Abraham Joshua Heschel:
Love or Truth?
By Rabbi Burt Jacobson *
The Besht’s Embrace
In 1998 Edward K. Kaplan and Samuel Dresner published Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness, [Footnote: published by Yale University Press, New Haven and London] the first volume of a planned two volume work on Heschel’s life and achievements. Heschel’s life fascinated me; of course I was especially drawn to what the authors had to say about my teacher’s relation with the Ba’al Shem Tov.
Abraham Joshua Heschel was born and grew up in a Hasidic family in Warsaw, Poland. His father, Moshe Mordecai of Pelzovizna, had been a rebbe, a Hasidic spiritual master. During his childhood Reb Moshe Mordecai charmed Avrumele -- as his family called the boy -- with tales that centered around the small town of Mezbizh, where the youngster’s grandfather and namesake, Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt, had served as rebbe.
Of course, Mezbizh was and is most celebrated as the town where the Ba’al Shem Tov had lived and taught. The impression that the Besht made on the boy can be gleaned from a reflection of Heschel’s found in one of his essays: “He who really wants to be uplifted by communing with a great person whom he can love without reservation, who can enrich his thought and imagination without end, that person can meditate about the life and being of the Besht. There has been no one like him in the last thousand years.” [Footnote:……]
As a young man, Heschel left Poland and went to Berlin to study philosophy. In the mid-1930’s he was ordained as a liberal rabbi and also completed his doctoral studies. Heschel was caught in Europe when the Nazis came to power. To his great fortune Julian Morgenstern, the president of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati secured a visa for him, and the young man immigrated to the United States. After teaching for several years at Hebrew Union College, Heschel was invited in 1946 to teach at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. The Earth is the Lord’s: the Inner World of the Jew in Eastern Europe, his eloquent and moving elegy for Eastern European Jewry appeared in 1949.
A world has vanished. All that remains is a sanctuary hidden in the realm of the spirit. We of this generation are still holding the key. Unless we remember, unless we unlock it, the holiness of the ages will remain a secret of God. We of this generation are still holding the key -- the key to the sanctuary which is also the shelter of our own deserted souls. If we mislay the key, we shall elude ourselves. (p. 107)
Clearly, to Heschel, the Ba’al Shem held a key to that sanctuary, for in those same years he made plans to write a comprehensive book on the life and thought of the founder of Hasidism. His desire to write this book had to do with preserving the legacy of the Besht, and of the Hasidic world which was being systematically destroyed by the Nazis. But I believe it was more than that: “The Baal Shem made dark hours luminous.” (Passion, p. xiv.) Heschel had lost his mother and sisters in the Holocaust, along with many members of his extended family. In that hour of the greatest tragedy that had ever befallen his people, he was linking himself to the powerful spiritual affirmation of the underlying goodness of God and the world represented by the personality and teachings of the Ba’al Shem Tov.
In the early years of his marriage Heschel wrote his most important books. After publishing The Earth is the Lord’s, he went on to write Man Is Not Alone, The Sabbath, God in Search of Man and Man’s Quest for God. Arthur Green has written that Heschel’s “reading of Judaism was in many ways a Hasidic one.” Green demonstrated just how Hasidic themes manifested in Heschel’s thought and writing. [Footnote: “Abraham Joshua Heschel: Recasting Hasidism for Moderns”, Tikkun, January/February 1999, p. 64]
It is clear to me that many of Heschel’s theological books were influenced by the sensibility of the Ba’al Shem Tov. Heschel wrote that the Besht had helped him refine his immediate sense of mystery. And Heschel’s starting place in his two books of religious philosophy is mystery. The first chapters of Man is Not Alone, arguably his masterwork, were titled, “The Sense of the Ineffable,” “Radical Amazement,” “The World is an Allusion.” In God in Search of Man, there are chapters with titles like, “The Sublime,” “Wonder,” and “The Sense of Mystery.”
In 1954 Heschel received a Guggenheim Fellowship to write a biography of the Ba’al Shem Tov. He completed preliminary studies of four prominent companions of the Ba’al Shem. By describing the relationships of these four men with the Ba’al Shem, he was able to dispel doubts that the Besht had actually lived, and was simply a figure of legend. He also demonstrated the Besht’s similarity with a number of like-minded teachers who influenced his life and thought. These essays demonstrated that the Ba’al Shem “must be understood in the context of the religious and intellectual currents in Eastern Europe in the first half of the eighteenth century.” (Faierstein)
In 1965-66, during my senior year in rabbinical school, there were two serious arson attempts on the Jewish Theological Seminary. I was living on the sixth floor of the rabbinical school dormitory, and in both instances I had to escape by climbing through a window onto a narrow parapet and then crawling several hundred feet to safety. The first fire did little real damage, but the second reached the rare books collection of the library, destroying many irreplaceable books and manuscripts. It took three days to extinguish the blaze.
