At the height of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, America’s most prominent rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, embarked on a secret mission to Rome.
His charge: to meet with Pope Paul VI and convince him to revoke the ancient charge against the Jews of deicide, which was used to justify the slaughter of Jews for two millennia.
As shown in Colin Greer’s new two-person play, “Imagining Heschel,” the white-bearded rabbi and activist played a crucial role in the adoption of Nostra Aetate, the 1965 declaration that officially ended Church-sponsored anti-Semitism. “Imagining Heschel,” which runs now through Thanksgiving weekend at the Cherry Lane Theatre, stars Richard Dreyfuss as Heschel, playing opposite Rinde Eckert as Cardinal Augustin Bea, who negotiated on behalf of the Vatican.
Greer, who grew up as an Orthodox Jew in the East End of London, runs the New World Foundation, a New York-based organization that funds social justice movements around the globe. A former professor at Brooklyn College, Greer has published close to a dozen books on immigration and education policy and has penned a number of plays, including one about renegade philosopher Baruch Spinoza.
In “Imagining Heschel,” the rabbi and cardinal join in intense debate about the Church’s policies and actions toward the Jews. The two men are united by their common training as biblical scholars (Bea, like Heschel, had studied in Berlin, and the cardinal had authored a study, in Hebrew, of the “Song of Songs”), by their deep reverence for God, and by their shared passion for social justice. Yet their developing bond is compromised by Heschel’s demands, during his audience with the Pope, that the pontiff not only exonerate the Jews of deicide, but also condemn the Vietnam War, the oppression of Soviet Jewry and the Holocaust. (In reality, Heschel’s audience with the Pope was more cordial, and their conversation did not extend to all of these issues.)
The play was originally titled “A Man Can Come Too Late,” a reference to the binding of Isaac in the Torah. In an interview, Greer said the climax of the play comes after Bea’s death, when Heschel realizes that he has “missed the boat,” just as Jews and Christians have had to mourn the loss of an authentic connection to each other. “Now I have to live my life without you and the possibility of you,” is the tragic realization, Greer said, that both Jews and Christians have had to accept.
Edward K. Kaplan is a professor at Brandeis and author of “Spiritual Radical” (Yale, 2007) a study of Heschel’s career in America. Kaplan traces Heschel’s involvement in the passage of the document known as Vatican II, as the Church found itself in a tug-of-war between Jewish leaders who pressed for reform and Catholic clergy (including, notably, those in the Arab world) who attempted to torpedo these changes.
Kaplan told The Jewish Week that Heschel, who came from Warsaw and who lost most of his family to the Nazis, was unable to negotiate with Bea and the Pope without keeping the issue of the Church’s involvement in the Holocaust front and center.
“One reason for Heschel’s extremely intense emotions,” Kaplan said, “was his identification with the Jewish people and with Jewish history. While that intensity and vulnerability may have compromised his efforts to some extent, it was that spiritual passion that made him credible in the first place.”
Heschel was under tremendous emotional stress, Kaplan noted, because the Vatican had scheduled meetings on Shabbat and had summoned him to Rome during the holiest time of the Jewish year. “He was at the point of exploding,” Kaplan said. “He was in mourning for his sister [Sarah, who had passed away in June], it was just before Yom Kippur, and he couldn’t even go to shul.” No one was supposed to know that Heschel was in Italy, because the Vatican was determined to avoid the appearance of being pressured by Jews to revoke the Church’s anti-Semitic teachings.
Kaplan quoted Heschel’s book, “The Prophets,” in which he wrote that biblical prophets always sang “one octave too high for our ears” meaning, as Kaplan interprets him, that “the hyperbole of the prophets is an understatement from God’s point of view. The prophet expresses himself in extreme ways, but even these are never adequate to the realities of human evil and insensitivity.” By this measure, Heschel could not speak forcefully enough about the horrors inflicted upon Jews by the Church, and he viewed himself as saving Jewish lives in the future.
Dreyfuss grew up until the age of 8 in Bayside, Queens before moving to Beverly Hills. His career took off after he played the title role in the film, “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz,” a satire based on the Mordechai Richler novel of the same title. While Dreyfuss could not be reached for an interview, Greer disclosed that the actor mentioned during rehearsals that he sat on desegregation buses in California during the civil rights movement because he was inspired by Heschel’s participation in the 1965 march to Selma with Martin Luther King, Jr., after which the rabbi famously declared, “Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
Like Heschel, Dreyfuss carries a great deal of rage toward the Nazis, as he told Abigail Pogrebin for her book of interviews with Jewish celebrities, “Stars of David” (Broadway Books, 2005). Once, at a press conference in Munich, the actor confessed to wanting to murder all the Germans over the age of 45, a statement that made headlines throughout Europe. Dreyfuss has also been an activist for many social causes, including the peace movement in Israel.
Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, who is mentioned briefly in the play, teaches at Dartmouth College. She is a major scholar of Jewish-Christian relations in Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries. Her father’s profound effect on Christians, she told The Jewish Week, went far beyond his ability to engage them in the kind of spirited theological debate that characterizes Greer’s play.
When Christians came for a Shabbat or holiday dinner, she noted, it was often the first time that they had been part of such a celebration in a religious Jewish home. “The atmosphere they radiated was of people being on a pilgrimage to the womb of their own religion,” she said. “They believed that Jews were not supposed to go to heaven, but when they heard my father say the prayers, they realized that no one could say that he wasn’t going to heaven. He caused them a theological earthquake that made them reconsider everything that they had been taught.”
“Imagining Heschel” opens on Monday, Nov. 8, and runs through Nov. 28 at the Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St. in the West Village. Performances are Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 8 p.m., with Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. For tickets, $80, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200.