Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: A Passion for Truth

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, 1907-1972, is considered by many as the most significant Jewish theologian of the twentieth century. He is remembered not only as an inspiring teacher and lecturer,  but as  the author of numerous works dealing with the teachings of the biblical prophets, the relationship of humankind to God, the world of Hassidic Jewry, and tikkun olam,  the transformation and healing of the world. Heschel was also a social activist who was indignant at the injustices of society. For him, every deed posed a problem with moral and religious implications.

Born into the world of Eastern European Hasidic Judaism, Heschel could have become  the leader of a major Hasidic sect. He broke with family tradition, however, and at the age of twenty, left Poland for Germany where he earned a doctorate in theology and philosophy from the University of Berlin.

The horrors of the Nazi assault against German Jewry forced Heschel to leave Germany and return to Poland.  In 1939, he  was brought to America as part of a rescue effort coordinated by the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and  joined its faculty for five years before he was appointed Professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York where he taught from 1945 until his death in 1972.

Many of Heschel’s family were not as fortunate. They died at the hands of the Nazis.

Yet, in spite of his grief over the horrors of the Holocaust, Heschel asked the Jewish world to reconnect with God. He also challenged Jews and Judaism to awaken from a kind of spiritual deadness in the synagogue and the rote and dreary learning that took place in America’s Jewish rabbinical seminaries of the 1950s and early 1960s. Most of all, he was pained by the relative silence of American Jews in the face of two of the greatest injustices of the twentieth century—the continuing denial of civil rights for African Americans and the Vietnam War.

Heschel first met the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963. King encouraged Heschel to involve himself in the Civil Rights movement, and Heschel encouraged King to take a public stand against the war in Vietnam. Both men used the imagery of the Exodus from Egypt as a metaphor for their social activism. Both men walked arm in arm during the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in March 1965. For Heschel, the march had a spiritual significance: “For many of us,” he wrote, “the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

Heschel also found the continuation and escalation of the war in Vietnam to be a “moral outrage.” To speak about God, he often said, “and remain silent on Vietnam is blasphemous.” He remained deeply engaged in anti-war efforts during the last years of his life and spoke and taught about the need to end the war in both public speeches and in his classroom.

Finally, he involved himself deeply in interreligious activities between Jews and Christians. In the early 1960s, he influenced the drafting of the historic statement Nostra Aetate (In Our Times) during the Second Vatican Council, a statement that forever changed the relationship between Roman Catholicism and Judaism and, once and for all, removed the charge of deicide, the crucifixion of Jesus, against the Jewish people. He was also the first rabbi to be appointed to the faculty of the Protestant Union Theological Seminary in New York.

His was an extraordinary life. As one scholar has written, “Heschel made his impact by the wholeness of his person, by his passion for social justice, by his scholarship in the Jewish tradition and by his religious thinking on the human condition.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that if we are created in the image of God, each human being should be a reminder of God’s presence. If we engage in acts of violence, murder and the abuse of human and civil rights, we desecrate the divine likeness. And we must not turn away, but act to stop these desecrations of God’s name and God’s role in history: “The opposite of good is not evil,” he wrote, “the opposite of good is indifference. In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”