Top critical review
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Different strokes for different folks
on January 8, 2005
I think Heschel revealed a lot of himself in his works--more than other writers, perhaps. He seems to me to be very emotional regarding his opinions and beliefs. He came from an Eastern European Hasidic family whose ancestor was the Great Maggid of Mezerich. He was a leader in the Civil Rights movement as well as the Vietnam anti-war movement. He was on the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary, JTS, (of the Jewish Conservative movement). This is rather humorous, I think, since he was obviously quite the idealistic Liberal. He had a reputation as a mystic, causing him conflict with other JTS professors. He was a very forceful personality. IMHO he was very much a literary expressionist--putting his feelings into writing. He was also quite poetic--his books include many clever and beautiful turns of phrase. However, much of what he writes comes off as if they are sermons, as if he KNOWS. I respect his views, but don't often agree with them. This book doesn't read like philosophy to me (you can read "Between Kant and Kabbalah" by Mittleman on the Jewish philosopher Breuer, for example). As a scientist, I object to anyone dismissing the contributions of science in virtually any arena. Certainly psychology is a player in anything involving humans. As a mystic, I certainly agree that the Divine is ineffable. But people translate their contact with the Divine into human terms--mostly reflecting their individual propensities, biases, views, etc. That secondary process is psychological/scientific. Indeed, such communications have been compared to radio and television with a transmitter and receivers. Furthermore, research into ESP (Dr. Rhine etc.) shows considerable applicability in understanding the processes involved in communicating with higher powers (e.g. God). In addition, Heschel insists that the Bible be understood in terms of Biblical people. Certainly, such an approach can provide an historical or hagiographical context for the causes that produced beliefs and documents (e.g. The Torah). But, it is essentially irrelevant to today's individuals attempting to apply such beliefs and documents into their lives. It is obvious that praying, studying Torah, putting on Tefillin, etc. excites and completes Heschel, but that doesn't mean they do for everyone--and certainly not identically. He makes the common human mistake of assuming everyone is like him (or should be). I humbly disagree. Nevertheless, he did provide a differing point of view to be considered as well as a couple of good quotes for my collection.:
p. 317: When superimposed as a yoke, as a dogma, as a fear, religion tends to violate rather than to nurture the spirit of man. Religion must be an altar upon which the fire of the soul may be kindled by holiness.
p. 361: Every act done in agreement with the will of God is a mitzvah.
Mostly, however, I have to say (though I'm sure it will upset some people) that I found this particular book very boring. I liked "Moral Grandeur & Spiritual Audacity" better.