He was accused of being too political. Others said he was too spiritual. Certainly he melded the ancient wisdom of the prophets with a modern sensibility to become the symbol of Jewish social action in America during the turbulent 1960s.
When Abraham Joshua Heschel barely escaped Nazi Europe in 1940, the 33-year-old scholar began teaching at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. There he found himself disregarded as a chasidic traditionalist out of step with the Reform movement’s modern, non-observant world.
Several years later, when Rabbi Heschel moved to New York and a position at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, he was marginalized by some as a generalist whose spiritualism and social activism — marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., protesting the
Vietnam War, advocating Jewish rights to the Pope and publicizing the plight of Soviet Jews — was a source of embarrassment to the rational Talmudists who dominated the institution.
But a quarter-century after his untimely death at the age of 64, Rabbi Heschel is being reclaimed more than ever by both Jewish streams, long after the non-Jewish world has recognized his enormous contributions to American spiritual life.
A poet, philosopher, rabbi and theologian whose long white flowing hair and beard summoned the image of a biblical prophet, Rabbi Heschel has emerged for many as the model Jewish American thinker whom all Jews should emulate.
For example, the same Reform movement that refused to grant him an honorary degree, two months ago deemed Rabbi Heschel’s seminal book “The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man” as required reading for its million-plus congregants.
And next weekend, to commemorate his 25th yahrzeit, B’nai Jeshurun, the popular Upper West Side Conservative synagogue, is sponsoring a weekend program of study and discussion of Rabbi Heschel featuring Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.)
It’s one of a series of Heschel events taking place around New York City, including a Jan. 15 memorial convocation at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School on the Upper West Side; a study session-volunteer soup kitchen to feed the hungry at Hebrew Union College in Greenwich Village on Jan. 19; and the start of a monthlong course on Rabbi Heschel at the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn on Sunday, Jan. 11.
In March, the Jewish Theological Seminary is holding a two-day scholarly conference re-examining Rabbi Heschel’s work.
Why has it taken so long for the Jewish community to embrace the rabbi that one scholar has termed “the greatest religious thinker in Judaism, East or West, in the 20th century?”
Many scholars believe the problem may be Rabbi Heschel himself; that because he was such a gifted poet, his ornate writing style overshadowed the important theological insights and innovations he was presenting. The paradox is more striking when one considers that Rabbi Heschel only began writing in English after coming to this country.
“I think it’s taken 25 years for people to go back and extract from his work the extraordinary poetry of his prose that speaks to every issue of contemporary life,” says Peter Geffen, who in 1983 founded a private school on the Upper West Side dedicated to Rabbi Heschel’s philosophy.
Other experts believe that a confluence of events in America at the end of the 20th century — the renewed yearning for spiritualism and the return to observance — have led people back to Rabbi Heschel, who wrote such classic philosophical works as “God in Search of Man” and “Man is Not Alone.”
“The climate really changed in American culture in the 1960s, and there was a tremendous upsurge of interest in spirituality manifested through the drug culture and interest in Zen Buddhism,” explains Edward Kaplan, co-author of a two-volume biography on Rabbi Heschel due out in June by Yale University Press.
The commercial acceptance of spirituality combined with the mainstreaming of Judaic studies led Jewish and non-Jewish seekers back to Rabbi Heschel, Kaplan contends.
“What Rabbi Heschel was always committed to — joining his political and moral commitments with his ability to convey the spiritual experience — entered the mainstream of American culture.”
“Now, more than ever, people have an understanding of his work” says his widow, Sylvia, an accomplished pianist who married Rabbi Heschel in 1947. “All along I felt that he had something very important to give to the world of religion.”
Rabbi Neil Gilman, a professor of Jewish theology at JTS, notes that Rabbi Heschel “was the first Jewish post-modernist.”
“In the culture of the seminary back in the 1960s, [Rabbi Heschel] was one of the few people who spoke to spiritual existential issues,” says Rabbi Gilman, who is coordinating the March symposium that will examine Rabbi Heschel’s impact on American society and, he hopes, lead to new critical analysis of Rabbi Heschel’s theological works. “He was one of the few people who did religious education here. He was a life-saver.”
In a post-Holocaust world where surviving Jews and gentiles questioned the very existence of God, or believed God to be impersonal and uncaring, Rabbi Heschel argued that God in fact was yearning for a deep relationship with humanity and his chosen people.
“His most important and controversial theological claim concerns ‘divine pathos,’ the belief that God is not impassive and immutable but, on the contrary, is deeply responsive to human beings,” says his daughter, Susannah, an associate professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College. “Indeed, God is in need of the work of human beings for the fulfillment of God’s ends in the world.”
For others, Rabbi Heschel’s contributions came in the areas of liturgy, Bible or Talmud.
“I don’t think anyone has written more beautifully about praying as a Jew, and how you unite the passion with the structure,” says Rabbi Gilman. “It’s absolutely illuminating.”
For Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center, the Reform movement’s social-action arm, Rabbi Heschel is an inspiration who symbolizes prophetic Judaism and the concept of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.
Rabbi Saperstein’s computer screen saver features a picture of Dr. Heschel and Dr. King walking together.
“He gave a strong philosophical and Jewish underpinning for the work we do,” Rabbi Saperstein said.
