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Spiritual Radical

Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972

Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 544
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  • Book Info
    Spiritual Radical
    Book Description:

    Born in Warsaw, raised in a Hasidic community, and reaching maturity in secular Jewish Vilna and cosmopolitan Berlin, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) escaped Nazism and immigrated to the United States in 1940. This lively and readable book tells the comprehensive story of his life and work in America, his politics and personality, and how he came to influence not only Jewish debate but also wider religious and cultural debates in the postwar decades.

    A worthy sequel to his widely praised biography of Heschel's early years, Edward Kaplan's new volume draws on previously unseen archives, FBI files, interviews with people who knew Heschel, and analyses of his extensive writings. Kaplan explores Heschel's shy and private side, his spiritual radicalism, and his vehement defense of the Hebrew prophets' ideal of absolute integrity and truth in ethical and political life. Of special interest are Heschel's interfaith activities, including a secret meeting with Pope Paul VI during Vatican II, his commitment to civil rights with Martin Luther King, Jr., his views on the state of Israel, and his opposition to the Vietnam War. A tireless challenger to spiritual and religious complacency, Heschel stands as a dramatically important witness.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13769-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xiv)

    Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972) became a prophetic voice for Christians and Jews during three momentous decades in the United States. In the 1940s he countered the horrors of war and genocide with vivid essays on prayer, faith, and holiness. In the 1950s he became a public intellectual, publishing books of constructive Jewish theology while launching a critique of religious and ethical life. And in the turbulent 1960s Heschel was a widely publicized activist in civil rights, interfaith dialogue, and opposition to the Vietnam War.

    This volume is the sequel toAbraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness,written in collaboration with...

  4. Part One Cincinnati:: The War Years

    • [Part One Introduction]
      (pp. 1-3)

      HESCHEL SPENT FIVE YEARS IN CINCINNATI, OHIO, WHERE HE ARRIVED EIGHT months after war was declared in Europe. He was one of a group of eight refugee professors known as the College in Exile who were brought to Cincinnati by Julian Morgenstern, president of Hebrew Union College (HUC), as part of an initiative to rescue European Jewish scholars. Hebrew Union was a Reform institution dedicated to modernizing Judaism; as proclaimed in the school’s catalog of 1940–41, “a real and positive American Judaism” had to “adapt itself to the life which its children must live as loyal citizens of this...

    • 1 First Year in America (1940–1941)
      (pp. 4-18)

      ON 21 MARCH 1940, ABRAHAM HESZEL (AS HIS POLISH PASSPORT READ) STEPPED off the Cunard White Star linerLancastriaonto the dock at New York City. TheNew York Timesreported evasively that among the ship’s 480 passengers about 360 were “German refugees.” In reality, they were Jews fleeing Hitler. The twelve-day voyage had been rough, marked by the terrors of war and storms that battered the vessel, shattering several portholes. On leaving the boat, Heschel was startled to see an African American kneeling to polish the shoes of a white man. Like many Europeans, he had never before seen...

    • 2 Hebrew Union College (1941–1943)
      (pp. 19-34)

      HESCHEL’S FIRST COMPLETE ACADEMIC YEAR AT HEBREW UNION COLLEGE began on 19 October 1940, following the High Holy Days, a month after his rejoinder to Einstein appeared inAufbau.As in his previous year, he held the lowest position open to the refugee scholars, who were not official members of the faculty: fellow in Jewish philosophy (his prize-winning colleague Franz Rosenthal was fellow in the Bible and Semitic languages). Similarly, Heschel’s teaching was limited for the most part to basic courses. As the specialist in medieval Jewish philosophy, he offered an introductory course and an advanced seminar on Hasdai Crescas’s...

    • 3 Institutional Struggles and World War (1942–1944)
      (pp. 35-50)

      FOR HIS THIRD ACADEMIC YEAR AT HEBREW UNION COLLEGE, HESCHEL WAS promoted to instructor in Jewish philosophy and rabbinics, an acknowledgment of his expertise in Talmud and medieval thought. His assigned courses, however, remained mostly elementary: liturgy (in the Preparatory Department), Rashi’s commentaries (for the lower and medium levels), and intermediate Hebrew.¹

      On campus he was perceived in contradictory ways. He still looked like an immigrant. Youthful and clean-shaven, he combed his dark hair straight back or in a pompadour. He dressed meticulously, wearing rimless glasses and a suit, sometimes sporting a bow tie. At times warm, at others distracted,...

