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The Contradictions of A.J. Heschel

If there were a category among serious religious thinkers akin to what is known in the classical-music world as a crossover artist, pride of place in it would surely go to Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-72). One of the most extraordinary Jews of the 20th century, Heschel was born in Warsaw as the son of a hasidic rebbe, acquired a philosophical and theological education in Germany, became a Yiddish poet of some note, survived the Nazi obliteration of the several worlds of his youth and young manhood, and became the most influential and widely read Jewish theologian in America.

In the quarter-century since his death, Heschel’s reputation has grown geometrically. Today, his many books on spiritual life are read by a wide variety of Jews—and Christians, too. Indeed, something of a personality cult now envelops the Heschel name. Not only is he revered as an inspirational writer but, thanks to his participation in the civil-rights movement of the 1960’s and to his high-profile immersion in liberal politics, his name is now regularly invoked in support of a wide spectrum of contemporary causes, from religious pluralism to feminism and environmentalism.

The recent 25th anniversary of Heschel’s death has occasioned a number of tributes and evaluations, among them the first volume of a projected two-volume biography by Edward K. Kaplan and Samuel H. Dresner.1 The foundation for this particular work lies in an archive assembled by Rabbi Dresner, a long-time disciple of Heschel’s, while the actual writing has been done by Kaplan, a professor of comparative literature at Brandeis who knew Heschel in the last six years of his life. Although limited to the period from his birth until his arrival in America, and hardly free of the sentimental and hagiographic tone that the Heschel mystique too often elicits, the book offers an occasion to reflect on his larger legacy.



Given Heschel’s own reticence about his childhood, and given the ravages of the Holocaust, the earliest phases of his life are the hardest to reconstruct, and Kaplan and Dresner’s account depends heavily on anecdote. Descended on both his father’s and his mother’s side from founding figures of East European Hasidism, Abraham Joshua Heschel was named after a distinguished ancestor known as the Apter Rav. Especially after his father’s untimely death in 1916, the young Heschel came under the influence of his maternal uncle, a man of all-consuming piety who later directed him to the Kotzker branch of Hasidism. This severe and perfectionist school emphasized self-abasement and contrition, and it was to his education in its ways that Heschel later attributed what he called his “inferiority complexes.”

Ordained as a rabbi at the tender age of sixteen, Heschel seemed destined to follow in the footsteps of his distinguished forebears. But something—it is unclear exactly what—upset or at least diverted the momentum of his religious and cultural traditionalism, and soon he was dreaming of a university education. With the aid of some sympathetic elders, he hired tutors for himself in Polish, Latin, and German, camouflaging what he was doing from his mother by “chant[ing] his Polish declensions and other books in a distant room, as if he were studying Talmud.”

Two years after receiving his ordination, Heschel left Warsaw for Vilna. There he enrolled in a secular Jewish gymnasium where the instruction was in Yiddish, the student body coeducational, the curriculum Western and scientific, and the pedagogy progressive. To prepare himself for the role of a typical European student, the young hasidic rabbi transformed himself physically; by the time he arrived in Vilna, Kaplan and Dresner tell us, he “was clean-shaven, without earlocks.”

The break in Heschel’s world view was not quite so decisive as the break in his appearance. While the political and cultural atmosphere in the gymnasium was avant-garde and humanistic, a fellow student remembers Heschel as a “person of an entirely different type than we,” still very much the traditional Talmud scholar amid a company of modern skeptics. Even when he joined the group of left-wing Yiddish writers and artists known collectively as “Young Vilna”—he later claimed to have been a co-founder of this movement, a claim Kaplan and Dresner label a “half-truth”—the poetry he wrote under its aegis betrayed a still deep-seated involvement in religious issues. “You will never be a great poet,” his mentor, the Yiddish writer Moyshe Kulbak told him, “but you will become an excellent philosopher.”



In 1927, having completed his preparation for higher studies, Heschel moved to Berlin. There, partly fulfilling Kulbak’s expectations, he enrolled in both the philosophy and theology faculties at the University of Berlin, concentrating in the emerging fields of aesthetics, phenomenology, and psychology but working as well in art history and Semitic philology, especially the Bible. It was, paradoxically, in his choice of the last-named field that he showed just how far he had traveled from his East European origins, for at the University of Berlin the sacred text was approached under the direction of scholars of a liberal Protestant bent and according to the historical-critical methods developed in the 19th and early 20th centuries. No less striking, from the traditionalist point of view, was Heschel’s simultaneous enrollment in the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, a liberal seminary in Berlin where rabbis and scholars were trained in modern modes of textual and historical analysis.

