Heschel, Abraham Joshua

views updated May 29 2018


HESCHEL, ABRAHAM JOSHUA (19071972), was a Jewish scholar and philosopher of religion. Born and raised in Warsaw, Heschel received his training in the methods of modern scientific research in Berlin, and wrote most of his mature works in the United States. Heschel was born into an intensely traditional Hasidic milieu: He was descended on his father's side from Dov Ber of Mezhirich, successor of the BeSHT (acronym of the Baʿal Shem ov, Yisraʾel ben Eliʿezer), founder of the Hasidic movement that flourished among eastern European Jews in the eighteenth century; Avraham Yehoshuʿa Heschel, known as "the Apter rebe "; and Yisraʾel of Rizhyn. On his mother's side, he was descended from Levi Yitsaq of Berdichev and Pinas of Korets.

As a youth, Heschel received traditional training in Talmud and rabbinic lore, in which he excelled, and immersed himself in the world of Jewish mysticism, the literature of Qabbalah. Having decided to acquire a modern Western education, he enrolled in a secular Yiddish Realgymnasium in Vilna (now Vilnius), and in 1927 he moved to Berlin, where he attended the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums and the University of Berlin. His doctoral dissertation (1933), dealing with the phenomenon of prophetic consciousness, was published in 1936 (Die Prophetie ). After teaching Talmud at the Hochschule, he was appointed Martin Buber's successor at the Central Organization for Jewish Adult Education in Germany and the Jüdische Lehrhaus in Frankfurt in 1937. After his deportation in October 1938 with the rest of the Polish Jews then resident in Germany, Heschel taught for eight months at the Institute for Jewish Studies in Warsaw. He was enabled to leave Poland before the Nazi invasion only by a call to join the faculty of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Heschel reached the United States, via England, in 1940, and after five years on the faculty of the Hebrew Union College, he taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York as professor of ethics and mysticism, until his death. In the last decade of his life, he became actively involved in a number of public issues. He participated in negotiations with Cardinal Bea concerning the formulation of a declaration on the Jews, which emerged from Vatican Council II, and he also took part in the civil rights movement, opposition to the Vietnam War, and the campaign to enable Russian Jews to emigrate from the Soviet Union.

Heschel's philosophy of religion developed under the influences of his traditional Jewish upbringing and the challenges of modern secular philosophy, science, and psychology. He was impressed by the works of the neo-Kantian philosophers, such as his teacher Heinrich Maier (Philosophie der Wirklichkeit, Tübingen, 1926), and by the phenomenologists Edmund Husserl and Max Scheler. But against the neo-Kantians he defended the claim of traditional Judaism that God is more than a postulate of reason. From the phenomenologists he learned to analyze the constitutive traits and structures of experienced reality, without reducing them to alien categories that can distort their unique character. Already in his early work on prophecy, later expanded into his English book The Prophets (1962), he asserted that the phenomena of biblical prophecy should not be forced into the categories of Aristotelian metaphysics. The "divine concern" of the living God of the Bible, who takes a passionate interest in his creatures, is the key to Heschel's philosophy of religion.

Heschel rejected the construction of a "religion of reason" in the spirit of the neo-Kantian philosopher Hermann Cohen, because such would substitute philosophy for religion; he rejected the analysis of "religious experience," as in Schleiermacher and Rudolf Otto, because it would replace religion with the psychology of religion; and he criticized the "reconstruction" of traditional Judaism to conform to modern naturalism in the manner of Mordecai M. Kaplan, because it would transform religion into the sociology of religion. If religion is sui generis, it must be studied on its own terms, and the interpreter must focus on the preconceptual, ineffable reality of lived religion and on the dynamic relationship between God and humankind disclosed in the classical documents of Judaism and the lives and experiences of pious men.

Heschel consciously adopted a dual approach in his work both as a scholar who pursued historical research in the sources of classical Jewish thought and as an original and imaginative contemporary philosopher and theologian. This approach enabled him to formulate his own thought as an authentic interpretation of his Judaic heritage in all its richness. Heschel's scholarly studies, in addition to his seminal work on prophecy, included a biography of Moses Maimonides, published in 1935; various articles on medieval philosophy, Qabbalah, and Hasidism; and a work written in Hebrew on the doctrines of revelation in Talmudic thought, of which two volumes were published in 19621965 and a third still awaits publication. A two-volume work on the life and thought of Menaem Mendel of Kotzk, the "Kotzker rebe ", and an English volume about Mendel and Kierkegaard (A Passion for Truth ) appeared posthumously.

