Rabbi Heschel, Spiritual Radical
Last year marked the centenary of the birth of Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), one of the best-known, and controversial, figures in modern American Jewish life. A great articulator of religious spirituality, Heschel was also an ardent social activist, bringing eloquence and energy to bear on the causes of civil rights, Soviet Jewry, and opposition to the Vietnam war. Rarely has the word “prophet” been applied so freely to someone of our era.
Yet, in reading Heschel’s voluminous writings, one is more often struck by their lofty reach than by their persuasiveness. “As a writer,” his biographer Edward K. Kaplan writes, Heschel “excelled in passages of poetic prose interspersed with philosophical assertions and striking aphorisms.” That is putting it delicately. There is something deeply unsettling about this philosopher’s prose, a pretension to universal significance that at times sails beyond what seems justified either by his evident learning or by his intermittent insight.
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