Edward K. Kaplan and Samuel H. Dresner, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Prophetic Witness. New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1998.


Prophetic Witness is the history of a man of prayer, compassion, and moral courage confronting an increasingly horrifying world. Born in Warsaw, Poland in 1907, Abraham Joshua Heschel came of age in his family's Hasidic community and reached maturity in secular Jewish Vilna and cosmopolitan Berlin, speaking out as a religious philosopher during the advent of Nazism. He became a teacher in Berlin, later in Martin Buber's education program in Frankfurt, again in Warsaw and in London, while the several Jewish cultures he had absorbed were being destroyed. Within Heschel's complex identity lies an archeology of these worlds, secular and religious.

This biography traces Heschel's life in Europe up to the point of his emigration to the United States in March 1940, ripened already as poet, theologian, biblical scholar, interpreter of Jewish tradition, and social conscience. He came to intellectual and spiritual maturity in Europe, prepared for his role in the United States as a witness to the living God and to the urgent relevance of the Hebrew Bible. In 1951 Reinhold Niebuhr correctly predicted that Heschel "will become a commanding and authoritative voice not only in the Jewish community but in the religious life of America." (1)

In the United States, Heschel became a master of English prose, publishing sensitive works on religious experience, Jewish theology, and the Hebrew prophets. In the 1960s he was widely known for marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama, and for his vehement opposition to the Vietnam War. Some of his critics distrusted what appeared to be arrogance as he judged harshly religious as well as political institutions. Others considered him to be saintly, though some of his Jewish colleagues felt that he overvalued the admiration of Christians. Heschel was a complex and contradictory personality, but an account of his early life elucidates the essential person. As a thinker and activist, he achieved a synthesis of Orthodox tradition and modernity. He firmly believed in the reality of God and his judgment of events was reminiscent of a Hebrew prophet. From childhood he mastered the Jewish texts: prayerbook, Bible, Talmud, Midrash, legal codes, medieval and modern philosophy, mystical tradition -- and his ancestral, Hasidic sources, written and oral. The eloquent books he wrote in the United States -- such as Man Is Not Alone, God in Search of Man, and The Prophets -- attempt to communicate his unique blend, that of a university-educated European Jew inspired by God.

Heschel's deepest identity was formed by Hasidism, the eighteenth-century pietistic movement initiated by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov (1690-1760), "Master of the Good Name." This Jewish consciousness, according to Heschel, assumed a spontaneous feeling for God's presence: "Miracles no longer startled anyone, and it was no surprise to discover among one's contemporaries men who had attained the holy spirit, men whose ear perceived the voice of heaven." (2) All of Heschel's ancestors can be traced to the Hasidic founders, and he was expected to inherit the position of rebbe -- a spiritual and community leader -- held by his father and uncles. Throughout his several metamorphoses, Heschel's loyalty to the living God remained constant, as he gradually became a rebbe for the world at large. Heschel also absorbed the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah, an 18th-century movement which accepted that era's need for secularization, providing Hebrew translations of European philosophy and literature. Even as a theologian, he celebrated the powers of Jewish humanism: "There arose the Enlightenment movement (Haskalah), Zionism, the Halutzim [pioneer in Israel] movement, Jewish socialism." (3) Heschel himself insisted upon its religious essence: "Their belief in new ideals was infused with age-old piety."

As a twentieth-century Jew, however, Heschel identified most fully with the Hebrew prophets. His very sensibility was prophetic, and he emulated the ancient biblical radicals whose passion for justice was "a form of living, a crossing point of God and man." (4). Responding realistically to the insecurities of this century, he translated into contemporary terms his powerful sense of holiness. Heschel did not deny or compromise his earliest influences but expanded the sacred vision of his Hasidic childhood and youth to include history's complex realities. Arriving in the United States in 1940, Heschel began a new life, finding a new idiom to express, without changing, essentially, who he had become.

The story of Heschel's life before the Holocaust reveals the fullness of Europe's pluralistic Jewish cultures, today fragmented almost beyond recognition. This world is no more, but the diverse Jewish cultures which helped shape his thought and motivate his actions -- Hasidic, Yiddishist, German-Jewish, and ethical -- continue to address our fragile faith, our anguish of meaninglessness, and our yearning for righteousness and truth.

Both authors knew Abraham Joshua Heschel personally and spoke with him over many years. Samuel Dresner, who initiated this biography, first met Heschel in 1942 at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where Heschel (then a recent refugee) was a faculty member and Dresner a rabbinical student. Dresner recognized his teacher's genius, studied with him, and in 1945 went with Heschel to New York, at the Jewish Theological Seminary, continuing to be his disciple. I first met Heschel in 1966 while earning a Ph.D. in French literature at Columbia University. I participated with Heschel in the anti-Vietnam war movement, had long, earnest discussions, and shared with him family and religious events.

The idea for this biography was formed when Samuel Dresner, as Heschel's student, took notes of his conversations, classes, and seminars with his revered teacher. (5) Later, urged by Heschel's widow to write a biography and supported by a generous grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities, Dresner assembled a Heschel Archive consisting of bibliographical data, personal documents, and numerous interviews with Heschel's relatives and people who knew him in Europe and the United States, many of them since deceased. Without this foundation the biography would not have been feasible.

In 1988, Samuel Dresner asked me to write the biography that his fragile health did not allow him to venture. I did extensive research in archives, visited Israel and the sites of Heschel's European life, conducted numerous interviews, and wrote this book. Although I am solely responsible for the conception and the writing of Prophetic Witness, Rabbi Dresner's help in reviewing the manuscript at various stages of composition has been invaluable and a source of mutual pleasure.

My hope, finally, is that readers will share my own amazement at Heschel's ethical and spiritual courage. His loyalty to God and to the sanctity of every human being challenges the persistent evidence of human barbarism, without denying our responsibility. In exploring Heschel's coming to maturity before the Holocaust, we enter a passionate Jewish open-mindedness which both explains, and challenges, our more defensive era. His uncanny mixture of holiness with compassion and vehement demand for justice speaks to us still.

Edward K. Kaplan