ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL:
OUR GENERATION'S TEACHER

By Reuven Kimelman

Our teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), served as Professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America from 1945 to 1972. No title could be more fitting. He was Professor of Ethics and Mysticism not only by lecturing on the principles of ethics and mysticism but also by professing ethics and highlighting the mystery of being.

There is as much need for compelling models of righteousness as there is for precision in determining what is right. While religious ideas may engage the mind, it is the religious person who makes the religious option compelling. We too often presume that the purpose of saints is to provide triumphal adornment for the tradition, when in fact, comments one observer, their task is to wrest that ever-receding tradition into immediate availability through the medium of their own lives. Heschel made his impact by the wholeness of his person, by his passion for social justice, by his scholarship in the Jewish tradition, and by his religious thinking on the human situation.

He alone possessed the richness of language to express what his person meant to his friends and students, his colleagues and his people, his nation and the world. Only his own eloquence could do justice to that most superlative of men. We must use his words now, words he once used in a eulogy: "The beauty he created in his writings, the dignity and force he lent to the life and literature of Judaism, the sensibility to the Jewish spirit which he inspired in his students, the abundance of his learning, the radiant vitality of his understanding for human beings, for works of art, for subtleties of words, and above all the integrity of his character, his unassuming and magnificent piety, his power to revere and to love." This was Abraham Joshua Heschel.

There are many people from whom we can learn methods, skills, and techniques. There are a few from whom we can learn the meaning and the secret of nobility. Heschel would quote a Hassidic master: "The Jew's greatest sin is to forget that he is the son of a King."

He walked on a higher plane than most of us. In my mind, his name has always evoked an image of exaltation. He was able to sense glory where others could see only darkness. He was blessed with a gift which few men possess: the marvel of presence. He did not have to speak to communicate his faith, his convictions, his nobility. His very presence communicated a vision. His outwardness conveyed something of his indwelling greatness. His very being radiated a sacred meaning.

Some people are like commas in the text of Jewish life; Heschel was an exclamation point. He was honest with his God, and honest with his fellow men. He burned with sincerity. In the last week of his life he mentioned having just completed his work on the Kotzker Rebbe entitled, A Passion for Sincerity. I asked him why he did not translate emes as truth or integrity. "The word is sincerity," he replied. Ironically, the publisher titled it A Passion for Truth.

It was easy to revere him, for he was endowed with the power to revere. It was easy for many human beings to love him, for he had the power to love many human beings. He had also the capacity for hatred, and despised sham and injustice.

Abraham Joshua Heschel lived out his name. As Abraham, he possessed that distinctive combination of compassion and justice. "He kept the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right." He risked his life, his reputation, the affection of his friends and colleagues to fight for the disenfranchised of this world. At the same time, he could pray for and even forgive those who offended him. Some called him Father Abraham.

As Joshua he fought the battles of the Lord. He attacked anti-Semitism with every fiber of his being. He opposed nihilism with a sense of values that was almost embarrassing. He undermined atheism with the words of the Living God that seared the heart of the listener. He assaulted racism with such a sense of the dignity of man that blocks of human hate were burned upon the altar of shame and contrition. Above all, he stormed the fortress of self-righteous power--the war-makers, impressing upon all that man is not a number, but the image of God.

As Heschel, finally, he was the descendant of the Apter Rav, Avraham Yehoshua Heschel, known as the Ohev Yisrael, Lover of Israel. Such a lover of the holy, the human and the divine, has yet to be seen. Abraham Joshua Heschel had that special pedagogical capacity to make each student feel as most beloved. He once remarked: "We are commanded to love our neighbor: this must mean that we can."

Heschel's meaning for our time is bound up in the impact he made on the passions of the day. Heschel's concern and action have been pivotal in two issues: race and peace. On the first, many will remember the picture of his striding alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., in the protest march at Selma, Alabama. Mrs. Coretta Scott King, in recalling that event, called Heschel "one of the great men of our time." Rabbi Heschel described the march in these words: "For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was both protest and prayer. Legs are not lips, and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying."

Less well known was Heschel's prominent role at the National Conference of Religion and Race in Chicago, 1963, a convocation which sparked the participation of clergymen in the great march on Washington later that year. Heschel delivered a major address: "One hundred years ago," he reminded the delegates, "the emancipation was proclaimed. It is time for the white man to strive for self-emancipation, to set himself free of bigotry." The greatest sin, he declared, is that of indifference: "Equality is a good thing ... what is lacking is a sense of the monstrosity of inequality."