    • 4 Architecture of a New Theology (1944–1945)
      (pp. 51-66)

      IN THE SUMMER OF 1943, HESCHEL ATTENDED THE AMERICAN JEWISH CONFERence, a meeting of major organizations that took place at New York’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel from 29 August to 1 September. The delegates clashed, barely managing to agree that Palestine should be designated the national homeland for millions of Jewish refugees. (The American Jewish Committee resigned from the Conference, the first important organization to do so.) Even more divisive was the problem of how to save Jews in Poland and Germany. Heschel helplessly looked on as infighting brought a rescue resolution to defeat. These notables of American Jewry could not...

  5. Part Two Rescuing the American Soul

    • [Part Two Introduction]
      (pp. 67-69)

      AT THE END OF WORLD WAR II, WITH THE REVELATION OF THE FULL HORROR OF the Holocaust, Heschel grappled with how to reconcile his love for the living God with the suffering of his people, the relative detachment of bystanders, and his own sense of helplessness. In his final book,A Passion for Truth,he was able to describe his inner conflict between anguish and confidence in God’s caring presence: “To live both in awe and consternation, in fervor and horror, with my conscience on mercy and my eyes on Auschwitz, wavering between exaltation and dismay.”¹ Heschel struggled to keep...

    • 5 First Years in New York (1945–1949)
      (pp. 70-96)

      IN JUNE 1945, HESCHEL RENTED ROOMS AT 214 RIVERSIDE DRIVE AND IMMEDIately took up his responsibilities as a member of the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary. By the end of the month he had submitted his chapter, “The Mystical Element in Judaism,” for JTS president Finkelstein’s edited volumeThe Jews: Their History, Culture, and Religion, explaining, “I had to confine myself to the Zohar in order to give the reader a somewhat comprehensive idea of one phase of Jewish mysticism.” In July, Heschel participated in the JTS alumni summer session, a symposium on the theme “My Faith as a...

    • 6 Books of Spiritual Rescue (1948–1951)
      (pp. 97-114)

      AFTER HE SETTLED IN AT THE JEWISH THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY, HESCHEL launched his new mission, to educate American Jews on two levels: theological and cultural. The foundation of both was what I call a sacred humanism, already embedded in his essay “The Mystical Element in Judaism,” which was completed in 1945 but not published until 1949. Unlike Martin Buber, whose brief, memorable, and essentially secular notion of “I-Thou dialogue” could be grasped by a wide readership, Heschel sought to inculcate a more complex ethos that combined reverence for the living God, traditional observance, and universal ethics.¹

      For Heschel, Jewish mysticism sanctified...

    • 7 Theological Revolution (1950–1952)
      (pp. 115-136)

      WHILE HESCHEL WAS WRITING AND PREPARINGMAN IS NOT ALONEFOR PUBLIcation, Sylvia Heschel was launching her own career. She had practiced every day for years, preparing for her concert debut at Manhattan’s Town Hall. The date was set for 15 February 1951, a month before the official publication ofMan Is Not Alone.Heschel zealously supported his wife’s professional aspirations. He sent out numerous letters with tickets and copies of the program, urging relatives, friends, colleagues, and students to attend the recital. He even enlisted students to distribute tickets.¹

      Sylvia Heschel, as the playbill named her, would be performing...

    • 8 Critique of American Judaism (1952–1954)
      (pp. 137-156)

      JUDAISM AS A CULTURAL FORCE WAS ENTERING THE AMERICAN MAINSTREAM. On 20 January 1953, for the first time, a rabbi, the tall and eloquent Abba Hillel Silver, leader of Reform Judaism and a Zionist, offered a prayer at a presidential inauguration, that of Dwight David Eisenhower. Eisenhower’s landslide victory over Adlai Stevenson helped bring the Korean conflict to an end, ushering in an era of relative peace. (Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon, would overshadow Heschel’s final years.)

      But even as they enjoyed the postwar prosperity, Americans were becoming increasingly shaken by the Cold War and the pervasive suspicion it generated....

    • 9 A Jewish Summa Theologica (1952–1956)
      (pp. 157-174)

      THE 1950S WERE THE YEARS OF HESCHEL’S MOST INTENSE CREATIVITY. THE manuscript ofMan Is Not Alonehad expanded to include a second, more massive volume, a global interpretation of Judaism that was eventually entitledGod in Search of Man.In the meantime, he fashioned his speeches of 1952–53 intoMan’s Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism.(Some students teasingly referred to these titles as “Heschel’s hide-and-seek.”) As he consolidated his theological revolution, various branches of American Judaism were exploring his answers to their problems of Jewish identity.¹

      In addition to his encounters with the Conservative and...

