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    What Would Abraham Joshua Heschel Do?

    A review of Martin Doblmeier’s documentary Spiritual Audacity: The Abraham Joshua Heschel Story.

    Robert Erlewine

    June 7, 2021
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    Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–1972) is one of the great spiritual figures of the twentieth century. Heschel’s biography is remarkable for the transformations in European and American history through which he lived, and for the number of monumental events he saw firsthand. But even more significant is his courageous example: the stands he took, the risks he incurred, and the fact that he was on the right side of so many major developments of the twentieth century. Heschel was also an influential thinker and brilliant writer who offered a profound theology that brings together social justice and spirituality. Indeed, Heschel’s efforts on behalf of racial justice, his public opposition to unjust wars, his refusal to compromise with injustice, and his capacity to build bridges with a wide variety of constituencies make him very much a thinker for today. For these reasons, Martin Doblmeier’s new documentary Spiritual Audacity: The Abraham Joshua Heschel Story is particularly welcome. Not only does this film draw attention to the life and times of this figure, but it also succeeds admirably in illuminating his intellectual development and conveying his ongoing significance.

    Heschel was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1907. A scion of distinguished Hasidic rabbinic lineage, he had a childhood steeped in Hasidic piety and traditional Jewish learning. Heschel moved to Berlin in 1927, at that time a leading intellectual hub of culture, philosophy, and Jewish studies, to pursue his PhD. Inevitably, though, the rise of the Third Reich would throw Heschel’s life into chaos. An offer to teach in the United States provided him with the opportunity to secure a visa and quite literally saved his life, rendering him, as he put it, “a brand plucked from the fire.” Unfortunately, Heschel’s efforts at securing visas for his mother and sisters were unsuccessful, and they, like so many in the world in which he was raised, were murdered by the Nazis.

    In the United States, Heschel taught at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and later moved to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. The documentary details his struggles adjusting to life in the United States, his frustrations and disappointments with consumerism and with Jewish life and worship in America, his burgeoning success as an author and public intellectual, and his friendships with major Christian theologians like Martin Luther King Jr. and Reinhold Niebuhr. The film follows Heschel’s involvement with the civil rights movement, his behind-the-scenes involvement in Vatican II relating to the changing relationship between Jews and Catholics, and his public opposition to the Vietnam War.

    Doblmeier assembles a top-notch list of public figures, religious authorities, and scholars to offer insight and fill in the details of these aspects of Heschel’s life and career. Perhaps the most extraordinary part of the documentary is the exposition on Heschel’s friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. and his participation in the march from Selma to Montgomery. Doblmeier interviews a range of distinguished voices who were active in the civil rights movement and who were present at the march, including Andrew Young, the late John Lewis, and Jesse Jackson.

    In the wake of Bloody Sunday, when police attacked Black marchers in Selma, leaders of the civil rights movement sought to mobilize a response. They appealed to a range of religious leaders to join with them with the idea that their participation would demonstrate that the movement had reach beyond the Black church.

    Heschel, a high-profile Jewish theologian, was sought out to participate. Lewis, Young, and Jackson offer firsthand recollections about Heschel’s participation in the march from Selma to Montgomery, how Heschel’s reputation – and particularly his book The Prophets – preceded him, the risks to his personal safety that he took by participating, and his friendship with King. Lewis and Young speak memorably about the way that the civil rights movement drew on Old Testament imagery and likened African Americans in the contemporary United States to the children of Israel. Susannah Heschel highlights how moved her father was by this attitude towards the Old Testament and Judaism, and how different it was from the vitriolic anti-Semitism of the Christianity that he had encountered in Europe.

    In this moment of unprecedented acknowledgment of structural inequality and the ongoing effects of racism, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s life and work remain urgent for us. By assembling a remarkable array of scholars and public figures to provide analysis and personal recollections, and by providing significant historical background and newsreels about the events to which Heschel was responding, as well as considerable footage of Heschel speaking in interviews and at lectures, Doblmeier not only offers a helpful introduction to Heschel, but also brings him to life.

    Watch Susannah Heschel, Martin Doblemeier, Robert Erlewine, and Manya Brachear Pashman discuss the film, the new Plough book Thunder in the Soul, and what Heschel might say about Black Lives Matter, conflict in the Holy Land, and an atheist worldview:

    Watch the discussion
    Contributed By Robert Erlewine Robert Erlewine

    Robert Erlewine is the Isaac Funk Professor of Philosophy at Illinois Wesleyan University and the author of Monotheism and Tolerance and Judaism and the West. His book Thunder in the Soul: To Be Known by God brings together Heschel’s key insights on a range of topics.

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