Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2400

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.

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Early Life

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.

Life’s Work

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 rational method or philosophical system could ever adequately prove God’s existence and reality. Heschel believed that by penetrating pious people’s minds, he might be able to help them appreciate and then accept the reality of God. Most of all, he believed that philosophers, theologians, religious leaders, and everyday people must be personally involved in solving moral, political, and social problems such as racial discrimination. Heschel said the standard of Jewish theology is the degree to which it affects the life of the Jew, his thoughts, and his deeds. He believed in the dignity of every person. In a June 16, 1963, letter to President John F. Kennedy, he said religious leaders had lost the right to worship God because they had failed to fight educational and housing discrimination against African Americans. Heschel believed his task was to restore the world to the kingship of God. He believed he was speaking and writing about God in God’s presence.

Heschel’s daughter, Susannah, a noted Jewish scholar in her own right, said the words that best describe her father’s life and work are moral grandeur and spiritual audacity. He wrote and acted with the passion of a holy man, a man of faith, and the joy of being a Jew. His Jewishness infused everything he did. For Heschel, a life lived in response to the ineffable wonder of God was the only authentic human life. He believed that reality is infinitely more rich and complex than words can disclose. His teachings centered on how people can discover and embrace God’s presence. He sought to show each person how to find a path to God. He wanted to demonstrate how God relates to people. He argued that religion is a leap of action and deeds rather than a leap of faith or thought. Heschel wrote about human qualities that people can cultivate in response to the world around them. His task was to show people how to perceive God’s presence.

Heschel’s work is a synthesis of the whole Jewish religious tradition from the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud and its compilation of Jewish civil and religious law, ancient and medieval philosophy, the mysticism of the Kabbalah, and Hasidism. Heschel’s teachings may be described as mystical and prophetic. For Heschel, the Hebrew Bible was holiness in words; it is not humanity’s book about humankind, but rather God’s book about humankind. Humankind, he said, should aspire to an immediate union with God. Ultimate reality is found in that union. For Heschel, the energy of Judaism derives from a person’s encounter with the mystery of existence, with God, and with the meaning beyond mystery. His ultimate goal was to transform humanity’s very consciousness so that people live, think, and pray in ways that are compatible with God. Humanity is precious to God, so it is humanity’s responsibility to rise to God’s standards. Heschel affirmed the absolute dignity of every human being. He defined religion as an answer to people’s ultimate questions about their relationship with God.

To Heschel, the Hebrew Bible is the record of humanity’s encounter with God and God’s involvement in human life. Each individual must hear the voice of the prophets in the Bible in the context of that person’s own life situation. Living is what people do with God’s time and with God’s world. Human beings must be inspired to understand the message. The central pillar of Heschel’s theology was his belief that God needs humanity for the attainment of his ends in the world. Religion is a way by which humanity identifies itself with these ends and serves them. This mutual relation imposes a responsibility on both God and humanity. Ultimately, religion is not based on humanity’s awareness of God, but on God’s interest in humanity. Human beings, he said, stand for the great mystery of being God’s partner. God, Heschel said, is deeply affected by human deeds. He suffers and rejoices as history unfolds. God is affected by what people do. People who commit evil acts put God in exile, unable to bring about redemption. Faith requires a leap of action, accepting the responsibility for creating a just society, for bringing an end to war and to evil, and for making possible our redemption and the end of God’s captivity.

Influence

In deed and word, Heschel strove to recapture the religious dimension of life, which centers on the relationship between God and humanity. He had the power to speak to souls in search of God and exhibited an unshakable confidence in God’s love for humankind. He was keenly aware that reality is infinitely richer and more complex than any words or abstract concepts can disclose.

Heschel interpreted Jewish tradition through such works as Man Is Not Alone and lived it through his religious and social activism. He was the first Jewish scholar appointed to the Union Theological Seminary in New York. After Heschel’s death, the Catholic periodical America took the unprecedented step of devoting its entire March 10, 1973, issue to his memory. He was successful in preventing the inclusion of any reference to the conversion of Jews to Catholicism in any of the documents issued by the Vatican II council. The council’s pronouncement on the Jews was the first Church statement devoid of any expression of hope for the conversion of Jews. Heschel holds the honor of being the first non-Christian writer ever referred to by a pope. Heschel’s legacy played an important role in the formation of the Jewish Renewal movement. He was above all a great teacher and charismatic activist. Heschel taught people how to think and live religiously. He taught people how to confront the confusing complexities and difficulties of life—celebration, death, evil, joy, and suffering. Heschel was, as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr predicted in 1951, a commanding and authoritative voice in Jewish and religious life in the United States.

Additional Reading

Friedman, Maurice. Abraham Joshua Heschel and Elie Wiesel: You Are My Witnesses. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1987. This book features an assessment of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s life and work by a noted expert on Martin Buber and other Jewish thinkers. Friedman also includes a revealing account of his personal relationship with Heschel.

Granfield, Patrick. Theologians at Work. New York: Macmillan, 1967. The author, a theologian, interviewed Heschel on a variety of topics, such as cooperation between Christians and Jews, evil, and God. The interviews show Heschel’s commonsense approach to theology and his opinion of the Jewish thinker Martin Buber.

Heschel, Susannah, ed. Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays by Abraham Joshua Heschel. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1996. Heschel’s daughter, a noted Jewish scholar, has written a compelling and revealing short biography of her father as an introduction to the book. She includes stories on Heschel’s relationship with Martin Luther King, Jr., and Pope Paul VI. She says the title of the book is the best description of her father’s work and legacy.

Kaplan, Edward K., and Samuel H. Dresner. Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1998. This book, the first of two planned volumes, is a comprehensive biography of Heschel. The volume traces Heschel’s life in Europe and ends with his immigration to the United States in 1940. It is based on interviews with Heschel’s friends and family, archival documents, and previously unknown writings by Heschel. The authors portray Heschel’s charisma and shortcomings. It is an important work on an important Jewish thinker.

Kasimow, Harold, and Byron L. Sherwin, eds. No Religion Is an Island: Abraham Joshua Heschel and Interreligious Dialogue. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1991. This collection includes remembrances of Heschel written by his daughter Susannah Heschel and others who knew him as a friend and teacher. The second part of the book contains an assessment of Heschel’s message from a variety of viewpoints, including those of Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, and Hindus.

Merkle, John C. Abraham Joshua Heschel: Exploring His Life and Thought. New York: Macmillan, 1985. The author, a theologian, collected a variety of essays that remember Heschel the man and assess Heschel the biblical theologian, philosopher, poet, and social critic.

Merkle, John C. The Genesis of Faith: The Depth Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel. New York: Macmillan, 1985. This work is a thorough and valuable exploration and assessment of Heschel’s doctrines.

Moore, Donald J. The Human and the Holy: The Spirituality of Abraham Joshua Heschel. New York: Fordham University Press, 1989. The author, a theologian, examines Heschel from a Christian perspective and assesses Heschel’s spiritual legacy. This account is an affectionate one of Heschel as a person, a thinker, and a contributor to stronger bonds between Christians and Jews. It also shed lights on Heschel’s prominent role in the Vatican II council.

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