The second strand of Heschel's work, in which he tried to offer his contemporaries a theology based on the application of the insights of traditional sources to the problems of modernity, is chiefly developed in Man Is Not Alone (1951) and its successor volume, God in Search of Man (1955). Here religion is defined as an answer to ultimate human questions. Because modern humanity is often estranged from the reality that informs genuine faith, Heschel thought it was futile to present merely traditional answers to these questions. Hence, he tried first and foremost to recover the significant existential questions to which Judaism offers answers, confronting his readers with the living God of the Bible. To the religiously sensitive person, God is an "ontological presupposition," the ultimate reality, which is later crystallized by discursive thought into the concept of a power, a principle, a cause, or a structure.

Heschel described three ways in which humans can reach an awareness of God. The experience of wonder leads beyond mere facts to an awareness of the grandeur and mystery of reality. Wonder as curiosity becomes the starting point of science that looks beyond given facts (data) to the laws they exemplify. Wonder as "radical amazement" points to the ground and power that stand behind all facts and perceptions of facts. This "evocative" approach to reality results in a panentheistic outlook: Through created things one becomes aware of the God who is within, but who is also beyond all finite existence.

A second approach to awareness of God is reached by delving into the recesses of one's own being, realizing that the self is not a discrete, independent, and self-sufficient entity, but part of something greater and more comprehensive than the individual. This approach tends toward a quasi-mystical view, but it stops short of mystical absorption in the godhead, by emphasizing God as the subject of reality and humans as the object whose dignity and worth are derived from their awareness that they are the goal of divine concern and expectation.

In a third way to God, humankind becomes aware of the voice and word of God. The "holy dimension," discovered by reacting responsively and responsibly to this address, characterizes the biblical view of revelation. By observing the commandments of the transcendent God, Israel entered this holy dimension of challenge and guidance, and by obediently responding to the divine imperative, humanity experiences itself as the object of divine address and concern. The ability to respond to the divine challenge is the root of human freedom; the failures and successes of Israel in responding to God's call constitute the drama of Jewish history as interpreted by faith. Thus the Bible is not so much human theology as God's anthropology.

Because of Heschel's stress on faith as a response to God's demands, he opposed both the scholastic attempts to identify the biblical God with the Greek notion of "being," and the modern process philosophies that describe the deity as the power that makes for goodness, the nisus of the universe, or the moral dimension of reality. His own concept of "divine pathos" makes the idea of concern, or directed attention, the central category of biblical thought. Aristotle's Unmoved Mover must give way to the biblical idea of the Most Moved Mover. Humankind responds to divine pathos with sympathy, and by this act of identifying with divine aims, overcomes its egocentric predicament without having to suppress its own needs. A religious person, by acts of empathy with divine goals, converts divine goals and ends into consciously acquired and deeply felt personal needs. Humans, who share "transitive," outgoing concern with God, not only must have needs but must also be needed, in order to attain true fulfillment.

Heschel's philosophy is shot through with polarities; the pair he calls "pattern and spontaneity" (qevaʿ, kavvanah ) are basic to life and liturgy and produce a creative tension between, on the one hand, the prescribed and regulated observance of the commandments (mitsvot ) and, on the other, the novel and individual way in which a Jew ought to respond to the unique experiences of existence. Time and space stand in a similar dialectical relation where things are frozen processes; life is a unity frozen in the process of gathering the past into itself in memory and faithfulness and of reaching into the future in hope, expectation, and anticipatory celebration. The Sabbath, whose celebration is a weekly commemoration of creation, the renewal of the divine-human covenant, and a foretaste of future redemption, is an edifice in time.

Heschel's latest work on the Kotzker rebe mirrors his awareness of the tension between mystery and meaning, between natural and crisis theology, between sacramentalism and utopianismor, in the language of Qabbalah, between the world of unification (ʿalma' de-yihudaʾ ) and the world of separation (ʿalmaʾ de-ferudaʾ). Perhaps Heschel's most important theme is that God is in need of humankind and that humanity's deepest fulfillment can be found by participating in the divine concern.


