Imagining Heschel: Imagining the Other, Imagining the Self

December 9, 2010 at 4:39 pm, by

On November 10, I had the opportunity to go with a friend to see Imagining Heschel, starring Richard Dreyfuss as Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rinde Eckert as Cardinal Augustin Bea.

A few words on Heschel: he was a doctor of philosophy, a scholar of all sorts of Jewish subjects, a poet, a rabbi, a Holocaust survivor, an immigrant, a husband, a father, a Zionist, a civil rights activist, a man on the road, and more. Though Heschel’s life was complicated, he is probably best remembered both within and outside the Jewish world for supporting racial integration and the rights of blacks, and for opposing the war in Vietnam.

Imagining Heschel focuses on Heschel’s dialogue with Cardinal Bea surrounding the Vatican’s debates in the 60s and 70s about renouncing the church’s claim that the Jews had killed Jesus. It is no stretch to say that such a claim—articulated both in the old, classic doctrine and liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church—was often a source for sparking the hatred behind acts of violence against Jews in the Crusades, in the Inquisition, in the Holocaust, and in countless other tragedies that befell Jews the last two millennia. In looking for a Jewish voice of reason and passion to take part in these otherwise internal debates among the Church, Vatican City probably could have done no better than calling upon the guidance of Heschel, a devoted practitioner of religion and an intellectual whose life centered around his concern for bettering the lives of his people and the peoples around him.

In depicting the complexities Heschel himself faced during these times, three moments from the play stood out for me and almost outlined the contours of this theater piece:

1)      At the beginning of the play, Heschel tells us of a man at the Jewish Theological Seminary who, mistakenly, calls him “Alan”—not “Abraham.” Heschel does not correct that man because, for a moment, he can just be Alan—“not Abraham.”

2)      Cardinal Bea tells Heschel that, when he had been a little boy, he believed he was Jewish. Upon Heschel’s asking the Cardinal why that was, Bea’s response is that he just remembers feeling Jewish. Again, at the Rabbi’s urging, the Cardinal elaborates: as a young boy, he would often cry. To Bea, the act of crying was part and parcel of Jewish identity.

3)      At the end of the play, the audience finds Heschel crying.

Upon first seeing the play, I really didn’t know what to make of these three moments other than that they somehow moved me. It took a while for this to sink in, but there is something both very real and very selfless about the Heschel that was portrayed onstage that evening. That Heschel’s wife and daughter were both mentioned (and could be supposedly heard) but were never seen reaffirmed the walls that separated the different selves of Heschel’s life that, I can only imagine, made it hard for him to ever be one unified individual.

While I never knew Heschel (and I certainly can say that I know nothing of what his family life was like), the invisibility of his wife and daughter in the play emphasized a sort of absence about Heschel the man.

I am a student at JTS, where he spent most of his professorial life, and, amidst all of the praise he receives here, there hover rumors that Heschel was very much not at JTS emotionally, and, frequently, physically. He was an unbelievable writer, and then rumors circulate saying that—for whatever reason—his classes were never as captivating as his books. And, when he had his heart in a civil rights cause, he was “praying with his feet,” marching at some of the most powerful demonstrations of the 60s and 70s; in fact, he was frequently absent from the classroom.

When it came to the minor celebrity that Heschel was, there was no mistaking Heschel for anyone else. Yet, when it came to the personal individual Abraham, he was happy to be Alan; being Abraham didn’t matter.

The imagined conversations between Heschel and Bea depict Heschel as a man who struggles to befriend Bea. Heschel is constantly concerned with a cause that affects more people than him, and his small talk with Bea very quickly turns to talking of greater ideas and ideologies. These topics of conversation are so important to Heschel that, when it comes time for him to talk with the Vatican Council itself, Heschel upsets members of the Council, and he himself is frustrated in the process.

Perhaps I’ve misread Heschel in Imagining Heschel, but I am reminded of the old Mishnaic adage by the sage Hillel: “Im eyn ani li, mi li? [If I am not for myself, who is for me?] Ukhshe’ani le’atzmi, mah ani? [And when I am for myself, what am I?] Ve’im lo akhshav eimatai? [And, if not now, then when?]” (Pirkei Avot 1:14). In modernity, these words are often spoken to remind Jews of their obligations towards justice: that we must defend ourselves, that we must defend others, and we must defend them now. But, Imagining Heschel reminded me that all people—celebrities, common people—must take care of themselves as individuals: I must care for myself, I must care for my friend, and I must care now. The original saying is in the singular, yet it’s so often interpreted in the plural. But honestly, even though both readings yield just and Jewish values, both the Jew who cares only about that Jew’s self and the Jew who cares only about the Jewish people will find themselves in equal trouble.

Heschel, from my own reading of this play, was a man who cared about the world, and barely about himself. In the play, he barely worries about his health, and he does not need to be known by his first name. He wonders what makes someone feel Jewish, and the answer he gets is the pain of tears. The play comes to a somber end when the Rabbi can do nothing but cry in mournful prayer. But I wonder who really cried at the end: Abraham or Heschel?

What are we—without our selves and without our people?


“Hey, are you a Girl In Search of Man? ‘Cause, if you are, then maybe tonight, this Man Is Not Alone!”
“Well, you know, The Earth May Be the Lord’s, but, baby, my heart is yours.”
“Are you gonna be honest with me, baby? ‘Cause, y’know, I have A Passion For Truth.”

“Radical! Amazing!”
“The play is either of supreme importance or of no importance at all.”
Heschel’s back and better than ever with some Profitable Inspiration After the Profits!”

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