Re-contextualizing Talmudic knowledge

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Re-contextualizing Talmudic knowledge

In This Hour: Heschel’s Writings in Nazi Germany and London Exile by Abraham Joshua Heschel, Helen Plotkin (Editor), The Jewish Publication Society, US $29.95 Pp 200, June 2019, ISBN 978-0827613225

Abraham Joshua Heschel was a rabbi, scholar, and thinker who made important contributions to modern Jewish thought. It is not overstating to say that he became one of the most important thinkers of religions in the United States. His philosophy was original which is found in his books such as Man Is Not Alone (1951) and God in Search of Man (1955). He wrote in German before he moved to the United States where he started writing in English. In In This Hour, Stephen Lehmann and Marion Faber have translated his writings from German into English and Helen Plotkin has edited them. In This Hour is the translations of selected writings by Abraham Joshua Heschel from his years in Nazi-ruled Germany and his months in London before he moved to the United States where he stopped writing in German. Many of these pieces were written for the official news organ of berlin’s Jewish community and most have not been translated until now.

In This Hour includes an illuminating biographical essay that explains some important happenings in his life. Heschel was born in 1907. Helen Plotkin tells us that Heschel was descended on both sides of his family from eminent Hasidic rabbis, and he grew up in a deeply religious environment. His paths of study began in his early childhood. He received the best religious education the Hasidic world had to offer, and he wore his aristocratic heritage well, excelling in both the intellectual and spiritual realms. At the age of sixteen, he received rabbinical ordination, becoming expert in the entire corpus of Jewish lore, including Bible, Talmud, Legal codes, mystical works, and the commentaries of the Hasidic masters. In 1927, Heschel enrolled at the University of Berlin, majoring in philosophy, and minoring in art history and Semitic philology.

Helen Plotkin tells us that the German Jewry was in the throes of an unprecedented and existential crisis in the 1930s. For the religious Jews like Abraham Joshua Heschel, the political crisis laid bare a long-simmering spiritual crisis. Even as Judaic studies in Germany reached a pinnacle of excellence, the great Jewish thinkers had, over the previous decades, become aware that German Jewish life was growing increasingly impoverished. The emphasis on the scientific that characterized the work of the great scholars at institutions such as the Hochschule and the rapid cultural assimilation that was the rule among German Jews had left much of the community bereft of a spiritual center, with little connection to God and tradition.

In 1933, the Frankfurt Lehrhaus reopened under the leadership of Martin Buber (1879-1965), and Buber invited Heschel to teach a course there. At the same time, Buber was among a number of prominent Jews in Germany who had developed a deep interest in the traditions of their Eastern European brother and sisters, the Jews of Poland, Russia, and Lithuania. Helen Plotkin says that they saw the Eastern European Jews as representing a lost world of piety and connectedness. Buber had experienced that world for a time in his childhood but distanced himself from his Orthodox upbringing. When he discovered the spiritual richness of Eastern European Hasidism as an adult, he proceeded to make the collection and preservation of Hasidic tales one of his central endeavors.

Helen Plotkin says that though its educational impact had been disappointing, the Lehrhaus was an important symbol of how traditional and modern sensibilities might come together to create truly transformative adult education. If the German Lehrhaus represented the new Yavne — a place for Jewish renewal in exile — then perhaps the London incarnation represented the Yavne that must always travel with the Jews, reinventing itself wherever they would land, finding stability in the very act of constant renewal. Even if you are quite familiar with the life and work of Heschel, In This Hour will give you a deep insight into his articulation of the spiritual approach to Jewish education.

Heschel’s collected pieces in In This Hour are an important addition to the history of modern Jewish thought and provide us new insights and perspectives to understand modern Jewish thought. These essays are about Jewish education and the rabbis of the Mishnaic period. They provide Heschel’s reflections on issues like prayer and suffering during his younger days. We see that Heschel had started recontextualizing and reinterpreting his Talmudic knowledge very early in his life. His early writings reinterpret Jewish history and thought. This collection will not only expand our knowledge of the philosopher but also Jewish history and philosophy. This volume includes a short biographical essay on Heschel and sheds a light on some of his life events unknown to English readers.  Helen Plotkin’s comments are very illuminating. Stephen Lehmann and Marion Faber have done a wonderful job as translators.

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