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Abraham Joshua Heschel

Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness

Copyright Date: 1998
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    Abraham Joshua Heschel
    Book Description:

    Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was one of the outstanding Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century. A renowned American theologian and interpreter of tradition, author of such important books asMan Is Not Alone, God in Search of Man, andThe Prophets, he was a living example of holiness, compassion, and vehement dedication to social justice. This book, the first of two volumes, is the only comprehensive biography of Heschel.Based on interviews with Heschel's friends and family, archival documents, and Heschel's previously unknown writings in Yiddish, German, and Hebrew, the book traces Heschel's life from his birth in Warsaw in 1907 to his emigration to the United States in 1940. Edward Kaplan and Samuel Dresner describe how Heschel came of age in a Hasidic community and reached maturity in secular Jewish Vilna and cosmopolitan Berlin, speaking out as a religious philosopher during the advent of Nazism. They relate how he became a teacher in Berlin, in Martin Buber's education program in Frankfurt (where his lifelong debate with Buber originated), in Warsaw, and in London, while the several Jewish cultures he had absorbed were being destroyed. They show that he was already intellectually and spiritually mature when he emigrated to the United States, fully prepared for his dual roles as interpreter of Jewish piety and social activist.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15029-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. vii-x)
    Edward K. Kaplan

    Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witnessis the history of a man of prayer, compassion, and moral courage confronting an increasingly horrifying world. Born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1907, Abraham Joshua Heschel came of age in his family’s Hasidic community and reached maturity in secular Jewish Vilna and cosmopolitan Berlin, speaking out as a religious philosopher during the advent of Nazism. He became a teacher in Berlin, later in Martin Buber’s education program in Frankfurt, again in Warsaw and in London, while the several Jewish cultures he had absorbed were being destroyed. Within Heschel’s complex identity lies an archaeology of these...

  4. The Heschel Dynasty
    (pp. xi-xi)
  5. The Friedman Dynasty
    (pp. xii-xii)
  6. The Perlow Dynasty
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  7. Part One • Warsaw:: Childhood and Adolescence

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

      Heschel was born in warsaw, poland, a metropolis where jewishness flourished in many forms. Warsaw was the center of Congress Poland, which from 1815 to 1915 belonged to the Russian Empire, though it enjoyed the fullest autonomy of any province controlled by the Tsarist regime. Its Jewish community steadily increased to become the largest and most significant in Europe. By 1917, when Heschel was ten years old, the Jews comprised 41 percent of Warsaw’s population, fostering a vigorous diversity of religious and secular groupings. Heschel’s Hasidic family was among the most traditional.

      Over the years, thousands of Jewish refugees had...

    • 1 Heschel’s First Home (1907–1914)
      (pp. 4-20)

      Heschel’s genealogy summarizes his cultural influences and maps out the path he was expected to continue. This prehistory, a realm where eternal creeds and legends faced the harshness of current events, formed his family’s expectations. His intricate family tree, in fact, shaped his primal identity. Children of distinguished Jewish dynasties often memorized their genealogy and recited it fluently, and, as an adult, he proudly traced his pedigree (in Yiddish,yikhus) back to the fifteenth century, telling an interviewer, “For seven generations, all my ancestors have been Hasidic rabbis.”¹ Ancestry was the foundation of his personality.

      Heschel recognized that his personal...

    • 2 Early Studies and Catastrophes (1914–1917)
      (pp. 21-36)

      Avrumele’s childhood remained insulated from warsaw’s pluralistic society. By age three he entered the male universe of Torah study. It was a serious life, but a happy one: prayer, learning, debate on sacred texts, seeking holiness everywhere. Born of spiritual royalty, an offshoot of seven generations of Hasidic leaders, he was one of whom much was expected. His future was almost predestined.

      He was a prodigy (in Hebrew,illui), displaying a remarkable memory but also precocious charm and wit. Religious Jews take special care to cultivate a prodigy, and such children are eagerly trained. From an early age, he began...

