Heschel’s The Earth is the Lord’s: The Inner World of the Jew in Eastern Europe

Book Review: Heschel, Abraham Joshua, The Earth is the Lord’s: The Inner World of the Jew in Eastern Europe, Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, Third Publishing 2001.

Once upon a time, there was a magical and mystical world in Eastern Europe created by and for Jews. It lasted over six hundred years and it came to an end in the nineteenth century. Not since Babylon or Spain had the Jews created a center of great Innovation and creativity in Jewish life in the Diaspora as they did in Eastern Europe. Abraham Joshua Heschel reflects on this world in his book The Earth is the Lord’s: The Inner World of the Jew in Eastern Europe as one who was born and grew up on it. The title is derived from Psalm 24 in the book of Tehillim (Psalms by King David): “The Earth is the Lord’s and its fullness, the inhabited land and those who dwell in it.” As the second part of its title indicates, the book describes the inner world of the Jews in shtetls in great detail as Heschel experienced it. He offers an introspective look at Jews’ daily life, habits, customs, and values, but he does not mention the historical context in which this inner world of Jews flourished. This essay will provide such background. Case in point, Eastern European Jews created massive movements such as Hassidism, Mitnagdim, Chabad-Lubavitch, Mussar, Wissenchaft des Judentums, and Zionism. They established Yeshivot and talmudic centers in major and minor towns. They popularized Kabbalah and set up unprecedented self-ruling institutions like the Council of the Four Lands in Great and Little Poland, Galicia, and Volhynia. They produced a unique Yiddish language, and revived Hebrew with culture, poetry, prose, and theatre. Furthermore, religious leaders like the Bal Shem Tov, Vilna Gaon, Ysrael Salanter and Zionist figures such as Leon Pinsker and Ahad Ha-Am born in these lands changed the course of Jewish history. Heschel not only avoids highlighting Jews’ greatest achievements, but he also deprives the reader from mentioning the evils imposed on Jews for centuries in this region. None of those contributions stopped governments and mobs from oppressing, expelling, or destroying this vibrant Jewish community. The word “pogrom” entered the regional vocabulary to signify anti-semitic violence exclusively towards Jews which proliferated all over Eastern Europe triggering their massive exodus to Israel, Europe, and America in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, thus ending one of the greatest eras of Diaspora Jewry. Today, there are hardly any Jews left in the Eastern European countries that once held the largest Jewish community in the world. Hershel’s book makes no mention of either Jewish achievements or the rulers’ oppression. Heschel prefers to follow twentieth century historian Salo Baron’s opposition to narrating the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history,” which nineteenth century historian Heinrich Graetz identified as particular of the Jewish people’s historical suffering throughout the ages. Granted, Heschel gives away the purpose of his book in the title. He only addresses the inner world of the Jew in Eastern Europe, not its history. Yet, the Preface section is designed precisely to provide the reader with such context. Without it, this book’s audience is narrowed down to readers interested in life in the shtetl, basically, Jews or academics. The book could’ve been better served to a wider audience who can see the universality of the shtetl Jew in the larger socio-economic context that provoked both, his spirituality and his suffering, two relatable experiences for any regular Joe.

The book’s structure in form of shtetl vignettes with no special order makes it difficult to review, but not impossible. It opens up with Heschel’s personal reflections on the meaning of time in contrast with space so he can lead us inside the Jewish state of mind, always focused on spirituality found in timeless memories, feelings, and thoughts, not on spacial —material— possessions, (p. 14). Jews sanctified time and had no affinity for things or as he puts it “pagans exalt sacred things, the Prophets extol sacred deeds.” Joy came from their inner life, a mixture of intellectualism and mysticism, but the way Heschel describes shtetl joy is contradictory with the world of the Hassidim who emphasized joy, singing, and rapture when clinging (dvkut) to G-d. Yet, Heschel confirms that for the shtetl Jew, “sorrow was their second soul,” and they only experienced joy with profound sadness (p. 16). He cutely adds: “Oy,” was their sigh of joy. Oy vey!

In its most informative chapter, The Two Great Traditions, Hershel compares the two worlds of Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewry, exalting their incredible literature by no less than rabbinic geniuses such as Rashi and Maimonides whose codification of the Talmud and Torah democratized their study and halachic decisions that for centuries relied on Babylonian rabbanim. Comparisons abound on how the Sephardim descended from Jews who settled in the Iberian Peninsula during the Islamic period since the early Middle Ages, while the Ashkenazim originally came from the Babylon and Palestine. Sephardim’s culture, built by the elite for the elite, was influenced by Muslim poetry, prose, philosophy, theology, and science, while Ashkenazim’s culture grew at the hands of the humble masses in isolation from the surrounding world and based purely on their ancient heritage without borrowing any traditions from their neighbors. Spanish Jews advanced European civilization through medicine, mathematics, and astronomy, while the Ashkenazim created a mystic tradition and a national movement mostly for Jews. In Heschel’s opinion, the main difference between both groups is dynamism. Sephardim’s culture is a static form in which “the spontaneous is subjected to strictness and abstract order,” compared to the Ashkenazim’s dynamism which leaves room for “the outburst, for the surprise, for the instantaneous.” For example, the Spanish synagogue services were “like silent mirrors of the ancient rite where the spontaneous was tamed and the unbecoming eliminated.” Meanwhile, the Ashkenazic culture of the Beit Ha-Midrash —houses of study— was utterly dynamic. It’s obvious that the purpose of this information is to lead the reader to the contributions of each group, eventually ruling in favor of the Ashkenazim, the center of Heschel’s book.

