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

Edward K. Kaplan
  • Review
By – December 9, 2011

In this sequel to his first biog­ra­phy of Hes­chel pre-arrival to Amer­i­ca, Kaplan has giv­en the entire Jew­ish world yet anoth­er pre­cious gift. This high­ly read­able, sub­stan­tial work cov­ers Heschel’s arrival and first years on the fac­ul­ty at Hebrew Union Col­lege in Cincin­nati through his years at the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary and his untime­ly death in 1972. The sheer range of Heschel’s phi­los­o­phy and the­ol­o­gy — com­mu­ni­cat­ed with equal ele­gance and pas­sion in both writ­ten and oral com­mu­ni­ca­tions— is con­veyed with pre­ci­sion in this overview and analy­sis of three decades. 

We see Heschel’s devel­op­ment and emer­gence — in prophet-like fash­ion — as an out­spo­ken cham­pi­on of civ­il rights, human rights, Sovi­et Jew­ry, and a vocif­er­ous oppo­nent of the Viet­nam War. And we see an extra­or­di­nary the­olo­gian who con­tributed to all seg­ments of the Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish world that grap­pled with issues of faith, belief, tra­di­tion, change, prayer and the mean­ing, mis­sion, and respon­si­bil­i­ty of human beings to each oth­er and to G‑d. The appeal of his phi­los­o­phy and the­ol­o­gy was such that Thomas Mer­ton, a lead­ing Catholic the­olo­gian, referred to him as the “…world’s great­est the­olo­gian.” The Arch­bish­op of Can­ter­bury, the Greek Ortho­dox Arch­bish­op and the [then] Bish­op of Rochester Ful­ton Sheen described him as per­haps the most knowl­edge­able the­olo­gian on the mean­ing of prayer” — AND, four great Has­sidic rab­bis — the Novom­insker Rebbe, the Boy­an­er Rebbe, the Kopish­nitzer Rebbe, and the Czechover Rebbe — also referred to him as Ha-Rav-Ha- Hasid (the Has­sidic rab­bi)! Through his metic­u­lous review of notes, let­ters, files, and inter­views with lead­ing reli­gious and polit­i­cal fig­ures, friends, stu­dents, etc., Kaplan allows us to be at times a fly on the wall” privy to the full range of Heschel’s for­mi­da­ble tal­ents — as well as his pri­vate side and even his foibles. The chap­ters that deal with Heschel’s involve­ment in inter­faith rela­tions and, in par­tic­u­lar, with the Vat­i­can in the ear­ly 1960’s regard­ing doc­tri­nal claims of Jew­ish dei­cide as well as pros­e­ly­tiz­ing to Jews, are but one exam­ple of Kaplan’s mas­ter­ful, almost dra­mat­ic pre­sen­ta­tion of a crit­i­cal aspect of mod­ern Jew­ish history. 

For those of us who are deeply steeped in and com­mit­ted to tra­di­tion who also have a plu­ral­is­tic view of Judaism and a broad per­spec­tive of the scope of the Divine rev­e­la­tion to many peo­ples, this book reac­quaints us with the genius, grandeur, and reli­gious fer­vor that was Hes­chel. And, while per­haps unin­tend­ed, it gives a voice to Hes­chel, near­ly forty years after his death, call­ing all of us to task to exam­ine what we are doing in this world and for this world.

William Liss-Levin­son is vice pres­i­dent, chief strat­e­gy & oper­a­tions offi­cer of Cas­tle Con­nol­ly Med­ical Ltd., a con­sumer health research, infor­ma­tion, and pub­lish­ing com­pa­ny. He holds a Ph.D. in edu­ca­tion and is a mem­ber of the board of direc­tors of the Jew­ish Book Council.

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