My fellow student, friend and mentor, Arthur Green, was standing next to Rabbi Heschel during the fire, in front of the Seminary. He told me that Heschel was weeping. “Well, there goes my book on the Ba’al Shem Tov,” he said. Heschel had left his entire collection of notes and insights on the Ba’al Shem with the volumes he was studying in the rare books collection.
As I explained in the last chapter, the Ba’al Shem Tov was not the only major Hasidic teacher who influenced Heschel. He was also profoundly affected by the teachings of Menachem Mendel, the great rebbe of Kotsk. How did this come about? In his ninth year, Heschel’s father died. At this point his uncle, who was a follower of the Kotzker rebbe, took over the boy’s education. The severe, self-critical influence of Kotzk on the boy was psychologically damaging. For the remainder of his life, Heschel would be a person divided, plagued by contradictory perceptions of himself. (ibid. 39-40) This is how the Ba’al Shem Tov and the Kotzker came to personify two primordial forces contending for his soul.
Heschel’s last writing was two works on the Kotzker Rebbe, a two-volume work in Yiddish entitled Kotzk, and A Passion for Truth. Why did he choose to write about the Kotzker rather than return to his work on the Besht? While it is true that his research on the Ba’al Shem had been lost in the Seminary fire, still he was eminently knowledgeable about the Ba’al Shem. He could have easily written a popular and inspirational study of the Ba’al Shem Tov. Samuel Dresner found an early outline of the book in Heschel’s files after his death that might have become just such a book.
In an interview with Heschel at Notre Dame in 1967, the interviewer stated: “Your recent writings reflect your concern with man’s deepening alienation from God and the world’s drift toward destruction.” Heschel added:
I am really a person who is in anguish. I cannot forget what I have seen and been through. Auschwitz and Hiroshima never leave my mind. Nothing can be the same after that. After all, we are convinced that we must take history seriously and that in history signs of the future are given to us. I see signs of a deterioration that has already begun. The war in Vietnam is a sign that we don’t know how to live or how to respond. God is trying us very seriously. I wonder if we will pass the test. . . (p. 390)
And a few years later in A Passion for Truth, he wrote:
Gone for our time is the sweetness of faith. It has ceased to come to us as a gift. It requires “blood, sweat, and tears.” We are frightened by a world that God may be ready to abandon. What a nightmare to live in a cosmic lie, in an absurdity that makes pretensions of beauty.” (Passion, p. 320)
In an article about Heschel as a Hasidic scholar, Stephen Katz comments: “Like Reb Mendl, Heschel seems to have grown troubled with God himself. In fact, so troubled is Reb Mendl that he even dares to question the existence of God . . . Similarly, Heschel seems, as expressed through the subject matter of this last work, to have entered a phase of more radical and more honest uncertainty . . . In the entire corpus of Heschel’s work one will not find such an evocative indictment of life’s possible meaninglessness.” (“Abraham Joshua Heschel and Hasidism,” in The Journal of Jewish Studies, Volume 31, 1980, p. 98-99)
The Challenge and the Way
Heschel wrote that if the Kotzker had witnessed the Holocaust he would not have been surprised. But what of the Ba’al Shem? Might witnessing the greatest tragedy of Jewish history have affected his optimistic spiritual philosophy?
Toward the end of A Passion for Truth Heschel penned a powerful passage that yokes the distinct voices of the two masters together into a single avowal. He utilizes the Kotzker’s perspective to describe the darkness enveloping the world and the Ba’al Shem’s vision to proclaim the certainty of dawn:
Life in our time has been a nightmare for many of us, tranquility an interlude, happiness a fake. Who could breathe at a time when man was engaged in murdering the holy witness to God six million times?
