The Magazine

The Jewish Theology of Abraham Joshua

Jan 4, 1999, Vol. 4, No. 16 • By DAVID G. DALIN
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Before his death in 1972, Abraham Joshua Heschel was widely considered to be one of the most influential Jewish religious thinkers of the twentieth century. In 1951, reviewing Heschel's Man Is Not Alone on the front page of the New York Herald Tribune, no less a figure than Reinhold Niebuhr predicted that Heschel would soon become "a commanding and authoritative voice not only in the Jewish community but in the religious life of America."


Heschel fulfilled the prophecy. Like Niebuhr (who later became his close friend), he achieved prominence as a public theologian who sought to apply his religious tradition to political and social issues. During the last decade of his life, he became a media celebrity and one of American Jewry's most outspoken activists: the keynote speaker at the 1960 White House Conference on children and Youth, a leader of the civil-rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, a passionate advocate of environmentalism and disarmament, and the first American-Jewish leader to protest publicly the plight of Soviet Jews. His activist friends, the Protestant chaplain William Sloan coffin and the radical Jesuit Daniel Berrigan, dubbed him "Father Abraham."


Today, however, one dimension of his legacy remains ignored. Although Heschel was revered by many as the Jewish community's preeminent social critic -- unabashedly appropriating the writings of the Hebrew prophets to support the liberal political causes he espoused -- the greater part of his legacy as a public theologian seems, in retrospect, more conservative than liberal. The particular social battles Heschel fought, almost always on the side of the Left, are long over. What remains is his constant awareness -- apparently possessed nowadays only by the Right -- that an American moral and political culture uninformed by religious belief threatens the health of a democratic society and undermines the position of Jews.


The recent publication of the first volume of a major new biography, Abraham Foshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness, by Edward K. Kaplan and Samuel H. Dresner, provides a welcome opportunity to reflect upon the man's extraordinary life and thought. In this volume, Kaplan and Dresner trace in illuminating detail Heschel's life from his birth in Warsaw in 1907 through his arrival in New York in 1940. They describe his religious and intellectual journey from his childhood in a Hasidic community through his years in secular Jewish Vilna, Berlin, and Frankfurt during the late 1920s and 1930s -- seeking to discover how Heschel's first thirty-three years in Europe made him into the religious philosopher, biblical theologian, and American social activist he would later become.


A descendant of an illustrious line of Hasidic rabbis, Heschel was a child prodigy who had read all the books in his father's library by the age of ten. After receiving Orthodox rabbinic ordination at the age of sixteen, he began privately studying German, Polish, and Latin to prepare himself for secular high-school studies in Vilna ("the Jerusalem of Lithuania," as the authors describe the city). As he left Warsaw -- and the traditional, insular world of Polish Hasidic piety -- Heschel shaved his beard and earlocks. And it was in Vilna that he laid the foundation for his later involvement with leftist causes, living among "secular Jews who supported revolution" and studying "avant-garde politics and literature."


At the age of twenty, Heschel left for Germany to pursue his doctoral studies in philosophy and theology at the University of Berlin, which he completed within days of Hitler's ascension in 1933. On February 11, he successfully completed the oral defense of his doctoral dissertation on the Prophets, just weeks before Jews were expelled from the German academic system.


A secular career closed to him by the Nazis, Heschel devoted himself to Jewish education and scholarship, completing in 1935 a biography of the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides and teaching at Berlin's liberal rabbinical seminary. In 1937, Martin Buber (who was emigrating to Palestine) invited Heschel to succeed him as the director of a Jewish adult-education organization in Frankfurt. In this new job, Heschel received considerable moral support from the anti-Nazi Quaker community in Frankfurt and its leader, Rudolf Schlosser. In 1938, at Schlosser's request, Heschel delivered a public lecture, "The Meaning of This Hour," on the moral responsibility of religious leaders in Germany. With this searing indictment of the Nazis, he became a "prophetic witness" to the plight of his fellow Jews. And he addressed for the first time the obligations of religious believers in times of political crisis -- a theme that would define his public theology and social activism in America in the 1960s.