It was Heschel, too, who helped organize and serve as co-chairman of Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam, a group which spearheaded the religious opposition to the war. It was typical of Heschel to emphasize concern about Vietnam. While others saw the issue as being one of America's misguided involvement in world affairs, Heschel cried out for the people of Vietnam and for the soul of America.

Heschel's protest went to the deepest level of the issue. To withdraw from Vietnam would no doubt mean losing face, and he understood the dilemmas of the policy-makers. But to remain in Vietnam would mean something worse: losing our souls.

Once Herschel invited to his seminar on ethics, at the Jewish Theological Seminary, an anti-Vietnam war hero who proceeded to try to convince him to go to jail to save his soul by arguing that no one of integrity can willfully benefit from a corrupt society. Heschel asked if that would bring the end to the war one day closer? His would-be savior answered, "Regardless!" Heschel then refused, saying that we cannot indulge in the saving of our souls at the possible expense of the lives of others.

He regarded the continuation and escalation of the war as yet another instance of that moral callousness, that insensitivity to the sufferings of others which, combined with an overweening confidence in the righteousness of a position, underlay the problems of America. And so he called--long before this became a theme of political campaigns--for national repentance, for a return to conscience and an enlargement of the moral imagination, for a dedication to peace rather than victory. In particular he appealed to those of religious faith. "To speak about God," he proclaimed, "and remain silent on Vietnam, is blasphemous." One of his last public acts was a visit to a prison to witness the release of, and to welcome back, that war protestor.

What pained Heschel most of all was the relative silence of the Jews. When one remembers the masses of Jews participating in the civil rights struggle as though they were going forth from Egypt again, one is struck by their relative reticence on the war. Not that Jews did not speak out; they did, as always, well out of proportion to their number. What grieved Heschel was that for twenty years we had been condemning the good, but silent Germans. And now within only one generation there were Jews who were satisfied being good, silent Americans. In a democracy, a silent majority is a scared majority. Still, as far as I know, Heschel, unlike younger spokesmen, refused to use the language of the Holocaust even to discuss Vietnam, for he understood the horrible singularity of Auschwitz. But his rallying cry of "Some are guilty, but all are responsible," simmered with the question of "Where art Thou?"

Early in the 1960's, when Heschel was forging concern for Vietnam, he was simultaneously lighting the spark for one of the greatest protest movements of Jewish history--Soviet Jewry. Back in 1963 it was Heschel who first declared that Soviet Jewry was the number one priority of American Jews. On September 4, 1963, he sounded the call: "East European Jewry vanished. Russian Jewry is the last remnant of a people destroyed in extermination camps, the last remnant of spiritual glory that is no more. We ask for no privilege; all we demand is an end to the massive and systematic liquidation of the religious and cultural heritage of an entire community, and equality with all the other cultural and religious minorities. Let the twentieth century not enter the annals of Jewish history as the century of physical and spiritual destruction! If I forget thee, 0 Russian Jewry..."

It was Heschel who addressed the White House Conference on Children and Youth. And it was Heschel who addressed the White House Conference on Aging, when, like Maimonides, he spoke of old age as a disposition to achieve moral virtue, as the age of opportunity for inner growth. At the American Medical Association, it was Heschel who reminded the physicians of the sacredness of their task. At Protestant and Catholic conferences throughout the country it was Heschel who, by speaking out for the meaning of true religion, represented the wholeness of Judaism. And, of course, it was Heschel who represented the diverse and scattered Jewish community in urging the Pope to rectify a 1900-year-old injustice which had caused untold misery and interreligious animus.

Heschel's fulfilled desire to be connected with such diverse constituencies is reflected in the fact that over thirty national organizations, Jewish and otherwise, sponsored the sheloshim in his honor. His roots in Judaism reached so deep that they penetrated that substratum of life which nourishes all mankind. Heschel's ability to relate to so many people on their various levels flowed from his conviction that man's grandeur surpasses his ideologies. His ability to deal with the thought and attitudes of so many religious communities issued from a certitude that God transcends His theologies.

When Heschel spoke, people sensed a vibrant, incarnated tradition. He never had to make forced connections with Judaism; he was the connection. To hear him in an address echoing the perspectives of Moses, Hillel, Saadyah, and the Ari was to witness a three thousand year tradition rolled up into one soul. He once declared that "the ultimate meaning of existence is to be a religious witness." By this he meant "compasion for God, reverence for man, celebration of holiness in time, sensitivity to the mystery of being a Jew, sensitivity to the presence of God in the Bible."