The fullest exposition of Heschel's theology is found in his two major books, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (New York, 1951) and God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York, 1955). His major contribution to biblical theology is The Prophets (New York, 1962). His work on Talmudic doctrines of revelation in the schools of Yishmaʿeʾl and ʿAqivaʾ is Torah min ha-shamayim be-aspaqlaryah shel ha-dorot, 2 vols. (New York, 19621965). Man's Quest for God (New York, 1954) contains essays and addresses on prayer and symbolism. Heschel's views on the nature of time can be found in The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York, 1951). The Earth Is the Lord's (New York, 1950) deals with the life and spirituality of eastern European Jewry; Israel: An Echo of Eternity (New York, 1969) treats the meaning of the land and the State of Israel. The Insecurity of Freedom (New York, 1966) is a collection of essays dealing with contemporary topics. A Passion for Truth (New York, 1973) discusses the life and thought of Menaem Mendel of Kotzk, and is largely based on the more scholarly and magisterial two-volume work written in Yiddish and published as Kotzk: In gerangel far emesdkeit (Tel Aviv, 1973).

The Circle of the Baal Shem Tov: Studies in Hasidism, edited and introduced by Samuel H. Dresner (Chicago, 1985), contains a collection of scholarly papers by Heschel, originally published in periodicals and festschrifts, and mostly written in Hebrew or Yiddish. Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism from the Writings of Abraham J. Heschel, rev. ed. (New York, 1976), is an anthology of Heschel's writings that I have edited, organizing his thought in a systematic form. My introductory essay attempts to present an exposition of Heschel's life and philosophy, and the volume contains a full bibliography of Heschel's books and articles and of translations of books and articles into other languages. It also gives a select list of writings on Heschel until 1975.

John C. Merkle's The Genesis of Faith: The Depth Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel (New York, 1985), written by a Roman Catholic theologian, is the most detailed and thorough book-length study of Heschel's theology in English. The Fall 1973 issue (vol. 28) of the quarterly journal Conservative Judaism is exclusively devoted to Heschel's life and thought and contains a number of important articles. Albino Babolin's Abraham Joshua Heschel: Filosofo della religione (Perugia, 1978), written in Italian by a Catholic professor of the University of Perugia, is an important exposition of Heschel's thought and its critics.

New Sources

Braun, Moshe A. The Heschel Tradition: The Life and Teachings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt. Northvale, N.J., 1997.

Dresner, Samuel H. Heschel, Hasidism, and Halakha. New York, 2002.

Fierman, Morton C. Leap of Action: Ideas in the Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel. Lanham, Md., 1990.

Kaplan, Edward K. Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness. New Haven, Conn., 1998.

Perlman, Lawrence. Abraham Heschel's Idea of Revelation. Brown Judaic Studies, 171. Atlanta, 1989.

Fritz A. Rothschild (1987)

Revised Bibliography

Heschel, Abraham Joshua

views updated May 11 2018


HESCHEL, ABRAHAM JOSHUA (1907–1972), U.S. scholar and philosopher, descended on his father's side from *Dov Baer (the Maggid) of Mezeritch and *Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apta (Opatow); on his mother's side from *Levi Isaac of Berdichev. After traditional Jewish studies, he obtained rabbinic ordination (semikhah). At the age of 20 he enrolled in the University of Berlin, where he obtained his doctorate, and at the Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums, where he also taught Talmud and received a second, liberal rabbinical ordination. In 1937 Martin *Buber appointed him his successor at the central organization for Jewish adult education (Mittelstelle fuer juedische Erwachsenenbildung) and the Juedisches Lehrhaus at Frankfurt on the Main. Deported by the Nazis in October 1938 to Poland, he taught for eight months at the Warsaw Institute of Jewish Studies. He immigrated to England where he established the Institute for Jewish Learning in London. In 1940 he was invited by Julian Morgenstern to teach at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where he was associate professor of philosophy and rabbinics for five years. From 1945 he taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (jts) as professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism. In 1946 he married Sylvia Strauss, who gave birth to Susannah Heschel, who followed in the footsteps of her father as a scholar of Judaism. Heschel visited Israel and called for the renewal of the prophetic vision in Zion. He served as professor at jts until his death, combining his professional activities with extensive social action.


Heschel wrote books and studies on medieval Jewish philosophy – on Saadiah Gaon, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Maimonides, and Don Isaac Abrabanel – as well as on Hasidism. He became one of the most influential modern philosophers of religion in the United States, where his work is widely recognized in Jewish and Christian circles. Heschel saw the task of the philosopher of religion neither in the construction of a "religion of reason" which draws on non-Jewish sources nor in the analysis of "religious experience." The first substitutes philosophy for religion; the second tends to replace it with the psychology of religion. Heschel's own works attempt to penetrate and illumine the reality underlying religion, the living and dynamic relationship between God and man, through the empathetic understanding of the documents of Israel's tradition and of the experience of the religious Jew. Although he brought to this task the tools of modern philosophy, he pointed out repeatedly that no amount of rational analysis alone can ever exhaust the richness and fullness of this reality. He therefore highlighted the fact that reason itself discloses its own limits and that the ineffable quality of the Divine cannot fully be reduced to any scheme of conceptual categories, because man apprehends more than he can comprehend.

