The 1965 photograph of Abraham Joshua Heschel walking arm in arm with Martin Luther King Jr. through the streets of Alabama in support of African American civil rights is a source of great pride in the Jewish community. It represents a shining moment in our recent history, when thousands of young Jews, along with a smaller number of prominent religious leaders, participated in the most celebrated liberation movement of the 20th century.
While Heschel’s name, his “prophetic” countenance — the flowing white hair and bushy beard — and his close association with King are familiar to many, the broader story of his life (particularly his early life) and thought remain unknown to most of his admirers within and beyond the Jewish community. In honor of the 100th anniversary of Heschel’s birth (January 11), we offer the following brief retrospective on the man and his works.
Born into a prominent Hasidic family in Warsaw, by age 5 or 6 Heschel was identified by his teachers as an ilui (child prodigy). After the untimely death of his father in 1916, Heschel’s uncle, the Novominsker Rebbe, assumed responsibility for his nephew’s education, grooming young Abraham Joshua to become the next great Hasidic master in the family. Heschel was ordained as a rabbi at 16.
By this time, however, Heschel had ventured forth from his Hasidic neighborhood and discovered the riches of secular culture in cosmopolitan Warsaw. Drawn to philosophy and poetry, he began an intellectual journey that soon led him from Warsaw to Vilna, from yeshiva to gymnasium, where he completed his high school studies.
It was in Lithuania that Heschel wrote much of his first book, a collection of Yiddish poetry titled “The Ineffable Name of God: Man” (published in 1933). This text anticipates Heschel’s mature theological work, as it describes in evocative terms the author’s belief in an intimate relationship between the Divine and humankind. While Heschel left the Hasidic community of his youth, he took with him several of its essential insights.
From Vilna, Heschel moved to Berlin (1927), where he studied for a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Berlin and trained as a liberal rabbi at the Institute (Hochschule) for the Scientific Study of Judaism. Heschel’s time in Germany began with great promise but ended in terrible pain: Just as he was flourishing as an intellectual and communal leader (guided by Martin Buber, among others), Adolf Hitler came to power.
While Heschel’s life was immediately disrupted — many of his non-Jewish colleagues and teachers turned their backs on him — ultimately he was fortunate that the Nazis deported him with other Polish Jews in the fall of 1938, thus he escaped the worst of Hitler’s brutality. After teaching in Warsaw for 10 months, Heschel took leave for the United States via London. He departed Warsaw just six weeks before the Nazis invaded the city; he later described himself as a “brand plucked from the fire.”
Tragically, Heschel’s dramatic flight from the Nazis was tainted by the fact that he had to leave behind his family and friends. Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati issued him a special scholar’s visa but could do nothing for his family. One can only imagine the pain Heschel felt knowing that his decision to leave his Hasidic community as a teenager to pursue a secular education saved his life, while all those who remained behind perished at the hands of the Nazis. Heschel never returned to Poland (or to Germany), feeling that the very landscape — “every stone, every tree” — would remind him of the diabolical actions of the Nazis and their collaborators, “of children killed, of mothers burned alive, of human beings asphyxiated.”
After spending five difficult years in Cincinnati — coping with personal loss and dislocation, and living as one of the few observant Jews in the bastion of American Reform Judaism — Heschel married and relocated to New York City, taking a position at the more traditional Jewish Theological Seminary. Although he remained at JTS until his death in 1972, he never felt at home; the administrators of the institution did not appreciate his idiosyncratic blend of scholarship, theology and social activism. One wonders, however, if even under the best of circumstances, Heschel would have felt comfortable in any one institution, given his multiple interests and activities.
Heschel emerged in the 1950s as a popular religious writer in Jewish and Christian circles, penning such works as “The Earth Is the Lord’s” (1950), “The Sabbath” (1951) and “Man’s Quest for God” (1954). Among Heschel’s greatest strengths as an author was his ability to convey in lyrical terms the beauty of traditional Jewish life and practice. Like the best of his Hasidic forebears, he gleaned masterfully from the vast storehouse of classical Jewish literature, refashioning older ideas in a meaningful contemporary idiom. Through his elegant prose, he inspired thousands of spiritual seek
ers to explore more deeply their relationship to prayer, ritual and text study.
After spending much of the 1950s establishing himself as a scholar and theologian, Heschel entered the political fray in 1963, speaking at a conference on religion and race in Chicago; it was at this gathering that he first met King and initiated his career as a religious activist. In addition to African American civil rights, Heschel became involved in several other important social causes, including the plight of Jews in the former Soviet Union, and the anti-Vietnam war movement. He also played a key role in the Second Vatican Council in 1965, working with Catholic leaders to heal relations between Jews and Christians.
Heschel’s activism was inspired not only by his own experiences of injustice in Europe but also by his theology (the two, of course, were intertwined). In his most comprehensive theological work, “God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism” (1955), he articulated a belief in a personal God who brings forth humankind to serve as partners in the creation of a just and compassionate world. In opposition to Aristotle (and Maimonides), Heschel viewed God as the “Most Moved Mover” — a God of great pathos, who weeps when people suffer, is angered when they mistreat one another, and is gladdened when they pursue the right and the good. While God is often frustrated by our actions, he wrote, He endures, patiently waiting for us to turn our attention to the sacred task of universal redemption.
For Heschel, the Hebrew prophets were the greatest exemplars of spiritual and moral rectitude, unique in their ability to “hold God and man in one thought, at one time, at all times.” He recounted that the experience of revising his dissertation on the prophets for publication in English (published in 1962) inspired him to become an activist: “I learned from the prophets that I have to be involved in the affairs of man, in the affairs of suffering man.” Heschel spent the final decade of his life shuttling from his study to university lecture halls, to Jewish and Christian houses of worship, to protests and activist meetings. He died December 23, 1972, at the age of 65.
While there certainly are elements of Heschel’s work that are open to critique, he remains a powerful model of personal piety, intellectual creativity and social responsibility. Through his work as a theologian, scholar and activist, he inspired Jews and Christians alike to reconsider their commitments and priorities, and to rededicate themselves to God and humankind.
Rabbi Or N. Rose is associate dean and director of informal education at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College. He is the author of, among others, “God in All Moments: Spiritual and Practical Wisdom From the Hasidic Masters” (Jewish Lights, 2003), and “Abraham Joshua Heschel: Man of Spirit, Man of Action” (Jewish Publication Society, 2003), a biography for children.