Kaplan and Dresner write that Jews “in the hasidic prayer houses [in Berlin] became cool to Heschel when they learned” where he was studying. They themselves, as his advocates, defend his decision on the grounds that it showed independence of character. But to Heschel’s hasidic critics, the problem may well have been that he was not being independent enough, allowing himself instead to be seduced by the approach to Jewish tradition that happened to prevail in the environment into which he appeared to be assimilating.

In fact, the picture is more complicated than either of these interpretations suggests. In those years, Berlin was a mecca for Jewish intellectuals committed to rethinking their religious heritage in light of the challenge presented by modern philosophical, historical, and scientific thought; the cast of characters in Kaplan and Dresner’s chapters on Heschel’s Berlin experience reads like a Who’s Who of 20th-century Jewish thought. It includes Leo Baeck, the liberal theologian; Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, later to be the preeminent philosopher and talmudist of modern Orthodoxy; and Alexander Altmann, a polymath intellectual historian who after the war would become a leading light in Jewish studies in America.

As it happens, however, the greatest influence on Heschel was exerted not by any of these distinguished names but by the relatively little-known David Koigen, a political philosopher and social theorist whose life story anticipated Heschel’s own and whose neo-hasidic thinking would deeply affect Heschel’s emerging theology. In excerpts from the minutes of a private seminar that Heschel took with Koigen, included in Kaplan and Dresner’s book, one can see foreshadowed the philosophy of Judaism that he would elaborate decades later.

Heschel finished his doctoral dissertation—on the phenomenology of consciousness among the biblical prophets—just as Hitler was achieving control over Germany. Though he had no aspirations as a congregational rabbi, he took a second ordination, this one from the liberal Hochschule. Precluded as a Jew from the university positions he craved, he supported himself through his writing (poetic and philosophical, popular and scholarly), editing, and teaching. Contact with Martin Buber in Frankfurt led to a theological correspondence and eventually to Heschel’s appointment as Buber’s successor at the Frankfurt Lehrhaus, an innovative institution of adult Jewish education.

But the gathering storm was unmistakable (even if almost no one, including Heschel, foresaw where it would eventually lead), and the last chapters of this book find its subject engaged in a frantic search for an academic position in Poland, Palestine, or the United States—anywhere outside the tightening grip of the Nazis. On October 28, 1938, two weeks before Kristallnacht, Gestapo agents entered Heschel’s quarters in Frankfurt and took him to the police station. “The next morning,” Kaplan and Dresner write, “he was crammed into a sealed and guarded train with hundreds of other Jews, standing all the way during the three-day journey to the German-Polish border.”

Making his way to his family in Warsaw, Heschel next escaped to London, where his brother lived; the fact that “exit permits for his mother and sisters . . . were impossible to attain” left him “with an unhealable wound.” Not long afterward, thanks to the tireless efforts of Julian Morgenstern, the president of Hebrew Union College—the Reform rabbinical institution in Cincinnati—Heschel came to the United States. This volume of his biography closes with his appointment there as an instructor in Bible.

Thus, the strange tale of one who, by the age of thirty-three, had already been a hasidic rabbi from Warsaw, a Yiddish poet from Vilna, a philosopher of religion from Berlin, and a Jewish educator from Frankfurt, and whose path in decades to come was destined to take stranger turns still.



So unusual, and so little-known, are the episodes of Heschel’s early life that this account is to be welcomed on that score alone. Like any biography assembled disproportionately from memoirs, however, especially memoirs of the subject himself or of his admirers, it leaves many enticing things unexplained. To give only one example, a footnote to Kaplan and Dresner’s text, citing Heschel’s niece as its source, enigmatically reports that he had a younger brother who died in the same epidemic that took his father’s life in 1916. If that is true, one wonders why Heschel never spoke of it, and also what effect the death of this boy might have had on his own eventual estrangement from his family’s religious orientation.