Heschel's lifework can be seen as consisting of two parallel strands: (1) the undertaking to study and interpret the classical sources of Judaism and (2) the endeavor to offer to his contemporaries a theology which results from the application of the insights of the traditional sources to the problems and questions which the modern Jew faces. Thus he started out with a book on prophecy (Die Prophetie, 1936), which presents a phenomenology of prophetic consciousness, and a biography of Maimonides treating the existential confrontation of Aristotelian philosophy with rabbinic Judaism. Studies in the field of Ḥasidism continued this undertaking. He published his first American book under the title The Earth Is the Lord's (1950) on Jewish life in Eastern Europe. In his three-volume Hebrew work, Torah min ha-Shamayim be-Aspaklaryah shel ha-Dorot (1962, 1965; third volume published posthumously in 1990), he presented the assumptions and ideas underlying the talmudic views of Torah and revelation and discovered two major trends in ancient Jewish thought which became formative in all subsequent Jewish history. In these two trends, epitomized by Rabbi *Ishmael and Rabbi *Akiva, halakhic differences reflect different aggadic positions of faith. Rabbi Akiva maintained that the Torah is written in heavenly language, which stimulates vision and opens one up to mystery, whereas Rabbi Ishmael asserted that the Torah is written in the language of man, which promotes logical thinking and the search for peshat (the plain meaning).

The results of Heschel's wide-ranging studies contributed to the formation of his original philosophy of Judaism, expressed in his two foundational books, Man Is Not Alone (1951) and God in Search of Man (1955). Religion is defined as the answer to man's ultimate questions. Since modern man is largely alienated from reality, which informs genuine religion, Heschel tried to recover the significant existential questions to which Judaism offers answers. This leads to a depth-theology which goes below the surface phenomena of modern doubt and rootlessness and results in a humanistic approach to the personal God of the Bible, who is neither a philosophical abstraction nor a psychological projection, but a living reality who takes a passionate interest in His creatures. The "divine concern" or "divine pathos" is the central category of Heschel's philosophy. Man's ability to transcend his egocentric interests and to respond with love and devotion to the divine demand, to His "pathos" or "transitive concern," is the root of Jewish life with its ethics and observances. The ability to rise to the holy dimension of the divine imperative is at the basis of human freedom. The failures and successes of Israel to respond to God's call constitute the drama of Jewish history as seen from the viewpoint of theology. The polarity of law and life, the pattern and the spontaneous, of keva ("permanence") and kavvanah ("devotion"), inform all of life and produce the creative tension in which Judaism is a way of prescribed and regular mitzvot as well as a spontaneous and always novel reaction of each Jew to the divine reality.

Heschel developed a philosophy of time in which a technical society that tends to think in spatial categories is contrasted with the Jewish idea of hallowing time, of which the Sabbath and the holidays are the most outstanding examples (The Sabbath, 1951). He defined Judaism as a religion of time, aiming at the sanctification of time. In his depth-theology, which is based upon the human being's pre-conceptual cognition, Heschel thought that all humanity has an inherentsense of the sacred; he pleaded for a radical amazement and fulminated against symbolism as a reduction of religion. Instead of advocating a sociological view of Judaism, he highlighted the spirituality and inner beauty of Judaism as well as the religious act, while at the same time rejecting a religious behaviorism without inwardness. Heschel's way of writing is poetical and suggestive, sometimes meditative, containing many antitheses and provocative questions and aims at the transformation of modern man into a spiritual being in dialogue with God.

Religion and Action

Underlying all of Heschel's thought is the belief that modern man's estrangement from religion is not merely the result of intellectual perplexity or of the obsoleteness of traditional religion, but rather the failure of modern man to recover the understanding and experience of that dimension of reality in which the divine-human encounter can take place. His philosophy of religion has therefore a twofold aim: to forge the conceptual tools by which one can adequately approach this reality, and to evoke in modern man – by describing traditional piety and the relationship between God and man – the sympathetic appreciation of the holy dimension of life without which no amount of detached analysis can penetrate to the reality which is the root of all art, morality, and faith.

