Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972)

Abraham Joshua Heschel, born in 1907, was descended from a distinguished line of rabbis, including Dov Baer of Mezhirich, Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt, and Levi Isaac of Berdichev. His background and education both combined a remarkable array of intellectual talents, from Talmud to Kabbalah. Heschel earned his doctorate from the University of Berlin and went on to teach at the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums. In 1937 he became Martin Buber's successor at the Judisches Lehrhaus of Frankfurt-am-Maim, a Jewish adult education organization. Heschel was deported to Poland the following year, in 1938, and there he taught at the Warsaw Institute of Jewish Studies. From Poland, he emigrated to London, and from there moved to the United States, where he taught rabbinics and philosophy at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. He moved on to the Jewish Theological Seminary of American in New York City, where he taught until his death in 1972.

Heschel's hasidic background taught him the importance of human experience as a component of religion, especially the sense of awe and wonder with which a person approaches God's presence in his/her life. Hence he placed great emphasis on our insights, experiences, attitudes, and emotions, to capture both the nature order of the universe as well as the Divine Presence. Heschel wrote about "radical amazement" which he understood as our awe at our dependence upon God; he encouraged his reader to feel "radical amazement" in order to realize that our lives are made meaningful only through the Divine Presence. For Heschel, the classical prophets provide the very finest examples of people whose "radical amazement" led them to live full and meaningful lives in God's presence. His two-volume work, The Prophets, provides unparalleled insights into the biblical books of the prophets. The insights which arise from radical amazement are, themselves, revelation. We know God through our experience of God. Heschel affirmed that revelation occurred at Mt. Sinai, but everything which came afterward (the written Torah) is a midrash on that experience of revelation. Heschel was deeply moved by the prophetic imperative for social justice, which he took as a central Jewish obligation. He, himself, was deeply involved in the struggle for civil rights in the United States in the fifties and sixties. Heschel marched in Selma, Alabama, and maintained a close working relationship with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

For Heschel, there is a direct connection between our psychological experience of wonder and the moral imperative to act, even if our initial experience cannot be expressed by human language, because it is a religious mystery. Heschel understood God is pervading the universe and including all that is contained in the universe; our awareness of God's unity entails a demand upon our lives. Here, Heschel again returns to the prophets as the idealized role models of the spiritual life. The prophets experience God's pathos (outrage at injustice and human suffering) and are inspired to act accordingly. At the same time, however, Heschel argued that a Jew can live a holy life through following the halakhah (Jewish law) because doing leads to understanding. Hence a life of observance is a deeply spiritual existence which will, in its own way, lead to revelation.

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