Monday, December 24, 2007

A Rabbi of His Time, With a Charisma That Transcends It

There is a great article about Rabbi Heschel in today’s New York Times. You can read the entire article here.

Here are some of my favorite excerpts that point to some of the core reasons why I like him so much.

“He turns the lost world of his fathers — the communities of Eastern European Hasidim and their rabbis — into an almost utopian realm.”

“The scholarly skepticism of his colleagues at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where close textual analysis was more eagerly embraced than Heschel’s inspirational philosophy…”

“Nor has any Jewish theologian since Heschel succeeded in speaking to such a wide range of readers while rigorously attending to the nuances of Judaism.”

“The temptation would have been to do the opposite — to chide or stiffen with resentment — particularly given Heschel’s own personal trials. A yeshiva student in Poland, he rebelled not by becoming a secular Jew but by getting a doctorate in theology and philosophy from the University of Berlin. He fled the Nazis (who murdered one of his sisters and caused the death of his mother) but never found a comfortable intellectual home in the United States — neither during his early years at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati nor during his long career at the Jewish Theological Seminary.”

“At the seminary he was a professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism. He was intent on communicating the incommunicable, exploring the ineffable.”

“But amid this fervor Heschel was also a follower of Jewish laws, putting an emphasis on ritual and actions, not just on devotion and belief. This was also the source of Heschel’s ethical perspective: Every deed poses a problem with moral and religious implications.

“Judaism,” he wrote, “is not a science of nature but a science of what man ought to do with nature.” No act is permitted to escape scrutiny.”

Based on what I have read so far Rabbi Heschel reminds me in a lot of ways of Rav Soloveitchik and his struggles. They both never found general acceptance from their peers. They both felt an ontological loneliness. If I am not mistaken Rav Soloveitchik also attended the University of Berlin and got his doctorate in philosophy.

I wonder if they knew each other and interacted. They were peers and had so much in common; I can’t imagine they weren’t very aware of each other. Does anyone know if they had any interactions or thoughts about each other?

I am finding a lot of the same themes in their books. It will be interesting to compare their emphasis and view points, once we complete Man In Search Of G-d and have also written reviews of Halachic Man and The Lonely Man Of Faith.

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