Heschel applied in a number of essays and addresses the insights of his religious philosophy to particular problems confronting people in modern times. He addressed rabbinic and lay audiences on the topics of prayer and symbolism (see his Man's Quest for God, 1954), dealt with the problems of youth and old age at two White House conferences in Washington, and played an active part in the civil rights movement in the U.S. in the 1960s, and in the Jewish-Christian dialogue beginning with the preparations for Vatican Council ii. Heschel thought that religious people from various denominations are linked to each other, since "No religion is an island."

Heschel considered himself a survivor, "a brand plucked from the fire, in which my people was burned to death." He also regarded himself as a descendant of the prophets. He was a person who combined inner piety and prophetic activism. He was profoundly interested in spirituality, but an inner spirituality concretely linked to social action, as exemplified by his commitment to the struggle for civil rights in the U.S., by his protests against the Vietnam War, and by his activities on behalf of Soviet Jewry (see i.a. The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence, 1966).

add. bibliography:

J.J. Petuchowski, "Faith as the Leapof Action: The Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel," in: Commentary, 25:5 (1958), 390–97; F.A. Rothschild (ed. and intr.), Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism from the Writings of Abraham J. Heschel (1965); S. Seigel, "Abraham Heschel's Contribution to Jewish Scholarship," in Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly, 32 (1968):72–85; F. Sherman, The Promise of Heschel (1970); S. Tanenzapf, "Abraham Heschel and his Critics," in: Judaism, 23:3 (1974), 276–86; M. Friedman, "Divine Need and Human Wonder: The Philosophy of A.J. Heschel," in: Judaism. 25:1 (1976), 65–78; B.L. Sherwin, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1979); S.T. Katz, "Abraham Joshua Heschel and Hasidism," in: Journal of Jewish Studies, 31 (1980), 82–104; H. Kasimow, "Abraham Joshua Heschel and Interreligious Dialogue," in: Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 18 (1981), 423–34; J.C. Merkle, The Genesis of Faith: The Depth-Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel (1985); J.C. Merkle (ed.), Abraham Joshua Heschel: Exploring His Life and Thought (1985); L. Perlman, Abraham Heschel's Idea of Revelation (1989); D. Moore, The Human and the Holy: The Spirituality of A.J. Heschel (1989); H. Kasimow and B. Sherwin (eds.), No Religion Is an Island (1991); E.K. Kaplan, Holiness in Words (1996); E.K. Kaplan and S.H. Dresner, Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness (1998); R. Horwitz, "Abraham Joshua Heschel on Prayer and His Hasidic Sources," in: Modern Judaism, 19:3 (1999), 293–310; E. Schweid, Prophets for Their People and Humanity. Prophecy and Prophets in 20th Century Jewish Thought (Heb., 1999), 234–54; A. Even-Chen, A Voice from the Darkness: Abraham Joshua Heschel – Phenomenology and Mysticism (Heb., 1999); E. Meir, "David Hartman on the Attitudes of Soloveitchik and Heschel towards Christianity," in: J.W. Malino (ed.), Judaism and Modernity: The Religious Philosophy of David Hartman (2001), 253–65; idem, "Love and Truth in the Jewish Consciousness According to Abraham Joshua Heschel," in: Hagut. Jewish Educational Thought, 3–4 (2002), 141–50; G. Rabinovitch (ed.), Abraham J. Heschel: Un tsaddiq dans la cité (2004).

[Fritz A. Rothschild /

Ephraim Meir (2nd ed.)]

Abraham Joshua Heschel

views updated Jun 11 2018

Abraham Joshua Heschel

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was a Polish-born theologian, educator, and philosopher who sought to build a modern philosophy of religion on the basis of ancient Jewish tradition. Among other posts, he held the chair of professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York City.

With his birth in Warsaw, Poland, in 1907, Abraham Joshua Heschel entered a family that counted back seven generations of Hasidic rabbis. His father was Rabbi Moshe Mordecai, and his ancestors helped to found the Polish Hasidic movement, a Jewish sect of mystics, in the eighteenth century. Both his father and his mother, Reisel Perlow Heschel, instilled in him a love of learning as he grew up in the orthodox ghetto of Warsaw. As a young man, he wrote poetry, and his collection of Yiddish verse was published years later (1933) in his home city.

