Edward K. Kaplan, Holiness in Words. Abraham Joshua Heschel's Poetics of Piety.

Albany, NY: State University of New York (SUNY) Press, 1996



The Bible is holiness in words.

[...] It is as if God took these

Hebrew words and breathed into

them of His power, and the words

became a live wire charged with

His spirit. To this very day they

are hyphens between heaven and earth.

Heschel, 1955i


In the two decades since Abraham Joshua Heschel's untimely death (during the Sabbath night of 23 December 1972), contemporary religion still lacks thinkers and scholars for whom both God and the human race are equally real. Heschel's writings convincingly evoke the luminous presence of God; and his life combines prayer, faith, and non-sectarian social action. In the 1960s he was the most prominent traditional Jew in the United States committed to civil rights and political protest. For me particularly, he was a great artist. His poetic style enticed my yearning for faith and his prophetic militancy gave substance to abstract principles.

Claiming that "the Bible is holiness in words," Heschel writes stirringly about God, inwardness, and ethics for agnostics as well as for those who flourish within the categories of Scripture. His works partake of the fascination with spiritual traditions attracting North Americans since the 1950s. Zen Buddhist, Hindu, Sufi and, more recently, native American texts became available, and people joined various groups in an attempt to overcome alienating aspects of organized religion. For Jews, the Havurah movement of the 1960s and 1970s fostered alternative communities of worship and study that help mitigate, to a great extent, the shallowness of synagogue routine. Translations of Jewish classics now grace "spirituality" sections of commercial bookstores. In spite of these advances, the unity of Heschel's mystical and moral vision has yet to change our institutions.

The essays that comprise this book originated in a personal perplexity: Why did Heschel appeal so strongly to me, a seeker of faith attracted to intense testimonies? I could trust the representative of Judaism who had the courage to admit: "Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid."ii Heschel's discourse was not banal or moralistic. He exploded clichés and slogans.

As a student of literature, I was captivated by Heschel's rhetoric. His prose combines various poetic devices--metaphor, assonance, rhythm--with incisive theological and philosophical polemics, aphorism, and bold ethical and political decisions. Other readers--Jewish or not, believers or those stalled at the threshold--also find in Heschel's writings a meeting place between human and divine.

He recovers the fervor of Judaism, the power of "piety," attachment to God. The Hasidic rebbes among whom Heschel lived as a child in Warsaw, Poland, combined wisdom, righteousness, and rigorous observance. He experienced his original theological insights within this culture whose language was Hebrew and Yiddish, and halakhah (Jewish law) its framework. Then, in 1940, he emigrated to the United States. Wrenched from his soil, he found a foreign idiom with which to usher readers to the divine presence.

Heschel's books in English develop an artful strategy. His narrative of a modern mind in search of its soul evokes his own intuitions of God's presence--the Holy Spirit, or continuous revelation.iii He is both witness and interpreter whose vibrant style "translates" (or transports) his knowledge of classical sources in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish--biblical, rabbinic, and Hasidic texts and oral traditions--into elegant, expressive English. Readers who do not know the originals might thus emulate Jewish piety and learning.

Heschel communicates directly with general readers, popularizing his knowledge for those without his erudition, prayer life, or historical experience. His discourse is multilayered, addressing several audiences simultaneously, although his academic debates remain implicit. Yet, in all frankness, his writings remain relatively unappreciated. He is quite quotable. But most people, untrained in literature or aloof to the nuances of spiritual encounter, find Heschel "hard to understand." That is why a careful study of his narrative is imperative.

The following essays, the fruit of twenty-five years of pondering Heschel's works, share the goal of his own expositions: "By penetrating the consciousness of the pious man, we can conceive the reality behind it."iv We face a double task: (1) to penetrate the author's thought and organize it into some conceptual order; (2) to experience intuitively the quality of his prose in order to possess, as it were, the writer's own devotional practice. I began by systematizing the formulas dispersed throughout his emotionally charged--and often baroque--literary style.

Holiness in Words is a reader's guide to transformation, not a plot summary. Since Heschel's method is phenomenological (an analysis of consciousness), and his practice literary (using style to surpass words), we analyze his "poetics of piety"--a theory and use of religious language in the service of spiritual maturity. A system of verbal expression and communication underlies his theology and ethics, and his rhetorical strategy aims to convert the reader's consciousness from ego-centered to theocentric (or prophetic) thinking. The result should be "piety" (in Hebrew, hasidut), a way of living that includes "faith" and "action." Heschel's own moral, theological, interfaith, and political commitments flow from his piety.

The book begins with the life and writings. Chapter One surveys Heschel's American career as a "theologian, zaddik, and prophetic voice," including his youth and early maturity in Poland and Germany. Literary style is the subject of Chapter Two, "Reading Heschel: Empathy with Critical Awareness," which demonstrates a method of slow reading and analysis. Becoming at ease with Heschel's rhetoric--his variety of narrative attitudes

--allows us to appreciate his mixture of philosophical argument, lyricism, and aphoristic formula. (These two chapters are the most general. Appendix A lists readings and provides a curriculum for further study.)

