Edward K. Kaplan

Whatever the yearning is that throbs within us—whether or not we call it the Holy Spirit—it is our responsibility to make it live.

Waltham, Massachusetts
A Jewish Perspective

Upon meeting and reading Heschel in 1965, for the first time in my life I found a Jewish writer who convincingly evoked the presence of God. Heschel calls this spiritual attitude toward human experience “radical amazement,” a mode of religious thinking about reality. His ultimate goal as writer and teacher was to guide us to “holiness in words.” Henceforth, I began to confront my aspirations and perplexities through Heschel’s perspective. Heschel’s erudition and teaching, rooted in his ethical and political standards derived from the Hebrew prophets, became my models in life and scholarship.

Heschel’s story is the story of the 20th century—its horrors and its marvels. How did Heschel preserve his faith in the God of pathos, justice, and compassion during and after the Holocaust? After he immigrated to the United States in 1940, Heschel developed a prophetic critique of war, economic and spiritual poverty, racism and bigotry, and political corruption. He addressed the terrible ambiguities of religious faith and the fragility of truth. The interfaith consequences of Heschel’s own trajectory provide models for our search for meaning. His scholarship and activism exemplify a sort of neo-Hasidism that inspired Jewish renewal in our lives and observances within and beyond official denominations. In the end, for all his exquisite emotion and subtle interpretations of tradition, Heschel urges us to practice Judaism as best we can. 

There is mystery but no secret. Ruaḥ ha-kodesh, the Holy Spirit, lies waiting in our primal texts: the Bible and the prayerbook. These are the foundations of Sabbath observance—eventually, they may guide us in daily prayer, thinking, and feeling. Of course, we need teachers and activists, such as Heschel, impassioned with the divine imperative. Yet, we may find that books maintain the vision more authentically than do most human beings. That remains our challenge—rising to the standards God has defined. Half a century since Abraham Joshua Heschel’s death, his ultimate message is profound yet simple to grasp: Whatever the yearning is that throbs within us—whether or not we call it the Holy Spirit—it is our responsibility to make it live.

Additional Text:

Abraham Joshua Heschel: Mind, Heart, Soul (Jewish Publication Society, 2019)

Metaphor and Miracle: Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Holy Spirit (Conservative Judaism, Winter 1994)

Related Content

Man Is Not Alone Meeting Pope Pius VI He shot an arrow into thinking about religion; it wasn’t just about don’t do this, do that, but instead make yourself open to the amazement of the world. Rabbi Michael Graetz