Heschel, Abraham Joshua (1907-1972), Theologian, Activist, and Poet

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Heschel, Abraham Joshua
(1907-1972), theologian, activist, and poet.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel symbolized traditional Judaism for many Jews and non-Jews from the 1950s through his death. He was born in Warsaw, Poland, and educated in Berlin, receiving a Ph.D. from the University of Berlin in 1933 and graduating from the Hoschschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Advanced Institute for the Scientific Study of Judaism) in 1932. His earliest publications were love poems written in Yiddish, the language created out of Old High German and Hebrew and used by most Jews in Europe. Nevertheless, his thought and personality were peculiarly suited for the American setting. Soon after arriving in the United States in 1940 from Hitler's Germany to teach at the seminary for American Reform rabbis, the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, he mastered English. His earliest publications in English (published between 1942 and 1951) exhibit poetic and expressive language. His greatest importance, however, lies in his ability to represent the theological, religious, and political ideals of many Jews of his time.

Many Jews feel torn between traditional and modernistic approaches to Jewish observance. Tension between adherence to past laws and dynamic adaptation to the present arises again and again in Heschel's writing, and he addresses the peculiar dilemma of American Jews, who are often drawn in two directions. His theological works provide a map to the inner struggle that characterizes many American Jews.

Many American Jews see themselves within a pluralistic setting in which differences among Jewish denominations or between Jew and non-Jew pale in the face of common concerns. Heschel's distinction between "theology" that focuses on divisive issues of specific beliefs and "depth theology" that plumbs the common human concerns of all religious souls helped ground that pluralism in a theoretical foundation. Heschel lived according to his principles. He counted among his friends leading Christian thinkers such as John C. Bennett, Daniel Berrigan, William Sloan Coffin, and Reinhold Niebuhr. He conferred with Pope Paul VI in Rome concerning the Second Vatican Council statement on the Jews. He advocated cooperation among different religious groups. His final book, published posthumously, confirms his open pluralism by comparing the teachings of the Christian Søren Kierkegaard and the Hasidic rabbi Mendel of Kotzk (A Passion for Truth, 1973).

Heschel's final influence on the American community came from his ability to articulate a religiously based political activism. He addressed White House conferences, speaking on problems of youth (1960) and aging (1961). He spoke out at conferences on race and religion in Chicago (1963) and in New York (1964). He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., at Selma, Alabama, in 1965. From 1966 until his death Heschel was an outspoken opponent of the American government's policies in Vietnam. The New York Times from 1965 onward frequently quoted his views on social and political concerns such as segregation, American policy in Vietnam, election preferences, education, and the Soviet Union's treatment of Jews. Many of his central ideas on these subjects are found in his book The Insecurity of Freedom (1966). Many Jews identified with the ideals he expressed.

See alsoBelonging, Religious; Jewish Identity; Judaism; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Niebuhr, Reinhold; Rabbinate; Religious Communities; Vatican II.


Heschel, Abraham Joshua. God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism. 1955.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence. 1966.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. A Passion for Truth. 1973.

Kaplan, Edward K., and Samuel H. Dresner. AbrahamJoshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness. 1998.

Kasimow, Harold. Divine-Human Encounter: A Study ofAbraham Joshua Heschel. 1979.

Daniel Breslauer