The next three chapters examine the overall design of Man Is Not Alone and God in Search of Man, Heschel's foundational books of religious philosophy. A broad "macro-reading" is complemented by a "micro-reading" of details that touch a reader's mind and intuitions. Chapter Three, "The Divine Perspective: Learning to Think Religiously," traces the path. Heschel's metaphorical language and the non-linear organization of his books and essays deliberately challenge our usual manner of perceiving the world. He first evokes awe and wonder; then, after demolishing intellectual pride, he prepares us to receive divine inspiration.

Before examining Heschel's positions on specific religious and ethical controversies, we define his poetics of faith (see "Language and Reality," Chap. Four). This is the key to his charisma as author and speaker. An analysis of metaphor explains how language can evoke the God-side of religious experience. Opposing authoritarian legalism or fundamentalism, Heschel insists that biblical statements are not univocally literal--but complex, as he states, more than literally true. His argumentation effects what I call a "recentering of subjectivity" from the self to God. In this theocentric thinking, the Divine is the ineffable Subject of which human beings are the object.

Like Saadia Gaon, Jehuda Halevi, Maimonides, Blaise Pascal, and Franz Rosenzweig before him, Heschel is an apologist--but not to promote dogma or ideology. He seeks to convert our very consciousness of reality, in its emotional and rational aspects. The pivot is examined in Chapter Five, "Mysticism and Despair: The Threshold of Revelation." We examine a passage of poetic prose that "describes" an incursion of the Divine into human awareness. Heschel's literary frame reinforces his cogent interpretation of these wordless events. That is how he validates his claim that God is in search of us.

The next four chapters examine contemporary debates. "Sacred versus Symbolic Religion" (Chap. Six), applies the recentering of subjectivity to hermeneutic, ethical, and ritual problems which continue to afflict contemporary Judaism. Heschel's repudiation of symbolism stands in stark opposition to philosophical anthropology, or sociological approaches, influenced by Martin Buber and other humanistic or liberal thinkers. "Prophetic Radicalism" (Chap. Seven) explains the basis of his civil rights and anti-war stands in the 1960s. He defines what I call a "sacred humanism" based on the conviction that every person is an image of God. The problem of evil, as well, is included in this study of reverence for humankind.

A radical, post-modern theology is perhaps Heschel's least explored legacy, and the most elusive. We begin to formulate it in "Confronting the Holocaust: God in Exile" (Chap. Eight); Appendix B delineates Heschel's understanding of Nazism in pre-War Germany and his responses to the War after he emigrated to the United States. Human responsibility is the key.

The preceding chapters explore the exoteric Heschel, a modern intellectual of European culture living within American religious and ethnic politics, who translates mystical piety and classical Judaism into contemporary philosophical and theological terms. Chapter Nine, "Metaphor and Miracle: Modern Faith and the Holy Spirit," uncovers the esoteric Heschel--himself inspired by the Divine as were the prophets, Maimonides, rabbinic sages, and mystics. Heschel's recently-translated Hebrew articles claim (at least indirectly) that God still speaks to people.

Our concluding chapter, "Heschel's Unfinished Symphony," reminds us that faith is not the finale but the inauguration of a life voyage toward piety and ethical commitment. His works in English give access to authentic interpretations of tradition for those with little or no Jewish learning--but who thirst for God or for stable meaning. Specialists, by mastering his rhetoric and religious thinking, can ferret out the relevant Hebrew and Yiddish origins of his English vocabulary, thus placing the author within a panorama of historical hermeneutics. Yet, in the end, we want, simply, to read Heschel who appeals to people of all backgrounds and attitudes.


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This book, Holiness in Words, set as an academic study, is also an act of commitment. My hope is that readers can enter Heschel's world--with or without the golden bough of faith. His poetics of piety, prophetic radicalism, and phenomenology of holiness might help alleviate today's cynicism, moral confusion, and spiritual thirst. By becoming aware that all language is metaphorical, we open ourselves to the reality beyond words, beyond concepts, systems, ideologies. Even images of patriarchy give way before the Holy Spirit.

If one "source" of Heschel's thought can be located, it would be Hasidism, the legacy of its founder, the Baal Shem Tov. Heschel's study of spiritual life and action updates this tradition. He uses the term "faith" almost interchangably with "piety," since a theocentric consciousness is the foundation of both. Yet piety, which includes cleaving to God in prayer and in sacred deeds (the mitzvot), is more indigenous to Judaism than faith, which is a precondition of sanctified living. Piety, in Heschel's terms, is faith's fulfillment.

Heschel teaches us how to think and live religiously. He educates our love, fear, and trembling--beyond dogmas and ideologies, beyond institutions or ethnic concerns. His works confront universal concerns about meaning, death, evil, suffering--also joy, ecstasy, and celebration--helping us grapple with personal and group identity in a fragmented and often hostile world. Heschel expected Judaism to join other religions in bringing peace, justice, and compassion to the world. As we begin our journey, we meet a man rooted in--and uprooted from--history.

Edward K. Kaplan