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Introducing Rabbi Heschel

A Midcentury Modern Prophet

March 4, 2021 by

What does it mean to know an author? In the case of Abraham Joshua Heschel, I always thought I’d had a good general idea. I knew that he lived in the last century, and that he was a Jewish theologian and philosopher. But it took a new collection from Plough to make me realize how little I actually knew.

Born into an eminent rabbinical family in 1907 in Poland, Heschel completed orthodox studies in Warsaw and pursued his theological doctorate in Berlin until he was deported back to Poland by the Nazis in 1938. Only weeks before the German invasion of Poland, he left Warsaw for London, where he was able to secure an American visa, arriving in New York City in 1940. Heschel had lost his father in 1916 to illness; the rest of his family perished in the Holocaust, leaving him sole survivor.

Abraham Joshua Heschel Julie Lonneman, for Plough

Heschel became a leader in the civil rights movement, marching with Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis, and in 1965 he presented King with the Judaism and World Peace Award. In my mind, it’s perfect: a survivor of the horrors of the Holocaust fighting endemic racism – what he called unmitigated evil – in the country he adopted as his own. Heschel also deeply opposed the Vietnam War, outraged by the lies of America’s politicians as well as the gullibility of its citizens. That the American government could deceive so many of its citizens was a religious problem, Heschel felt. Recently it occurred to me that he would have had great admiration for Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for, as he wrote in an essay, “Dissent is indigenous to Judaism.” Heschel wrote and spoke prodigiously, and his teachings and writings are widely read by Jews and Christians alike.

So when Plough asked me to proofread the manuscript for their latest volume of Plough Spiritual Guides, I discovered that I didn’t know much at all about Heschel. My task was the “disaster read” – the last proofread a manuscript gets – looking for genuine mistakes, not editorial improvements. It requires focus, concentration, and not getting lost in the material. It was difficult: I had to read certain paragraphs more than once. I completed the assignment and sent the short list of errors back to the editors.

Then I read the little book for real. It opens with a succinct biography by Robert Erlewine, a Heschel scholar who made the selections for this book, and a beautiful forward by Heschel’s daughter Susannah, which, because it was written in the summer of 2020, is as timely as her father is timeless. The title, Thunder in the Soul, evokes authority and power, but the selections in this anthology cover topics so perfectly relatable that I felt at times as if Heschel were speaking directly to me. Excerpts from Heschel’s best-known books include his thoughts on eternity, mystery, justice, deeds, and prayer. At once poetic and exquisitely harsh, Heschel allows his readers no compromise. In a single sentence he tells us how to live, from start to finish: “The days of our lives are representatives of eternity rather than fugitives, and we must live as if the fate of all of time would totally depend on a single moment” (Thunder in the Soul, 5).

There isn’t a great deal left to say about the year we just closed, and the one we are beginning. It feels as though every card on suffering has been dealt. Perhaps that is why the chapter on prayer got to me in a particular manner. The chapter’s title, “Prayer is Being Known by God,” turns the idea of prayer as a litany of demands into a willingness to allow God to see us, “to translate the self” (69). Indeed, Heschel writes, “The issue of prayer is not prayer; the issue of prayer is God” (71). In a further chapter, he offers a refreshing argument to the idea that justice is a human concern: “Righteousness is not just a value; it is God’s part of human life, God’s stake in human history.”

But there is so much more in this small volume of essential Heschel. At the end of 2020, when I read for content instead of commas, I found my heart nourished and challenged, warmed and admonished. It is a collection to share, to return to, and to keep close. In this tenth volume of Plough’s Spiritual Guides, the Jewish voice adds texture to a rich collection that already includes liberation theology, early Christian writings, Anabaptists, and other radical voices. In the tradition of the prophets, whose “major activity was interference, remonstrating about wrongs inflicted on other people and meddling in affairs which were … not their concern,” Heschel disturbs our complacency with a precise, caring hand.

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Carmen Hinkey

Carmen Hinkey

Carmen Hinkey and her husband Stephen live at the Mount Community in New York State.

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