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American Jewish History 88.1 (2000) 167-169

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Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness. By Edward K. Kaplan and Samuel H. Dresner. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. x + 402 pp.

All his life Abraham Joshua Heschel was something of an anomaly, never quite fitting into his surroundings. As a young person growing up in a Hasidic rebbe's home in Warsaw, he yearned for secular learning and a wider intellectual sphere. As a student in Vilna and later in Berlin, he remained an outsider, a traditional Jew surrounded by secular scholars. At the Liberal Berlin Hochschule, he was considered Orthodox, and yet his wide-ranging secular interests kept him from enrolling in the Orthodox Hildesheimer Seminary. As an emerging Yiddish poet and philosopher, he retained the soul of a rebbe. Years later, when he joined the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary, he was a mystic encountering the naturalist theology of Mordecai Kaplan; and throughout his Seminary years, he was a voice of spirituality in a world of rationalists. [End Page 167]

Nevertheless, as Edward K. Kaplan and the late Samuel H. Dresner point out in this comprehensive, well-written study, which concludes with his arrival in the United States in 1940, Heschel was guided by one principle that never wavered, no matter in what environment he found himself - - a constant, unswerving loyalty to God, and a need to bear "prophetic witness" to His reality. Refusing to interpret the Bible as merely symbolic, Heschel stressed the reality of the prophetic experience of God; and his uncompromising theocentric philosophy even brought him into gentle conflict with Martin Buber, who nevertheless remained his intellectual hero.

The book is especially rich in capturing the tremendous variety of Jewish life in pre-Holocaust Warsaw and Vilna. As the Eastern European Jewish experience becomes more sentimentalized with the passage of time, we often neglect to recall the breadth of Jewish culture in that now-destroyed world, a world of Hasidim and Mitnagdim, of secularists, Bundists, Yiddishists, Zionists, and others, all competing with each other for the minds and hearts of the Jewish community.

Although non-specialists may get lost in the book's discussion of the intricacies of Heschel's philosophy, particularly where it differed from his mentors David Koigen and Martin Buber, the authors never lose sight of the central focus of their work, demonstrating Heschel's unique place in the history of modern Jewish thought. The description of Heschel's correspondence with Buber is most intriguing, for Buber seems to have become almost a father figure to Heschel, who replaced Buber as the head of the Lehrhaus in Frankfurt, after the older scholar had gone to live in the land of Israel. How much the relationship meant to Buber is not indicated, and the reader receives the impression that the friendship was essentially one-sided.

In the background of almost the entire book is, of course, the unfolding of the events of the Holocaust. It is truly remarkable that Heschel was able to receive his doctorate from the University of Berlin in December, 1935, even after the school was essentially dominated by the Nazis. As the noose tightened around the necks of European Jewry, one is impressed by Heschel's continued devotion to Jewish scholarship and his earnest attempt to foster Jewish renewal in Germany, all the while seeking an avenue of escape. As the authors point out, Heschel's survival was effected by a chain of fortuitous circumstances: he was deported to Poland just one week before the nightmare of Kristallnacht; he managed to flee to England just six weeks before the German invasion of Poland; and even the ship that brought him to America, to accept a position at the Hebrew Union College, was sunk just a few weeks later by the German navy. Reading of Heschel's miraculous escape, one wonders [End Page 168] how many other brilliant minds there were who were not so fortunate, who remained behind in the inferno, and whose names are now lost forever.

Those of us who were fortunate enough to know and to learn from...


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