5. "Awake, Why Sleepest Thou, O Lord?": Divine Silence and Human Protest in Heschel's Writings
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f i v e “A wake , W hy S leepest T hou , O L ord ? ”: D i v ine S ilence and H uman P rotest in H eschel’ s W ritings Auschwitz is in our veins. It abides in the throbbing of our hearts. It burns in our imagination. It trembles in our conscience. —IEE, 206. The ultimate meaning of God’s ways is not invalidated because of man’s incapacity to comprehend it; nor is our anguish silenced because of the certainty that somewhere in the recesses of God an answer abides. —PT, 293. Sometimes rain drips like a tear. It’s God’s confession in the world— But I feel: God is sad-­embarrassed, for His sake, and for ours. But our distress demands: Have mercy! Instead of tears, give deeds; Help, not remorse. —Heschel, “Repentance,” 201. In his posthumously published A Passion for Truth, Heschel speaks of the Kotzker Rebbe’s anger at God. Enraged by hypocrisy and deceit, Menahem Mendl railed at humanity. But the Kotzker’s anger extended further, beyond human beings and toward their Creator. “Under [the Rebbe’s] reverence,” Heschel writes, “was dissent and contentiousness, a sense of outrage at the depth of falsehood afflicting the world as well as silent animadversion. . . . Was only man to blame? The Kotzker un174 “Awake, Why Sleepest Thou, O Lord?” 175 compromisingly castigated his fellow men. But did not castigation itself cast reproach upon their Maker?”1 In addition to his anger, the Kotzker was plagued by “serious doubts.” If mendacity enraged him, uncertainty tortured him. “If only I could be certain that there is punishment in the world to come,” he told one of his students, “I would go out into the streets and dance for joy. If only I could be certain . . .”2 It does not require much of a stretch to suggest that at moments in this, his final work, Heschel allowed the Kotzker to speak on his behalf, to give voice to some of his own most deeply felt but only haltingly spoken ambivalences. Heschel had discovered the Kotzker as a young child, he wrote, and since then the latter had “remained a steady companion andahauntingchallenge.”TheKotzker,hetoldus,had“urgedmetoconfront perplexities that I might have preferred to evade.” From the warm andcompassionateHasidismoftheBaalShemTov,Heschelhadlearned to live in a world suffused with meaning and the presence of God; from the dark and tension-­laden Hasidism of the Kotzker, in contrast, he had learned to face the “immense mountains of absurdity” that stood before him. If the Baal Shem Tov represented the sustaining faith to which Heschel held so tenaciously, the Kotzker represented the monstrous possibility of ultimate disappointment lurking beneath the surface. In allowing himself to be guided by both men, Heschel confessed: “I had allowedtwoforcestocarryonastrugglewithinme.”ForHeschel,Iwant to suggest, the Kotzker served at least partly as a vehicle for expressing his own post-­Holocaust anger and doubt. Heschel essentially admits as much when he begins his chapter on “the Kotzker and Job” by noting: “This chapter is not an exposition of the Kotzker’s views, but, rather, an essay on a major problem of faith which is guided by his sayings.”3 To be sure, Heschel’s struggles and the Kotzker’s were played out in very different keys, but they parallel each other nonetheless. To live with both the Besht and the Kotzker, Heschel wrote, was to live “both in awe and consternation, in fervor and horror, with my conscience on mercy and my eyes on Auschwitz, wavering between exaltation and dismay.”4 Note that whereas the Baal Shem stands for awe, fervor, and exaltation, Menahem Mendl stands for consternation, horror, and dismay. More importantforourpurposes—itseemsthatHeschelwantstobesurethat 176 Abraham Joshua Heschel the link is unmistakable—whereas the Baal Shem represents mercy, the Kotzker stands for Auschwitz and the enormous theological challenge it represents.5 Although Heschel’s discussion of “the Kotzker and Job”6 is the least linearchapterofoneofhisleastlinearbooks,Ithinkwecannevertheless identify several recurring motifs in the chapter’s response to the problems of anger and doubt. The first is the Kotzker’s “refusal to accept the harshness of God’s ways in the name of His love” and his willingness to confront and argue with God, as if to say, “Thy will be changed.”7 There was, for Menahem Mendl, “only one way to survive: to be Holy in challenging God, to pray militantly, to worship heroically.”8 His approach was “to protest, to contradict, to reject in the name of higher visions.”9...