    • 3 “The Blessings of Humiliation” and Triumphal Adolescence (1917–1924)
      (pp. 37-55)

      Heschel wrote nothing about this period of his development until after a near-fatal heart attack in 1969. (Until then, Heschel’s writings tended to emphasize God’s presence and the potentials of ethical conscience and holiness.) During the last years of his life, he appears to have been possessed, despite failing health, to publish two books of exceptional personal consequence, one in English, the other in Yiddish:A Passion for TruthandKotsk: A gerangl far emesdikeyt(Kotzk: Struggle for integrity). These books expressed his forth-right anger at mediocre institutionalized religion and timid morality. And both trace to his “ninth year” the...

    • 4 Expanding the Self Through Literature (1924–1926)
      (pp. 56-72)

      Heschel achieved a sense of certainty during this period—self-confidence, but also confidence in the living God. As some of his later writings suggest, the adolescent might even have felt that his talents were a form of divine inspiration (in Hebrew,ruah ha-kodesh, Holy Spirit), for spiritual and mental gifts might be considered as originating from God’s mind. Although Heschel never admitted it directly, his doctoral dissertation on prophetic consciousness, his biography of Maimonides, and his monographs on the Holy Spirit and revelation imply a personal identification with his subjects.¹

      In lyric Yiddish poetry—Heschel’s first truly autobiographical writings—he...

  8. Part Two • Vilna:: The Jerusalem of Lithuania

    • [Part Two Introduction]
      (pp. 73-75)

      Heschel made a quantum leap from hasidic warsaw to cosmopolitan Europe as he entered the seven-year-old Mathematics-Natural Science Gymnasium (in Polish, Matematyczno-Przyrodnicze Gymnazjum; diplomas were printed in both Yiddish and Polish), known as the Real-Gymnasium of Vilna. Founded in 1918 by the Vilna Jewish Central Education Committee (TsBK), the Real-Gymnasium offered the entire Polish curriculum. Although the sciences were emphasized (hence the German termReal, concrete reality), its humanities classes were extraordinary. It was especially distinguished by the literature courses given by Yiddish poets and university-trained professors

      In Vilna, Heschel observed Europe’s political turmoil, its history still in the making....

    • 5 A Rebbe Among Revolutionaries (1925–1927)
      (pp. 76-96)

      By the time heschel reached vilna at age eighteen, he looked like a European student. He was clean shaven, without earlocks. His facial hair was sparse, so he did not have to eliminate a beard. In Vilna, he continued writing poetry while preparing himself for the university. All the while, people could sense the Hasidic dignity of his childhood and youth in his decorous, somewhat reserved demeanor. Heschel’s educational transition did not break with the past. His ability to communicate with others, not his own identity, was the trouble.

      The mails sustained Heschel’s contact with his family, and periodically he...

  9. Part Three • Berlin:: Europe in Crisis

    • [Part Three Introduction]
      (pp. 97-99)

      Heschel consolidated his spiritual and intellectual identity in the cosmopolitan city of Berlin. When he arrived in the fall of 1927, its intellectual giants were still present, for during the Weimar Republic the sciences, philosophy, and the arts flourished as never before. Albert Einstein and Max Planck in physics revolutionized our conception of the universe; Max Reinhardt, Erwin Piscator, and Bertolt Brecht created avant-garde and politically engaged theater; Arnold Schoenberg composed his twelve-tone music. There was a daily diet of cinema, artistic and literary expressionism, and much more.¹

      Berlin also became a center of Yiddish culture during the 1920s. East...

    • 6 A Student in Berlin (1927–1931)
      (pp. 100-120)

      Heschel arrived in berlin at age twenty, in the fall term of 1927, renting a room in an apartment with a Jewish family, as he had in Vilna. His needs were simple—kosher food and a place to sleep. For the first time he entered a non-Jewish world, having left Hasidic Warsaw with its mystical and legendary attitudes and secular Vilna. Although the Real-Gymnasium was alien to his ancestral identity, it was still a Jewish environment; even his left-wing peers deferred to his rabbinic bearing. In Berlin he navigated between vaster possibilities, Jewish and otherwise.

