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Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: A Man of Peace

Darla Sue Dollman, B.A., M.F.A., is a freelance writer with 42 years combined experience as a journalist, author, photographer, and editor.

Photo of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taken in 1964.

Photo of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taken in 1964.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

He was the youngest child in a large family, but Abraham Joshua Heschel was destined to follow in the footsteps of his many famous ancestors and become an influential rabbi and philosopher.

Although no one could ever have anticipated the Nazi invasion of Poland and the horrific crimes that would be committed against his family, it is possible that his presence in that place, at that time, helped mold Heschel into one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of the twentieth century, a man who truly desired peace and justice for all.

Photo of the University of Berlin Germany where Heschel was a student.

Photo of the University of Berlin Germany where Heschel was a student.

Heschel's Early Years in Poland and Berlin

Abraham Joshua Heschel was born in Warsaw, Poland on January 11, 1907 to Moshe Mordechai Heschel and Reizel Perlow. He was the youngest of six children. He was also a descendant of many famous rabbinic families from both his mother's and father's side of the family, including that of Rebbe Avrohom Yehoshua Heshel.

Heschel had a traditional yeshiva education including traditional semicha, rabbinical ordination when he was16. When he was 20, Heschel attended the University of Berlin where he studied with some of the greatest Jewish educators of the time. He obtained his doctorate there and also began to teach. He joined a Yiddish poetry group and published a volume of poems that is dedicated to his father. His education and achievements showed promise for Heschel's immediate future, but his peaceful life of study and creativity was soon destroyed by World War II and the horrors of the Nazi invasion.

Two German soldiers in ruins of Warsaw, Poland.

Two German soldiers in ruins of Warsaw, Poland.

Holocaust Changes Heschel Forever

Heschel was renting a room from a Jewish family in Frankfurt in October of 1938 when the Gestapo showed up at his door. He was arrested and deported to Poland, which was also invaded by the Germans beginning World War II, but Heschel was one of the lucky few who managed to escape the country with the help of the President of Hebrew Union College who obtained visas for a few Jewish scholars in Europe.

Unfortunately these events presaged a series of tragic events in the Heschel family. One of Heschel’s sisters was killed when the German’s bombed Poland. His mother was murdered by Nazi soldiers. Two of his sisters died in concentration camps. The tragic deaths of his family members had a profound effect on Heschel and he swore he would never return to Poland or Germany because the experience could only bring thoughts of hatred and contempt.

The Administration Building, Hebrew Union College, CUF, Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Administration Building, Hebrew Union College, CUF, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Heschel Moves to the United States

Heschel first sought refuge in England, but only stayed a short time before immigrating to the United States in March of 1940. For the next five years he served on the faculty of Hebrew Union College, the main seminary of Reform Judaism in Cincinnati.

Heschel married Sylvia Straus on December 10, 1946 in Los Angeles, California. They have one daughter, Susannah Heschel, who has followed the family's scholarly traditions.

In 1946, Abraham Heschel accepted a position at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, which is the main seminary of Conservative Judaism. He served as Professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism at the seminary until his death in 1972.

Heschel (2nd from right) in the Selma Civil Rights march with Martin Luther King Jr. (4th from right). Heschel later wrote, "When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying."

Heschel (2nd from right) in the Selma Civil Rights march with Martin Luther King Jr. (4th from right). Heschel later wrote, "When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying."

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Political Activism

Heschel focused his work and studies on medieval Jewish philosophy, Kabbalah, and Hasidism. These studies may have formed the basis for his belief that the teachings of the Hebrew prophets expressed a represented an authoritative command for social action in the United States.

Heschel worked as an activist for Black Civil Rights and protested against the Vietnam War. He also participated in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s symbolic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. In a 2007 interview at the United States Holocaust Museum, Heschel’s daughter, Susannah Heschel said: “That was a wonderful friendship, my father and Dr. King. It's had a kind of symbolic meaning for a lot of people within the Jewish community and the African-American community.”

Heschel also represented American Jews at the Vatican Council II where he worked to persuade the Roman Catholic Church to eliminate passages in their liturgy that were demeaning to the Jewish people and religion.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel, three-quarter length portrait, presenting the Judaism and World Peace award to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on December 7, 1965.

Rabbi Abraham Heschel, three-quarter length portrait, presenting the Judaism and World Peace award to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on December 7, 1965.

Susannah Heschel Discusses Her Father's Influence

There are many videos available that discuss the life of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and some contain interviews with Heschel or his daughter, Susannah Heschel. In Imagining Heschel: Talk Back With Susannah Heschel, Susannah Heschel describes the tremendous spiritual influence her father had on those around him. Heschel explains that Christian theologians came to her childhood home to visit her father who had a "special relationship with many of them."

According to Susannah. "Even if they didn't know my father very well, the nuns that you refer to, or priests, or pastors, came to our home often experiencing something quite profound. That is, for many of them, what I felt as a child when I look back, many of them came as if they were on a religious pilgrimage...they were very moved."

Susannah Heschel Discusses Her Father's Relationship With Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Legacy of Abraham Heschel

Abraham Joshua Heschel died on December 23, 1972. He is considered one of the most influential religious writers and teachers in the United States and his writings are still studied today.

Heschel wrote more than 15 books of philosophy and poetry, including: The Prophets; The Sabbath; Man is Not Alone; God in Search of Man; Prophetic Inspiration after the Prophets; and what is considered his masterwork, Torah min HaShamayim, a three volume study of classical rabbinical theology.

In 1970, Heschel was awarded the National Jewish Book Award for Israel: An Echo of Eternity.

Five schools have also been named for Abraham Heschel, including the Abraham Joshua Heschel School in New York City.

The Abraham Joshua Heschel School building at 30 West End Ave. in Manhattan, New York City.

The Abraham Joshua Heschel School building at 30 West End Ave. in Manhattan, New York City.

Sources

"Abraham Joshua Heschel." Jewish Virtual Library. Accessed November 5, 2021.
"Imagining Heschel: Talk back with Susannah Heschel." Culture Project. Cherry Lane Theater. Accessed November 4, 2021.
Voices on Antisemitism: A Podcast Series. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum November 22, 2007. Retrieved November 4, 2021.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Darla Sue Dollman

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