In This Hour offers the first English translations of selected German writings by Abraham Joshua Heschel from his tumultuous years in Nazi-ruled Germany and months in London exile, before he found refuge in the United States. Moreover, several of the works have never been published in any language. Composed during a time of intense crisis for European Jewry, these writings 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 opens with the text of a speech in which Heschel laid out with passion his vision for Jewish education. Then it goes on to present his teachings: a set of essays about the rabbis of the Mishnaic period, whose struggles paralleled those of his own time; the biography of the medieval Jewish scholar and leader Don Yitzhak Abravanel; reflections on the power and meaning of repentance, written for the High Holidays in 1936; and a short story on Jewish exile, written for Hanukkah 1937. The collection closes with a set of four recently discovered meditations—on suffering, prayer, spirituality, and God—in which Heschel grapples with the horrors unfolding around him. Taken together, these essays and story fill a significant void in Heschel’s bibliography: his Nazi Germany and London exile years.
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.
As Heschel teaches history, his voice is more than that of a historian: the old becomes new, and the struggles of one era shed light on another. Even as Heschel quotes ancient sources, his words address the issues of his own time and speak urgently to ours.
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About the Author
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Jewish Learning in Exile
Heschel arrived in London from Warsaw in July 1939 — six weeks before Germany invaded Poland — on a transit visa and with a Polish passport that would soon be worthless. A job at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati was waiting for him, but he still lacked the visa that would enable him to enter and work in the United States. A more contingent status is difficult to imagine. The United Kingdom was taking in German and Austrian children desperate for shelter from Nazi persecution, but the British government's stance toward Jewish refugees was ambivalent at best. In May it had issued the white paper that signaled a sharp shift in British policy away from Zionist aspirations in Mandatory Palestine. When war broke out in September, immigration of refugees to the UK was cut radically. "Enemy aliens," including German and Austrian Jews, became subject to internment and deportation to Canada and Australia. For Heschel, England was a stopover, a place to wait for the precious U.S. visa.
But even as Heschel found himself in this most transitory of way stations, he embarked on a new project, driven by his remarkable energy, resilience, and sense of purpose. London, he wrote to Martin Buber, was a "spiritual desert," and he decided to use his time there, however long or short it would be, to establish a school for Jewish adult education, the Institute for Jewish Learning.
He brought the London institute to life under the umbrella of the Theodor Herzl Society, a Zionist organization with a largely Central European refugee membership. The society distributed a mimeographed newsletter, its Mitteilungsblatt, that promoted the institute both in anticipation of and subsequent to its opening in January 1940. The December 29 issue carried a short piece on the planned institute and identified Heschel as its academic director. Immediately preceding the announcement, on the first page, was an article by Heschel himself, entitled "Return."
Without mentioning the institute specifically, Heschel's piece is a clarion call for its task and its mission: "the pursuit of Jewish texts and shared learning, and the path to one's own Jewish life are a function of life, a question of Jews' being or not being." The article is included as the final piece in this collection.
The poster advertising the opening of the institute announced a roster of some nineteen lecturers, most of them scholars originally from Europe. The first two weeks offered fifteen evening talks (some of them repeats), some in English, others in German, on topics such as "Readings of Easy Talmudic Texts," "Franz Rosenzweig," "Religious Movements in Palestine," "Letters as Witnesses to Jewish History," and Heschel's "Moses between God and Volk." Listings for four subsequent semesters (through March 1942) offer some twenty-plus "public lectures" as well as three weekly seminars per semester, held in North London.
An announcement placed by the institute (and presumably penned by Heschel) in a British religious Zionist publication declares, "The Institute of Jewish Learning has been formed in response to the need of the times. Its aim is to foster the study of the sources of Jewish life and history and through this to foster a new Jewish spirit. The Institute for Jewish Learning is an independent, scientific institution." The language here evokes some of Heschel's most important German educational experiences: calling the institution "scientific" likens it to Berlin's Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums; the emphasis on "sources" makes a connection with Frankfurt's Lehrhaus. The topics of the lectures and seminars were wide ranging. A representative sampling of their titles: "Racialism and Its Implications," "The Development of Jewish Art," "On Baruch Spinoza," "The Jewish Interpretation of History," "The Psalms — A Book of Life," "Jews in English Literature," "Psychology of Refugees," "The Future of Hebrew Literature," "An Introduction to the Talmud," "The Spirit of Hebrew with Reference to the Kabbalah," "Reading of Maimonides," "Reading of Some Arabic Authors," "On Jewish Psychological Problems."
The timing of the institute's opening and Heschel's inaugural lecture on January 30 was oddly propitious: the following day he learned that his visa had been granted, removing the final hurdle to his entering the US. The following week's Jewish Chronicle reported on Heschel's talk: "There was a large audience when Professor S. Brodetsky and Dr. A. Heschel delivered their addresses last week at the opening of the Institute of Jewish Learning at Maccabi House. Dr. Heschel gave an account of Jewish learning during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He expressed the view that all theories of education in the past failed, for they were ineffective in real life. What did keep Judaism alive up till today was the spirit which was not the possession but the destiny of Judaism. That realisation, he said, must be the aim of Jewish education." Put differently: to be educated, in Heschel's words, is to become "bearers of the Spirit," where learning, "thinking in God's presence," is worship, is prayer.
