Seeking the Sacred: Literary Language in Isaac Babel’s Short Stories and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Poetry

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In this thesis, I ask how artistic language enables authors to translate ideas and questions from past contexts, whose original meanings and terms have become obscured from their contemporaries, into words and stories that enable moderns to both realize what underlies their present conditions and to shape their futures. To approach this question, I consider three Russian short stories by the Russian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel and five Yiddish poems by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. These works were written and published between 1916 and 1933. Babel is typically thought of as a secular revolutionary, and Heschel is usually considered a religious thinker. However, in studying them together, I break down the binary between the worlds of secular and religious Jews in Eastern Europe and Russia in the early twentieth century. In a discussion of the shifting conceptions of language in this time and region, I outline shared concerns within both secular and religious spheres of Jewish thought over how to communicate revelation and truth in terms that are accessible and meaningful to those living in the changing twentieth-century world. I show how Babel and Heschel experimented with these shifting conceptions of language to respond to the challenges of their worlds, and I describe how each author crafts his own conception of language and how to use it in literature to make their prophetic revelations both accessible to individual readers and meaningful in the face of twentieth-century challenges.


Type of resource text
Date created May 15, 2020


Author Schuessler, Felicia


Subject judaism
Subject jewish literature
Subject soviet literature
Subject language
Subject twentieth century
Subject secular
Subject religious
Subject prophecy
Subject messianism
Subject jewish thought
Subject inner life
Subject revolution
Subject god-seeking
Subject god-building
Subject Slavic Languages and Literatures
Subject Department of Literatures Cultures and Languages
Subject Russian Studies
Subject Slavic Studies
Subject Jewish Studies
Genre Thesis

Bibliographic information

Related Publication Harshav, Benjamin. Language in the Time of Revolution. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1993.
Related Publication Kaplan, Edward and Samuel Dresner. Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998.
Related Publication Moss, Kenneth B. Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2009.
Related Publication Roskies, David G. A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Story Telling. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Related Publication Sicher, Efraim. 2012. Babel’ in Context : A Study in Cultural Identity. Borderlines: Russian and East European Jewish Studies. Boston: Academic Studies Press.
Related Publication Vinokur, Val. “Isaac Babel’s Dirty Ethics.” In The Trace of Judaism: Dostoevsky, Babel, Mandelstam, Levinas, pp. 60-92. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2008.
Related Publication Scholem, Gershom. “Tradition and Revelation as Revolutionary Categories.” In The Messianic Idea in Judaism and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality, pp. 282-303. New York: Schocken Books, 1971.
Related Publication Scherr, Barry P. “God-Building or God-Seeking? Gorky’s Confession as Confession.” The Slavic and East European Journal 44, no. 3 (2000): 448-69. doi:10.2307/309591.

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Schuessler, Felicia. (2020). Seeking the Sacred: Literary Language in Isaac Babel’s Short Stories and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Poetry. Stanford Digital Repository. Available at:


Undergraduate Theses, Slavic Studies and Literatures Department, Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages, Stanford University.

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