Article abstract: Heschel, a Jewish philosopher and theologian, was a leader in the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements of the 1960’s and a driving force in improving relations between Christians and Jews.
Abraham Joshua Heschel was the youngest of five children of Moshe Mordechai Heschel and Reizel (née Perlow) Heschel. His mother and father were descended from Hasidic rabbis or rebbes, nobles in the Jewish world. Heschel grew up among people whose life was devoted to the observance and study of Judaism. He was considered a prodigy in the sacred Hebrew texts, including the “Hebrew Bible” (the term Heschel preferred to “Old Testament”) and the Talmud (Jewish civil and religious law). He spoke and was literate in Yiddish, Hebrew, German, and later English. As a teenager, he published his first articles on Talmudic literature. Heschel earned his reputation as a scholar and gifted writer with the publication of Maimonides: A Biography (1935), an interpretation of the life of the great twelfth century rabbi, physician, and philosopher.
In 1937, Martin Buber, the distinguished philosopher and educator, chose Heschel as his successor at the center for Jewish education and learning in Berlin. Heschel led educational activities connected with the German Jewish cultural renaissance that flourished during the early part of the Nazi regime. In 1938, Heschel and the other Polish Jews living in Germany were arrested and deported to Poland. He taught for eight months in Warsaw at the Institute for Jewish Studies. Heschel’s mother and three of his sisters died in the Holocaust. Heschel himself narrowly avoided death three times. With the exception of Zalman Shazar, the writer who later became president of Israel, few of Heschel’s childhood friends survived the Holocaust. Heschel believed the only enduring answer to the Holocaust is Jewish spiritual vitality. The Holocaust magnified his passion for social justice and his reverence for God. He was horrified by the threat of the destruction of the Jewish people and their traditions during the Holocaust. He felt it was his duty to Jews and non-Jews to preserve and revitalize the Jewish tradition. He saw his role as saving the Jewish soul from oblivion. In 1938, he helped establish the Institute for Jewish Learning in London.
In 1940, Heschel became an associate professor of philosophy and rabbinical studies at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1945, he became a professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, the center of the Conservative movement in the United States. He published a number of works, including The Earth Is the Lord’s, Man Is Not Alone, The Sabbath, Man’s Quest for God, God in Search of Man, and The Prophets.
In the early 1960’s, Heschel became involved in issues of human suffering. He first gained national attention in 1960 when he addressed the first White House Conference on Youth. A year later, he played an active role at the White House Conference on the Aged. He became a friend and colleague of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963. In 1965, Heschel joined civil rights leaders such as King, Ralph Abernathy, Ralph Bunche, and Andrew Young in a protest march in Selma, Alabama. Heschel said he was praying with his feet when he was protesting against discrimination. Shortly after the Selma march, Heschel cofounded Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, which became one of the strongest organizations opposed to the Vietnam War. He also enlisted the prominent Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan in the fight against continued U.S. involvement in the war in Vietnam.
In his 1951 review of Man Is Not Alone, Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr predicted that Heschel would become a commanding and authoritative voice in the religious life of not only Jews but also everyone in the United States. In the mid-1960’s, Heschel was involved with Vatican II, a council called by the pope to develop reforms in the Roman Catholic Church. In his discussions with Pope Paul VI and other Catholic leaders, Heschel advocated that the Church strengthen its relations with the Jews and members of other non-Catholic religions. Heschel initiated a movement to raise worldwide consciousness about the suppression of religious freedom among Jews in the Soviet Union. It was after reading Heschel’s books that Elie Wiesel, a writer who won the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, said he felt compelled to visit the Soviet Union and write The Jews of Silence (1966).
Heschel, unlike many other modern Jewish theologians, emphasized the limitations of reason in grasping humankind’s dependence on the humanity and ultimate reality of God. Through his often lyrical and poetical style, he attempted to evoke an intense intimacy with the divine. He conveyed his ideas not through abstract philosophical and theological concepts but through evocative imagery. He aimed to help people recover an all-involving awareness of awe, radical amazement, and ultimately faith in the living God. His goal was to transform people’s very consciousness so that they live, think, and pray in ways compatible with God’s concern. He described his approach as an attempt to rediscover those questions for which religion provides answers.
Heschel’s life and work are a synthesis of the traditional piety and learning of Eastern European Jewry and the philosophy and knowledge of Western civilization. He sought through his studies of the ancient and medieval sources of Judaism to offer an authentic and modern theology to the Jews of his generation. He wanted to help them with the problems and perplexities they faced daily. He rejected the idea that any...
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