Apparently not everyone in Heschel's audience approved of his assertion that learning is a religious act, and a piece in the Herzl Society's newsletter alludes to difficulties: "The first lecture of the Institute for Jewish Learning made great demands on the willingness and ability of those listening to take it in." In a February 7 letter to Martin Buber, Heschel candidly described the response to his talk: "My opening lecture, 'The Idea of Jewish Education' (which I, myself, think is good!), aroused indignation, because I put forth a uniquely Jewish idea of spiritual education. Those on the 'left' found it 'reactionary.' The ignorance and blindness of the people strikes me as the wonder of the century. I was a little annoyed. Others understood its implications."
The address was intended for subsequent publication in England, but only a German typescript has been found. Embedded within the text are notes sketching a review of the evolution of Jewish education through a few hundred years of modern Jewish history — a lecture within a lecture whose pointed critique motivates the passion expressed in the main text. The notes illustrate that Heschel did not only speak about Jewish education, but also offered his listeners a rich lesson in Jewish history. They also present a precious, unguarded glimpse into Heschel's teacherly process. We have included these embedded lecture notes in a separate section, with some explanatory information to guide the reader.
The talk marked the opening of the London institute and the conclusion of Heschel's life in Europe. He had just turned thirty-three. On March 9, in Liverpool, he boarded the Lancastria for New York, a departure anticipated in his letter of the month before to Buber: "Now I will make my way to the sea and think of the sea of suffering in Poland."
The Idea of Jewish Education
Heschel delivered this speech at the opening of the Institute for Jewish Learning in London, January 30, 1940. It has been translated from the manuscript "Die Idee der jüdischen Bildung" (Abraham Joshua Heschel Papers, box 280, folder 3, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University Libraries, Durham, NC).
What is Jewish education? What is its essence, its value, its goal?
Does this century's prevailing ideal of human education correspond to the particular cultural condition of the Jews? Or is there a distinctively Jewish idea of education? What is its meaning? How can it be implemented?
I'm not thinking here of the specialists, who see their calling in research, but of the education that every Jew wants to have. What is a specifically Jewish education for the Jewish people?
That we must ask this question again despite our having such an ancient history of education is explained by the radical changes that occurred in Jewish life after the eighteenth century, flowing from Rabbi Israel Baal Shem in one direction and from Moses Mendelssohn in the other. To understand these changes we must have a sense of the condition of Jewish education in the main centers of Jewry in pre-Hasidic and pre-Mendelssohnian times, namely in Germany and in Poland. In the Jewish cultural understanding of the time, these two regions were one. People who were raised along the Vistula were appointed as rabbis along the Rhine and Main. Books that were conceived and written in Lithuania's melancholy landscape were published by Jewish printers in Bohemia and Moravia.
In this area of Jewish culture, where the medieval Jewish understanding of the world prevailed almost exclusively until the eighteenth century, the means and goals of education were clearly set. Educational activity consisted primarily in the study of the Babylonian Talmud and its commentaries. The Bible and postbiblical literature played a secondary role. The study of philosophical or kabbalistic writings was left to the very few.
The absolute sovereignty of this talmudic ideal no longer exists. But we have to account for the reasons that caused the Jews to surrender this ideal. The value of the Talmud did not shrivel only because of declining religiosity and alienation from the world of the sacred. In addition, other reasons lie in the talmudic ideal of education itself. The talmudists believed that all wisdom — not only the highest — could be found in the Talmud. But central themes of human knowledge, like the knowledge of nature, are not given any place in the Talmud. The exclusion of the sciences, which have had such a wonderful upsurge since the sixteenth century, stood in contrast to the ideal of some classical Talmud teachers, who had tried to stay on top of the educational developments of their time. This had to have negative consequences. Further, the one-sidedness of the formalistic-legalistic way of thinking also caused the other directions of thought, the poetic, philosophical and philological, to suffer. The sophistication of the human mind is a result of modern human development, and the one-sided study of Talmud could not do it justice. The need for intellectual freedom was another factor in this separation from the fixed system of the Talmud.
Another reason was the Aristotelian character of Talmud study. In order to attain a genuine command of talmudic writings and their way of thought, a correspondingly high degree of skill in logical thinking was necessary. This, however, could only be expected of the very few. Most people were not capable of it.
The leading authorities' most intense criticism was elicited by socalled pilpul. This was a technique for combining concepts that posed absolutely unreal, sophistic problems devoid of any halachic interest and tried to solve them by complicated logic. What mattered to the pilpulists was not so much truth and logical correctness as the beauty and originality of their conceptual combinations. Many regard pilpul as a degenerative form of talmudic thinking. [This is] a view, however, that will have to be revised one day. In any case, the primacy of logic, the excessive emphasis on rational thinking, was one of the main reasons for the decline in Talmud study.
