cover image Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness

Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness

Edward K. Kaplan, Samuel Dresner. Yale University Press, $60 (416pp) ISBN 978-0-300-07186-3

In 1951, Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr predicted that Abraham Joshua Heschel would ""become a commanding and authoritative voice not only in the Jewish community but in the religious life of America."" This first volume of a two-volume biography follows Heschel from his birth in Warsaw in 1907 to his emigration from Europe to America in 1940. From his early childhood, Heschel combined a love of learning with an intense piety. The authors follow Heschel's childhood study and mastery of classic Jewish texts, showing how this learning established the foundation of Heschel's later life and work in America. Greatly affected by his Hasidic upbringing (his father and uncle were Hasidic rebbes, and Heschel was expected to become one as well but he chose a life of scholarship and social activism instead), Heschel wove into his life a sense of God's holiness as well as a sense of the biblical prophets' sense of justice. The cultural richness of European Jewry prior to the Holocaust also greatly influenced Heschel. Kaplan and Dresner contend that their portrait will present Heschel as a ""unique blend, that of a university-educated East European Jew inspired by God."" This volume narrates Heschel's encounter with Martin Buber, with whom he engaged in lifelong debate about Judaism and ethics, and chronicles Heschel's stints as a teacher of religious philosophy in Berlin, Warsaw and London. While the staid, workmanlike style of this biography often fails to capture Heschel's fire and intensity, the authors nevertheless provide the most complete portrait to date of this remarkable religious figure. (May)