Abraham Joshua Heschel: An American Prophet

November 30, 2021 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson. 

On Bloody Sunday – March 7, 1965 – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel watched in horror as violent images from Selma, Alabama, flooded his TV screen. Police brutally beat black demonstrators marching in support of voting rights. Despite the danger, Heschel flew to Selma to join Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders on the front line of a second march two weeks later. Famously, he later said that he “felt my legs were praying.” It was a seminal moment in the life of an unlikely social activist.

Abraham Joshua Heschel: A Life of Radical Amazement by Princeton professor Julian Zelizer portrays Heschel as both theologian and activist, a task for which Zelizer is ideally suited. An expert on American political history, a CNN political analyst, and the son and grandson of rabbis, Zelizer sensitively unravels the intertwined religious and civic threads of Heschel’s life.

Professor Zelizer will virtually visit Beth El on Sunday, February 6, at 11:00 am, to talk about the legendary Rabbi Heschel and the inspiration he offers for our own time. Register here.

From Warsaw to Selma

As Zelizer recounts, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-72) was born in Warsaw into an illustrious Hasidic family; he descended from two rabbinic dynasties. Abraham’s father, Moshe, was a beloved rebbe, generously sharing his knowledge and funds with anyone who sought help. A precocious child, Abraham awed his father’s court; adults rose in deference when he spoke about Hebrew texts.

Ordained as a rabbi at age 16, Abraham, hungry for further education, moved to Vilna to attend high school. He subsequently earned a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Berlin, even as Hitler rose to power.

Just six weeks before the Nazi invasion of Poland, Heschel received a life-saving job offer from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Determined to rescue European Jewish intellectuals, Julius Morgenstern, the acting college president, lobbied the State Department for authorization to hire some as research fellows. Tragically, there was no rescue for Heschel’s mother and three sisters; they died horrible deaths during the genocidal war.

At Hebrew Union College and later at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Heschel wrote prolifically, producing acclaimed works that included The Sabbath, Man Is Not Alone, God in Search of Man, and The Prophets. His theology envisioned God as looking for pious human beings who are open to hearing God’s voice and concerns about humankind. The biblical prophets, Heschel believed, exemplified Judaism’s core commitment to social justice.

Heschel’s theology reflected his searing experience of the Holocaust and his anger at the inaction of German Christians and American officials. In the 1960s, Heschel increasingly lived his theology, passionately championing civil rights and other causes. He declared to the Rabbinical Assembly in 1964, “The essence of a Jew is his involvement in the plight of other people, as God is involved.”

Vatican II – Soviet Jews – Vietnam War

Heschel’s wide-ranging activism encompassed secret negotiations with the Catholic Church during Vatican II to reform antisemitic church doctrine. He was also vital to the campaign to protect Soviet Jewry. Most controversially, Heschel was an early and prominent protester against the Vietnam War, helping to found the influential committee, Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam. This was despite opposition from Jewish organizations who feared angering President Johnson and losing American support for Israel.

In a TV interview taped shortly before his death, Heschel sent a heartfelt message to young people: “Let them be sure that every little deed counts. That every word has power, and that we can, everyone, do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all frustrations and all disappointments.”