Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel presenting Martin Luther King, Jr. with the World Peace Award on December 7, 1965. This image is available from the United States Library Prints and Photographs Division with no known use restrictions.
Once again, I am participating in the A to Z Bloggers Challenge. Once again, I am participating with three blogs: Compassion, Kindness and Love; Blessed Little Creatures; and Classic Films and Actors. This is my way of challenging myself to meet my yearly resolution to write daily. I use three blogs to keep my readers, and myself, entertained. Unfortunately I am not good with dates and started the A to Z challenge a day early. I hope you will forgive me--it must be the first of the month somewhere!
I haven't finished the challenge on time yet, but this year I think I will succeed. I am starting the challenge with a short biography of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a man who I have admired for many years, and I believe that starting the challenge with a short piece about his life will bring me inspiration, strength and guidance.
"Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy." --Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
These were the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. He was the youngest child in a large family, but Abraham Joshua Heschel was destined to follow in the footsteps of his many famous ancestors and become an influential rabbi and philosopher.
Although no one could ever have anticipated the Nazi invasion of Poland and the horrific crimes that would be committed against his family, it is possible that his presence in that place, at that time, helped mold Heschel into one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century, a man who truly desired peace and justice for all
Heschel’s Youth in Poland
Abraham Joshua Heschel was born in Warsaw, Poland on January 11, 1907 to Moshe Mordechai Heschel and Reizel Perlow. He was the youngest of six children. He was also a descendant of many famous rabbinic families, including that of Rebbe Avrohom Yehoshua Heshel.
Heschel had a traditional yeshiva education and obtained traditional semicha, rabbinical ordination at the age of 16. He attended the University of Berlin, studied with some of the greatest Jewish educators of the time, and even joined a Yiddish poetry group and published a volume of poems dedicated to his father. He seemed destined for a promising future, then World War II started and Heschel’s life of quiet studies was soon destroyed by the horrors of the Nazi invasion of Poland.
The Death of Heschel's Family
Heschel was renting a room from a Jewish family in Frankfurt in October of 1938 when the Gestapo showed up at his door. He was arrested and deported to Poland, but Heschel was one of the lucky few who managed to escape the country with the help of the President of Hebrew Union College who obtained visas for a few Jewish scholars in Europe.
One of Heschel’s sisters was killed when the German’s bombed Poland. His mother was murdered by Nazi soldiers and two other sisters died in concentration camps. The loss of his family had a profound effect on Heschel and he swore he would never return to Poland or Germany because the experience could only bring thoughts of hatred and contempt. I have always admired this decision on his part, to keep his thoughts pure and focused on his goal of spreading love and peace in this world as opposed to dwelling on a past who could not change.
Arrival in America
Heschel first sought refuge in England, but only stayed a short time before immigrating to the United States in March of 1940. For the next five years he served on the faculty of Hebrew Union College, the main seminary of Reform Judaism, in Cincinnati.
He married Sylvia Straus on December 10, 1946 in Los Angeles, California. They have one daughter, Susannah Heschel, who has followed the family tradition and is also a Jewish scholar. In 1946, Heschel accepted a position at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, which is the main seminary of Conservative Judaism. He served as Professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism at the JTS until his death in 1972.
Heschel focused his work and studies on medieval Jewish philosophy, Kabbalah, and Hasidism. He believed that the teachings of the Hebrew prophets represented an irresistible mandate for social action in the United States.
Heschel worked as an activist for Black Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War and participated in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s symbolic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.
In a 2007 interview at the United States Holocaust Museum, Heschel’s daughter, Susannah Heschel said: “That was a wonderful friendship, my father and Dr. King. It's had a kind of symbolic meaning for a lot of people within the Jewish community and the African-American community.”
Heschel was also the representative of American Jews at the Vatican Council II where he worked to persuade the Roman Catholic Church to eliminate passages in their liturgy that were demeaning to Jews.
Susannah Heschel's Talks About her Father's Influence
There are many videos on You Tube discussing the life of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and some showing interviews with Heschel or his daughter, Susannah Heschel. In Imagining Heschel: Talk Back With Susannah Heschel, Susannah describes the tremendous spiritual influence her father had on those around him. Heschel explains that many Christian theologians came to her childhood home to visit her father who had a "special relationship with many of them."
According to Susannah. "Even if they didn't know my father very well, the nuns that you refer to, or priests, or pastors, came to our home often experiencing something quite profound. That is, for many of them, what I felt as a child when I look back, many of them came as if they were on a religious pilgrimage...they were very moved."
Abraham Joshua Heschel died on December 23, 1972. The Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership was established in his name in Tel-Aviv, Israel.
In his lifetime, Heschel wrote many great works of philosophy and poetry, including: The Prophets; The Sabbath; Man is Not Alone; God in Search of Man; Prophetic Inspiration after the Prophets; and what is considered his masterwork, Torah min HaShamayim, a three volume study of classical rabbinical theology.
- "Imagining Heschel: Talk back with Susannah Heschel." Culture Project. Cherry Lane Theater. November 10, 2010.
- Voices on Antisemitism: A Podcast Series. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum November 22, 2007. Retrieved March 27, 2014.
- “Who was Heschel?” The Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership. Retrieved January 9, 2010.