Thunder in the Soul: To Be Known by God

By Abraham Joshua Heschel, edited by Robert Erlewine. Plough Publishing House, 2021. 168 pages. $12/paperback; $10/eBook.

Abraham Joshua Heschel was one of the most important Jewish religious thinkers in the twentieth century. Born in Warsaw, Poland, and educated in both the Hasidic tradition and in a secular fashion at the prestigious University of Berlin, Heschel’s work bridged many streams of thought. Fleeing the Nazi regime’s genocidal reach, which killed most of his family, Heschel arrived in the United States in 1940 and had a prolific career as a rabbi, scholar, and professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York until his death in 1972. Heschel urged a kind of religious faith that did not shy away from active involvement in the world and, as a result, found himself side-by-side with Martin Luther King Jr. speaking out against the Vietnam War, and working with the Catholic Church to address antisemitism at the Second Vatican Council.

This slim volume from Plough Publishing provides a sample of Heschel’s writing. The preface for the book, written by its editor Robert Erlewine (a religion professor at Illinois Wesleyan University), provides a brief but illuminating biography of Heschel that helps frame his theology. Erlewine argues that for Heschel the “loss of wonder and awe, has been disastrous for Western civilization.” Religion should be public, part of everyday life, and connected with ethics. In taking this view, Heschel used rhetoric that sounded traditionalist and resembled that which was used by religious conservatives, though it supported progressive politics. A foreword by Heschel’s daughter, Susannah Heschel (a Jewish studies professor at Dartmouth College), discusses the relevance of her father’s writing for the contemporary moment.

Heschel’s writings collected in this book are spread out among 12 brief chapters on different themes. Chapter 8, “A Pattern for Living,” for example, talks about how faith should be lived not only in exceptional moments but in everyday life. Heschel makes the point that “worship and living are not two separate realms” and argues that Jewish faith provides ample opportunity to unite these activities through prayer, observing dietary laws, and engaging in friendships. As a writer, Heschel has a lyrical prose style, which is a benefit as he deals with lofty themes, including the relationship between humanity and the Divine.

The only concerning thing about the book is that the editorial hand is heavily present. Each chapter seems like an organic whole, but they are stitched together from lengthy sections of Heschel’s works. The sixth chapter, “Modernity Has Forfeited the Spirit,” for example, starts with four paragraphs taken from Heschel’s 1951 classic The Sabbath and then has a single paragraph from Man Is Not Alone (also published in 1951), while the rest of the chapter is made entirely of sections taken from the 1955 book God in Search of Man. While there are visible section breaks indicating the text has changed sources (and the end of the book includes notes listing the sources that make up each chapter), the flow of thought and arguments in each chapter owes a considerable debt to Erlewine’s editing, rather than Heschel’s original writing. While Erlewine has done a skillful job grouping Heschel’s writing so that it flows organically, the result is not quite that of a typical edited collection; it is more akin to a new synthetic work.

Yet Thunder in the Soul succeeds at providing an easily accessible introduction to a critically important theological thinker. It is easy to imagine a reading group in a Friends meeting making use of this text, using it as a launching point to contemplate their own understandings of faith. The crises that Heschel was responding to in his writing, the threat of global war and cataclysm, and fear of the loss of the relevance of religion in a modern age, are still with us. His words continue to provide insight and reassuring guidance.

Isaac Barnes May holds a doctorate in religious studies from the University of Virginia and is currently a student at Yale Law School. Isaac serves as the book review editor for the academic journal Quaker History.

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