Heschel, Abraham Joshua. “In This Hour: Heschel’s Writings in Nazi Germany and London Exile”, edited by Helen Plotkin, Jewish Publication Society, 2019.
Rabbi, Scholar, Philosopher
Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–72) is still a very important name in Judaism. He was a rabbi, scholar, and philosopher. When he was just 30 years old, Martin Buber appointed him as his successor at the central organization for Jewish adult education in Frankfurt am Main. Heschel went on to become one of the most influential modern philosophers of religion in the United States and formulated an original philosophy of Judaism.
During his years in Nazi Germany, Heschel wrote in German which have not be translated before and, in fact. Some of what is here has never been translated into any language. These were writings before he was exiled in London and certainly before he settled in America. He wrote these writings during a time of intense crisis for European Jewry and they “both argue for and exemplify a powerful vision of spiritually rich Jewish learning and its redemptive role in the past and the future of the Jewish people.”
The collection begins with the speech in which Heschel passionately laid out his vision for Jewish education. This is followed by essays about the rabbis of the Mishnaic period and we see that their struggles paralleled those that were going on at the time Heschel wrote them. We have the biography of the medieval Jewish scholar and leader Don Yitzhak Abravanel; a look at meaning of repentance and its power which was written for the High Holidays in 1936; a short story on Jewish exile, that Heschel wrote for Hanukkah 1937. Finally we have a set of four recently discovered meditations—on suffering, prayer, spirituality, and God and in these we read of Heschel dealing with the terrible things that were going on around him. Taken together, these essays and story give us what was lacking in Heschel’s writings: his Nazi Germany and London exile years. For all of his knowledge, Heschel wrote simply yet elegantly and we certainly see that in the translations here. There is also a wonderful introduction and many detailed notes.
These translations convey the spare elegance of Heschel’s prose, and the introduction and detailed notes make the volume accessible to readers of all knowledge levels. He has the ability to make the old new again and he enlightens the history of struggle. Even while quoting the writings of the past, he shows their relevance for the present. There is urgency to the writings of the past when Heschel explains them.
In these writings we see the “relatively unknown aspects of Heschel’s development as a teacher and public intellectual, and all readers will appreciate Heschel’s gripping literary testimony in impeccable translation.”
The timing of the release of this volume was perfect since we are living at a time when civility and spirituality seem to have taken time off. We are exposed to important and deep learning here that is wonderfully written and drives us to thought.