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Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (2nd from right) in the Selma Civil Rights March with Martin Luther King, Jr. (4th from right). Heschel later wrote, "When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying."

Abraham Joshua Heschel (January 11, 1907 – December 23, 1972) was a Warsaw-born American rabbi and one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century.


Abraham Joshua Heschel was descended from preeminent European rabbis on both sides of the family. [1]. His father, Moshe Mordechai Heschel, died of influenza in 1916. His mother Reizel Perlow, was a descendant of Rebbe Avrohom Yehoshua Heshel of Apt and other dynasties. He was the youngest of six children. His siblings were Sarah, Dvora Miriam, Esther Sima, Gittel, and Jacob.

After a traditional yeshiva education and studying for Orthodox rabbinical ordination semicha, he pursued his doctorate at the University of Berlin and a liberal rabbinic ordination at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums. There he studied under some of the finest Jewish educators of the time: Chanoch Albeck, Ismar Elbogen, Julius Guttmann, and Leo Baeck. Heschel later taught Talmud there. He joined a Yiddish poetry group, Jung Vilna, and in 1933, published a volume of Yiddish poems, Der Shem Hamefoyrosh: Mentsch, dedicated to his father. [2]

In late October 1938, when he was living in a rented room in the home of a Jewish family in Frankfurt, he was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Poland. He spent ten months lecturing on Jewish philosophy and Torah at Warsaw's Institute for Jewish Studies. [2] Six weeks before the German invasion of Poland, Heschel left Warsaw for London with the help of Julian Morgenstern, president of Hebrew Union College, who had been working to obtain visas for Jewish scholars in Europe.[2]

Heschel's sister Esther was killed in a German bombing. His mother was murdered by the Nazis, and two other sisters, Gittel and Devorah, died in Nazi concentration camps. He never returned to Germany, Austria or Poland. He once wrote, "If I should go to Poland or Germany, every stone, every tree would remind me of contempt, hatred, murder, of children killed, of mothers burned alive, of human beings asphyxiated."[2]

Heschel arrived in New York City in March 1940. [2]He served on the faculty of Hebrew Union College (HUC), the main seminary of Reform Judaism, in Cincinnati for five years. In 1946, he took a position at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS), the main seminary of Conservative Judaism, where he served as professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism until his death in 1972.

Heschel married Sylvia Straus on December 10, 1946, in Los Angeles. Their daughter, Susannah Heschel, is a Jewish scholar in her own right.


Heschel explicated many facets of Jewish thought including studies on medieval Jewish philosophy, Kabbalah, and Hasidism. According to some scholars, he was more interested in spirituality than critical text study, which was a specialty of many scholars at JTS. He was not given a graduate assistant for many years and was relegated to teach mainly in the education school or Rabbinical school, not the academic graduate program. Heschel was particularly looked down upon by his colleague Mordechai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, and many students who attended JTS in the 50s sympathized with Kaplan over Heschel. [3]

Heschel saw the teachings of the Hebrew prophets as a clarion call for social action in the United States and worked for black civil rights and against the Vietnam War [1]Heschel was an activist for civil rights in the United States.

He also specifically criticized what he called "pan-halakhism", or a focus upon religiously-compatible behavior.

Influence outside of Judaism

Heschel is among the few widely read Jewish theologians. His most influential works include Man is Not Alone, God in Search of Man, The Sabbath, and The Prophets. At the Vatican Council II, as representative of American Jews, Heschel persuaded the Roman Catholic Church to eliminate or modify passages in its liturgy that demeaned the Jews, or expected their conversion to Christianity. His theological works argued that religious experience is a fundamentally human impulse, not just a Jewish one, and that no religious community could claim a monopoly on religious truth.[4]

Published work

The Prophets

This work started out as his Ph.D. thesis in German, which he later expanded and translated into English. Originally published in a two-volume edition, this work studies the books of the Hebrew prophets. It covers their life and the historical context that their missions were set in, summarizes their work, and discusses their psychological state. In it Heschel forwards what would become a central idea in his theology: that the prophetic (and, ultimately, Jewish) view of God is best understood not as anthropomorphic (that God takes human form) but rather as anthropopathic — that God has human feelings.

The Sabbath

The Sabbath: Its Meaning For Modern Man is a work on the nature and celebration of Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. This work is rooted in the thesis that Judaism is a religion of time, not space, and that the Sabbath symbolizes the sanctification of time.

Man is Not Alone

Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion offers Heschel's views on how man can apprehend God. Judaism views God as being radically different from man, so Heschel explores the ways that Judaism teaches that a person may have an encounter with the ineffable. A recurring theme in this work is the radical amazement that man experiences when experiencing the presence of the Divine. Heschel then goes to explore the problems of doubts and faith; what Judaism means by teaching that God is one; the essence of man and the problem of man's needs; the definition of religion in general and of Judaism in particular; and man's yearning for spirituality. He offers his views as to Judaism being a pattern for life.

God in Search of Man

God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism is a companion volume to Man is Not Alone. In this book Heschel discusses the nature of religious thought, how thought becomes faith, and how faith creates responses in the believer. He discusses ways that man can seek God's presence, and the radical amazement that man receives in return. He offers a criticism of nature worship; a study of man's metaphysical loneliness, and his view that we can consider God to be in search of man. The first section concludes with a study of Jews as a chosen people. Section two deals with the idea of revelation, and what it means for one to be a prophet. This section gives us his idea of revelation as a process, as opposed to an event. This relates to Israel's commitment to God. Section three discusses his views of how a Jew should understand the nature of Judaism as a religion. He discusses and rejects the idea that mere faith (without law) alone is enough, but then cautions against rabbis he sees as adding too many restrictions to Jewish law. He discusses the need to correlate ritual observance with spirituality and love, the importance of Kavanah (intention) when performing mitzvot. He engages in a discussion of religious behaviorism — when people strive for external compliance with the law, yet disregard the importance of inner devotion.