      Heschel bolstered his independence while...

    • 7 A Jewish Philosophical Mentor(1928–1931)
      (pp. 121-139)

      Heschel’s mediator among his warsaw, vilna, and berlin identities was a person, not an institution. Helping him integrate his diverse worlds and rise above them was David Koigen (1879–1933), one of Fishl Schneersohn’s closest associates. On 30 January 1928, about two months after Heschel’s arrival in Berlin, Koigen gave a lecture at the Hochschule entitled “The Structure of the Historical World in Judaism,” based on his recently published book.¹ Koigen was a philosopher of history and culture trained in Europe’s leading universities who had studied with Wilhelm Dilthey, among other important thinkers. His field was sociology in its broadest...

    • 8 Poetic Vision and Prophetic Sympathy (1928–1931)
      (pp. 140-152)

      Since his days in vilna, heschel dressed as a modern european student. His hair was thick, black, and wavy; he wore rimless glasses, displayed a pleasant, somewhat reserved manner and, a charming sense of humor. In Berlin, he was recognizable as an East European Jew by his accent, for he started learning German in Warsaw among speakers of Polish or Yiddish. He impressed peers with his intelligence and kindness. For example, in Heinrich Maier’s seminar in philosophy, a German Jewish student of literature, Ludwig Kahn, willingly sought his help in mastering the difficult subject matter.¹

      While maturing as a German-speaking...

    • 9 Paradigm Shift (1929–1931)
      (pp. 153-161)

      Heschel as a student did experience a crisis in berlin. Heschel pursued his education efficiently and with enthusiasm; he reveled in the city’s cultural opportunities. And yet, somewhat unconsciously at the outset, he realized that his religious convictions and passion for truth clashed with his academic studies. At the university he mastered the history of philosophy and theories of knowledge. At the Hochschule, he performed expert philological analyses of the Bible and Midrash and grasped the historical development of Judaism. But as an intellectual he needed to verify the givens of the heart.

      Heschel placed great hopes in his humanistic...

    • 10 God’s Active Presence (1931–1932)
      (pp. 162-171)

      By 24 january 1931, heschel had completed his required courses at the university, with a specialization in philosophy and minors in art history and Semitic philology. He continued to write Yiddish poetry, revise old pieces, and create new ones, maintaining contact with editors in Warsaw, New York, and Berlin. (A major sequence appeared in the November 1931 issue of theBerliner Bleter, the journal he co-founded.) All the while, he participated in the Koigen Circle, debating his fundamental ideas. Now he concentrated on his doctoral dissertation, which he completed late the following year. Also in 1932, at the Hochschule, he...

    • 11 A Year of Grief and Rage (1933)
      (pp. 172-181)

      Sorrowful events fell upon heschel during the following weeks as he prepared for his general examinations. Soon after he submitted copies of his dissertation and was awaiting the administration’s judgment, he learned that his beloved uncle Rabbi Alter Israel Shimon Perlow—his mother’s twin brother and guide of his youth—had died suddenly on 3 January 1933. At fifty-eight years of age, the Novominsker rebbe, although known to have heart disease, unexpectedly succumbed to a stroke. Heschel thus lost the patron of his inmost identity—in Koigen’s terms, the prototype of his essential “culture.”

      We do not know if Heschel...

    • 12 A Poet’s Self-Portrait (Winter 1933–1934)
      (pp. 182-193)

      Heschel knew who he was, at least internally: a yiddish-speaking modern Jew, loyal to the Sinai revelation, with a universal ethical conscience. This process of self-definition originated around 1924 in Warsaw, as he began to write poetry in his “mother tongue.”¹ After modest publishing débuts inVarshaver ShriftnandLiterarishe Bleter(1926–27), he placed mature verse in New Yorkand Berlin journals. His literary ambitions did not relent, and he completed his earliest, and perhaps fundamental self-expression in the winter of 1933. Having completed his doctoral studies at the University of Berlin at age twenty-six, he published his collection of...