And yet God does not need those who praise Him when in a state of euphoria. He needs those who are in love with Him when in distress, both He and ourselves. This is the task: in the darkest night to be certain of the dawn, certain of the power to turn a curse into a blessing, agony into a song. To know the monster’s rage and, in spite of it, proclaim to its face (even a monster will be transfigured into an angel); to go through Hell and to continue to trust in the goodness of God -- this is the challenge and the way. (p. 300-301)
The Soul Grows Wings
Clearly, despite the grip of the Kotzker’s influence, despite even the indisputable evil evidenced in the Holocaust, Heschel never forgot the Ba’al Shem. In the first section of A Passion for Truth, entitled “The Two Teachers”, Heschel writes about the religious climate of Poland before the Ba’al Shem came on the scene and the gift that the founder of Hasidism brought to his generation:
It was a time when the Jewish imagination was nearly exhausted. The mind had reached an impasse, thinking about impossible possibilities in Talmudic law. The heart was troubled by oppressive social and economic conditions, as well as the teachings of ascetic preachers.
Then a miracle occurred. It was as if Providence had proclaimed, "Let there be light!" And there was light-in the form of an individual: Reb Israel, son of Eliezer, Baal Shem Tov, "Master of the Good Name" (ea. 16901760), often known by the acronym of his initials, Besht, or as the holy Baal Shem. . .
The Baal Shem Tov was the founder of the Hasidic movement, and Mezbizh was the cradle in which a new understanding of Judaism was nurtured. When millions of our people were still alive in Eastern Europe and their memory and faith vibrated with thought, image, and emotion, the mere mention of Reb Israel Baal Shem Tov cast a spell upon them. The moment one uttered his name, one felt as if his lips were blessed and his soul grew wings.
The Baal Shem made being Jewish a bliss, a continuous adventure. He gave every Jew a ladder to rise above himself and his wretched condition. During his lifetime, Reb Israel inspired a large number of disciples to follow him. After his death his influence became even more widespread.
Within a generation, the insights he had formulated at Mezbizh had captivated a great many exceptional individuals who, in tum, inspired the Jewish masses with new spiritual ideas and values. And Mezbizh became the symbol of Hasidism.
Rarely in Jewish history has one man succeeded in uplifting so many individuals to a level of greatness.
Yet no one in the long chain of charismatic figures that followed him was equal to the Baal Shem. Though he initiated the Hasidic movement, he remained greater than the movement itself. Generations of leaders sought to follow his pattern, and he alone remained the measure and the test of all Hasidic authenticity.
Only one Hasidic rebbe dared challenge his teaching: the Kotzker, Reb Menahem Mendl of Kotzk. The Baal Shem brought about a radical shift in the religious outlook of Jewry. In ancient times the sanctuary in Jerusalem had been the holy center from which expiation and blessing radiated out to the world. But the sanctuary was in ruins, the soul of Israel in mourning. Then the Baal Shem Tov established a new center: the tzaddik, the rebbe – he was to be the sanctuary. For the Baal Shem believed that a human being could be the true dwelling place of the Divine.
The Besht’s Core Spiritual Teachings
I found myself enthralled as I read Heschel’s elucidation of the core teachings of the Besht. He wrote about the divinity and goodness of creation and humanity, about the possibility of transformation, and the supreme importance of passion, joy and love. I sensed my connection with the underlying cosmic unity I had experienced through LSD.
For years I would return again and again to my teacher’s poetic and inspirational words, as if they were mantras, for they had the power to open my heart to my own deepest spiritual essence and identity. When I felt depressed or unduly anxious, Heschel’s description of the Besht’s core spiritual teachings had the power of lifting me to a Divine perspective.
God in Creation. At the center of the Besht’s teaching is the experience of Divine presence: the whole world filled with God’s glory. “Creation, all of creation, was pervaded with dignity and purpose and embodied God’s meaning.” But if this is so, why then don’t we experience God’s presence in every moment of our lives? Why is God so hidden? “He is not hidden, said the Baal Shem; "He is hiding. He is very near, hiding behind veils and screens."
He is playing ‘hide and go seek’ with His children, waiting to be found, but we forget to look for him – explained the grandson of the Baal Shem.”
The Absolute Goodness of Existence. Because the whole world is filled with Divine glory everything is really good; what is not good simply does not exist. There is only one kind of reality – love. Evil is an illusion, a mirage, a temporary manifestation of the as-yet-hidden good. “He stressed the necessity for transforming ‘evil’ into ‘good,’ the unholy into the Holy.”
The Importance of the Individual. The Ba’al Shem taught that everyone has their individual destiny, their spiritual goals, their special forms of service. He “taught the spiritual redemption of the individual.” And he “stressed inwardness, the workings of the heart which lent importance to the personal situation of an individual.”
