A Spiritual Visionary: Review of Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mind Heart, Soul by Edward K. Kaplan
By Claudia Moscovici
Edward K. Kaplan’s monumental new biography of Abraham Joshua Heschel, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mind Heart, Soul (University of Nebraska Press, 2019), depicts the many sides of this visionary Jewish figure, who was simultaneously a courageous Holocaust survivor, a sensitive poet, a profound thinker and writer, and a committed civil rights activist. This book is an abridgment of Kaplan’s two-volume biography of Heschel, originally published by Yale University Press in 1998 and reprinted in 2007. Born in 1907 in Poland and descended from a family of preeminent Hasidic rabbis, Heschel followed in their footsteps, obtaining a yeshiva education. He was ordained at the age of sixteen in Warsaw. He then went on to pursue further education in Germany, at the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums. There he studied with some of the greatest Jewish thinkers of the time, including Julius Guttmann and Leo Baeck, who remained a friend and confidant for the rest of their lives. In 1933 Heschel also joined a group of poets, publishing a collection of Yiddish poetry dedicated to his father, who had passed away when he was a young boy.
Like most European Jews, however, Heschel was caught in the web of Fascist regimes. In October 1938, while living in Frankfurt, he was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to his native Poland. Back in Warsaw, Heschel lectured at the Institute of Jewish Studies for less than a year. He had the foresight to see troubles ahead. A few months before the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Heschel left his country and moved to London. From there, with the help of Julian Morgenstern, the President of Hebrew Union College, he settled permanently in the United States. While teaching at Hebrew Union College, a seminary of Reform Judaism, he lived in Cincinnati for a few years. Having had a more traditional religious formation, however, Heschel eventually left Ohio for New York City, where, in 1946, he became a faculty member at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the premier college of Conservative Judaism. Until his death in 1972, Heschel taught there courses on mysticism and Jewish ethics. He never returned to Germany, claiming “If I should go to Poland or Germany, every stone, every tree would remind me of contempt, hatred, murder, of children killed, of mothers burned alive, of human beings asphyxiated.” Because of the ravages of the Holocaust, Heschel never got the chance to see most of his family again. His sister Esther died as a result of the German bombing of Poland. The Nazis also killed his mother and his two other sisters. Perhaps, Kaplan suggests, this personal and historical calamity shaped Heschel’s mysticism, augmented his empathy and sharpened his survival instinct.
Few European Jews were so fortunate as to escape the ravages imposed by Fascist regimes. The eminent historian Raul Hilberg estimates that over a million Jews living under German occupation survived the Holocaust and were still alive by the end of WWII. (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 186). Each of their stories constitutes a minor miracle: a rare combination of fortitude and luck. Most of the million Jewish survivors were those living in Romania (in what they called the “Old Kingdom” regions) and Bulgaria. In both of these countries, the leaders of the government, for various political reasons, changed their minds about sending all Jews to concentration camps. A second group of victims that made it against all odds were those that were either liberated by the Allies from Auschwitz and other camps or escaped the grueling death marches, once the Germans evacuated the concentration camps. A third group of survivors were those who successfully hid, resisted or fled from the Nazis. Many had to adopt various disguises or aliases. They ran the risk of being shot or sent to concentration camps as soon as the Nazis and their collaborators discovered their real identities. These survivors, Hilberg observes, were usually young, in good physical condition and had a particular psychological profile that set them apart from most victims: “The contrast may be glimpsed in three important traits: realism, rapid decision making, and tenacious holding to life” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders 188). Because they tended to be not only incredibly lucky but also exceptionally resourceful and resilient, their stories sound incredible. Heschel, no doubt, fits in the latter category of survivors. Due to a combination of foresight and good fortune, he managed to move one step ahead of the Nazis and not merely survive, but live a meaningful and accomplished life.
Perhaps because the sufferings of his family and his people colored his religious mysticism, as Kaplan’s biography illustrates, Heschel coupled Jewish spirituality with a call for social equality and action. In fact, as the author recounts, Heschel became friends with Martin Luther King and joined him in the Selma to Montgomery march for Civil Rights on March 21, 1965. For Heschel, spirituality belonged to all religions, not only Judaism, and civil rights belonged to all human beings, not only whites. Prayer itself took many forms, including those of social action on behalf of underprivileged groups. “When I marched in Selma, I felt that my legs were praying,” Heschel famously wrote, echoing his Hasidic mentors. Kaplan’s in-depth and multifaceted biography of Abraham Joshua Heschel does justice to this exemplary human being, thinker, activist and Jewish spiritual leader.
Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memories
Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films
Dangerous Liaisons: How to Identify and Escape from Psychopathic Seduction