Commentary Magazine


The Earth Is the Lord's, by Abraham Joshua Heschel

Elegy for a Lost World
The Earth Is The Lord’s.
by Abraham Joshua Heschel.
With wood engravings by Ilya Schor. Henry Schuman. 109 pp. $2.50.

 

Among the many Hasidic tales that Dr. Heschel finds occasion to relate in this very poignant—and very beautifully produced—memoir of East European Jewry, there is one on page eighty that is my favorite. It tells of the poor melamed (teacher) who, while trudging a wintry road, is invited into the coach of the richest man in town. After covering himself with warm woolen blankets and partaking, at his host’s invitation, of brandy, cake, and roast goose, the melamed turns to the rich man and asks: “Tell me, please, what are your worldly pleasures?” The rich man, astonished, asks whether his coach and horses and fine food are not sufficiently pleasurable. “No,” says the melamed, “these are your heavenly pleasures, the acme of your pleasures, but what are your this-worldly pleasures?”

This radical confusion of universes can be found in non-Jewish thinkers, too, but it is only in Judaism that the confusion is the religion itself. To be more exact, it is the Jew himself. The Jew is a citizen of the other-world, which may be located at the beginning or the end of time, but nowhere between the extremes. In the world-as-it-is, he journeys a stranger, finding this world, in some indefinable way, to be something abstract and incomplete, a dream perhaps, or a delusion, a fragment of a morality play, or a great temptation—but, in any case, never fully accessible. There is a—both absurd and sublime—transvaluation of values that is the essence of Jewishness, an incorrigible stumbling out of the window into a more real world, not—it must be emphasized—into a merely spiritual world, but into one simply more real, though nonexistent.

This metaphysical tragi-comedy is enacted, with equal facility, by mystics, rationalists, skeptics, liberals, socialists, and physicists—by Moses de Leon, Maimonides, Spinoza, and Hermann Cohen, Kafka and Sholom Aleichem, Rathenau, Marx, and Einstein. The accent can shift from the gay (Chagall’s sketches, where the yoke of the Law has been transformed into a pair of wings) to the bleak (Kafka’s The Trial, where the Law murders senselessly), or it can remain in tense suspension (Sholom Aleichem’s irony). More often than not, a self-deception is involved: the Hasid believes that he is sanctifying the world-as-it-is when he is not even living in it, and a certain type of business man prides himself on his “materialism,” which is but a wracking hunger for a material world he is always falling out of. For some Jews the real world is in the other-world of the original Garden, in the beginning; for others it is in the Promised Land, at the end of days; in all cases, the real world is simply not here.

It is one of the virtues of Dr. Heschel’s book that it neither slurs over the unique features of the Jew nor exploits them for the benefit of secular vanity or religious apologetics. He has, rather, tried to penetrate to “The Inner World of the Jew in East Europe” (this is the book’s sub-title) and to demonstrate his thesis, befitting a professor of Jewish mysticism, that “the world is sustained by unworldliness.” There are few books in English that plunge us so deeply into the depths of Jewish reality. For Dr. Heschel is in no doubt that the “inner world” of the East European Jew is more real than all other worlds.

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The Earth is the Lord’s is frankly an essay in “sacred history.” It makes no claim to be objective, complete, or disinterested—it claims simply to be true. It is an elegy, sometimes a rhapsody, over what the author believes to have been “the golden period of Jewish history.” It is sentimental throughout and will probably offend some readers who have seen their sentiments too often, too casually, and too unscrupulously assaulted; this is unfortunate, for Dr. Heschel, it seems to me, does not aim to manipulate the reader, but is sentimental because under the circumstances this is a not inappropriate mood.

The book is impossible to review, in the sense of saying “what it is about.” It opens with a contrast between the “aristocratic,” cerebral, and Arabic-influenced Sephardic Judaism and the “folk” Judaism of the Ashkenazim of East Europe; it goes on to discuss Jewish piety and Jewish learning, Cabalism and Hasidism, Jewish wit and Jewish melancholy, pilpul and saintliness. It is more evocative than informative, though there are few who will not learn something from it. In the end, it is “about” a people “who at midnight lamented the glory of God that is in exile and spent their days peddling onions.” We have already been instructed in the life of the “onion-peddlers” in Maurice Samuel’s books on Sholom Aleichem and Peretz. Now we are given an, insight into the people of the midnight lament.

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Dr. Heschel possesses a fervor that is unrestrained and a piety that is immoderate. If they are not entirely contagious, the fault is as likely the modern reader’s as his. But it must be said that he has not given the reader every advantage. For one thing, his prose style is too frequently artificial in its eloquence. English is not Dr. Heschel’s native tongue, and his command of it is impressive. But he has, I think, made an error in trying to achieve an archaic splendor which sits uneasily on the rude Anglo-Saxon that is at the base of the language. Santayana got away with it—just. He is a dangerous model to copy.

More important is the fact that Dr. Heschel occasionally succumbs to what can only be called romantic simplification. Poland was not, after all, Paradise, and Eastern Europe cannot make the unconditional claim of the Garden of Eden. His statement that Ashkenazic Jewry “borrowed from other cultures neither substance nor form” is unjustified, as is his delicate disparagement of the Sephardim as, in some sense, not truly Jewish. It is significant that no mention is made of the “false messìahs” who stirred Ashkenazic Jewry to its depths, for that would suggest frustrations and anxieties incompatible with the perfect inner life the book describes. Dr. Heschel seems unwilling to concede that the Jewish reality of Eastern Europe was something in history and not outside it, and that Zionism and Yiddish secularism, for all their religious impulse, were indeed a revolt against the image of the Ashkenazi. We fail to hear in this book the voice of the young Bialik, who wrote, upon returning to the ghetto:

I come, my brothers, into your company!
Together we will rot. . . .

Nor do we recognize our harassed and disbelieving ancestors, who fled to America, not only from the pogroms, but—very many of them—also from the rebbe, the Hasid, the ghetto.

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