Prophetic Inspiration After the Prophets

Heschel wrote a series of articles, originally in Hebrew, on the existence of prophecy in Judaism after the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. These essays were translated into English and published as Prophetic Inspiration After the Prophets: Maimonides and Others by the American Judaica publisher Ktav.

The publisher of this book states, "The standard Jewish view is that prophecy ended with the ancient prophets, somewhere early in the Second Temple era. Heschel demonstrated that this view is not altogether accurate. Belief in the possibility of continued prophetic inspiration, and in its actual occurrence appear throughout much of the medieval period, and even in modern times. Heschel's work on prophetic inspiration in the Middle Ages originally appeared in two Hebrew long articles. In them he concentrated on the idea that prophetic inspiration was possible even in post-Talmudic times, and, indeed, had taken place at various times and in various schools, from the Geonim to Maimonides and beyond."

Torah min HaShamayim

Many consider Heschel's Torah min HaShamayim BeAspaklariya shel HaDorot, (Torah from Heaven in the light of the generations) to be his masterwork. The three volumes of this work are a study of classical rabbinic theology and aggadah, as opposed to halakha (Jewish law.) It explores the views of the rabbis in the Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash about the nature of Torah, the revelation of God to mankind, prophecy, and the ways that Jews have used scriptural exegesis to expand and understand these core Jewish texts. In this work Heschel views the second century sages Rabbis Akiva ben Yosef and Ishmael ben Elisha as paradigms for the two dominant world-views in Jewish theology

Two Hebrew volumes were published during his lifetime by Soncino Press, and the third Hebrew volume was published posthumously by JTS Press in the 1990s. An English translation of all three volumes, with notes, essays and appendices, was translated and edited by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, entitled Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations. In its own right it can be the subject of intense study and analysis, and provides insight into the relationship between God and Man beyond the world of Judaism and for all Monotheism.


  • "Racism is man's gravest threat to man - the maximum hatred for a minimum reason."
  • "All it takes is one person… and another… and another… and another… to start a movement"
  • "Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge."
  • "A religious man is a person who holds God and man in one thought at one time, at all times, who suffers harm done to others, whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair."
  • " God is either of no importance, or of supreme importance."
  • "Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy."
  • "Self-respect is the fruit of discipline, the sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself."
  • "Life without commitment is not worth living."
  • "Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible."[5]
  • "Remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power. Never forget that you can still do your share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and frustrations and disappointments."
  • "When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people."
  • "Awareness of symbolic meaning is awareness of a specific idea; kavanah is awareness of an ineffable situation.
  • "A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought."
  • "Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed."
  • "The Almighty has not created the universe that we may have opportunities to satisfy our greed, envy and ambition."
  • "The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments."
  • "The course of life is unpredictable... no one can write his autobiography in advance."


Four schools have been named for Heschel, in the Upper West Side of New York City, Northridge, California, Agoura Hills, California, and Toronto. In 2009, a highway in Missouri was named "Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel Highway" after a Springfield, Missouri area Neo-Nazi group cleaned the stretch of highway as part of an "Adopt-A-Highway" plan. Heschel's daughter, Susannah, has objected to the adoption of her father's name in this context.[6]


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Dateline World Jewry", April 2007, World Jewish Congress
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Abraham Joshua Heschel
  3. Scult, Mel . Kaplan's Heschel : a view from the Kaplan diary. In: Conservative Judaism, 54,4 (2002) 3-14
  4. Gillman, Neil (1993). Conservative Judaism: The New Century. Behrman House Inc.. pp. 163. 
  5. Heschel, A.J., The Prophets (New York: Harper Collins, 1962), p. 19.

Selected bibliography

  • The Earth Is the Lord's: The Inner World of the Jew in Eastern Europe. 1949. ISBN 1-879045-42-7
  • Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion. 1951. ISBN 0-374-51328-7
  • The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man. 1951. ISBN 1-59030082-3
  • Man's Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism. 1954. ISBN 0684168294
  • God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism. 1955. ISBN 0-374-51331-7
  • The Prophets. 1962. ISBN 0-06-093699-1
  • Who Is Man? 1965.
  • Israel: An Echo of Eternity. 1969. ISBN 1-879045-70-2
  • A Passion for Truth. 1973. ISBN 1-879045-41-9
  • Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations. 2005. ISBN 0-8264-0802-8
  • Torah min ha-shamayim be'aspaklariya shel ha-dorot; Theology of Ancient Judaism. [Hebrew]. 2 vols. London: Soncino Press, 1962. Third volume, New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1995.
  • The Ineffable Name of God: Man: Poems. 2004. ISBN 0-8264-1632-2
  • Kotsk: in gerangl far emesdikeyt. [Yiddish]. 2 v. (694 p.) Tel-Aviv: ha-Menorah, 1973. Added t.p.: Kotzk: the struggle for integrity. A Passion for Truth is an adaptation of this larger work.
  • Der mizrekh-Eyropeyisher Yid (Yiddish: The Eastern European Jew). 45 p. Originally published: New-York: Shoken, 1946.
  • Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness & Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972, biography by Edward K. Kaplan

External links

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