  6. Part Three Spiritual Radical

    • [Part Three Introduction]
      (pp. 175-177)

      THE EVENTS OF THE 1950S ELEVATED THE ASPIRATIONS OF AN INCREASINGLY restless American public. National prejudices, fears, and hopes tested the moral foundations of democracy. Internal insecurities, the Cold War, segregation and civil rights, and the obsessive space race further challenged Americans. President Eisenhower began his first term in 1953, following the conclusion of the Korean War but in the midst of the congressional anti-Communist hearings. In 1954 the Supreme Court ruled against segregation in public schools as coalitions of blacks and whites began insisting on equal rights for all Americans. The Soviet Union launched the satelliteSputnikin 1957,...

    • 10 Building Bridges (1956–1959)
      (pp. 178-196)

      THE ROLE OF RELIGION IN PUBLIC LIFE BECAME CENTRAL TO HESCHEL’S reflections. After hisTimemagazine profile, Christians as well as Jews began to regard him as an authentic biblical voice for social change. He influenced these constituencies through essays and lecture tours; he also began to take part in national interfaith organizations such as the Religious Education Association (REA), whose annual conventions in Chicago attracted participants from all backgrounds. He adapted his message to his different audiences, but always it focused on how authentic religion might transform every aspect of life.

      For Jews, Heschel stressed the need to renew...

    • 11 A Prophetic Witness (1960–1963)
      (pp. 197-213)

      HESCHEL WAS ENTERING A NEW PHASE OF PUBLIC LIFE AS A SPEAKER ON THE national scene. Still more comfortable in his office or in the library, he was pushed into public events by former students who now held influential positions. Wolfe Kelman was executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly (the “civil servant” of Conservative rabbis, as he put it), and Marc Tanenbaum, Kelman’s close friend, was executive director of interfaith relations at the Synagogue Council of America, an umbrella group that represented all Jewish denominations. Separately and together, the two acted as Heschel’s impresarios.¹

      Also supporting Heschel was Samuel...

    • 12 We Shall Overcome (1963–1966)
      (pp. 214-234)

      THE YEAR 1963 WAS A WATERSHED, WHEN HIGHEST HOPES TURNED TO BITTER disillusionment. That January, Americans celebrated the centenary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Pope John XXIII passed away on 3 June, but hopes for the renewal of the Roman Catholic Church through the ongoing Second Vatican Council remained strong. Later that summer, on 28 August, more than two hundred thousand citizens gathered in Washington, D.C., to support equal opportunity for blacks and were uplifted by Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Then, on 22 November, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, a catastrophe that threatened...

  7. Part Four Apostle to the Gentiles

    • [Part Four Introduction]
      (pp. 235-237)

      TRADITIONALISTS OF MANY FAITHS WERE FINDING WAYS TO ABSORB THE BENEfits of modernity. Within the Roman Catholic Church, the prospect for developing positive relationships with other religions—especially Judaism—looked brighter in 1958 after the election of Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli as Pope John XXIII. A warm and compassionate man of peasant origins, Roncalli, as Apostolic Delegate to Turkey and Greece, had saved thousands of Jews during World War II from deportation, and certain extermination, by providing them with forged baptismal papers. More broadly, the Vatican diplomat recognized that accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus were often used to justify, and...

    • 13 Confronting the Church (1961–1964)
      (pp. 238-257)

      DURING THE YEARS THAT HESCHEL WAS ACHIEVING NATIONAL PROMINENCE AS a public intellectual, he was also playing a largely confidential role in a great international drama. As the primary theological consultant to the American Jewish Committee (AJC), he represented the interests of the Jewish people to the Second Vatican Council (popularly known as Vatican II), the epochmaking conclave convened in 1962 by Pope John XXIII to update the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and to redefine its relationship with other forms of Christianity and with non-Christian religions, especially with Judaism. Heschel felt that his mission to the Vatican was...

    • 14 Vulnerable Prophet (1964–1965)
      (pp. 258-276)

      AS THE THEOLOGICAL ADVOCATE FOR THE AMERICAN JEWISH COMMITTEE, Heschel struggled to reconcile his public persona as a voice of the Hebrew prophets with his human weaknesses. Faced with the possibility of failing in his mission to end the Catholic Church’s anti-Jewish teachings, he was filled with tension, as were most Jewish advocates and their allies. Opposition from within the Jewish community exacerbated his normal uncertainties. The situation worsened on 3 September 1964, two weeks before the opening of the Ecumenical Council’s third session, when another crisis occurred.

      Supporters of the Jewish cause were disconcerted by the unauthorized publication of...