    • 13 Spiritual and Intellectual Biographies: Koigen and Maimonides (1934–1935)
      (pp. 194-207)

      Writing became henceforth heschel’s instrument of financial as well as spiritual survival.After Der Shem Hameforash: Mentshappeared in Warsaw, he turned to other nonacademic types of publication in German. His dissertation mapped out the particulars of prophetic inspiration while his Yiddish poetry more directly expressed his aspirations, clarified his churning inner life, and presented religious and ethical models. With his academic career in suspension,still hoping that the Polish Academy would publish his dissertation, he found his essential genre: biography.

      In one form or another, Heschel explored a life in its intimate and cultural fullness, from the person’s consciousness to...

    • 14 The German Jewish Renaissance (1934–1935)
      (pp. 208-217)

      As editor at the erich reiss publishing company, degree holder from the Hochschule, and author of a popular biography of Maimonides, Heschel enhanced the community associated with the Berlin Judische Lehrhaus, the city’s Jewish adult education center. Founded in 1919, the Freie Judische Volkshochschule (Free Jewish people’s school) emulated Franz Rosenzweig’s ideal of introducing practical Jewish knowledge to people without traditional background.¹ Under the leadership of Paul Eppstein and Fritz Bamberger, the Berlin Lehrhaus offered a variety of Jewish—and secular and academic—subjects.

      Heschel lectured at the Berlin Lehrhaus in 1935.² The catalogue for that year’s winter semester (November...

    • 15 Alliance with Martin Buber (June–December 1935)
      (pp. 218-228)

      On 18 june, while correcting galley proofs of his book, heschel received the dean’s final extension beyond which the university could no longer admit his doctorate. That same day, overcoming months—perhaps years—of inhibition, he initiated a decisive exchange with Martin Buber, intellectual hero at the center of German Jewish cultural renewal.¹ Heschel had debated Buber’s philosophy in the Koigen Circle and in his dissertation. He now felt free to engage the man directly. Contrasting his perspective with Buber’s, Heschel completed his self-definition as a religious thinker and declared his autonomy.

      Even at this early stage of his career,...

    • 16 Mission Defined(January–September 1936)
      (pp. 229-240)

      While submerged in details of getting his work published, heschel was becoming an educator for the public. The university accorded him the doctorate and now, as soon as possible, he must fulfill his obligation to deliver two hundred bound copies of the dissertation. He negotiated a diplomatic minefield: in Nazi Germany, he was a Jew subject to Aryan exclusionary laws. The pressures upon him increased. As 1935 ended, he had no steady job, virtually no money, and he could barely meet payments to the Polish Academy of Arts and Sciences to print his book.

      On the verge of publishing his...

  10. Part Four • Frankfurt, the War, and Exile

    • [Part Four Introduction]
      (pp. 241-243)

      Frankfurt-am-main was the backdrop for the final stage of heschel’s journey from Hasidism into modernity. It was the perfect culmination, for Frankfurt was Germany’s second largest Jewish community, and where traditionalists struggled with reformers and overcame them. In the nineteenth century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch recognized that “Torah-true Judaism” (as Orthodoxy was called by its proponents) could not survive the pressures of liberalism without accepting some aspects of civil life. Reacting to Reform and to Abraham Geiger, the leading exponent of the scientific study of Judaism, Hirsch gave rational justifications for divine revelation, the Bible, and Orthodox observance.

      The dominant...

