Heschel was a truly remarkable man, and has been very influential not only in Jewish thought, but for the whole of American Jewry.
He grew up as the heir to a Hasidic dynasty in Warsaw, Poland. However, despite the anti-secular culture of the ultra-orthodox establishment, then as now, his mother encouraged him to begin a secular education on top of his religious learning. Eventually he left Poland and, via Vilna in Lithuania, went to the University of Berlin, where he produced Die Prophetie (The Prophets) as the culmination of his PhD research. While in Berlin, he earned his living as a fellow of the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums, a liberal institution for the academic study of Judaism, as well as teaching throughout Germany.
With the approach of World War 2, a visa to America was obtained for him by Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, the Reform Movement's seminary, where he taught for a little while. He moved to the more traditional Jewish Theological Seminary of America of the Conservative Movement in 1945. JTS, a place better known for erudition and a conservative academic style, created the post of "Professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism" for the Hasidic progeny, and he occupied it until he died. I have heard of prayer services at JTS, when all the dry academics were sitting and quietly reciting the prayers, how Heschel would walk up and down, with his prayer shawl over his head, singing and swaying.
The Religious Thought of Heschel
Heschel wrote widely, covering a huge range of topics in Jewish Thought. His writing is stunningly beautiful - in at least English, German and Hebrew! His primary works of theological philosophy are Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion and God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism.
A key concept in Heschel's theology is that of "radical amazement". This is the view that God's presence can be experienced in the world, if we know how to view the world in such a way that we are aware of God. An example of this might be the sense of wonder that a scientist often gets when deepening her understanding of the physical world. However, as the title of the second book implies, not only may we look for God, but, Heschel believes, God is also looking for us. Living this way, every element of life, especially the religious life, can be a way to interact with God.
In God in Search of Man, Heschel mentions the common question, Do you believe in the existence of God? Heschel writes that he does not know how to answer this question because he does not believe in, as such, but rather constantly perceives, God.
Heschel's philosophy reads as very traditional partly because of his heavy dependence on the Bible as a source of theology. But the superficial "Old Testament Theology" which most moderns find alienating is not what Heschel brings out. Rather he interprets the anthropomorphic aspects of God that we find there as mysterious aspects of the ineffable God, which translate into tangible elements of the world that we can experience. Reading Heschel, I have been struck by how his sophisticated interpretations contrast with the far cruder biblical theology of fundamentalists.
It has been claimed that Heschel's project was to make Hasidic thought palatable to the modern Jew, translating the mystical 18th century thought into a language that post-enlightenment Jews can understand and appreciate. Similarly, Heschel's thought has been classified as existentialist, but, although he sometimes seems to verge on existentialism, I believe that the best characterisation of Heschel's theology is empiricist. Without seeming to take the biblical miracles literally, Heschel explains how we can really experience a relationship with God in this world. This way he manages to balance the traditional, Jewish, view of a deeply involved God with the more sceptical outlook of the modern, educated Westerner.
Heschel's theological writings have also attracted considerable interest from the Jewish Renewal movement, sometimes referred to by
levelheaded? sceptical? some other sectors of the Jewish community as "New-Age Jews". Heschel is seen, along with Martin Buber and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, as one of the "neo-Hasidic" Masters.
Probably the most widely read of Heschel's works is his short book, The Sabbath. It is not only about the Sabbath, but it is rather a treatise on sanctity in time in Judaism. The proposal is that since the destruction of the Temple - paradigmatic of sanctity in space - and the exile from Eretz Yisrael, Jews have come together to express their religion in time. Thrice-daily prayers, the yearly festivals, and most of all, the weekly Sabbath, are the clearest examples of this.
How to Read Heschel
When I first attempted to read The Sabbath I didn't get very far. I tried to understand precisely what each sentence meant before proceeding. Especially with this book, but also with God in Search of Man, this is unnecessary. It is written like poetry, and, in a way, should be read as such. This not only allows the reader to appreciate the beauty of the language, and glean meaning from the overall style, but also helps understanding. Heschel repeats his messages in different ways, creating a "layering" effect. Each layer enhances and clarifies the idea that is being explained. To understand the first layer at all, several layers may have to be read; for full understanding, read the whole chapter or book!
Reflecting his theological view of a caring God, Who can be reached mainly by interaction with the external world, Heschel was no isolationist. He was very active in the movements demanding civil rights for black Americans and opposing the Vietnam War. He was also a devoted Zionist, as he expressed in Israel: An Echo of Eternity.
Heschel's extraordinariness is rooted in the tensions and balances he embodied. He wrote about two aspects of Jewish prayer, keva (fixed liturgy) and kavanah (intention). These must be both be retained and balanced if one is to pray "properly". Heschel's life is a testament to this ideal:
He came from, and arguably remained part of, the mystical, Hasidic world, yet he wrote and taught modern theology that comfortably referenced both ancient and modern Western philosophy. He was a deeply religious Jew, who railed against what he saw as soulless "Wissenschaft des Judentums" or the "Science of Judaism", the predecessor to modern, academic Jewish Studies, but he taught in Universities and seminaries where this was the accepted creed. Whilst his practice was deeply traditional, and The Bible remained his primary source of religious inspiration, he counted Reform and Conservative rabbis as colleagues and was always fully active in the modern world. Lastly, he could not have been any more committed as a Jew, but aspects of his theology and all of his ethical concern applied to all peoples.
As a Jewish thinker, a religious leader, and as a moral pillar, Abraham Joshua Heschel's monumental life was, and remains, an inspiration to many.
Books In Review - Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness,
15 January 2003
Neil Gillman, Sacred Fragments, The Jewish Publication Company, Philadelphia, 1990
Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man and The Sabbath
This writeup has been submitted for We Could Be Heroes: tes's Everything2 Heroes Quest