In Abraham Joshua Heschel: Mind, Heart, Soul, Edward Kaplan gives us a beautiful and lucid guide to the most creative Jewish philosopher of religion of the twentieth century. Kaplan met Heschel in 1966 when he was working on his Ph.D. thesis in French poetry. By then, Heschel, a professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, was recognized as one of the most influential religious thinkers and social activists of his time. Kaplan, a distinguished professor of French literature, has devoted a major part of his academic career to the life and works of Heschel and has embraced him as his own spiritual guide.
Kaplan’s deeply moving book is an abridgement of his two-volume biography of Heschel originally published in 1998 and 2007. It was is written for a broader readership and includes new material that focuses on Heschel’s inner struggles.
Kaplan eloquently captures Heschel’s life, personality, and the major themes in his writings. He presents the core of Heschel’s teaching by examining nearly all of his works. These include Heschel’s Jewish theological summa, God in Search of Man; Torah min Ha-Shamayim, his stunning work on Rabbinic Judaism translated as Heavenly Torah as Refracted Through Generations; his most widely read book, The Sabbath; and Man Is Not Alone. It captivated Kaplan as a young man. He also delves into Heschel’s last two books, one in Yiddish and the other in English, on Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotsk, which, more than any other of Heschel’s works, illuminates personal details of his life.
Heschel was born in Warsaw in 1907 to a Hasidic rebbe. He was a descendent of two prominent Hasidic dynasties and was deeply influenced by Jewish mysticism and by two giants in the Hasidic movement, the Kotzker Rebbe and the Baal Shem Tov. In his Yiddish book on the Kotzker, Heschel writes:
I must admit, that during my entire life I struggled between being a hasid of the way of the Baal Shem or the way of the Kotzker Rebbe. There are moments in my life—may God forgive me for my chutzpah—when I think and feel like a Kotzker Hasid [my translation].
Kaplan points out Heschel’s inner struggle between the teaching of the Baal Shem, who emphasized love, joy, and compassion, and the Kotzker Rebbe, who believed that there can be no compassion without truth in this world that is “sinking in the mud”, “the world in hell.”
Heschel lived and studied in Germany from 1927-1938 and witnessed the Nazi passion for evil. Although he did not write any books on his experience in Germany, we do find in his writings many statements from which we can discern its profound impact on his life and thought.
Heschel defined himself as a survivor and spoke of himself as “a brand plucked from the fire in which my people were burned to death.” He stated, “I am really a person who is in anguish. . . . Auschwitz and Hiroshima never leave my mind.” Despite the suffering that he endured, he insisted that there is always hope. His message in America was that life is meaningful, that we must not let ourselves be overwhelmed by all the tragedies, that “the greatest heresy is despair, despair of man’s power for goodness, man’s power for love.”
Kaplan, the foremost interpreter of Heschel, helps us understand Heschel’s reason for his optimistic view of humanity. He emphasizes that Heschel remained loyal to a God of pathos. This is seen by many as one of Heschel’s seminal ideas, as his most significant original contribution to the prophetic vision. According to this concept of divine pathos, human beings are not only created in God’s image but are also a perpetual concern of God, who is personally affected by what we do to each other. God seeks human beings and needs human beings. Kaplan quotes Heschel: “This is the task, in the darkest night to be certain of the dawn, certain of the power to turn a curse into a blessing, agony into a song” (Kaplan, 102).
Kaplan describes how Heschel, after completing his book on the prophets in 1962 and in the last ten years of his life, emerged as a major voice on the social and political issues of the day. He became the leading rabbi to oppose the war in Vietnam, and he also devoted a great deal of time to the civil rights movement. He was the most prominent Jewish spiritual leader who participated in the well-known Selma-to-Montgomery march with Martin Luther King, Jr. Later, Dr. King spoke of Heschel as “one of the truly great men of our day and age . . . indeed, a truly great prophet.” Many other prominent Christian scholars came to view Heschel as a spiritual giant, a champion of human rights, who represented the Jewish tradition. He was described as “an apostle to the Gentiles” and “the most authentic prophet of religious life in our culture.” At an award ceremony where his interfaith contribution was recognized, Eugene Carson Blake, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, described Heschel as “an authentic saint” who was helping to achieve “the miracle of mutual understanding and greater cooperation which is bridging religious differences” (Kaplan, 336).
Heschel also worked vigorously to help Jews suffering in the Soviet Union and spoke on behalf of the old and the sick. What pained him most deeply was the “monstrosity of inequality” in America.
Most people may not be aware that Heschel played a major role in shaping the Catholic Church’s view of Judaism. He was the most important Jewish voice during the meeting of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which drafted the radical document Nostre Aetate (“In Our Time”). It declared that Jews were not responsible for the death of Jesus Christ, denounced anti-Semitism, and stated that Jews possess an ongoing covenant with God. We now know that Pope Paul VI praised Heschel as “a great and wise rabbi-scholar” (Kaplan, 337).
In this book, Kaplan’s love for Heschel shines through. But Kaplan also points out that many students found Heschel to be a poor teacher. This was due no doubt to the fact that the Jewish Theological Seminary at the time was dominated by a number of great Lithuanian-Jewish scholars who were opposed to Heschel’s mystical view of Judaism. They assigned him courses against his choices and preferences. In the last years of his life, however, most of his students came to see Heschel as “a jewel from God’s treasure chest.” One of his major goals as a teacher was to motivate his students not to be silent and not only to speak but to act. I had the great privilege of being in one of his last classes and witnessed the great admiration his students had for him.
At this time in human history—perhaps now more than ever—we need teachers who never give up hope for a better future. I am confident that if you read Kaplan’s book you will want to also read the works of Heschel, by whom one can be both challenged and spiritually enriched. It is therefore that I wholeheartedly recommend Kaplan’s book to anyone Interested in life and works of Abrahama Joshua Heschel.
Abraham Joshua Heschel: Mind, Heart, Soul by Edward K. Kaplan (Omaha: University of Nebraska Press, 2019)