More puzzling still is the story told here of an Orthodox psychiatrist of distinguished hasidic lineage who visited Heschel’s home in Warsaw and there helped “wean” the young man not only from the “tyrannical” Kotzker tutor to whom his uncle had entrusted his education but, more generally, from “his family’s authority.” For this tidbit the authors cite an interview with one of Heschel’s cousins. They also laud the psychiatrist for his success in rescuing Heschel from his family’s “parochial expectations without alienating him from their love and spiritual ideals.”

Surely some further discussion was warranted here: rare indeed must have been the hasidic teenager in 1923 upon whom a psychiatrist paid a house call. Moreover, whether or not this particular psychiatrist is to be credited with “usher[ing] Heschel across the threshold” into secular studies, there also seems to have been an emotional issue involved, even a crisis of sorts in the young man’s inner life; but as to its nature we are left guessing.

Part of the problem is that the authors of this biography, like Heschel himself in such works as The Earth Is the Lord’s: The Inner World of the Jew in East Europe (1950), are wedded to a heavily idealized view of hasidic life. Resolutely ignoring questions of social structure, cultural context, and the distribution of power in actual hasidic communities, they fail to distinguish between the religious values of the Hasidim and lived historical reality. The mature Heschel at least had an excuse for this sort of thing: his genre was not historiography but theology and inspiration, and his goal was to transmit the essence of traditional Jewish spirituality to readers inhabiting a very different social situation. But when, indulging in a similar form of idealization, his biographers piously assert that “Heschel’s father demonstrated in subtle ways reverence for each and every person,” they make it that much more difficult to understand the sources of the young Heschel’s (partial) disaffection from his family and its world.

The hagiographic impulse becomes even more pronounced when it comes to Heschel himself. Although Kaplan and Dresner do occasionally admit to their subject’s human frailties (insecurity and excessive self-regard are mentioned), more often than not they put only the most positive spin on Heschel’s actions, and rarely do they consider alternative explanations. Thus, we learn that, having “claimed to have read most—if not all—of his father’s books by age ten or twelve,” the young Heschel “shocked his brother, Jacob, by boasting that he could write better ones himself.” The authors’ comment: “Already, it seems, Heschel let slip a personal voice seeking expression.” Different terms spring to mind for this sort of behavior.

On the other hand, Kaplan and Dresner perform a real service in tracing Heschel’s developing religious ideas as they are reflected in his poems as well as in his early correspondence and scholarly works. As they correctly note, the keystone of Heschel’s philosophy, adumbrated in his studies with David Koigen and later to be expounded in such works as Man Is Not Alone (1951) and God in Search of Man (1955), was and would remain the idea of the living God, the God Who reveals Himself in inward experience and intuition and Who can be reached through “the subtle modalities of emotion” even by individuals who stand outside a religious community.

In developing this conception of God, Heschel was working explicitly against another philosophical view, very characteristic of modernity, according to which God is to be understood as a human ideal, and religion as (in Heschel’s own words) “a fiction, useful to society or to man’s personal well-being.” In rejecting this view, which he dubbed “symbolism,” Heschel was also rejecting anthropocentrism. For him, the central reality of existence, as his biographers put it, was that God “is the Subject, while human beings are objects of divine awareness.” Man’s will, the formidable capacities of his intellect, are subordinate to something prior—something pre-conceptual, pre-symbolic, and pre-verbal: the personal concern of the ineffable and holy God for human beings and for His creation.

In these early statements of Heschel’s theology, one cannot but detect the return of powerful pieces of the hasidic piety of his origins, only now couched in the language of Western thought and pitched to a Western social and religious environment. To the day he died, he continued to challenge both liberal religion and the self-centeredness of modern secularity with this profoundly theocentric view.



Unfortunately, despite their useful sketch of his ideas, Heschel’s biographers slight both the context in which those ideas developed and the real difficulties they entail. In their account of his doctoral dissertation, for example, Kaplan and Dresner refer to the “potentially devastating critique of institutional religion” contained in Heschel’s strong preference for the biblical prophet, a figure committed to social justice and “overwhelmed by the Word that arrives at God’s initiative,” over the biblical priest with his involvement in the details of law and ritual. What they do not note is that this preference—based in any case on a very dubious dichotomy between prophet and priest—was a staple of Protestant biblical studies and was, moreover, often linked to anti-Jewish (and anti-Catholic) polemics. Heschel’s “critique,” in other words, devastated more than just “institutional religion.”