    • 17 Teaching in Times of Crisis (September 1936–December 1937)
      (pp. 244-255)

      Heschel remained immersed in myriad projects in berlin, hoping all the while that Buber would invite him to Frankfurt. He continued to publish reviews, and on 22 November two brief religious parables appeared in the BerlinGemeindeblatt.¹ On 31 January 1937, he reviewed Buher’s new, expanded edition ofThe Kingdom of God(originally published in 1932) in an essay entitled “On the Meaning of the Teaching.” Heschel pointed to the book’s “unusual richness of thought” and expressed “eagerness to see the following volumes.”

      For the Bubers in Frankfurt, the final months of 1936 and the following year were arduous.² While...

    • 18 A Prophetic Witness (December 1937–March 1938)
      (pp. 256-264)

      During the nineteen months he lived in frankfurt, heschel announced his theology of history—and became the witness to the living God he remained throughout his life. He continued to publish reviews in the BerlinGemeindeblattof a variety of books, a prayerbook, a Bible concordance, and Yiddish stories. And he developed an idiom for conveying his message to the general public.

      In the HanukkahGemeindeblattissue of 29 November 1937, Heschel responded to crisis with a parable entitled “Lights over the Sea” (Lichter über dem Meer), which evoked Germany’s waning Jewish culture. In the story, three Jewson a sea...

    • 19 “Out of the Depths” (March–October 1938)
      (pp. 265-275)

      Heschel’s intense work countered the painful uncertainties of his immediate future. We do not possess his correspondence with his family and friends, which certainly points to his fruitless efforts to help them. The documents available in public archives point, rather, to his efficient oversight of what he could do—administer several projects—in Berlin, Frankfurt, Warsaw, and Kraków. Mastery of banal intricacies helped shield him from the ever-present chaos of world politics. Despite the frightful events and frequent dislocations, he maintained careful records of the distribution ofDie Prophetieand kept the Polish Academy informed. While Austrian Jews—including members...

    • 20 Struggling to Escape (November 1938–July 1939)
      (pp. 276-287)

      Now in warsaw, “abraham heszel” (as his polish documents read) was seeking a job and a visa, as he continued to teach, write, ponder, and pray. He was thirty-one years old. Although the full extent of danger in Poland was not yet obvious, members of Heschel’s clan were attempting to emigrate. (Several of the Perlows from Warsaw had settled in the United States in the 1920s. And Heschel’s brother, Jacob, had relinquished Polish citizenship when he moved to Vienna, so he and his family, officially stateless, were not deported to Poland.)¹ Anti-Semitism was increasing in Poland, yet many Jews stil...

    • 21 Departure and Deliverance (1939–1940)
      (pp. 288-303)

      Heschel, now a thirty-two-year-old refugee, reached london on 13 July 1939, welcomed by his brother, Jacob, who had settled there with his wife and daughter in February. Without delay Heschel mailed a note to Jerusalem, sharing yet another defining moment with Martin Buber: “A few hours ago I arrived here, and I feel the need to connect with you in my thoughts. The first impression is already a gain. It has style, this city. Whatever is behind it remains to be looked at more closely.” Rhapsodic, Heschel nevertheless remained suspicious of appearances. Amid overwhelming uncertainties, his mission was intact: “Prospects...

    • 22 Epilogue
      (pp. 304-308)

      Heschel wrote very little about his life in europe, and virtually nothing about his personal losses. But the bare facts point to a heavy burden of good fortune. Three times he barely eluded death or extreme peril. In November 1938 he missed “Bloody Thursday”—the so-called Kristallnacht pogrom—by being expelled from Germany the week before. In July 1939, he reached London from Warsaw “just six weeks” before the Nazi invasion. Now sheltered in Cincinnati, a symbolic bridge to his cherished world was destroyed.

      The Cunard linerLancastria, which carried Heschel to safety, returned to Europe, where it was rededicated...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 309-360)
  12. References
    (pp. 361-384)
  13. Permissions and Credits
    (pp. 385-386)
  14. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 387-388)
  15. Index
    (pp. 389-402)