We who were his students used to say that there was a different dimension to Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel in every language in which he wrote. In Yiddish he wrote poetry and in Yiddish he wrote the portrait of Eastern European Jewry which became the most eloquent Kaddish that we have for the world from which he came. In Hebrew, he wrote technical scholarly essays in which he preserved and annotated some of the earliest Hassidic manuscripts that exist. And in English, he wrote essays the likes of which we had never encountered before, essays in which he spoke of G-d, not as a philosophical abstraction and not as an intellectual concept, but as The living Spirit who called upon us to respond to the reality of His Presence and to His demands upon us to join in His dreams for this world in which we lived.
And now we have a new side of Heschel’s work to consider: the Heschel who wrote in German. Stephen Lehrmann found a whole collection of his writings from his years in Germany in the Heschel archives at Duke, and with Marion Faber he has translated them, and so we now have a whole new dimension of Heschel’s life and thought to consider.
Heschel came to Germany in his early twenties in order to acquire a secular education, and indeed he did. He studied Philosophy, Philology, Greek Thought, Art and Music and everything else that this culturally rich country had to offer in those years. He went to museums and to concerts, and he drank in everything that this country had to offer. When we found references to Kant or Goethe or William James or Spinoza or Freud or Einstein, or when we found images drawn from art or music or mathematics in his later writings, we knew that they came from this German period of his life. And the question that intrigued us then, and still does today, is how he was able to absorb so much of this world, and yet maintain his separateness from it.
During the first half of Heschel’s years in Germany, he focused on absorbing everything that he could from this new world. But even as he did, he preserved his own heritage and made it the standpoint from which he judged the society within which he lived. As he describes his life in Berlin in a talk that he gave in later years, he says that he stood on a street corner one night, trying to choose between all the concerts and plays that were available to him, and he remembered Goethe’s line about how underneath everything there is a great rest, but he also remembered that it was time to say the Evening Prayers and that they teach that underneath everything is the Word of G-d. During those years he lived a double life: learning all that he could about western culture while maintaining, not only strict observance but the spiritual heritage that he brought with him.
And then came the dark years for German Jewry when they found themselves expelled from German culture and suddenly saw themselves as Jews, with no idea of what that meant. And this is the time when Heschel spoke to them from out of the resources of the Jewish tradition and explained to them that this was not the first time that our people have been expelled, and yet have been able to survive and prevail. He published a series of lectures in the main German Jewish newspaper on how the Sages reorganized Judaism after the fall of the Temple, but his real agenda in these lectures was to explain how German Jewry could do the same. He told them that centering their lives on Jewish learning was the way in which they could find their way back to self-respect and to authenticity.
The first talk in this book is a lecture on the meaning of Jewish education that he gave in German in London, while he waited for the visa that would enable him to go to America. In this lecture, he speaks of how the Temple that had been the center of Jewish worship had been destroyed, and how the Jewish people had built a new kind of Temple—the Bet Hamidrash—in which the act of learning replaced animal sacrifice and enabled the people to live authentic Jewish lives. It is clear as you read this talk that this is not just an academic lecture about ancient history. It is a message to the German Jews of his own time to study their heritage, and to find within it the meaning of their lives. German Jews looked down upon the Jewish immigrants from the East who lived among them and considered them to be culturally inferior, but in this talk Heschel affirmed the depth and the piety of these Jews and held them up as role models to the rest of German Jewry. He criticized the formality and the sterility of the Jewish Temples in Germany and declared that there was more real prayer in any of the small shteiblach of Eastern Europe than in all the temples of Germany combined. And he affirmed that the essence of Jewish life was not in the community, as the sociologists claimed, and not in the individual, as the psychologists claimed, but in a kinship with the Spirit that could still be reached through serious learning and through real prayer, the Spirit that called upon us to share His dreams and to build His sanctuary here on earth.
You have to marvel at the self confidence of this young and poor immigrant, who lived among these wealthy and sophisticated German Jews, and yet who could write with such certainty about their spiritual shortcomings as he does in this talk. When you think of how many Eastern European Jews who came to Germany gave up their Jewishness there in the hope of being accepted, you understand that this talk is a remarkable statement of Jewish pride indeed. And later on, when Heschel came to America and berated the Jews here for their illiteracy and their indifference to the Jewish heritage, we hear echoes of what he said first to the Jews of Germany.
Heschel saw himself in Germany as having two roles. On the one hand, he was there to soak up as much of Western Culture as he possibly could, but on the other hand, he saw himself as the inheritor of a noble dynasty who had much to teach as well as much to learn. When we students heard him cite the key figures of western thought and when we heard him draw upon images from music or art or mathematics, we knew that these were the products of his years in Germany. But when we heard him criticizing the apathy of American Jewry, we did not know that too was a continuation of the battle that he began during his years in Germany.
The teachers of Modern Judaism in Germany in those years were intellectuals who based their faith on ancient Near Eastern literature or on the rational premises of Western Thought. I am sure that they did not know what to do with someone who wrote about prayer—not as self expression and not as participation in a communal experience—but as a response to the Ever Living G-d. They did not know what to make about someone who wrote about repentance as the turning around of one’s whole self to be with and to do the work of the G-d who cares about us, and who needs us, and not just the polite tapping of one’s breast as we thought about what we were going to do and eat when the service was over.
Like the Jews of Germany, we did not know what to make of this man who came to us with such a combination of talents and perspectives, who knew both the wisdom of the West and the piety of the East—but eventually we came to see how special and how precious he was—not only to Jews but to all religious Americans.
And therefore, for helping us understand the first expressions of this combination of poetry and passion, of intellect and faith that he brought to us, this book is very helpful indeed.
Rabbi Jack Riemer’s most recent books are: ”Finding God in Unexpected Places” and “The Day I Met Father Isaac at the Supermarket.” Both are available at Amazon.com.