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A Book Recommendation – Discerning Hope in Dark Days ...

Published November 24, 2020 by Susanne Jennings

'Prophets are human, but they are those who speak, or write, one octave higher than most of us can comprehend. They find those words in the right time and place to shatter us.' - Abraham Joshua Heschel: mind, heart, soul by Edward K. Kaplan (NY: Jewish Publication Society, 2019). xxiii, 444 pp, illustrations. ISBN: 9780827614741.

Cover images reproduced with the kind permission of the Jewish Publication Society

Abridged from the original two-volume prize-winning biography, this seminal distillation of the life of the late Abraham Joshua Heschel offers hope in the midst of the dark days we are all currently trying to navigate. Heschel, for those unfamiliar with his work, was a key figure in 1960s America up until his untimely death in 1972 at the age of 65. Born in Poland and descended from a Chassidic dynasty, Heschel was a rabbi, biblical scholar, spiritual writer, philosopher, social activist and ecumenist. His life’s journey took him from Warsaw to Berlin and, after a brief spell in London, to the United States. There, he was to dedicate the rest of his life to speaking out against injustice – all injustice.

Having undertaken doctoral studies on the prophets in 1930s Berlin, Heschel witnessed firsthand the inhuman depths to which political regimes can descend. It was this along with the deaths of his mother and sisters in Auschwitz, that served to turn him into the prophetic figure who would confront racial discrimination by walking alongside Martin Luther King Jr. on the road to Selma, serve to act as a catalyst in the furtherance of Jewish and Catholic relations during the Second Vatican Council while contributing to the ‘Declaration on the Jews’ in Nostra Aetate, and vigorously defend the dignity of the human person against the twin evils of advancement in the technological ‘tools’ of warfare and nihilism. Heschel inveighed against religion devoid of meaning and disconnected from its biblical roots, anguished over the Vietnam war stating that ‘in regard to the cruelties committed in the name of a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible’ and at one point, proposed to President John F. Kennedy that he ‘declare a state of moral emergency’.

Abraham Joshua Heschel: mind, heart, soul is a meticulously researched and sensitively written account of Heschel’s life and is framed chronologically in three distinct parts. Its author, Edward K. Kaplan is uniquely placed to write about Heschel having been introduced to him while completing his doctorate in French Literature at Columbia University and engaged in a search for meaning. Over time, he came to regard Heschel as his spiritual mentor and the two remained close up to the time of Heschel’s death. With infinite care, Kaplan communicates how Heschel’s profound belief in God remained intact despite the tragic events of the 20th century. He relates how Heschel was able to offer hope in the midst of alienation, chaos and destruction. When Heschel was asked how hope could possibly be discerned in dark times, his answer lay in prayer. Prayer was, or could be, one’s home. ‘I pray,’ he said unequivocally, ‘because I refuse to despair ... I pray because I am unable to pray.

Susanne Jennings read Theology at Cambridge. She is also an alumna of the Woolf Institute when it was the Centre for Jewish & Christian Relations. Her Master’s dissertation was undertaken under the supervision of the CJCR and was entitled, ‘Priests & Rabbis: Issues of Identity and Religious Authority in 19th Century English Literature ca 1828-1858’. A professional chartered librarian, Susanne has worked in Cambridge University libraries for the past 18 years. She is College Librarian at St Edmund’s College. For two years, she worked concurrently at St Edmund’s and as Subject Librarian at the Woolf Institute where she combined her experience as a professional librarian with subject specialist knowledge. Outside librarianship, current and past work has included teaching introductory day courses in London on Judaism and the Abrahamic faiths and acting as a tutor in Religious Studies and English Literature. Susanne has also written articles and conference papers on Abraham Joshua Heschel and the late Trappist monk and author, Thomas Merton. An article on Merton entitled, ‘Face to Face: the Growth of the Self in Thomas Merton’ is due to be published in the Polish academic journal Studia Nauk Teologicznych.

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