There were times when talmudic education resulted in the overdevelopment of the intellect and the impoverishment of other abilities and talents. Often it led to an overvaluation of erudition and to a prejudice favoring contemplation over moral and aesthetic values. In fact, this kind of degeneration occurred again and again, as did resistance to it.
Here the manuscript contains notes for a review of the prevailing trends in Jewish education over the preceding centuries: Hasidism, Wissenschaft des Judentums (Science of Judaism), and the Eastern European Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) (see page 19).
In recent years we have come to know the ignominy of human beings. We have experienced their metamorphosis into brutal barbarians. And we ask ourselves: how was this metamorphosis possible? Let us not forget that this happened among a people that occupied an important position in Western culture and education. Here the "promise of potential" has been accomplished. These people can read and write, make music and draw, describe nature and practice crafts. They possess a sense of order and of duty, a talent for organization and a gift for public speaking. But apparently this educational ideal has missed its mark. Apparently human beings cannot be trusted, and we must not abandon them to the demonic that lives within them. And it is the fundamental task of our life to work on the person himself. How much energy we spend in constructing a car with absolute precision, and yet how minimal, indeed almost negligible, are our efforts to form the inner person. And what is the goal of working on people? In this terrible crisis of Western culture that question virtually determines our destiny.
Often the goal of working on the person is intended to develop a sense for values, for the good, the beautiful, and the true. But we often overlook the fact that people also tend to pursue other values, like power and wealth, etc. In Georg Simmel we find the formulation that a person is educated "whose objective knowledge has been integrated into the vitality of his subjective development and existence." This thought, too, although it contains an important idea, leads in a false direction. The fallacy in all these theories of education is that they are psychological, that is, that they base the essence of education on one's inner ability, that it finds no purchase for the continuation of that education external to the individual. But the inner life of the modern person is so chaotic that no foundation for a temple can be supported in it. In the witches' cauldron of a person's drives, resentments, and complexes, whatever insights and understanding he has gained and digested can become the ingredients for a devil's meal.
Another error in this theory of education is that it atomizes the individual and separates him from all that connects him to the world in which he lives. All living things can only be understood in the context in which they exist. The characteristics of animals, the meaning of biological functions, the course of electromagnetic processes can only be understood and interpreted within the environment where they exist or occur. We can understand the biological and physiological processes of the human organism only by keeping in mind its place in its surroundings, its environment, in the widest sense. It would be impossible to describe the digestive process without simultaneously considering the continual climatic and atmospheric interactions and the character of the nutrients themselves.
And so, too, the process of education can only be completely understood if we consider it in the context in which it belongs. What, precisely, is this context in which we stand as humans? There is such a context. There is no dearth of signs or proofs for such a context. We list here only a few of them: society, history, of which our generation is but a tiny part; death, to which our life submits itself; and above all the knowledge that man is not alone in the cosmos, the knowledge that he is neither the master of the world, nor master of his own life.
Left to his own devices, man reveals himself as a bundle of drives. Left to his own devices, he becomes an animal. Even reason isn't able to preserve his dignity. He willingly becomes degraded to a creature of drives that knows nothing more than its libido, to a creature that knows no freedom and is the slave of material or social factors. It has finally reached the point where one can no longer distinguish a human from other living beings.
The Biblical Answer
We are guided by only one essential characteristic: that we are made in God's image, the highest attribute that has ever been claimed for man. What is the meaning of our being made in God's image? What is the highest attribute of man? Wherein lies the analogy to God? In the relationship to Spirit.
What is Spirit? To give a universal characterization of Spirit is a task compared to which the squaring of the circle would be trivial. Here we want to characterize only the essential feature of the biblical understanding of Spirit. Here it is. Biblical thought calls Spirit that which moves God, what concerns Him or comes from Him.
Man does not experience God as static or eternal but as dynamic. There is motion in God as if He were moved by the life of beings. Man's deeds concern Him, from the point of view of good and evil. God is more than Spirit, but it is His Spirit that man is able to experience.
The content residing in this Spirit is expressed in the instructions and speeches of the prophets. Its primary qualities are: oneness, truth, justice, and holiness. To work on a person in the Jewish sense means to place the person before the reality of the Spirit, enabling him to participate in a constant and vital engagement with the Spirit.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "In This Hour"
Copyright © 2019 Susannah Heschel.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
Foreword by Susannah Heschel,
1. London: Jewish Learning in Exile,
The Idea of Jewish Education,
Notes for a Lecture on Jewish Education in the Modern Era,
2. Personalities in Jewish History,
Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai,
Rabbi Gamliel II,
Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel II,
Elisha ben Abuyah,
Rabbi Judah Hanasi,
3. Don Yitzhak Abravanel,
A Life between State and God,
On the Origin of the World,
The Two Paths to the Imitation of God,
On the End of Time,
A Legacy of Failed Advocacy,
4. For the Jewish Holidays in Berlin,
The Power of Repentance (Rosh Hashanah 1936),
The Meaning of Repentance (Rosh Hashanah 1936),
Lights over the Sea (Hanukkah 1937),
On the Seriousness of Prayer,
On Dreaming God's Dream,