The Ineffable Name of G-d: Man

(Rabbi) Abraham Joshua Heschel
Morton M. Leifman, trans.
Introduction by Prof. Edward K. Kaplan
© 2007 (paperback)
The Continuum International Publishing Group, Inc; NY
ISBN 0-8264-1893-7 (paperback)

As a philosopher, writer and teacher, Rabbi Heschel needs no introduction. We also honor him for famously accompanying Dr. King in the quest for Civil Rights.

His later writings project a quiet certainty about what he believes. This collec-tion of 66 poems, originally written in Yiddish and published in Warsaw in 1933 (“…the year Hitler came to power…” as Prof. Edward K. Kaplan’s “Introduction” reminds us), while Heschel was a 26 year-old student in Berlin, shows something of his unfolding.

The title is daringly reminiscent of what the Zohar says about Torah itself: “…Torah consists wholly of the Name of [G-d]…” [1] By this theme — the innate holiness of people — Heschel shares his Hasidic sensibility in modern poetic form.

Prof. Kaplan’s introduction provides much useful information about Heschel and his particular time and place (especially pre-Shoah Berlin and Warsaw). It also gives a good account of the poems’ themes. Prof. Kaplan himself is to be honored for not reducing understanding Heschel to a mere academic exercise. If you’re like me, you can also read the intro after reading the poems!

This is a “bi-lingual” volume: Yiddish (in Hebrew letters) on the left page, English on the right.

Perhaps this “honors” the original poems, placing the translations as aids to understanding them.

Laying it out the opposite way – English on the left, Yiddish on the right – would more naturally follow the eyes’ movement while reading, especially when jumping back and forth from one language to the other.

Nevertheless, it’s absolutely right to have both languages, for many reasons.

Because of the Shoah, Yiddish comprises a unique category of Holocaust-victims: all the poems and books we’ll never read, by all the poets and writers who will never be.

The poems remind us that Yiddish – so often associated with ironic or sarcastic humor – was (is) also a language in which very deep thoughts and feelings could be expressed.

Heschel was a skilled writer of Yiddish. There’s obvious intention in the words he chooses. I’d assume that he brought the same concern with literary style to his Yiddish writing that he later did to his English works.

These are very, very good poems; Heschel’s lucid, sincere, personal medita-tions in (mostly) blank-verse. What’s most interesting about them are his feelings, his honesty and his clarity; not any particular linguistic innovations he uses to express them. And what’s most interesting about his feelings is the Hasidic sensibility of intimate connection with G-d that underlies his work.

Heschel found himself living in several “worlds” at once – the Orthodox/Hasidic world, the world of Western academia, and the secular (late-Romantic) world in which human feelings take precedence over any other consideration – without necessarily feeling that he had to choose one over the other.

We find in him a person who desires to better feel G-d’s Presence, to end human suffering, and to enjoy the sensual and romantic joys of human love. A person who wants to be a tzadik, but who sees that he’s a person too; a tzadik who wants to be a person, but who sees that he’s a tzadik, too. His compassion pours from him like water over a dam.

Heschel’s expressions of spirituality are almost Breslav-like conversations with G-d. In the first poem, “I and You” (the same words, in German/Yiddish, as the title of Buber’s famous book), Heschel asks,

Is it Heschel asking G-d, or G-d asking Heschel? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. G-d is real enough to him, for him to even ask the question. Real enough to cause him to ask at all.

Yet, in “Suicide,” Heschel, outraged, speaking Jeremiah-like in G-d’s “voice,” rebukes human beings for lacking pro-active compassion for the poor, the lonely, the depressed:

He indicts us all, for not opening our hearts to someone who needed us. This – even before the Shoah. Again – Heschel isn’t writing a political diatribe; he’s pouring out his heart: People are “the Ineffable Name.” We can be angels, yet act so often as if we had no hearts at all.

Heschel also reveals himself to be a young man with sexual and romantic urges:

“Your eyes are greetings from G-d.
Your body – an oasis in the world,
joy for my homeless glances.
Your legs are trees of desire
in the gardens of quietest delights.”
(p. 89)

I’d guess that Heschel consciously or unconsciously had “The Song of Songs” in mind – with no overlay of allegorical interpretation. Sexuality is also expressed more freely in certain medieval Hebrew poems. So, the expression of his passions had forerunners in “Jewish” literature and culture.

But the title itself tells us what ties the poems together: Heschel’s Hasidic sense of the Divine in all. Kaplan calls it his “sacred humanism.”

I believe that all of Heschel’s writings can be best understood after becoming familiar with certain essential Hasidic teachings. His feelings play out certain unspoken ideas and assumptions that are manifest there. But he chooses to express them as his experience of life, rather than (only) as commentary on older writings. It makes him even more “Hasidic.”

That said, the poems would make a wonderful text for an Adult Ed. course in a synagogue or Jewish Community Center. Perhaps advanced Hebrew school students or older Jewish day school students would also find them deeply meaningful.

The poems could be used as additional readings in services by congregations that allow innovations. I certainly would, when leading services or seders. They could even be read responsively, led by a participant who can read the Yiddish with (more or less) correct pronunciation.

“The Ineffable Name of G-d: Man,” even if originally written in a language in which most of us are no longer literate, speaks as much of our concerns as it did of Heschel’s when it was first published.

(My review of  Basya Schechter’s  CD of musical settings of 10 of these poems:


[1] (Soncino) Zohar V: 73a – Acharei Mot