Was Heschel himself aware of the conflict between the Protestant world view within which he pursued his doctoral studies and the traditional Judaism that he continued to practice meticulously? And is it an accident that his books would later be so popular among liberal Christian scholars and theologians? For many, he became (and remains) the rabbi they love to quote, and some connection between this fact and his deep absorption of Protestant values in Berlin seems obvious. Unfortunately, not a word about this appears in Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness.

Other, related questions similarly obtrude. Heschel later claimed that during his sojourn in the gymnasium and among the writers and artists of Vilna, he discovered “many secularist Jews who lived the life of saints and did not know it!” His biographers faithfully cite this sentiment as an instance of their hero’s amazing ability to “reconcile” the various worlds in which he traveled—in this case, the world of “his hasidic past with secular Jewish activism.”

But the world of Heschel’s “hasidic past,” whatever its particular emotional tonalities, was grounded above all in a scrupulous adherence to Jewish religious law. Long after he physically left that world, moreover, he himself continued to conduct his life as a highly traditional, observant Jew. How does one—how did he—“reconcile” this with secularism, however “saintly”? For it is all well and good to speak warmly of the “prophetic” thirst for justice as an essential dimension of the Jewish legacy. But if, for Heschel, “divine revelation validated Jewish law,” as his biographers insist, then surely no secular definition of justice could ever have sufficed for him. Instead of invoking the idea of a reconciliation between Hasidism and secular activism—an impossibility, as it happens—his biographers would have done better to explore what exactly was lost and what exactly was gained as Heschel shuttled among his various worlds, and especially how he dealt, or failed to deal, with the losses.

The question of the authority of halakhah, traditional rabbinic law in all its specificity, is the most obvious point of division between the traditionalist world of Heschel’s origins and Jewish secular modernity. But it is, or should be, a no less troubling point of division between the world he grew up in, and whose basic religious dictates he continued to follow, and the world of religious but non-Orthodox Judaism in which he spent his entire professional life both in Germany and later in the United States. (After staying five years at Hebrew Union College, he moved to New York and spent the remainder of his life at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.) How are we to reconcile that particular set of dualities, which raise their own version of the prophet/priest dichotomy?

In Heschel’s time, the “prophetic” critique of halakhah within Judaism itself was perhaps not so salient as it has become since his death; one could, as he did, focus on issues of meaning and personal motivation in religious life while being vague about which specific practices, ultimately, the motivation was for. But one cannot help wondering how he would have reacted had he lived to see the notions of prophetic justice and righteousness disengaged from the biblical ethic in which they arose and brought to bear directly against the halakhah itself—as, for example, in the contemporary demand in some religious Jewish circles for the normalization of homosexual behavior. Presented with a hard and unavoidable choice, with which of his worlds would Heschel have taken his stand?



Such questions are perhaps impossible to answer. But they are also indispensable to any honest assessment of Heschel’s achievement. For the truth is that it was not out of the reconciliation but out of the collision of the several worlds in which he traveled that his most profound reflections on Jewish theology and spirituality were born.

At times incoherent or self-contradictory, Heschel’s works also show a deep grasp of, and an uncanny ability to articulate, some of the most agonizing questions of human existence, and are capable of soaring to heights of religious apprehension with a captivating and almost rhapsodic fervor. The deficiencies in his dunking are undeniable and his failure or unwillingness to reconcile his worlds may, indeed, be what has rendered much of his thought susceptible of appropriation by so wide a variety of opposing tendencies—traditionalist and modern, nonobservant and observant, Christian and Jewish. And yet his central, rock-solid intuition of the living God continues to be as relevant to the sunken modern condition—and as vital a reproof to anthropocentric religion—as on the day he first formulated it. And this, together with the magnetism of his personal example (to which Kaplan and Dresner eloquently witness), ensures that Heschel will continue to matter. One can only hope that both his work and his life will come to be appreciated in all their nuance and complexity.



1 Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness. Yale, 402 pp., $35.00.


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