There are some, and they are not many, who can write and speak and think religiously in a way that transcends one religion while speaking from within that religion. No one has done it better than Abraham Joshua Heschel, and we are grateful to the prodigious research of Edward K. Kaplan for now finishing the second volume of Heschel’s biography (Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972). Those professors who use Heschel’s idea of pathos from his famous book on the prophets (The Prophets (Perennial Classics)) will do themselves a favor by steeping that book in the context of Heschel’s life in New York and the USA as a leader of Judaism, theology, and the civil rights movement.
Heschel was a part of Conservative Judaism, but he impacted both Reform and Orthodox Judaism, and he was a friend of Reinhold Niebuhr (gave the eulogy at Niebuhr’s funeral) and so impacted Protestant liberal theology, and he was a tireless prophet in speaking into justice issues in the USA, so he influenced public opinion and policy. As a Jew who had experienced the ravages of Hitler’s monstrosities, he wrote and spoke out of experience into the issues of religious tolerance and human dignity. It was this context that made him a singular brilliant voice in the civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s. As one who knew war he became a tireless critic of America’s involvement in Viet Nam.
Some impressions: A busier man I have not read about, but somehow he managed to be a man of prayer and of contemplation and study. Because of the number of invitations to speak, Heschel was driven to convert his lectures and talks into books, and some of those books later in his life contain some of his most powerful rhetoric. That oral context gave his rhetoric even more potency.
Heschel was a passionate man, and it got him into the thickets at times and at other times drove him to the heights of eloquence. This passion marked the poetic rhetoric of everything he wrote, from his book on the prophets to his studies that were called the Jewish Summa Theologica [and I’ll avoid listing all his books].
From Heschel I’ve learned so much. To Kaplan I am deeply indebted for letting us know the man.