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Posted July 23, 2007

Book: Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America
Author: Edward K. Kaplan
Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn. 2007. Pp. 500

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

Born in Warsaw, raised in a Hasidic community, and reaching maturity in secular Jewish Vilna and cosmopolitan Berlin, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) escaped Nazism and immigrated to the United States in 1940. This lively and readable book tells the comprehensive story of his life and work in America, his politics and personality, and how he came to influence not only Jewish debate but also wider religious and cultural debates in the postwar decades.

A worthy sequel to his widely praised biography of Heschel’s early years, Edward Kaplan’s new volume draws on previously unseen archives, FBI files, interviews with people who knew Heschel, and analyses of his extensive writings. Kaplan explores Heschel’s shy and private side, his spiritual radicalism, and his vehement defense of the Hebrew prophets’ ideal of absolute integrity and truth in ethical and political life. Of special interest are Heschel’s interfaith activities, including a secret meeting with Pope Paul VI during Vatican II, his commitment to civil rights with Martin Luther King, Jr., his views on the state of Israel, and his opposition to the Vietnam War. A tireless challenger to spiritual and religious complacency, Heschel stands as a dramatically important witness.

An Excerpt from the Book:

For Heschel, the ideology of “customs and ceremonies,” a staple of Reform religious education, was heresy, no substitute for “Torah”: “Too often a ceremony is the homage which disbelief pays to faith. Do we want such homage? Judaism does not stand on ceremonies.” Jewish observance was justified only by reference to the real, living God.

. . . Heschel made his most pointed critique [of ceremonialism and customs] through a humorous story from the Hasidic rebbe Simcha Bunim of Psyskha. . . Heschel went on:

Simcha Bunim then told this story about Mishka, a Russian peasant. Once the other peasants decided to play a joke on him and got him dead drunk. They took him to a church, dressed him in priest’s garb and sat him in the priest’s chair near the altar. When Mishka awoke, still groggy from alcohol and barely able to move, he noticed that he looked like a priest. But he vaguely recalled that he was just a peasant. He must still be asleep, dreaming of being a priest. But maybe it was the other way around.

Mishka was thoroughly confused. Being very shrewd, he recalled that when he went to church, the priest would read from a big book, for only a priest was able to read. So he decided to open the book; if he could read it, he was a priest; if not, he would be a peasant. When he opened the book, saw many letters in it, and could not read a single one. Aha! That meant he was a peasant and was just dreaming of being a priest. But how could that be, since he was fully awake?

Then the truth dawned on him. He was a priest; being a peasant was a dream. And as to his being able to real like priests, who says priests can read? They only pretend to!

Table of Contents:

Part One – Cincinnati: The War Yeas

Part Two – Rescuing the American Soul

Part Three – Spiritual Radical

Part Four – Apostle to the Gentiles

Part Five – Final Years