Heschel, presenting Judaism and World Peace Award to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., December 7, 1965
Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel worked together in the battle for civil rights, social justice and peace. Heschel marched alongside King in Selma, Alabama, demanding voting rights for African Americans. King supported Heschel, who was one of the first religious leaders in the U.S. to speak out against the escalating war in Viet Nam. They combined the deepest traditionsof their Jewish and Christian faiths with activism for social change. After marching with Dr. King in the Selma civil rights march, Rabbi Heschel said;“I felt my legs were praying.”
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., fourth from right, walking alongside Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, second from right, in the Selma civil rights march on March 21, 1965
Heschel practiced what he called “radical amazement” in his work with religious others. “The opposite of good is not evil,” he said, “it is indifference.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“In a free society, when evil is done, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Polish-born American rabbi and one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century.
He was descended from preeminent European rabbis on both sides of the family. His great-great-grandfather and namesake was Rebbe Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apt. His father, Moshe Mordechai Heschel, died of influenza in 1916. His mother Reizel Perlow was also a descendant of Avraham Yehoshua Heshel and other Hasidic 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.
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. 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.
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.”
Heschel arrived in New York City in March 1940. 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, a concert pianist, on December 10, 1946, in Los Angeles. Their daughter, Susannah Heschel, is a Jewish scholar in her own right..
Heschel explored 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 in 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 in the academic graduate program. Heschel became quite friendly with his colleague Mordecai Kaplan. Though they differed in their approach to Judaism they had a very cordial relationship and visited in each other’s homes from time to time.
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. Heschel was an activist for civil rights in the United States.
Heschel is a widely read Jewish theologian whose 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.
Prayer: O God of Mercy and of Justice, thank you for the inspiring example of these contemporary Prophets, Heschel and King. May their example of passionate political engagement linked to deep study and commitment to your Word inspire us. Help us not to avoid stepping into the difficult political issues of our day. Challenge us through their example to speak out, step up and walk on to create societies where your standards are known, shown and lived out in a needy world. Help Messianic Jews especially, inheritors of both Jewish and Christian traditions, to give a prophetic challenges to the deep-rooted injustices in our societies. In Yeshua’s name. Amen.
“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.”
“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.”
“When I marched in Selma, my legs were praying.”
“Build your life as if it was a work of art”