Commentary Magazine

A.J. Heschel

To the Editor:

There is something inappropriately snide in Jon D. Levenson’s characterization of Abraham Joshua Heschel as a “crossover artist” [“The Contradictions of A.J. Heschel,” July]. Finding it a “strange tale” that one person could have been “a hasidic rabbi from Warsaw, a Yiddish poet from Vilna, a philosopher of religion from Berlin, and a Jewish educator from Frankfurt,” Mr. Levenson seriously misunderstands the Jewish experience of interwar Europe, and seems to hold young Heschel up to the much more rigid standards of contemporary Borough Park Hasidism.

The fact that a young man of hasidic lineage received semikhah (ordination) as a teenager was quite normal, and did not make him a hasidic rabbi. Heschel never claimed to be from Vilna; he went to school there for a while to complete his gymnasium degree, probably to save his family the embarrassment of his doing so in Warsaw, where the act would have been much more public. Yes, it was unusual for such a young man to write Yiddish poetry, but less so than it would be today. Mr. Levenson forgets that nearly every hasidic family in Poland of the 1920’s saw some of its children turn modern in one way or another: Zionist, socialist, seeking secular higher education, etc. Going off to Berlin to study was quite the norm, even for bright children of pious families. It even happened in the Schneersohn family, after all, as is well documented in Shaul Deutsch’s recent biography of the late Lubaviteher rebbe, Menahem Mendel Schneersohn, who as a young man studied mathematics and science at the Sorbonne. Why is young Heschel a “crossover artist” for treading the same path, but winding up a little farther from the source?

Mr. Levenson seems especially troubled by Heschel’s involvement with institutions that to him represent non-halakhic forms of Judaism. Again, historical perspective is lacking. The Jewish Theological Seminary of the 1950’s, led by Louis Finkelstein, was obsessed with the centrality of halakhah and the process by which minor adjustments might be made in it. Heschel found himself annoyed by the pettiness of halakhic concern and its habit of shying away from the great issues of the day. I recall his asking, rhetorically, in a seminar one evening: “How many teshuvot [rabbinic responses] are there on the question of opening a refrigerator on the Sabbath, and how many on whether one may participate in a nuclear war?”

Arthur Green
Brandeis University
Waltham, Massachusetts



Jon D. Levenson writes:

Usually a careful interpreter of Jewish mystical texts, Arthur Green has given my article an uncharacteristically cursory reading that is itself mystifying. Although he sees the term “crossover artist” as derogatory, I meant it as a positive allusion to Abraham Joshua Heschel’s versatility and adaptability. This could have been easily inferred from my very next sentence, in which I call Heschel “one of the most extraordinary Jews of the 20th century” and a man who “survived the Nazi obliteration of the several worlds of his youth and young manhood.” Mr. Green wonders why I do not apply the term to anyone else. The answer is simple: I was not reviewing the biography of anyone else, and, as he himself notes, Heschel wound up “a little farther from the source.” If the comparison is with the Lubavitcher rebbe, I would be glad to see whatever evidence Mr. Green has that the latter, too, studied and taught in Reform and Conservative seminaries.

I am also mystified as to how a hasid could be a rabbi without being a “hasidic rabbi.” Perhaps Mr. Green thought I wrote rebbe or rav (i.e., one who not only has rabbinical ordination but issues authoritative decisions). And I have searched in vain for a place in my article in which I said that Heschel was unique in pursuing a secularizing, Westernizing program. On the contrary, I referred to others who undertook a similar journey. But if Mr. Green thinks that “going off to Berlin to study was quite the norm” for young members of Polish hasidic dynasties, even when the curriculum was philosophy, art history, and biblical criticism, then it is not I who lack a grounding in modern Jewish cultural history.

Am I “especially troubled by Heschel’s involvement with institutions that to [me] represent non-halakhic forms of Judaism”? In fact, the split I mentioned was the one between (in my words) the “scrupulous adherence to Jewish religious law . . . in all its specificity” of the Hasidim and the more liberal and less encompassing approach of the Reform and Conservative seminaries in which Heschel spent his American years. (“Non-halakhic” is Mr. Green’s term, not mine.) What troubles me is not Heschel’s involvement in such institutions but his failure “to reconcile that particular set of dualities,” and the impression he often left that East European spirituality could be detached from rigorous allegiance to classical halakhah. Given Mr. Green’s own association with Heschel, to which he attests in his letter, he is in a rare position to address this problem. Too bad that, instead, he faults me for drawing attention to it.

That the son of a hasidic rebbe from Warsaw should have ended up teaching biblical criticism at a Reform seminary in Cincinnati is indeed a “strange tale.” Stranger still is Arthur Green’s denial of the full measure of his revered teacher’s originality, and of the theological problems that the conflict of his several worlds continues to pose.


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