The Legacy of Abraham Joshua Heschel

By Erlewine, Robert | Tikkun, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview
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The Legacy of Abraham Joshua Heschel


Erlewine, Robert, Tikkun


ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL WAS A SINGULAR FIGURE in American Jewish history and, indeed, in Jewish thought. Born in 1907 and reared in the world of Polish Hasidim, Heschel studied philosophy and Biblical criticism in Berlin before becoming a pivotal figure in American Jewish and non-Jewish religious life, galvanizing Americans on issues of social justice. The conditions that produced a figure capable of such depth and breadth of traditional Jewish learning and secular studies seem no longer possible in our age, focused as it is on hyper-specialization. Heschel shared a vision of Judaism at once profoundly rooted in tradition and simultaneously subversive of the status quo. He offered a vision of Judaism that did not espouse separation from the larger society but rather demanded critical engagement with it. His theological commitments undergirded his courageous, outspoken efforts on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement, his protests against the war in Vietnam, and his work to improve Jewish and Christian relations. Given the singularity of his vision and the strength of his character, it should not be surprising that- nearly four decades after his death- his legacy remains towering and majestic in the consciousness of the American Jewish community and beyond.

In the wake of the centenary of his birth, a flurry of conferences and publications made clear that many find him to be a source of inspiration. And yet, while many claim discipleship and loyalty, there continue to be wide-ranging differences concerning his legacy and its relevance for our contemporary concerns. How fortunate then that Susannah Heschel has given us a new edited collection, Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings. Not only does this remarkable collection provide a sense of the breadth of Heschel's interests and writings, but the ordering of the selections and the insightful introductions highlight the deep coherence of the different dimensions of his work. This volume brings together particularly rich and striking passages from Heschel's oeuvre sure to draw readers into fresh and thoughtful conversations with this remarkable figure in modern Jewish thought.

Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings is perhaps the single best introductory text to the work of Heschel. There are six sections, which can stand alone or be read together. Passages from well-known works such as The Sabbath, Man's Quest for God, Man is Not Alone, God in Search of Man, and The Prophets rub shoulders with lesser-known works such as Who is Man?, The Insecurity of Freedom, and A Passion for Truth, as well as previously unpublished works. In this context, with passages from various texts juxtaposed thematically, we see how Heschel's philosophical theology undergirds his politics and his groundbreaking strides toward improving Jewish-Christian relations. Susannah Heschel's substantial introduction to the volume provides an excellent biography of Heschel filled with insights into his life and thought. Additionally, she provides a helpful essay to introduce each section. The rich introductions and the previously unpublished material make this work of significant interest for scholars; the thematic focus and the editor's guidance make the work accessible and relevant for students and thoughtful people interested in Judaism, Jewish-Christian relations, and American religious history. Moreover, the anthology illuminates the deep coherence of the different dimensions of Heschel's work.

A Philosophy of Wonder

HESCHEL'S WRITINGS ON PRAYER, RACE, JEWISH EDUCATION, AND THE PROPHETS all find their roots in his theocentric, or God-centered, vision. Heschel's theocentrism does not simply challenge, but rather uproots and disrupts, our sensibilities. We moderns are accustomed to distancing ourselves from that which we think about; we believe that detachment or disinterestedness is the key to thinking carefully and critically. However, when it comes to matters of ultimate concern, Heschel charges that this mindset leads us astray.

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