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Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings

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Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings, Selected and with an Introduction by Susnnab Heschel; Maryknoll, Orbis Books, 2011.  189 pp.  Paper $20.00

 

                 Susannah Heschel gives us a treasure in these selections from  her father’s writings, including some previously unpublished.    I am grateful for this introduction to a holy prophet.  I cannot open to a page at random without being challenged in my thinking (Humility and contrition seem to be most absent where most required—in theology), in my prayer (Prayer is joy and fear, trust and trembling together), in my action (Who shall plead for the helpless?   Who shall prevent the epidemic of injustice. . .?).  In addition to the excepts themselves, Susannah’ s introductions to the sections of the book provide insight into the thought, as well as the person, of her father.

                 Abraham Joshua Heschel was born in Warsaw, into a Hasidic family with famous rebbes as forebears.  He relocated to Berlin to study at three academic institutions:  the University of Berlin, the Reform  Rabinnical school, and the Hildescheimer orthodox rabbinical seminary.  When Hitler came to power, he was deported to Poland. From there, having received an invitation to teach at the Reform Rabbinical college in Cincinnati, he emigrated to the United Sates in 1939, just before the Nazi invasion of Poland.  His mother and three of his sisters were killed in the Holocaust. 

                 These brief selections from Heschel’s prolific writings reflect his passionate commitment to the heart of Judaism, expressed in prayer and prophecy.   He laments the neglect of Sabbath observance as Jews assimilate into the secularism of the United States.  He has no use for empty formal prayer, prayer that does not arise from a deep sense of awe and wonder in the presence of the mystery that is God.  Of particular interest to preachers, Heschel  writes of the intimate relationship between prayer and preaching:  “Preaching is either an organic part of the act of prayer or out of place. . . .The test of a true sermon is that it can be converted to prayer.”  

                 For Heschel, prayer naturally leads to action.  Susannah Heschel, in her Introduction, tells of an incident during a demonstration against the Vietnam War.  A journalist asked her father why he, a rabbi, was at the demonstration.  The rabbi answered, “’I am here because I cannot pray.’”  Susannah concludes the anecdote with a memory:  “We forfeit the right to pray, my father said, if we are silent about the cruelties committed in our name by our government.”   In his many denunciations of the war, as well as of racism, Heschel was living his calling as prophet.  “A prophet,” he writes, is a man who feels fiercely.  God has thrust a burden on his soul.  . . .Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, to the plundered poor. . . .God is raging in the prophet’s words. . . .” 

 Heschel counted among his friends other prophets of this period in our history:  William Sloane Cotton, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and others.  He also included among his friends many Christian theologians.  In fact, according to his daughter, he said that Reinhold Niebuhr “understood his work better than anyone else.”   In his interfaith dialogues, he avoided conversation on differences; he and his interlocutors explored those religious attitudes which they shared.

This is a book to be read slowly, allowing each selection to incubate in one’s soul and blossom into fruit.

 

 

Patricia Chaffee, OP

Racine, Wisconsin

 


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