It was Heschel who issued a call for renewal at the 28th World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem. There he echoed the concerns of his address at the 1957 Jerusalem Ideological Conference when he had spoken of "the sin we have sinned in disparaging the spirit," and in not teaching that Judaism is "a joy of the spirit and the Paradise of the soul." "Judaism," he declared, "is not a matter of blood or race, but a spiritual dimension of existence, a dimension of holiness. We are messengers; let us not forget our message."

"Who is a Jew? he asked in 1972. "A person who knows how to recall and to keep alive what is holy in our people's past, and to cherish the promise and the vision of redemption in the days to come." He concluded by calling our attention to what could be "a golden hour in Jewish history. Young people are waiting, craving, searching for spiritual meaning. And our leadership is unable to respond, to guide, to illumine. With Zion as evidence and inspiration, as witness and example, a renewal of our people should come about."

No one knew better than he that authentic renewal will be based on a return to our sources. And it is in such a light that Professor Heschel's formidable accomplishments in Jewish scholarship must be viewed. In a review of these accomplishments, Professor Seymour Siegel rightly quoted Heschel's comment on Maimonides: "The achievements seem so incredible that one is almost inclined to believe that Maimonides is the name of a whole academy of scholars rather than the name of an individual."

Professor Siegel went on to say that in most of his scholarly work, Heschel touches upon the relationship between mind and mystery-- between that which can be expressed and that which is greater than our power to describe. This is usually called the relationship betweeen faith and reason. But in Heschel's thought it is much more than this. It is no less than the recognition that sensitive scholars and thinkers have always realized that they existed in a reality surrounded by the ineffable, and that all of life, whether it be theologizing, philosophizing, or performing sacred deeds, is an attempt--never completely successful-- to express this overwhelming experience.

I am unaware of any other scholar in recent history who has contributed a new scholarly understanding to each of the four pivotal periods of pre-modern Jewish existence. For the Biblical period, The Prophets articulates the divine pathos of the Most Moved Mover's involvement in the affairs of man. This is done through a systematic presentation of the assumptions of Biblical thought. For the Rabbinic period, Torah Min HaShamayim BeAsplaqariah Shel HaDorot depicts the complexity of rabbinic reflection on the religious situation. Heschel discovered two internally consistent schools of thought which he organized under the rubrics of the school of Rabbi Ishmael and the school of Rabbi Akiba, both of which, he claimed, became formative for subsequent Jewish intellectual history. Two volumes of this study on revelation and the human response were published in his lifetime. The third awaits publication. This triolgy which traces the internal dialectic of Jewish theology throughout its history serves as his magnum opus. Without such an understanding of the woof and warp of Judaism his writings on contemporary theology are almost inconceivable.

The highpoints of Heschel's investigations in medieval thought deal with the expectation of prophecy and the claim for individual inspiration. Some of his most distinctive work was generated by asking not so much what the philosopher said as asking what were his questions. Heschel held that the answer of a philospher serves as a window to his soul. This approach is beautifully illustrated by his existential biography of Maimonides. Although Isaiah, Rabbi Akiba, the Baal Shem, and Rabbi Mendel of Kotsk were his constant companions, it was Maimonides, I think, who was his model. And like his mentor, he put off many scholarly dreams to dedicate himself to the sickness of mankind. History may yet say: "From Abraham to Abraham..."

Heschel's work reached its climax in his study of mysticism and Hassidism. Although he left the center of Hassidic life to go to Berlin, Hassidism never really left him. For some strange reason, which only his disciples sense, he put off making his major contribution to the understanding of Hassidism. Previously, he had written on specific Hassidic masters, and had described their world in The Earth is the Lord's. And yet, it was not until the last week of his life that he finished a full-length portrait of Rabbi Mendel of Kotsk whom he compared with the Baal Shem Tov. It was with this book that he repaid his debt to the world of Hassidism and was laid to rest. Heschel's books were adorned with impressive scholarly bibliographies. But they read like seforim--holy books. Indeed, his books illustrate his own insight: "Judaism teaches that God can be found in books." Despite Heschel's rhapsody of the sublime, the wondrous, the awesome, and the mysterious, he still felt that--

God is more immediately found in the Bible as well as in acts of kindness and worship than in the mountains and forests. It is more meaningful for us to believe in the immanence of God in deeds than in the immanence of God in nature. Indeed, the concern of Judaism is primarily not how to find the presence of God in the world of things but how to let Him enter the ways in which we deal with things; how to be with Him in time, not only in space. This is why the mitsvah is a supreme source of religious insight and experience. The way to God is a way of God, and the mitsvah is a way of God,..a mitsvah is where God and man meet.

