Abraham Joshua Heschel

Prophetic Witness

Edward K. Kaplan and Samuel H. Dresner

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Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was one of the outstanding Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century. A renowned American theologian and interpreter of tradition, author of such important books as Man Is Not Alone, God in Search of Man, and The Prophets, he was a living example of holiness, compassion, and vehement dedication to social justice. This book, the first of two volumes, is the only comprehensive biography of Heschel.

Based on interviews with Heschel’s friends and family, archival documents, and Heschel’s previously unknown writings in Yiddish, German, and Hebrew, the book traces Heschel’s life from his birth in Warsaw in 1907 to his emigration to the United States in 1940. Edward Kaplan and Samuel Dresner describe how Heschel came of age in a Hasidic community and reached maturity in secular Jewish Vilna and cosmopolitan Berlin, speaking out as a religious philosopher during the advent of Nazism. They relate how he became a teacher in Berlin, in Martin Buber’s education program in Frankfurt (where his lifelong debate with Buber originated), in Warsaw, and in London, while the several Jewish cultures he had absorbed were being destroyed. They show that he was already intellectually and spiritually mature when he emigrated to the United States, fully prepared for his dual roles as interpreter of Jewish piety and social activist.

Edward K. Kaplan, professor of French and comparative literature at Brandeis University, knew Heschel for the last six years of his life. Rabbi Samuel H. Dresner, professor of philosophy, Jewish Theological Seminary, was a student, friend, and editor of Heschel

A selection of the Jewish Book Club

"Heschel’s ferocious concern for human dignity was surely underwritten by living through the rise of the Nazis. It is this portrayal of Heschel unfolding that makes Abraham Joshua Heschel such a good biography…Without overlooking Heschel’s shortcomings, they write about him with great compassion and boundless interest. . . . Their goal is Verstehen—a rich and sympathetic understanding of their subject. . . . Heschel’s spiritual and intellectual coming of age emerge with great clarity. What also emerges is a vivid portrait of Jewish life in Poland and Germany in the generation before the war. . . . I need no further reminder of how great a human loss the Holocaust was; one of Kaplan’s and Dresner’s greatest accomplishments is illustrating just how great a cultural loss it was as well. . . . But by presenting his early years, Kaplan and Dresner have done much to bring a richer, more human Heschel back to us. This is an achievement of some moment, and I impatiently await the second volume of their fine biography." —Noah J. Efron, Boston Book Review

"The first comprehensive biography of Abraham Joshua Heschel—based on numerous oral and written records, many previously unknown. The roots of Heschel's spiritual power and concern are revealed. All students of modern Jewish thought are indebted to this painstaking and poignant achievement."—Michael Fishbane, Nathan Cummings Professor of Jewish Studies, University of Chicago

"Diligent research and the gift for vivid presentation have combined to give us this fascinating work on Heschel's life and thought which promises to become the definitive biography of this outstanding religious thinker. The different world which he inhabited, brilliantly depicted in this work, formed the background of his achievement and combined to shape his outward career and his outlook us, we follow his development from the Hasidic origins of his childhood in Warsaw to the period when he acquired the academic tools and ideas of his training in Western philosophy and culture at Berlin University and the crowning period in America, where he produced the mature works which established him as a master of Jewish thought and made him (in the words of Reinhold Niebuhr) 'a commanding and authoritative voice' and a theologian who left his imprint on Christian as well as Judaic readers."—Professor Fritz A. Rothschild, author of Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism from the Writings of A.J. Heschel

"The most complete portrait to date of this remarkable religious figure."—Publishers Weekly

"This is the first half of a solid biography of one of the most important defenders of faith and ethics in modern theology."—Kirkus Reviews

"Remarkable. . . an astonishing volume of details about Heschel’s life in Warsaw, Vilna, Berlin, and Frankfurt.. . . the authors. . . have crafted a powerful portrait."—Jack Reimer, Hadassah Magazine

"[The authors] pay critical, careful attention to Heschel's words, and in particular to his poetry."—Laurie Adlerstein, New York Times Book Review

"A major new biography. . . . Provides a welcome opportunity to reflect upon [Heschel’s] extraordinary life and thought. In this volume, Kaplan and Dresner trace in illuminating detail Heschel's life from his birth in Warsaw in 1907 through his arrival in New York in 1940. . . .[An] excellent biography."—David G. Dalin, Weekly Standard

"A remarkably rich and cogent presentation of the Jewish, Hasidic, Yiddish, Polish, and German background of a preeminent religious thinker."—Maurice Friedman, author of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Elie Wiesel: "You Are My Witnesses" Author does not want the Friedman quote that is in the catalog used in any promotion of the book

"This first volume of a remarkable biography of one of the greatest Jewish thinkers and social activists of his generation must take its place in every home, in every library, Jewish and gentile alike. Written with warmth, passion and grace, it offers the reader an insight into the man Heschel whose teaching has uniquely influenced modern theology and inspired moral commitment."—Elie Wiesel

"The first part of Heschel's life is beautifully well written, and is respectful without being incredibly adoring. That is an accomplishment for these co-authors, who obviously loved their great teacher. Their book helps us see how an extraordinary life produced extraordinary thought."—David Novak

"This book is simply stunning! . . . The book is remarkable on two counts. The first is the incredible research on display. It reads as if every scrap of paper that Abraham Heschel ever wrote or that anyone else ever wrote referring to him has somehow been found by these two. . . . The authors do much more than accumulate data. They have a profound understanding of Heschel's inner life and they use all this information in order to craft a powerful portrait of a human being."—Jack Riemer, Commonweal

"[A] richly detailed and captivating biography."—Steven Schnur, Reform Judaism

"[A] masterful and engaging treatment of Heschel’s life."—Marvin A. Sweeny, Review of Biblical Literature

"The long-awaited biography of Heschel covering the author’s youth in Warsaw and education in Vilna and Berlin. . . . The biography provides a portrait of a theologian as a young man with the habits of a hasidic aristocrat from a faded dynastic line. . . . Kaplan and Dresner’s biography will hold broad popular interest while providing academics an important starting point from which to investigate critically the life and thought of this important thinker."—Zachary Braiterman, Religious Studies Review

"This newly published second volume is an exciting read: well written, accurate, and sympathetic without being hagiographic. As such, it tells the reader not only much about Heschel's fascinating life in America but also just as much about the American religious and intellectual scene from 1940 to 1972."—David Novak, First Things

A finalist in the 1998 National Jewish Book Awards, in Jewish Scholarship given by the Jewish Book Council
ISBN: 9780300071863
Publication Date: May 25, 1998
416 pages, 6 1/8 x 9 1/4
34 b/w illus.
Spiritual Radical

Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972

Edward K. Kaplan

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