Abraham Joshua Heschel: Recasting Hasidism for Moderns
Abraham Joshua Heschel is generally seen as an American Jewish religious thinker. When he is taught, it is primarily in the context of American Judaism. His mature works were published here, and his greatest impact was on Americans, Christians as well as Jews. In the public realm, Heschel is best remembered for his friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr., his marching at Selma ("My feet were praying...!"), and his leading role in opposition to the war in Vietnam. In addition to his great life-work as theologian and Judaic scholar, he made important contributions to Jewish/Christian relations (especially in connection with Vatican II), religious education, and the shaping of the American rabbinate. His voice, alongside that of Elie Wiesel, was among the first to be raised for the plight of Soviet Jewry, years before this became a subject of international Jewish concern. Through us, his students, he has been (along with Martin Buber) one of the two most important influences and models for the Jewish renewal movement, beginning with the havurot of the late 1960s. Heschel helped us to recover and articulate a sense of spirituality within Judaism. Translating that religion of spiritual insight and sensibility into one of imperative and action was Heschel's greatest task, and remains ours.
But Heschel, both the man and the thinker, was formed in Europe. When he arrived in America in 1940, at the age of thirty-three, the three major shaping influences on his life were already in place: the Hasidic world of his childhood, the (mostly Jewish) intellectual community of Berlin, and the experience of five years of living in, and finally being booted out of, Nazi Germany. Of course he was influenced and refined further by the land in which he lived the second half of his life. But I believe that for Heschel the American experience was seen largely through one or another of these three lenses that he brought with him from Europe. (A great deal of detailed information on Heschel's European period can be found in Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness by Edward Kaplan and Samuel Dresner.)
Hasidic Warsaw was the first part of that European experience. Heschel was the scion of several of the great Hasidic families of Eastern Europe. For at least five or six generations, virtually all of his male ancestors had been Hasidic rebbes. Raised to continue in the family tradition, it was at first assumed that young Heschel, who was a talmudic as well as a spiritual prodigy, would be a great figure within the Hasidic world. He left it behind, however, as an adolescent, something of a rebel, seeking the kind of education that his extended family obviously would have preferred that he do without. The Hasidic world of Warsaw was too narrow for him; he saw the smallmindedness that necessarily resulted from the tremendous effort expended to shut out the modern world. He also experienced the constant bickering that went on among the various dynasties, all of them led by men who were there because of their lineage, but few of whom retained the charismatic qualities that had first made the progenitors of their lines into rebbes.
Hasidism thus existed for Heschel as something he had left behind, a world to which he no longer fully belonged. Yet it seems he still felt that Hasidism belonged to him. His reading of Judaism was in many ways a Hasidic one. The Sabbath is a work possible only against the background of Hasidism--the grand entryway into God in Search of Man, the language of depth theology, the journey through awe, wonder, and mystery, all draw on the Hasidic consciousness. Heschel retained much affection for, and a certain loyalty to, Hasidism throughout his American years. For example, at the same time as he was writing his great theological classics (Man Is Not Alone, 1951; Man's Quest for God, 1954; God in Search of Man, 1956), he was also publishing, in Hebrew, meticulously researched historical articles on the early generations of Hasidism. …