Abraham Joshua Heschel contained multitudes, embodying and transmitting the rich Old World Jewish spiritual and cultural universe that was destroyed root and branch by the Nazis. The Polish-born and German-educated philosopher, scholar, teacher and activist bridged many worlds—Europe and America, pre-Holocaust and post-Holocaust Jewry, Hasidic mysticism and German rationalism, soulful faith and real-world engagement—bringing them together through the force of his intellect and complex, compelling personality.
From his base at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary, the austere and bookish Heschel became an unlikely world figure in the postwar era, his moral authority and prophetic insights sought by popes, politicians and social movements, most notably the civil rights struggle. Seeing the connection between American racism and white supremacy and the forces that had murdered his own family in Poland, Heschel joined arms with his good friend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965, observing that “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”
This many-sided figure is the subject of “Imagining Heschel: Scenes from a Play,” a video drama written by playwright Colin Greer and directed with adaptations by David Y. Chack of Chicago’s ShPIeL Theater and the Bunbury-ShPIeL-Performing Identity project in Louisville. Chack has been involved in the project since 2014, when Greer first reached out to him. Written as a standard-length stage work, “Imagining Heschel” has been pared down to an hourlong online production, available for viewing through December 20.
I talked to Chack—who in addition to running ShPIeL teaches at the Theatre School at DePaul University and elsewhere in the Chicago area, and who prior to the pandemic divided his time between Illinois and his home in Louisville, just before the online opening of “Imagining Heschel.” The play is a co-production of ShPIeL and Louisville’s Bunbury Theatre, and streams on the Bunbury platform.
Asked what attracted him to Heschel’s life and Greer’s play—an earlier version of which had a staged reading in New York some years ago—Chack says that it’s the quality of “deep heart” that Heschel brought to his religious, academic and political endeavors.
“Everything Heschel did had this real connection to spirituality,” says Chack. “It’s a quality that’s missing in some of today’s movements. For him, a life of true belief brought together the pursuit of social justice as well as transcendence. Today, we’ve veered so far into materialism. It’s more important than ever to reintroduce the missing spiritual element that grounds social movements.”
The production begins with an image of Heschel (played by Louisville-based actor Tom Luce) deep in his thoughts, wrapped in the phylacteries traditionally worn by orthodox Jews at morning prayer. But the play’s action consists of a series of fictionalized interactions with those outside of his community: a supplicant papal delegate, asking Heschel to go to Rome to discuss Catholic-Jewish relations at a time of change; a malcontent Irish priest; Heschel’s young, angry but somewhat confused African American chauffeur; and a contentious television interviewer. It’s a portrait of a distinctly Jewish intellectual fully, if a bit reluctantly, enmeshed in the larger society.
“Heschel was Hasidic royalty, born into a great rabbinical lineage,” says Chack. “He was a childhood prodigy with a photographic memory, who as a youngster could recite large chunks of Torah and Talmud. Leaving for England and then America in 1939, just weeks before the Germans invaded Poland, saved his life. It was also his form of rebellion. He thought we need to live in the modern world, to be vitally involved in what’s going on around us.”
In the production, that involvement takes the form of lengthy and intense conversations with others, all of which have an element of testing and friction, as well as affection and respect. They are not unlike the Talmudic disputations of Heschel’s childhood.
“As [Heschel’s fellow philosopher Martin] Buber would say, the only true engagement with life is to meet another fully,” says Chack. “Heschel would say that to be tribal today in a world that needs connection is to be idolatrous, to worship an image of oneself. This is apparent from the very first scene as it is all laid out and it is clear that it will unfold throughout the entire play.”
Recognizing the modern world’s disconnection with conventional faith, Heschel sought to recover religion’s relevance by defining it not as a source of dogma and ritual, but as an attempt to answer ultimate and perennial questions. He believed that these answers are revealed in the ongoing interrelation and dialectic between God and humanity, which play out in the world. His most famous book, written in 1955, bears the provocative title, “God in Search of Man.”
How does one dramatize a life as philosophical and inward-focused as Heschel’s, while accommodating Zoom-length attention spans? “To have something online that’s longer than an hour, it had better be really compelling or have technical aspects we can’t provide,” says Chack of his compact, modestly budgeted production. “We cut some scenes and trimmed others, focusing on whatever revealed Heschel’s personality and had dramatic content.”
The play’s scenes—all staged on an abstract, simplified set—are introduced by aphoristic excerpts from Heschel’s work. “The text itself is a character in the play,” says Chack. “The film itself is a kind of text, more than a story or fable about this man. When you watch it, it’s like you’re studying with him, engaging with him. The point isn’t just to imagine Heschel, but to capture Heschel’s own imagination.”
Producing any form of theater at this moment of isolation and anxiety is no easy task. “We had some live rehearsal in Louisville before the pandemic,” recalls Chack. “Then we did the best we could with Zoom. Finally, we met and the cast took off their masks. It seems in the film that people were close together, but really they weren’t. The crew was masked the whole time. We did it in three days. Honestly, it felt good to be with people.”
When asked if Chack had plans to remount the work post-pandemic as a live production, he says, “I’m pleased with what we came up with here. I’m not champing at the bit to do more. It’s its own thing: not Zoom, not film, not a play. It’s true to itself. It’s as authentic as we could make it, and I think the characters come to life.”
Watching this play set over fifty years ago, during a time of crisis, protest and polarization, it’s impossible not to notice the parallels with our own time, and to wonder what Abraham Joshua Heschel would be saying and doing were he alive today.
“Heschel would be wondering what American Jews are doing as a community to confront injustice,” says Chack. “He’d be saying, ‘This is something we needed to do a long time ago.’ He wanted the community to be more progressive, more liberal, while maintaining the core of Jewish tradition.”
Heschel has been gone now for forty-eight years, but he left a deep mark, and the interest in his life and work only seems to grow. “He was an amazing example of courage,” says Chack. “Despite what he’d been through, he saw spirituality everywhere and looked at the world with a kind of radical wonder. But he believed that having faith without a sense of the here and now means not having faith. He’s one of those people who gives you a push to go out into the world and make it better.”
Through December 20, with post-show discussions December 10 and 17. $15, $10 students. bunburytheatre.org/imagining-in-heschel-in-december. “Searching For Wonder” panel discussions at bunburytheatre.org/searching-for-wonder.