‘Imagining Heschel’: A review
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‘Imagining Heschel’: A review

We want to know more than the play reveals

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The current offering at the Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater Company explores the relationship between Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Cardinal Augustin Bea that led to a sea change in the Catholic church’s teachings about Jews and Judaism. Courtesy The American Jewish Committee

Just as its title promises, “Imagining Heschel,” the current production of the Harold Clurman Laboratory Theater Company (the professional company of the Stella Adler Studio), imagines a series of conversations between Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Cardinal Augustin Bea about the time of the Second Vatican Council, when Pope John XXIII reconsidered the church’s relationship to the Jews.

This change in church teachings, which removed the charge of deicide, would prove to be immensely significant, but that remains in the future at the time of the play. Cardinal Bea has come to meet with Heschel to convince him to travel to Rome to help the council formulate its new approach. Heschel is cautious, probing to see if the church is serious and ready to apologize for millennia of persecution, and willing to give up its determination to convert his co-religionists.

Playwright Colin Greer has fashioned a somewhat contrived structure that gives both men – as well as another priest – the opportunity to express their positions in the 90-minute one-act play. A lot of time is spent on Heschel’s well-known work with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., however, which limits the actual interchanges between the two men and the political and theological obstacles they had to overcome.

Director Tom Oppenheim wastes no time exposing the backdrop to the Vatican’s change of heart, opening the play with a video montage of familiar Holocaust images and a recording of the plaintive Yiddish song “Vi Ahin Zol Ich Geyn?” (“Where Shall I Go?”), a song about oppression, expulsion, and longing for a settled life. Heschel was himself imprisoned by the Gestapo for a while before he managed to get to London, and his extended family was murdered by the Nazis. For Heschel as he speaks with Bea, what he sees as the Vatican’s enthusiastic cooperation with Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich cannot be so quickly forgotten.

The austere set in the tiny theater at Studio Theater 2C on West 27th Street consists of a bench and a few tables and chairs that move on and off stage. Against such simplicity, a lot depends on the power of the language and, of course, the acting. In general, the acting is excellent, with Chet Carlin especially good as Bea. The script, however, is overly concerned with biographical detail and the language rarely soars. That is too bad, because a deeper investigation of the different world views of the two religious leaders would have been fascinating. Both men were known for their universalist approaches to religion.

Heschel marched with King at Selma, announcing that his feet were praying, and he was a vocal and vociferous opponent of the Vietnam War.

Bea was suspected of being born a Jew, so sympathetic was he to the community. One scene in “Imagining Heschel” takes place in a kosher restaurant in the Jewish ghetto in Rome, where Bea confides that he grew up nearby and had Jewish playmates as a boy.

We do not hear much, however, about his thoughts on the centuries of Catholic teaching from many pulpits that led to vicious persecution of the Jews, and how the church can intellectually justify a dramatic change of course. Did the cardinals wake up one morning and say, “Oops, we messed up; never mind”?

The same is true for Heschel. Father Brian Martin, Bea’s assistant, challenges him on his assertion that the Shoah gives Israel the right to wage war in any way it sees fit (Martin was referring to Israel’s victory in the June 1967 Six-Day War and its subsequent control over Christian holy places; the Catholic church was a long way yet from even recognizing Israel’s right to exist, much less its sovereignty over anything). Heschel fumes and blusters and defends, but the play does not grapple with the issue as seriously as would seem warranted. Why should Israel forswear war, especially when existentially threatened, as it was in 1967 and even today? Why should any country, for that matter? Is Judaism a pacifist religion? What is a just war, and where does that concept come from? What about the Holy Roman Empire and its long history of church-approved wars? These questions must have come up in the course of deliberations. We know the end of the story before the play begins. It is the winding road to get to that end that we want to hear.

Greer is the president of The New World Foundation, serves on the board of Tikkun Magazine and openDemocracyUSA, and is clearly an admirer of both men. A bit more rigor would have benefited the play, however.

Interestingly, no point is made about the church’s sins in Ireland, despite Father Martin’s concern that Pope John VI’s changes will imperil a church that has given his people their identity for centuries. We know now that prelates of the Irish church abused generations of children, so there is an irony there. Or perhaps Father Martin was correct to be fearful: the Irish are far less pious than they were 40 years ago.

“Imagining Heschel” runs through February 11.

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