‘Stick To Mysticism’
Today’s claiming of Rabbi Heschel is quite a remarkable development considering the past.
Kaplan, a professor of French and comparative literature at Brandeis University, says that Rabbi Heschel, despite being rescued by Hebrew Union College from the Nazis, was not comfortable at the school because of his Orthodox religious observance and philosophy of teaching.
“It was difficult for him to live there as a traditionally observant Jew; they did not even have a kosher dining room for him,” Kaplan relates.
It was the same professionally, where Rabbi Heschel’s commitment to Jewish spirituality was waved aside. “The Reform movement at that time was more committed to an ethical monotheism and not to prayer and inner religious experience, so that his ability to convey authentic Jewish spirituality was not something they were interested in.”
At JTS, Rabbi Heschel entered an institution dominated by Mordechai Kaplan, father of the humanist Reconstructionist movement and the Talmudists. “They considered him to be a mystic representing chasidic traditions,” Kaplan says. “He did not achieve the recognition at the seminary that he deserved.”
“He had a sort of love-hate relationship in this institution, one he was not unanimously popular in,” says Rabbi Gilman. “First, he was a chasid in a faculty of misnagdim,” the Orthodox opponents of chasidism.
In addition Rabbi Heschel was a scholar for all seasons: He could not be easily characterized and his touching on many academic fields made some colleagues uncomfortable.
“They kept saying ‘stick to mysticism,’ ” Rabbi Gilman recalls. “And finally because of his political activism, they complained about his image of running around the world with Martin Luther King and the Berrigan brothers,” referring to the anti-war Catholic priests.
“He was rather isolated from the colleagues at the end,” the rabbi says. “To this day members of the faculty who knew him say to me, in planning this conference, ‘Stick to his theology, ignore his politics.’ ”
But combining the two in a unified life has ironically made Rabbi Heschel all the more appealing to a new generation of spiritual seekers. Many of those come from the non-Jewish world, a place where Rabbi Heschel’s influence reached both the Vatican and the White House.
Rabbi Heschel played a significant role in helping change the Catholic Church’s policy toward Jews. He argued with Church officials about eliminating language on converting Jews, even as he was being criticized by Orthodox Jews for participating in historic meetings in the mid-1960s, which ultimately have led to strong declarations against anti-Semitism and decades later a momentous diplomatic pact with Israel.
“Both Norman Lamm and Joseph Soloveitchik, leaders of American Orthodoxy, published attacks on his ecumenical efforts with representatives of the Second Vatican Council,” said Susannah Heschel.
And while he had ties to all streams of Judaism, this heir to a Polish chasidic dynasty nevertheless was not shy about criticizing his own.
“Heschel was as critical of Orthodoxy as he was of Reform and Conservative Judaism,” she said.
He criticized Reform and Conservative Judaism for interpreting divine commandments as human creations: “Let us beware lest we reduce the Bible to literature, Jewish observance to good manners, the Talmud to Emily Post,” she quoted her father as warning.
Orthodoxy, he felt, had become intransigent and rigid about halacha, without concern for the authenticity of observance.
She also said her father would have been quick to repudiate the idolatry of the land expressed by some contemporary Jews. “For him, the land itself is not holy, nor is God dwelling any more in Israel than anywhere else. I have no doubt that had he lived even a few years longer to witness the rise of the Likud Party and [the settlers movement] Gush Emunim, he would have become even more vocal.
“While religious Judaism increasingly has been appropriated by the political right, my father articulates a religious position for the political left,” Susannah said.
Organized Jewry also did not escape his opprobrium, as he chided leaders for caring about polls over principles. At a meeting of the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations, Rabbi Heschel said, “There are two words I should like to strike from our vocabulary: surveys and survival.
“Our community is in spiritual distress, and some of our organizations are often too concerned with digits. Our disease is loss of character and commitment, and the cure of our plight cannot be derived from charts and diagrams.”
Ironically, while Rabbi Heschel was being sought after and praised by Catholics, Protestants and Muslims, in his own traditional backyard — the chasidic and Orthodox communities — he has become no more than another in a list of modern Jewish philosophers.
Yeshiva University philosophy Professor Sholom Carmy said that while some YU students express interest in reading Rabbi Heschel, “he has not had the kind of impact that people in the Orthodox world who have been serious thinkers have,” like Rabbis Soleveitchik and Avraham Hacohen Kook, Israel’s first chief rabbi.
“Partly it’s a matter of him not sharing all the Orthodox commitments,” he said. “One goes to look at people within your camp before you look without.”
Secondly, Carmy contends that Rabbi Heschel writes for the uninitiated, and his students, schooled in Jewish theology, are not challenged by it. “The flowery elements can be enjoyed but they do not encourage a grappling,” he said.
But for Geffen, who accompanied Rabbi Heschel to the funeral of Martin Luther King, whose birthday is also being celebrated next week, the Jewish philosopher is a light for all Jews for the 21st century.
“Rabbi Heschel epitomized the values of tolerance, pluralism, respect for all of humanity and the value of learning in all spheres,” Geffen says.
“Of his commitment to religion in general, and Judaism in particular, to right the wrongs of the world, there is no greater model for children growing up into the next century than the life that he lived and the words he wrote and taught.”