Abraham Joshua Heschel

From Academic Kids

Abraham Joshua Heschel
Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (January 11, 1907, Warsaw, Poland - December 23, 1972) was considered by many to be one of the most significant Jewish theologians of the 20th century.

Heschel was a descendant of preeminent rabbinic families of Europe, both on his father's (Moshe Mordechai Heschel, who died of influenza in 1916) and mother's (Reizel Perlow Heschel) side. He was the youngest of six children including his siblings: Sarah, Dvora Miriam, Esther Sima, Gittel, and Jacob. In his teens he received a traditional yeshiva education, and obtained traditional semicha, rabbinical ordination. He then studied at the University of Berlin, where he obtained his doctorate, and at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, where he earned a second liberal rabbinic ordination.

Heschel's teachers included some of the best German-Jewish teachers: Chanoch Albeck, Ismar Elbogen, Julius Guttmann, and Leo Baeck. He later taught Talmud there. Escaping from the Nazis, he found refuge both in England and America, where he briefly served on the faculty of Hebrew Union College, the main seminary of Reform Judaism, in Cincinnati.

Increasingly uncomfortable with the lack of observance of Jewish law at HUC, Heschel sought an academic institution where critical, modern scholarship of the Bible was allowed, and yet also held that Jewish law was normative. He found such a place in 1946 when he came to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS), the main seminary of Conservative Judaism. He accepted a position there as Professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism, where he served until his death in 1972.

Rabbi Heschel explicated many facets of Jewish thought including studies on medieval Jewish philosophy, Kabbalah, and Hasidism. He has a special interest in the prophets, and in the proper way for Jews to incorporate religion into their lives. His books contain civil but pointed rejoinders towards those in Reform Judaism who no longer held that Jewish law was normative, and also towards those in Orthodox Judaism, who Heschel held valued legalism over the spirit of the law.

Rabbi Heschel did not fully fit in JTS either, however. He was more interested in spirituality than critical text study, which was a specialty of scholars at JTS. A similar disconnect between him and much of JTS faculty were due to his views on the Hebrew prophets and social justice. Heschel saw the teachings of the Hebrew prophets as a clarion call for social action in the United States, but his social activism was at the time dismissed as unimportant by most JTS faculty. They saw their job as academics and educators, and left the role of social activism to pulpit rabbis and laypeople. In later years there would be a sea change in how JTS faculty viewed this position; today most JTS faculty are more involved in social activism, and some have written that it was a mistake for JTS not to follow Heschel's lead at that time.

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.

He married Sylvia Straus on December 10, 1946, in Los Angeles. They had a daughter named Susannah. Susannah Heschel eventually became a scholar of Judaism in her own right.

Heschel was also known as an activist for civil rights in the USA, and an activist for freedom for Soviet Jewry. He is one of the few Jewish writers to be widely read by members of all denominations of Judaism, as well as by many within Christianity. His most influential works include "Man is Not Alone", "God in Search of Man", "The Sabbath", and "The Prophets".



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, the historical context that their missions were set in, summarizes their work, and discusses their psychological state. Heschel gives a detailed treatment of the entire phenomenon of prophecy, what it is, and what it means.

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 than 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 specific, 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 Kavvanah (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.

Torah Min-Hashamayim (Heavenly Torah)

Many consider Heschel's Torah min HaShamayim BeAsafklariah 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 and Ishmael as paradigms for the two dominant worldviews in Jewish theology.

Two Hebrew volumes were published during his lifetime by Soncino Press, and the third Hebrew volume was published post-homously by JTS Press in the 1990s. An English translation of all three volumes, with notes, essays and appendices, was translated and edited by Gordon Tucker, entitled Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations.


  • "All it takes is one person.....and another.....and another.....and start a movement"

Selected Bibliography

  • Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion, 1951, ISBN 0374513287
  • God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, 1955, ISBN 0374513317
  • The Prophets, 1962, ISBN 0060936991
  • Who Is Man?, 1965
  • Israel: An Echo of Eternity, 1969, ISBN 1879045702
  • A Passion for Truth, 1973, ISBN 1879045419
  • Heavenly Torah: As Refracted Through the Generations, 2005, ISBN 0826408028
  • Torah min ha-shamayim b'ispaqlari'a shel ha-dorot; Theology of Ancient Judaism [Hebrew]. London: Soncino Press

External links


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