Abraham Joshua Heschel זצ״ל ,, (1907 – 1972) was a Polish-born American rabbi and one of the leading Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century. He is one of the few rabbis widely appreciated in all denominations of Judaism, and his work has received acclaim even among non-Jewish theologians in Catholic and Protestant Christianity.
Heschel was raised as a Hasidic Jew where he received traditional semicha (rabbinic ordination,) then studied at Berlin’s liberal rabbinic seminary, the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums, where he became a teacher of Talmud. As Nazi persecution rose in Europe, he was forced to emigrate to America. Here he first taught at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
Not feeling at place in the liberal Reform milieu, in 1946 he took a position at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) in New York City, the academic and spiritual home of the Conservative Jewish movement. There he served as professor of Jewish ethics and Mysticism until his death in 1972.
Heschel was influential in interfaith dialogue – “At the Vatican Council II, as representative of American Jews, Heschel persuaded the Catholic Church to eliminate or modify passages in its liturgy that demeaned the Jews, or referred to an expected conversion to Christianity.” (Wikipedia.)
Heschel authored a number of widely read books on Jewish philosophy, was active in the civil rights movement, and spoke out against the Vietnam War.
“The Sabbath: Its Meaning For Modern Man” Abraham Joshua Heschel, 1951
A Jewish classic, it offers a profound, scholarly, and beautiful meditation on the nature and celebration of the Seventh Day, 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: A Philosophy of Religion” Abraham Joshua Heschel. 1951
A profound work that reflects on how man can apprehend God and have an encounter with the ineffable, and the radical amazement that man experiences when experiencing the presence of the Divine. Major themes include 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 specific, man’s yearning for spirituality; Judaism as a pattern for life, and a study of what piety really is.
“Man’s Quest for God,” Abraham Joshua Heschel, 1954
Discusses the meaning and necessity of a Jew having a spiritual life; the nature of Kavanah, כַּוָּנָה , intention in Jewish prayer. Prayer as an invitation to God. The importance of spontaneity in prayer, and the threat of praying by proxy or spiritual absenteeism. The dangers of religious behaviorism. Does God require anything of man? Judaism requires a leap of action, rather than a leap of faith. The use of words of symbols, when that is appropriate, and when thinking of a word as a symbol might be misleading. Ideas covered include the will of God is no euphemism, and the purpose of Mitzvot and ceremonies. In the last chapter, the meaning of this hour, Heschel – who saw the horrors of Nazism and World War II, – entreats the reader to beware what could become of humanity if we take the wrong path.
“God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism” Abraham Joshua Heschel. 1955
The companion volume to “Man is not Alone”, “God in Search of Man” combines scholarship with reverence and compassion as it elucidates the nature of religious thought, how thought becomes faith, and how faith creates responses in the believer. Section one discusses ways to God’s Presence, and the legacy of wonder that religion gives; the sense of divine mystery; the illusion of nature worship; man’s metaphysical loneliness; God in search of man, and the concept of the chosen people.
Section two deals with the idea of Revelation and prophetic inspiration. Discusses revelation as a process as opposed to an event, and Israel’s commitment to God. Section three discusses a Jew’s response to the Jewish Religion. There is a study and rejection of the idea that mere faith (without law) alone is enough, but also a cautioning against of those rabbis that add too many hedges to the law, who mistakenly act as if all Jewish law was revealed at Mount Sinai. It discusses the need to correlate ritual observance with spirituality and love, the importance of Kavanah (intention) when performing mitzvot, and a discussion of religious behaviorism – when people strive for external compliance with the law, yet disregard inner devotion.
“The Prophets”, Abraham Joshua Heschel. 1962
Studies the lives of the Prophets, the historical context their missions were set in, their work, and their psychological state. It gives a detailed treatment of the entire phenomenon of prophecy, and what it means.
Torah min HaShamayim BeAspaklariya shel HaDorot, (“Torah from Heaven in the mirror of the generations”,) 1962. Many people consider this 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 2nd century sages Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi 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. In 2006 this was finally published in English as “Heavenly Torah: As Refracted through the Generations,” translated by Rabbi Gordon Tucker. Published by Continuum/Bloomsbury.
Prophetic Inspiration After the Prophets (1966)
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. The publisher 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 long Hebrew 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.”
Involvement in the Civil Rights movement
Views on the Vietnam War