The Divinity of the Human Being. Human beings were capable of such great spiritual achievements because of the Divinity that dwelled within them. “More than anyone else, the Baal Shem instilled the thought of the Shekhinah in men’s hearts and souls . . . He maintained that every Jew could be a sanctuary. The ancient Temple in Jerusalem could be rebuilt by every Jew within his own soul.”
Discovering the Divine Within. “The Baal Shem interprets ‘Know what is above you, yourself’ (Sayings of the Fathers, II, I) in this fashion: You will know God, who is above, from within, out of yourself. Man has a soul which is itself a divine portion of Divinity and through it he can intuit something of the Divinity of God who is above.”
The Unity of Body and Soul. The Besht “rejected the traditional proposition that body and soul were engaged in bitter rivalry . . . even through coarse desires one may come to love the Creator. Lust, evil inclination, all should be elevated, not uprooted.”
Heschel illuminates the virtues accentuated by the Besht, spiritual truths which are also ways of living in the world:
• Joy and Ecstasy. “The Baal Shem proclaimed joy to be the very heart of religious living, the essence of faith, greater than all other religious virtues. He and his disciples banished melancholy from the soul and uncovered the ineffable delight of being a Jew.” And he focused on “the experience of moments during which the soul is ablaze with an insatiate craving for God . . .”
• Loving God. “To be a Hasid is to be in love, to be in love with God and with what God has created. Once you are in love you are a different human being. Indeed, he who has never been in love will not understand and may consider it madness.”
• Serving God With Ardor. “Obedience to God in carrying out His commandments is fundamental to existence. The Baal Shem, however, thought that obedience without passion, conformity without spontaneity was but a skeleton, dry, meager, lifeless.”
• Prayer. “One of the first tasks the Baal Shem faced was to bring about the resurrection of prayer . . . The marvel of man’s uttering words in the presence of God is tremendously important and vital. By stressing the mystery of uttering words, he projected new insights into the importance of speech, words.”
• Sacred Study. “God has given Himself in the words (of Torah), and man must learn how to encounter Him. He is concealed in the letters, and through their mystical contemplation one can discover His light. The purpose of immersing oneself in the Torah is not only to understand its rational meaning, but also to become united with the divine presence therein.”
• Loving People. “In the thought of the Baal Shem, love was the beginning of all experience. Whoever came to him felt how his reverence for God blended with his affection for all men. He was warm-hearted, easily approachable. He sought people out, traveling from town to town, from village to village in order to befriend simple folk.”
• The Human Task. “The greatest sin of man is to forget that he is a prince – that he has royal power. All worlds are in need of exaltation, and everyone is charged to lift what is low, to advance what is left behind.”
• Equanimity. “The Baal Shem, like the Christian quietists, reached a holy indifference in which the individual accepted prosperity and adversity with equanimity . . . Unlike the quietists, he did not insist upon passivity or a mortification of all desires; on the contrary, he revived the ancient Biblical spirit of joy.”
The Joy of Torah
On the holy day of Simhat Torah (rejoicing in the Torah), all the scrolls of the Torah are taken from the ark, and during seven joyful processionals the scrolls are carried about the synagogue. Between each of these hakafot (processionals) people dance ecstatically with the Torah. Year after year, as a student at the Seminary, I celebrated Simhat Torah with my fellow students and the Seminary faculty.
I vividly recall one of these evenings. Rabbi Simon Greenberg, the Vice-Chancellor of the Seminary was standing at the microphone on the stage of the auditorium facilitating the processionals. The hour was late, and Dr. Greenberg kept looking at his watch. When the dancers failed to stop he spoke into the microphone: “Okay, we have to go on now . . . please sit down . . .” The dancers were oblivious of his words and a few minutes later he repeated his request, this time with more urgency.
I saw Abraham Heschel holding a Torah in his arms. He was not dancing but rather moving slowly back and forth with it as if he were cradling a baby. His eyes were closed, his face on fire, and it seemed to me at that moment that he was truly free in God. Thinking back to this scene, I am convinced that what Heschel wrote about the Ba’al Shem was not just historical discourse. It expressed a way of understanding existence that flowed from traditional sources to a twentieth-century spiritual master.
* Rabbi Jacobson is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary, was for years the rabbi of Kehilla Congregation in Berkeley/ Oakland, and continues to be involved in thought and action to renew Judaism, through a spirituality that includes political action.
This essay was first publicly presented at a gathering of Ohalah, the association of rabbis involved in Jewish renewal. It is a chapter in Jacobson's work-in-progress entitled Seeking the Ba'al Shem Tov: A Spiritual and Historical Quest for the Life and Teachings of the Founder of Hasidism.