In his romantic tour of the Ashkenazic world, —chapter The Devout Men of the Ashkenaz (pp.65-68)— Heschel continues his veiled contempt for the Sephardic culture by exalting the superiority of the “faith, pure heart, and inwardness,” of shtetl dwellers who do not need “high intellectual powers or the pedantic and ceremonious prayers of the men of learning,” obviously referring to the “aristocratic intellectualism” —as he calls it— of the Sephardim. In contrast, he portrays the Ashkenazim as followers of minhaggim or customs improvised independently from rigid scholastic interpretations from texts —a reference from the prior chapter dealing with comparisons of both cultures—. Heschel’s narrative clearly sides with the shtetl dweller at the expense of the Sephardim’s way of life. His disdain of the Iberian (Sephardic) culture of attachment to the letter of the Divine Laws in the form of scholarship, intellectuality, and erudition aimed to protect and retain the original Sinaitic meaning of the law rather than dilute it with capricious minhaggim is a turn off for a traditional audience who relish on the study and practice of halacha.

In the next chapters —Kabbalah and Hasidism— Heschel’s continues his theme of the Ashkenazic plain but holy men versus the Sephardic erudite but ungodly men as if he also knew the inner world of the Sephardim. When Heschel describes the “shared ideals between the scholarly and the ignorant, the Yeshiva student and the trader or the earthliness of the villagers, the warmth of plain people, and the spiritual simplicity of the maggidim or lay preachers,” as exclusive of the Ashkenazim, he implies that such qualities in relationships did not exist with the Sephardim whose scholars were too elitist to mingle with the simple man. Was Moshe Maimonides, the aristocratic intellectual par excellence in Spain out of touch with his students, patients, and congregants by being a brilliant scientist, doctor, philosopher, teacher, and rabbi? Modern scholars who study his Mishna Torah or The Guide of the Perplexed often infer Maimonides’ elitism, but were they inside his inner world on a day-to-day basis? Can Heschel chastise the Sephardim without knowing their internal workings just because he knew the Ashkenazim’s better?

In conclusion, in The Earth is the Lord’s: The Inner World of the Jew in Eastern Europe, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s takes a detour from his philosophical ouvre to present readers with a parochial introspection of the shtetl life he experienced as a child of a traditional Hassidic family in early twentieth century Poland. His rich detailed narrative of the Eastern European Jew searching for the Divine favoring spirituality over erudition, wonderment over scholarship, heart over intellect paints an unfavorable image of the Hassidic Jew incapable or unwilling to use his reasoning faculties in Torah and Talmud study as the long-standing ancient tradition prescribes. Heschel even claims that in the Ashkenazim world, “the attitude towards learning had become a kind of idolatry, depreciating the values of the heart. Excessive pilpul —text analysis of the Talmud— had often dried up the inner wells, and became the object of pretentious display of the intellect,” which in his eyes, “hurts more than sin,” (p. 81-82). Yet, Heschel views are not only his own. Concurrent with Hasidism, a responsive movement arose —Mitnagdim— to counteract Hasidism with the proliferation of yeshivot where the emphasis was the textual study of Torah and Talmud. Heschel’s favoritism of the Hassidim over Mitnagdim and Ashkenazim over Sephardim has an underlying personal belief which he discusses in his philosophical works —Torah in Heaven, G-d in Search of Man, Man is not Alone— about the universality of Judaism. And what is more universal than intellectual laziness? Heschel’s philosophy stresses the relationship between G-d and man as a religious impulse inherent in all humans and not exclusively in Jews. Since the Hassidic mysticism of the Ashkenazim at that time did not require a believer to learn or know text analysis of Torah and Talmud to transcend the reality of this world and experience the Divine, the movement had a universal appeal that anyone can follow without a Torah/Talmud background. In his book G-d in Search of Man, Heschel often warns against the rabbis adding too many restrictions to the law at the cost of inner spirituality and in another titled The Sabbath, about the Jewish rest day rich in rituals and laws, he rarely discusses them and instead concentrates on the philosophical meaning of Judaism as a religion that makes time sacred, not space. There’s a joke in orthodox communities about Heschel’s book: “Would you buy The Sabbath written by someone who doesn’t keep it? In sum, The Earth is the Lord’s: The Inner World of the Jew in Eastern Europe, is a gem as Heschel attempts to preserve for posterity his first hand experience of the shtetl life which he describes with a romantic flair, leaving the reader with a sense of wonderment about a bygone era of religious Jews’ imaginative, creative, and prolific inner life which manifested in new religious movements, institutions, and leadership that eventually invaded the rest of the world with Hassidic dynasties, Zionism, and a Jewish State.

About the Author
Hadassah Levinson is a Judaic Studies teacher at Jewish Day Schools and instructor for young adults at Jewish centers in Manhattan. She is a recent graduate of Yeshiva University's M.A. in Modern Jewish History and she is currently enrolled in graduate studies in American Jewish History and Holocaust Studies at Touro College. She is an iFellows at the iCenter for Israel Education. She has prior graduate degrees in Communications (NYU '95); and Journalism and International Affairs (Columbia University 2000).
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