolitan Berlin. He improvised solutions to procure his doctorate in Nazi-dominated Berlin, escaped the Nazis, and secured a rare visa to the United States. He articulated strikingly original interpretations of Jewish ideas that resonated even within Catholic and Protestant communities.

Below is a brief excerpt from both books. We hope they encourage you to encounter Heschel anew.

The following is an excerpt from In This Hour: Heschel’s Writings in Nazi Germany and London Exile by Abraham Joshua Heschel.

On History

HeschelHistory is the encounter of the eternal and the temporal. As the word is a vessel for revelation and prayer, so history furnishes a receptacle for God’s actions in the world and the material for the fulfillment of humanity through time.

Only rarely does the present shine a light that illuminates our understanding of the meaning of this encounter. But the past’s truth concerns us always and everywhere, and sometimes that which is elusive when close to us will reveal itself from a distance.

God’s Spirit speaks from the events of history, and our life is interconnected with this Spirit. Whenever our historical memory grows cloudy, the abandoned Spirit awakens in us, and we know again: we are servants of God’s grace.

Our honor is given to us as a pledge for our loyalty to Israel. Human guilt and divine favor determine our being: through the single individual the entire people share in the guilt; through the entire people the individual shares in the favor.

The Jewish question is a question that God asks of us. Our existence is the history of a responsibility and the prehistory of a response.

The present is a reunion with the past. But the future will see again that which has never been seen before.

 

The following is an excerpt from Abraham Joshua Heschel: Mind, Heart, Soul by Edward K. Kaplan. 

From Chapter 1: Hasidic Warsaw, 1907-1925

Humility and Intellectual Pride

Kaplan_jkt.inddThe forming of Heschel’s inner integrity as zaddik was as deliberate as mastering texts. Intellectual skill seemed to be the precocious boy’s dominant quality. Gifted with an eidetic (visual) memory, around age seven he could scan books quickly, remembering their contents. Driven by a desire for knowledge—and perhaps a budding ambitiousness—Heschel at nine or ten began to consume the books in his father’s library.

Heschel also applied his mental energies to amuse himself during the few moments outside of study. For the sheer challenge, he catalogued and learned by heart all the products in the millinery store of his friend Yehiel’s father. Early on, he relished the intricacies of chess, one of the few amusements Hasidim favored.

A bridge was forming, perhaps, to secular curiosity. Many religiously educated Jewish boys developed an extraordinary mental discipline, due in large part to Talmud study and pilpul, a deft method of talmudic dialectic analysis originating among East European Jews. In addition to enhancing analytical skills, Talmud study advanced Heschel’s unusual ability to retain large amounts of reading matter. He claimed that his book on theology in the Talmud, published in Rabbinic Hebrew from 1962 to 1965, drew heavily upon his memory of sources.

Even as a boy, Heschel was treated like a rebbe, with deference. Expecting wise answers to their questions, people rose to greet him when he entered a room. Some even brought him kvitlakh (petitions), joking that if he became a rebbe, all the other rebbes would lose their followers.

At the same time, the family worried at early signs of Heschel’s pride. He claimed to have read most of—if not all—his father’s books by age twelve. His elder brother, Jacob, remembers being shocked at Avrumele’s boast that he could write better ones himself. A scion of generations of Hasidic rebbes who were believed to possess supernatural qualities, perhaps Heschel could not help but feel some sense of entitlement. Still, the boy was reprimanded for his excessive self-regard.

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