The Legacy of Abraham Joshua Heschel
How an Orthodox rabbi became a giant of 20th-century America and one of Judaism's greatest teachers.
Some musicians and artists have the talent to "cross over" and reach audiences beyond ethnic, racial and national borders. But few spiritual leaders significantly influence other communities, since their messages are usually intended for members of their own religious traditions.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was born 100 years ago (Jan. 11, 1907) in Warsaw, Poland, was just such a "crossover" phenomenon. When Heschel died in 1972, he was one of the most important Jewish theologians of the 20th century. Yet he also had a profound impact on many Christian clergy and lay people; the late Coretta Scott King called Heschel "one of the great men of our time."
His achievements are all the more extraordinary because he was born into the intensely Orthodox Jewish world of pre-World War I Poland that was destroyed during the Holocaust, a community accurately called the "lost spiritual capital" of the Jewish people. Both of Heschel's parents were linked to prominent rabbinic families.
Young Abraham Joshua, the youngest of six children, received a traditional Orthodox Jewish education that included rabbinic ordination. Heschel then left Warsaw and earned a doctorate from the University of Berlin and a second ordination from a progressive German rabbinical school. His doctoral thesis was a remarkable study of the Jewish prophets.
He would likely have been one of the 6 million Jews to die in the Holocaust had he not come to Cincinnati in 1940 to teach at Hebrew Union College, the Reform Jewish seminary. But Heschel, an extraordinary combination of modernity and rich religious tradition, was ill at ease at HUC, which minimized "Halacha" -- Jewish religious observance and law.
In 1945, he moved to the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where he taught Jewish ethics and mysticism until his death. There, he achieved international acclaim as a gifted teacher who inspired two generations of students, including many spiritual disciples. Today, his daughter Susannah is professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth.
Heschel's mastery of philosophy, authentic Kabbalah, Hasidic thought and Jewish mysticism was linked to a reverence for the biblical prophets, a love for the state of Israel, and a hatred of all forms of racism, bigotry and prejudice.