Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972

By Kasimow, Harold | Shofar, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972


Kasimow, Harold, Shofar


Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972, by Edward K. Kaplan. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007. 530 pp. $40.00.

Spiritual Radical is the sequel to Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness (1998), co-written with Samuel H. Dresner, Heschel's first disciple in America. Kaplan met Heschel in 1966 while he was working on his Ph.D. thesis in French poetry. By then Heschel, who was professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, was recognized as one of the most profound religious thinkers and social activists of his time. Before the meeting, Kaplan had already read Man Is Not Ahne and had been "seduced" by the beauty of Heschel's poetic use of language. Man Is Not Alone was also the first Jewish book that evoked for Kaplan the presence of God. Heschel's artistry and the power of his personality inspired Kaplan to begin a spiritual quest within the Jewish tradition.

Although Kaplan became a professor of French literature, he has devoted a major part of his academic career to the life and works of his spiritual guide Abraham Joshua Heschel. By the early 1970s, while Heschel was still alive, Kaplan began to write major articles on Heschel's poetic style. He has since written articles on various aspects of Heschel's thought and a brilliant book. Holiness in Words: Abraham Joshua Heschel's Poetics of Piety (1996), which established him as the leading expert on Heschel's literary style. It is therefore not surprising that Rabbi Dresner, who initiated this biography project, chose Kaplan.

Kaplan's deeply moving biography captures Heschel's life and personality. It also presents the core of Heschel's teaching by examining nearly all of Heschel's 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 the Generations, and his last two books, one in Yiddish and the other in English, on Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotsk, which shed the most light on Heschel's private life. Kaplan also discusses at some length Heschel's book on Israel and his beautiful book on the Sabbath.

Besides his evaluation of most of Heschel's books, Kaplan examines a good number of Heschel's major articles and a few of the key reviews of Heschel's books written by leadingjewish and Christian thinkers of his day. These include Reinhold Niebuhr, Louis Jacobs, Marvin Fox, WiU Herberg, Jacob Agus, Maurice Friedman, Nahum Glatzer, and Jacob Neusner, who wrote that God in Search of Man is "the single most sophisticated, profound, and comprehensive statement within modern judaic theology." Kaplan also did research in almost thirty archives and interviewed nearly two hundred people for this important work of love that took nearly ten years to complete.

In view of Kaplan's rich, all-encompassing biography, I find it difficult to capture in a short review the heart of Heschel's message in America over a thirty-two year period. In his introduction Kaplan writes:

There was a public and private Heschel. The public figure was a teacher and scholar, an audacious social critic, and a master of poetic prose who opened people's consciousness to the divine presence. The private person was a mystic, inspired by the living God, a Hasidic prince, a man of prayer and inwardness, and a friend, husband, and father, (p. x)

Opening American Jewry to the divine presence was, in my view, precisely Heschel's central goal. He wished to enable people to be more sensitive to transcendence. Kaplan writes that Heschel "sought to provoke a complete transformation of consciousness" (p. 120). Heschel wanted to lead his readers to a new way of thinking and living that would lead them to live a holy life. He hoped that his work would be seen as "a way of developing sensitivity to God and attachment to His presence." Heschel's entire theological structure rests on the assumption that there is a personal God, a God who commands and makes demands on human beings, who is concerned and involved with human beings. …

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