    • 15 Interfaith Triumphs (1963–1966)
      (pp. 277-294)

      WHILE HE WAS PURSUING HIS ACTIVITIES AT VATICAN II, HESCHEL HAD ALSO been gaining prominence in the American Protestant community. Starting with Reinhold Niebuhr’s laudatory review ofMan Is Not Alonein 1951, Heschel’s authority as a spiritual voice had grown, reinforced by articles inTimemagazine, responses toGod in Search of Man,his participation at interfaith conferences, and his invited articles. In 1956 he published “The Biblical View of Reality” and “A Hebrew Evaluation of Reinhold Niebuhr” in essay collections. Two years later “Sacred Images of Man” appeared in the journalReligious Educationand “The Religious Message” in...

  8. Part Five Final Years

    • [Part Five Introduction]
      (pp. 295-297)

      HESCHEL KEPT CLOSE WATCH ON PUBLIC EVENTS. ON 20 JANUARY 1965 LYNDON Baines Johnson was inaugurated president of the United States, elected in a landslide over Barry Goldwater. That February he stepped up the war in Vietnam. The United States unleashed massive bombings on North Vietnam while the Marines arrived in South Vietnam on 8 March. The U.S. escalation became Johnson’s war, an affair of relentless military destruction. Yet he was still hoping to achieve his “Great Society” of greater economic and racial equity. “Guns and Butter” became his slogan.

      Heschel frequently found the intensity of events and emotions he...

    • 16 Vietnam and Israel (1965–1967)
      (pp. 298-318)

      HESCHEL WAS THE MOST VISIBLE TRADITIONAL JEW IN THE ANTI–VIETNAM WAR movement. Like thousands of Americans he opposed U.S. military support for the corrupt Saigon regime, but his dissent had no institutional backing. He was not associated with Reform Judaism, whose leaders were in the vanguard of social action, civil rights, and the antiwar movement. Orthodox rabbis, closer to his observance, either rejected political protest or upheld the government’s prosecution of the war. A majority of JTS faculty dissociated themselves from Heschel’s involvement. Although some detractors (and friendly conservatives) considered him naive politically, he kept himself well informed of...

    • 17 Dismay and Exaltation (1968–1969)
      (pp. 319-337)

      THE PROPOSED BOOK ON ISRAEL HAD TO WAIT, HOWEVER, AS THE ANTIWAR movement continued to consume Heschel’s time. The second CALCAV national mobilization was scheduled for 5–6 February 1968 in Washington, D.C., and the FBI domestic intelligence division carefully monitored the preparations, although the details were readily available: Martin Luther King had announced them at a press conference in New York City on 12 January. In addition, CALCAV had sent out a registration flyer for the mobilization, which tallied horrifying statistics: “2 million South Vietnamese, or almost one eighth of the population, have become official refugees . . ....

    • 18 Stronger Than Death (1969–1971)
      (pp. 338-357)

      IN THE LAST YEARS OF HIS LIFE HESCHEL FOCUSED ON HIS SPIRITUAL AND ETHIcal legacy, while continuing his fervent antiwar activities. To that end he accepted a great many speaking engagements and gave numerous interviews. His two books on the Kotzker rebbe, his last, were his most personal, almost confessional in tone and content. In them Heschel expressed his negative feelings more freely than he ever had previously.

      The Vietnam War showed no sign of ending. It remained a constant source of pain to Heschel even as he persisted in dispersing his energies among several projects. But he could not...

    • 19 Summation of a Life (1972)
      (pp. 358-375)

      HESCHEL TURNED SIXTY-FIVE ON 11 JANUARY 1972, BUT HE APPEARED FAR older than his years. His face was deeply furrowed and his walk had lost vigor; he shuffled, slightly dragging his feet. Yet he remained forceful as a speaker, conscious that his long white hair and beard enhanced his image and through it his ability to communicate. Despite his recent brush with death, he accepted too many invitations to travel and to speak, in addition to maintaining his teaching load at JTS. He also contended with his illness as he struggled to complete his two books on the Kotzker rebbe....

    • 20 A Pluralistic Legacy
      (pp. 376-386)

      HESCHEL NOW BELONGED TO THE AGES. THE DIVERSE INDIVIDUALS AND COMmunities he inspired, each according to their needs or understanding, began immediately to honor him and promote his ideals. As a final irony, Heschel’s death was accompanied by Nixon’s “Christmas bombings” of North Vietnam. That very morning, 23 December 1972, page 1 of theNew York Timesannounced: “U.S. to Continue Bombing; Says Next Move Is Hanoi’s.”

      It was on Shabbat morning that Sylvia and Susannah discovered Heschel’s lifeless body. They rushed downstairs to tell the doorman and also went to Saul Lieberman, who lived in the building. Then they...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 387-466)
  10. References
    (pp. 467-496)
  11. Permissions and Credits
    (pp. 497-498)
  12. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 499-502)
  13. Index
    (pp. 503-530)