Many of us, before we encountered Heschel, thought that Tradition served to limit our horizons. But his teachings were so expansive, his insights from traditional sources so breathtaking, that we were tempted to run back to the safe bosom of secularism. Such an escape, however, was impossible, for he never permitted us to flee from intellectual challenges. Above all, by teaching us that there is a God in this world, he helped us overcome our common embarrassment with serious theological discussion.

Heschel's contribution to contemporary thought is well-reflected in the titles of his theological works: Man Is Not Alone, God In Search of Man, and Who Is Man? Underlying much of his theological perspective is what Edward Kaplan has astutely called "the displacement of subjectivity." The Bible, Heschel helped us to see, frequently presents matters from a divine perspective. It thus reflects more divine anthropology than human theology. It is not so much that God is a symbol of human thought as that man is a symbol (tselem) of divine thought. Similarly, God is not so much a need of man as man is a need of God, for religion is as much a result of God's search for man as man's search for God.

In this manner, the Book of Job and Abraham's argument with God over Sodom are understood not so much as man's attempt at theodicy as God's attempt at anthropodicy. It is not God's commitment to justice which is at stake as much as Job's integrity and Abraham's commitment to justice. Indeed, the Bible can be seen as a tragedy wherein God fails to find a righteous man.

Similarly, Heschel viewed prayer not as an encounter with God, but as an event of being encountered by God. In prayer, he taught, our asking of God gives way before the awareness of being asked by God. Heschel taught that religion begins with a question and that theology begins with a problem. He even went so far as to assert that a person without a problem may not be a person. His teaching was not directed at resolving our problems as much as provoking our questions. Even then, his most common response in class was, "Is that the real question?"

Some critics avoided grappling with the philosophical challenges posed by Heschel by conveniently categorizing him as a "mere" poet or mystic. Realizing that we apprehend more than we comprehend, Heschel refused to reduce the perceptions of the mind to the rationally transparent. He knew only too well how much of religious affirmation is sheer metonymy; that religious language demands the "accommodation of words to higher meanings." Thus he did not hesitate to deploy a poetic turn to point to "the unutterable surplus of what we feel." He, of course, also rejected any flight to irrationality, rather he urged us to see the mystery in the interstitial crevices of everyday being. To adequately grasp Heschel's thought, we must follow his advice to "unthink many thoughts."

Abraham Joshua Heschel left this world on the Sabbath, that day of peace which he taught so many of us to appreciate and celebrate as a foretaste of eternity.

He once said: "There are three ways in which a man expresses his deep sorrow: the man on the lowest level cries; the man on the next level is silent; the man on the highest level knows how to turn his sorrow into a song." In that spirit, may the following dayyenu suffice:

  • Had he illuminated the prophetic experience and the intellectual relevance of the Bible, but had not depicted how the struggles of the Rabbis illuminate our own religious situation, it would have been enough.
  • Had he depicted the intellectual struggles of the Rabbis and not shown how medieval Jewish philosophy is the window to the soul of the Jewish intellect, it would have been enough.
  • Had he shown how medieval Jewish philosophy is the window to the soul of the Jewish intellect, but not demonstrated how the mystical-Hassidic experience is the interior way of living Jewishly in the world, it would have been enough.
  • Had he demonstrated how the mystical-Hassidic experience is the interior way of living Jewishly in the world, but not illuminated the categories of contemporary Jewish existence, it would have been enough.

And now that he has illuminated such categories from Auschwitz to Israel, from suffering to the Sabbath, from prayer to ethics, from Warsaw to Berlin, from New York to Selma, from Washington to Rome, from Hanoi to Moscow, and from Jerusalem below to Jerusalem above, how much more is doubled and redoubled our indebtedness to Abraham Joshua Heschel, who bore witness to the meaning of being Jewish in the twentieth century.

* * * * *

Reuven Kimelman is Associate Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. This article is reprinted with the permission of the editors from the Melton Journal, No. 15, the Winter 1983 issue called "Leadership: Portraits of Challenge, Vision and Responsibility."

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