You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)

Yankl Stillman
January 14, 2008

Logo for 'Our Secular Jewish Heritage' Columnby Yankl Stillman
Last year marked the hundredth anniversary of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's birth and the 35th yortsayt of his untimely death. For Jewish secularists, his meaning lies in his deep involvement and eloquent statements on the passionate issues of his day, which are similar to the passionate issues of our day: race and peace. As to the first, many of us will remember the moving photographs of him marching arm-in-arm with Ralph Bunche alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in the famous walk from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama on March 21st, 1965 protesting against racism and Jim Crow. As to the second, Heschel was a founder and co-chair of Clergy and Laity Concerned — their concern being the Vietnam War.
Heschel was born in Warsaw, with yikhes (illustrious lineage) on both his mother’s and father’s sides. On his father’s, he was a descendant of Dov Ber (c. 1704-1772), the well-known maggid (preacher) of Mezhirekh, and his great-grandfather was Avrom Yeshua Heschel (1748-1825), the Rabbi of Apt. On his mother’s side, he was a descendent of Levi Yitzkhok (1740-1810), rabbi for thirty-five years of Berditchev, an important center of khasidism in Ukraine, who was famed for his "arguments" with God and his "defense" of the Jews.
After receiving a traditional yeshiva education and becoming a rabbi, young Heschel decided to enroll at the University of Berlin for a doctorate in their College for the Science of Judaism. Before he could do this, however, he had to become conversant with Western thinking and languages. At age 18, therefore, he entered the Real-Gymnasium (secondary school) in Vilna, the 'Jerusalem of Lithuania,' a bustling city with a large Jewish population. Vilna was the center of the Enlightenment movement (haskala) in Eastern Europe. There were socialist, Zionist, and communist groups there as well as religious organizations. In this pluralistic, Yiddish-speaking society, Heschel reconciled his khasidic past with the secular Jewish activism in which he was participating. While studying for his degree, he taught Talmud at the university.
Photo of Rabbi HeschelAfter receiving his degree, he was appointed by Martin Buber as his successor in the Jewish adult education school of Frankfurt-on-the-Main. Clearly, this appointment could not last long in Hitler’s Germany. Deported to Poland in October, 1938, Heschel left for England the following summer. In 1940 he began teaching philosophy and rabbinics at the Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary in Cincinnati. Unhappy with the attitude toward religion there, he became professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative) in New York in 1945. He taught there until he died.

Much has been written about Professor Heschel over the years, but little has been made of the fact that in addition to writing in English, Polish, German, and Hebrew, he also wrote in Yiddish. His first published poem in Yiddish appeared in the 1926-27 issue of Varshever Shriftn (“Warsaw Writings”). He authored several books in Yiddish, including The Eastern European Jew, Reb Pinkhas Koritzer, and The Ineffable Man. In addition to poems of a mystical character, articles of his were published in Tsukunft, Yidisher Kemfer (Jewish Fighter), YIVO Bleter (YIVO Pages), and other Yiddish publications. He was a member of the YIVO board and a frequent speaker at their annual banquets. Before he died, Heschel published in Yiddish several chapters of his book, A Passion for Truth. The chapters dealt with Rabbi Menakhem Mendl of Kotsk (1787-1859), a prominent khasid who was an important influence on Heschel’s thinking.
After the protest march from Selma, Coretta Scott King called Heschel "one of the great men of our time." His daughter Susannah, who is Eli Black Professor of Judaic Studies at Dartmouth, said that her father referred to the march as both a protest and a prayer. "Legs are not lips," he said, "and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying."
In 1963, at a convocation held by the National Conference of Religion and Race on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, Heschel said, in the course of delivering a major address, "One hundred years ago the emancipation was proclaimed. It is time for the white man to strive for self-emancipation, to set himself free of bigotry." The greatest sin, he said, was that of indifference.

Heschel was very troubled by the continuation and escalation of the war in Vietnam. He regarded the war as another example of the moral callousness, insensitivity to the sufferings of others, and arrogance of self-righteousness that he saw as America’s problems. Heschel called for national repentance, as Bishop Desmond Tutu was to do in South Africa some twenty years later — for a return to conscience, a dedication to peace rather than victory. Heschel appealed particularly to people who were religious, proclaiming that "to speak about God and remain silent on Vietnam is blasphemous." Yes, he said, withdrawing would result in a loss of face (how applicable to Bush’s predicament in Iraq!), but continuing the war would surely result in a loss of soul.
According to a 1983 article by Reuven Kimelman of Brandeis, Heschel was most of all pained by the lack of protest by Jewish organizations against the war. Considering how active Jews had been in the civil rights struggle — "as though they were going forth from Egypt again," Heschel said — their relative reticence on Vietnam was striking. In a democracy, he believed, a silent majority is a scared majority — and the image of the good, silent Germans haunted him.
Another area of concern for Heschel was the plight of the Soviet Jews. In 1963, he sounded the call: "East European Jewry has vanished. Russian Jewry is the last remnant of a people destroyed in extermination camps, the last remnant of a spiritual glory that is no more . . . All we demand is an end to the massive and systematic liquidation of the religious and cultural heritage of an entire community, and equality with all other cultural and religious minorities. Let the 20th century not enter the annals of Jewish history as the century of physical and spiritual destruction!"
Heschel was concerned with a number of other political issues with moral implications. He addressed the White House Conference on Aging and spoke, like Maimonides, of old age as a time to achieve moral virtue and inner growth. Speaking to the American Medical Association, he reminded physicians of the ‘sacredness’ of their task and the need to treat rich and poor with equal fervor. Heschel also acted as a spokesman for all American Jews at numerous interfaith conferences, and urged the pope to rectify a two-thousand-year-old injustice, the accusation of Christ-killing, which had caused Jews untold misery.

Heschel has been referred to by many as one of the foremost Jewish theologians of the 20th century. He delivered his last book, A Passion for Truth, to his publisher just a few weeks before his death. In it, he describes the two most important influences in his life: the Baal Shem Tov (1701-1760), the founder of khasidism, and Menakhem Mendl, the Kotsker Rebbe (Kotsk — Kock in Polish — being the town in which he lived). These two khasidic rebbes tugged Heschel in somewhat opposite directions. "The Baal Shem made dark hours luminous;" he wrote, while

the Kotsker eased wretchedness and desolation by forewarnings, by premonitions . . . The Baal Shem dwelled in my life like a lamp, while the Kotsker struck like lightning . . . The Baal Shem gave me wings; the Kotsker encircled me with chains. I never had the courage to break the chains and entered into joys with my shortcomings in mind.
Was it good to live with one's heart torn between the joy of Mezhbizh [where the Baal Shem lived] and the anxiety of Kotsk . . . with my conscience on mercy and my eyes on Auschwitz, wavering between exaltation and dismay? . . . I had no choice: my heart was in Mezhbizh, my mind in Kotsk.
Honesty, authenticity, integrity without love may lead to the ruin of others, of oneself, or both. On the other hand, love, fervor, or exaltation alone may seduce us into living in a fool’s Paradise – a wise man's Hell.

Yankl Stillman is a long-time Jewish Currents editorial board member and Yiddish translator who conducts the column, "Our Secular Jewish Heritage."