Student and Teacher Years

Following a traditional Jewish education in Warsaw, Heschel went to Berlin, where he studied at the university and also taught the Talmud, during 1932-33, at the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums. He earned his PhD degree from Berlin University in 1933 and accepted a fellowship at the Hochschule, graduating the following year. Over the next three years, three published works established him as a scholar and author of note: Maimonides: Eine Biographie, concerning the medieval Jewish philosopher (1935); Die Prophetie, on Hebrew prophesy (1936); and Don Jizchak Abravalel, about the fifteenth-century Jewish statesman of Spain (1937).

In 1937, Heschel went to Frankfurt am Main to teach at the noted Judisches Lehrhaus. But war clouds were gathering in Europe, and he was deported from Nazi Germany in 1938. He returned to Warsaw for a few months of teaching at the Institute of Judaistic Studies, but the Nazi invasion of his homeland forced him to London where he founded the Institute for Jewish Learning.

The United States had not yet entered World War II when Heschel arrived in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he joined the faculty of Hebrew Union College in 1940. Five years later he took the chair of professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism at Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City. Heschel, who became an American citizen in 1945, married concert pianist Sylvia Straus in 1946, and they had one daughter, Hannah. He remained at the Jewish Theological Seminary until his death in New York City on December 23, 1972.

Teachings and Published Works

Abraham Heschel wished to construct a modern philosophy of religion on the basis of ancient Jewish tradition and teachings. In traditional Jewish piety, he observed an inner depth of devotion that he sought to convey to twentieth-century humans. "The Jew is never alone in the face of God, " he said, "for the Torah is always with him."

Heschel's concern for the piety of the individual involved him in the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s and early 1970s to end discrimination against blacks in America. He was one of the first religious leaders in the United States to speak out against the escalating war in Vietnam. And he risked the wrath of fellow Jews by meeting with Pope Paul VI at the Vatican in Rome to discuss Jewish feelings concerning Vatican Council II. Some Jewish leaders objected to the trip, but Heschel felt it important that Jewish approval be added, if possible, to some of the Council's decrees, such as the denial of any Jewish guilt in the crucifixion of Jesus.

In addition to his teachings, Heschel is well known for his writings. They include: his magnum opus, Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (1951), The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (1951), Man's Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism (1954), God in Search of Man (1955), The Prophets (1962), Who Is Man? (1965), and The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence (1966). These books provide insights into his existentialist philosophy of Judaism with its central concept based on a "theology of pathos, " in which God is a god of pathos, "revealed in a personal and intimate relation to the world. … He is also moved and affected by what happens in the world and reacts accordingly." This divine pathos, in turn, evokes a human response of sympathy for God, by which "man experiences God as his own being" Heschel's "religion of sympathy."

The element of time occupies an important place in Heschel's theology, since "Time is perpetual innovation, a synonym for continuous creation, " and human existence in time is communion with God and a reaction to the continuous action of God. From this concept of time, Heschel derived his theory of human freedom as "a spiritual event." According to Heschel, the individual learns about God not by reason and intellect, but through experience, divine revelation, and sacred deeds, all of which enable the individual to form a relationship—a "leap of action" rather than of faith—with God.

In addition to his scholarly and philosophical writings, Heschel authored several works on Jewish life in eastern Europe. Chief among them is The Earth Is the Lord's: The Inner World of the Jew in East Europe (1950), in which he theorizes that the "golden age" of European Jewish life was in the Jewish culture of eastern Europe. In the 1960s Heschel was active in the movement to aid the Jews of the Soviet Union.

Further Reading

An excellent introduction to Heschel's thought is in Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism, from the Writings of Abraham J. Heschel, selected, edited, and introduced by Fritz A. Rothschild (1959); See also: Who's Who in America, New York Times, Dec. 24, 1972. □

Heschel, Abraham Joshua

views updated May 18 2018

Heschel, Abraham Joshua (1907–72). US Jewish scholar. He was born in Poland, descended from Ḥasidic rabbis. A close associate of Martin Buber, he became a refugee from Nazi Germany, first in London, then in the USA. There he taught at the Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He wrote important studies on kabbalah and was a highly influential philosopher of religion. In Man is not Alone (1951) and God in Search of Man (1956), Heschel tried to define the existential question to which Judaism provides the answer. It lies in the true use of freedom. God longs for his creatures but will not coerce them. Judaism exhibits the response of love and devotion when the commands of God are accepted in that style. His strong emphasis on ethical behaviour as the demonstration of religion took him into the Civil Rights movement, and into dialogue with other religions, especially in the discussions which led to the revised attitude of Vatican II to Judaism.

About this article

Abraham Joshua Heschel

All Sources -
Updated Aug 13 2018 About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic