Abraham Joshua Heschel
He came from a
in Poland, from
the middle of
his lifetime by
the Germans, in
had studied and
language he had
the murder of
the world that
him, his life
he was able to
evoke in his
Words, he often wrote, are themselves sacred, God's own tool for creating the universe, and our tools for bringing holiness--or evil--into the world. He used to remind us that the Holocaust did not begin with the building of crematoria, and Hitler did not come to power with tanks and guns; it all began with uttering evil words, with defamation, with language and propaganda. Words create worlds, he used to tell me when I was a child, and they must be used very carefully. Some words, once having been uttered, gain eternity and can never be withdrawn. The Book of Proverbs reminds us, he wrote, that death and life are in the power of the tongue.
My father was born in Warsaw on January 11, 1907, the youngest child of Moshe Mordechai and Reizel (Perlow) Heschel. His mother and father were each descended from distinguished Hasidic rebbes, a family of nobility in the Jewish world. Nearly all of the great Hasidic leaders of Eastern Europe, those who inspired and led the pietistic revival that began in the eighteenth century, were among my father's ancestors. He cherished and revered them. I remember as a child how often he used to take small, fragile books from his shelf, Hasidic seforim, show them to me, read a little with me, and tell me with awe about the great-grandfathers who had written them. This is your inheritance, he would say. Far from feeling burdened by the greatness of his heritage, he felt gratitude, humbleness, and reverence for his ancestors: "I was very fortunate," he told an interviewer, "in having lived as a child and as a young boy in an environment where there were many people I could revere, people concerned with problems of inner life, of spirituality and integrity. People who have shown great compassion and understanding for other people."
Already as a small child, my father was accorded the princely honors given the families of Hasidic rebbes: Adults would rise when he entered the room, recognizing that he was a special person. He would be lifted onto a table to deliver drushas, learned discussions of Hebrew texts. He was considered an illui, a genius. His world was one of intense piety and religious observance, and he felt grateful, as he described much later, that he grew up surrounded by people of spiritual nobility. As the baby of the family, he was loved and fussed over by his older sisters, Sarah, Dvora Miriam, Esther Sima, and Gittel, and his brother, Jacob. He was teased and coddled the way youngest children of large families are. He was only three years old when his oldest sister, Sarah, married their first cousin, the Kapitshinitzer rebbe, and he remembered being at the wedding, running around excitedly among the adults. Even as a small child he took his religious obligations very seriously. He seemed amused and embarrassed when he told me that when he was sent, as a five-year-old, on an errand to a female neighbor, he would ask that the object he was borrowing be placed on a table--in ultra-Orthodox custom, a man should not give or receive from a woman's hand.
His was a large extended family. His mother was the twin sister of the Novominsker rebbe, Alter Israel Simon Perlow, who lived in Warsaw, and there were many cousins, nieces, and nephews. The family's first tragedy came in 1916, when my father was nine years old and his father died during an influenza epidemic. It was devastating for the family. Shortly before I turned nine, I developed a fear that the same thing might happen to me. I asked him, over and over, how he could survive such a terrible thing. He used to say, in a way that was so sad for me to hear, that he just wished that he could talk to his father once again, just once more, even for one hour.
As a teenager, my father began publishing his first articles, short studies, in Hebrew, of Talmudic literature, which appeared in a Warsaw rabbinical publication, Sha'are Torah, in 1922 and 1923. When he grew older, he began to read secular books, in addition to his Talmud studies. He said his mother worried, not hearing him chant Gemara while he studied, knowing that he was reading what he should not. Finally, with the approval of his family, he decided to go to Vilna to study at a gymnasium. There he completed his examinations on June 24, 1927, at the Mathematical-Natural Science Gymnasium. He also became involved with a Yiddish poetry group, Jung Vilna, and published, as his first book, a volume of Yiddish poems, Der Shem Hamefoyrosh: Mentsch, written during his years in Vilna, and published in Warsaw in 1933, dedicated to his father's memory. The poems were greeted warmly in the worlds of Yiddish and Hebrew belles lettres; they brought my father to the attention of, among others, Chaim Nachman Bialik, who wrote to him from Israel with an enthusiastic letter of congratulations.
After Vilna, in 1927, my father went to study in Berlin, to participate in what he felt was the great center of European intellectual and cultural life. He enrolled at the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums and at the Friedrich Wilhelm Universitat, today Humboldt University. On April 29, 1929, he passed examinations in German language and literature, Latin, mathematics, German history, and geography, given to foreign students by the University of Berlin, and became a matriculated student. He studied philosophy as his main concentration at the university, with secondary work in art history and semitic philology. At the Hochschule, he gained training in the modern scientific study of Jewish texts and history. His teachers there included some of the great names of German-Jewish scholarship: Chanoch Albeck, Ismar Elbogen, Julius Guttmann, and Leo Baeck. Down the street from the Hochschule was the Orthodox rabbinical seminary, founded by Esriel Hildesheimer. The theological differences between the two seminaries could not have been greater, and it is amusing that they were located at either end of "Artillerie" street. While most of the students and faculty at the two seminaries did not interact, my father was one of the few able to move easily between the two institutions, sustaining friendships and respect at both. Unfortunately, there was no contact between my father--nor any of the other Jewish students--and the residents of the Protestant seminary residence hall, located next door to the Hochschule.
In December 1929, my father passed examinations at the Hochschule in Hebrew language, Bible and Talmud, midrash, liturgy, philosophy of religion, Jewish history and literature, and in May 1930, he was awarded a prize by the Hochschule for a paper on "Visions in the Bible." He was also appointed an instructor, lecturing on Talmudic exegesis to the more advanced students. On July 16, 1934, he passed his oral examinations and was granted a rabbinical degree by the Hochschule, with a graduating thesis on "Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and Halakha."
My father's dissertation, titled, Das prophetische Bewusstsein (Prophetic Consciousness), was submitted in December, 1932. Published as Die Prophetie in 1935, it got highly favorable notice in popular and academic journals, Christian and Jewish, in Germany and in other countries. The Philosophical Review, published in the United States, said that the book "may well be regarded as one of the most important contributions to the general philosophy of religion that the last few years have produced."
The positive response to the book inside Germany itself is remarkable in light of the growing calls by many Protestants in the Third Reich for eradicating the Old Testament from the Christian canon. To prove their devotion to Nazism, some Christians had called for a purging of everything Jewish, and even declared Jesus an Aryan whose goal was the elimination of Judaism from the face of the earth. As a Jewish book, the Old Testament had no place in Christian scriptures, they argued. If the Nazis wanted a Judenrein Germany, they would create a Judenrein Christianity, and they believed that being a true follower of Jesus meant being an anti-Semite.
While such attacks against the Old Testament and against the Jewishness of Jesus had already arisen in Germany during the nineteenth century, they grew in intensity during the late 1920s and '30s with the rise of the so-called German Christian movement, a pro-Nazi group of Protestants that included bishops, pastors, professors of theology, as well as lay people. It quickly became a powerful force within the churches. Many years later, in his 1965 inaugural address at Union Theological Seminary, my father reminded his audience that the Nazis attacked Christianity as well as Judaism, and he called for both communities to unite against the threat:
Nazism has suffered a defeat, but the process of
eliminating the Bible from the consciousness of the
western world goes on. It is on the issue of saving the
radiance of the Hebrew Bible in the minds of man
that Jews and Christians are called upon to work
together. None of us can do it alone. Both of us must
realize that in our age anti-Semitism is anti-Christianity
and that anti-Christianity is anti-Semitism.
After completing his university studies, my father continued to live in Berlin. He taught at the Hochschule, as well as at the Judisches Lehrhaus in Berlin, and he served as reader and editor of a series of books, "Judentum in Geschichte und Gegenwart," for the Erich Reiss publishing house. He witnessed Hitler's accession to power on January 30, 1933, followed by the burning of the Reichstag in March, as well as the book burning in April, in a large open square in the middle of the University of Berlin. His disgust at what he witnessed was expressed in an anonymously published Yiddish poem, "A Day of Hatred," which he published in a Warsaw newspaper. My father told me the chilling story of the evening he attended a concert in Berlin and Hitler suddenly arrived. Everyone present had to rise. As soon as possible, my father left the hall.
He used to describe the abandonment he felt from Christian colleagues, who did not speak up on behalf of the Jews. I can imagine how he must have felt, having completed a book on the prophets, to witness Protestant and Catholic professors of Old Testament debating whether the Christian canon should consist only of the New Testament. Even some who spoke up on behalf of the Old Testament defended their position by arguing that the Old Testament was not really a Jewish book; Judaism, they said, was a degenerate, post-biblical phenomenon. Still, my father received help, as did many others, from the anti-Nazi Quaker community in Frankfurt am Main, whose leader, Rudolf Schlosser, became his friend. My father delivered a powerful lecture, "The Meaning of This Hour," to the Quakers of Frankfurt in February 1938 on the responsibility of religious leaders in Nazi Germany. Schlosser and his colleagues, in turn, were very helpful to my father, writing letters of character reference to the American Consulate in support of his visa application.
Throughout the 1930s, my father tried to secure a position outside Germany. He sent letters, and copies of his publications, to colleagues throughout Europe and the United States, seeking help. He had published several scholarly essays on aspects of medieval Jewish philosophy, as well as books on Maimonides (also published in French translation in 1936) and Abravanel (published in Polish translation in 1937), and some shorter essays in the popular press. All were well received.
The offer to write a book on Maimonides came to him as a surprise. In 1935, he had visited Erich Reiss, owner of a publishing house in Berlin, to recommend the work of a friend. Reiss was so impressed by my father that he asked him to write a book on Maimonides, whose jubilee year was being celebrated, and within two weeks of feverish work, the manuscript was completed. My father was just twenty-eight years old.
The biography presents the historical and political context in which Maimonides lived, together with a remarkably clear summary of his thought, but it also tries to understand his personal conflicts and struggles and how they are reflected in his thought. What emerges is a complex, sensitive human being, in sharp contrast with the somewhat austere figure presented in other studies. For my father, the central issue was not how to reconcile Maimonides' philosophical and halakhic writings, or solving the extent of his rationalist, Aristotelian interpretations of Judaism, but evoking his inner, spiritual life. He shows, for example, the devastating impact of his brother's sudden death on Maimonides' reconsideration of the problem of evil, and concludes, "Maimonides never lost his faith in the just and meaningful working of the universe. His experience did not turn him against God but, to all appearances, against himself." The book also raises the question of Maimonides' own efforts to attain prophetic inspiration, a controversial topic he discusses in far greater detail in a Hebrew essay published in 1945. Ultimately, the biography is a spiritual as well as an intellectual portrayal that broadens the image of Maimonides from a strictly rationalist philosopher to someone with profound spiritual concerns as well.
In November 1936, Martin Buber asked my father if he would be willing to become the director of the Mittelstelle fur judische Erwachsenenbildung in Frankfurt, and after some exchange of letters, my father accepted the offer when the two men met in Berlin on January 22, 1937, just after my father's thirtieth birthday.
Soon after arriving in Frankfurt, my father completed his short biography of Isaac Abravanel, the distinguished Jewish philosopher who lived during the period of the expulsions from Spain and Portugal at the end of the fifteenth century. The book was published as part of the celebration of the five-hundredth anniversary of Abravanel's birth, in Lisbon in 1437. Aware of the parallels between those experiences and the situation of the Jews in Nazi Germany, my father conceived the work as a book of comfort for his fellow European Jews.
He concluded by pointing out that the Jewish expulsion from Iberia was followed by the conquest of the New World, which took place without their participation. "Had the Jews remained in the Iberian peninsula, they would have certainly participated in the actions of the Conquistadors. When the Conquistadors arrived in Haiti, there were 1,100,000 inhabitants; twenty years later there were only 1,000 remaining."
His desire to comfort the German Jews was accompanied by some chastisement. In a brief but extraordinary article, "Die Marranen von Heute," published in the newspaper of the Berlin Jewish community in September 1936, my father described the German Jews as inverted Marranos. Unlike the baptized Jews of Spain, who were Christian on the outside and Jewish on the inside, the German Jews today, he wrote, are Jewish on the outside but not on the inside. Persecuted for being Jewish, they are ignorant of Judaism and its spiritual riches, so that their inner lives are empty.
My father's contacts with the Christian communities of Germany were mixed. Many of his professors were Christian, and his books were generally well received by them. But he was also appalled by the lack of action on the part of Christian leaders on behalf of the Jews. He used to tell me about a Jesuit librarian who said he could not speak out against the Nazi treatment of the Jews for fear that the Nazis would close down the library. Given such attitudes, my father's later writings on the imperative for religious people to speak out against social injustice reveal a personal dimension. At first hand he knew Christians who were anti-Semitic; later he wrote that religion cannot coexist with racism: "Racism is satanism, unmitigated evil .... You cannot worship God and at the same time look at man as if he were a horse."
My father's time in Germany ceased abruptly. At the end of October 1938, Jews living in Germany but holding Polish passports were suddenly arrested and deported. He had rented a room in the large home of a Jewish family named Adler in a tiny, quiet residential section of Frankfurt. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, the Gestapo arrived and gave him one hour to pack two suitcases. He quickly gathered his manuscripts and books and then carried two very heavy suitcases through the streets of Frankfurt to police headquarters, where he was held overnight in a tiny cell. The next morning he was put on a train packed with deported Jews. He told me he had to stand for the duration of a three-day journey to Poland. Denied entry into Poland, the Jews were held at the border in miserable conditions, many remaining for months. The local Poles in the area refused to give the Jews food. My father was fortunate: His family soon secured his release, and he joined them in Warsaw. For the next ten months he lectured on Jewish philosophy and Bible at Warsaw's Institute for Jewish Studies.
He struggled to find a way out of Europe, and at the last moment, just six weeks before the German invasion of Poland, he succeeded in leaving Warsaw for London. My father escaped thanks to Julian Morgenstern, the president of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, who had been trying for several years to secure visas from the American State Department to bring Jewish scholars out of Europe.
When the Nazis invaded Poland, my father's sister Esther was killed in a bombing. His mother and sister Gittel had to leave their apartment, and their circumstances became very difficult. They sent postcards to my father, in which they worried lovingly about his well-being and begged for news of his safety. "Each day that we receive a letter from you," Gittel wrote, "is a holiday for us." Both were ultimately murdered, his mother in Warsaw, Gittel most probably in Treblinka. Another sister, Devorah, who was married and living in Vienna, was eventually deported to Theresienstadt on October 2, 1942, and from there sent to Auschwitz, where she was murdered upon her arrival, on May 16, 1944.
My father never returned to Germany, nor to Austria, nor to Poland. He once wrote, "If I should go to Poland or Germany, every stone, every tree would remind me of contempt, hatred, murder, of children killed, of mothers burned alive, of human beings asphyxiated."
After receiving his American visa, my father arrived in New York City in March 1940. He stayed at first with members of his family. His oldest sister, Sarah, and her husband, the Kapitshinitzer rebbe, and most of their children had already arrived from Vienna, and there were also other cousins from Warsaw.
Soon after arriving, my father took a position at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. His position was not professor, but instructor. He was given a room in the student dormitory, where he also kept his own food, since the cafeteria was not kosher. The students were a disappointment to him as well, because their background in Jewish texts was much weaker than that of his students at the Berlin seminary.
The years in Cincinnati were lonely. My father struggled constantly to bring his mother and sister from Warsaw and to save other friends, colleagues, and relatives who remained stranded in Europe. They wrote to him, begging for help. He was frustrated with the American Jewish community, which he felt did not recognize the emergency. The news from Europe became worse and worse. He continued to receive mail from his mother and sisters, and he tried unsuccessfully to secure visas; he learned of their murder while he was in Cincinnati. Within his immediate family, the only survivors were those who fled before the war began: his brother, Jacob, who left Vienna for London with his wife, Susie, and daughter, Thena, in 1939, and his sister, Sarah, and her husband and their children, who left Vienna in February 1939 for New York.
It was in Cincinnati that my father first met my mother, Sylvia Straus, at a dinner party at the home of Professor and Mrs. Jacob Marcus. My mother, a concert pianist, had come to Cincinnati from her hometown, Cleveland, to study with Severin Eisenberger. That evening she was asked to play the piano, and my father fell in love with her. Shortly thereafter he attended her concert at the Cincinnati music conservatory and took her out to celebrate. Within a few months, my father was offered a position at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the seat of the Conservative movement. After hearing her play, Arthur Rubenstein urged my mother to study with the pianist Eduard Steuermann, who also lived in New York. My parents were married on December 10, 1946, in Los Angeles, where my mother's parents had moved several years earlier.
It is striking that my father did not undertake major theological work until after his marriage. During the early years of their marriage, my father completed his most important books, masterpieces of religious thought that seemed to pour out of him: Man is not Alone (1951); The Sabbath (1951); God in Search of Man(1952); Man's Quest for God (1954). At the same time, he was able to give voice to his mourning for the destruction of his family and the world of East European Jews. He was asked to speak on East European Jewish life in 1946 at the YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Scientific Research in New York, where he delivered an elegy in Yiddish so moving that the audience, composed mainly of secular Yiddish writers, spontaneously stood up at the end of the speech and said Kaddish, the Jewish memorial prayer for the dead. That speech was later expanded and published in English as The Earth Is the Lord's.
In many ways, my father's evocation of East European Jews was a description of his own personality. He writes of the sheer joy of being Jewish, the vitality, the love of learning, and also the tenderness, the gentleness, the sincerity and deep trust of other people that characterized East European Jews--and himself. His panegyric to Polish Jews is striking in comparison to the way they were usually portrayed in the work of modern historians, particularly those of Germany, who tended to view their Polish compatriots as an embarrassment for their lack of assimilation and for their mystical piety. By contrast, these German historians held up the cosmopolitan Sephardic Jews of Spain as models of Jews who were intellectually and culturally assimilated. My father's purpose was to depict the spirituality of the East European Jews, their inner life, a precious religious civilization that was wiped out by the Nazis. He also wrote several important scholarly articles on early Hasidism, the pietist movement of Eastern Europe that began during the eighteenth century, and he received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1954 to write a planned biography of the movement's founder, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov. At the end of his life, he wrote two books on Hasidism, a two-volume Yiddish study of Menachem Mendl of Kotzk, a famed nineteenth-century Hasidic master, and A Passion for Truth, a comparison of the Kotzker and Soren Kierkegaard. For my father, Hasidism was an extraordinary moment in Jewish spiritual history: "Then came Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov and brought heaven down to earth .... In the days of Moses, Israel had a revelation of God, in the days of the Baal Shem, God had a revelation of Israel. Suddenly, there was revealed a holiness in Jewish life that had accumulated in the course of many generations."
How could the spirituality of Hasidism, the holiness of East European Jewish life, now utterly destroyed, be expressed in the language of post-war America? Just as his doctoral dissertation had challenged the interpretive categories of modern biblical scholarship, his first English articles were radical challenges to the conventional categories used by scholars of religion to interpret religious experience. His articles of the 1940s begin by contending that conventional categories used to understand piety, prayer, and holiness are reductionist and inappropriate. Instead of understanding piety on its own terms, for example, scholars too often reduce it to a psychological phenomenon, or criticize it as irrational and counterproductive. He used to say in his lectures, "just as you cannot study philosophy through praying, you cannot study prayer through philosophizing." In Man Is Not Alone he wrote, "Evaluating faith in terms of reason is like trying to understand love as a syllogism and beauty as an algebraic equation." Instead, he argued that piety is a phenomenon that must be described on its own terms, as an attitude, a way of thinking in which the pious person feels God to be always close and present: "Awareness of God is as close to him as the throbbing of his own heart, often deep and calm, but at times overwhelming, intoxicating, setting the soul afire." Piety gives rise to reverence, which sees the "dignity of every human being" and "the spiritual value which even inanimate things inalienably possess." Exploitation and domination are utterly foreign to genuine piety, and possession of things leads only to loneliness. Instead, the pious person's "affinity with God is his persistent aspiration to go beyond himself," to be devoted to goals and tasks and ideals. For the pious person, destiny means not simply to accomplish, but to contribute. "In aiding a creature, he is helping the Creator. In succoring the poor, he is taking care of something that concerns God. In admiring the good, he is revering the Spirit of God."
Ultimately religion is not based on our awareness of God but on God's interest in us. In prayer, for example, we seek not to make God visible but to make ourselves visible to God. That gentle upheaval of the relationship is central to my father's theology. It is not we who search to understand God; it is God who is in search of us. Even more, it is God who is in need of us: "To be is to stand for, and what human beings stand for is the great mystery of being God's partner. God is in need of human beings."
God's need of us, what my father calls "divine pathos," is the central pillar of his theology and what makes it distinctive among Jewish thinkers. Yet it is not idiosyncratic; my father bases his understanding of divine pathos on a long, deep tradition within Judaism, most prominent in Kabbalistic and Hasidic writings, but also found in the heart of rabbinic Judaism. Indeed his three-volume study of rabbinic theology, published in Hebrew as Torah min Ha-Shamayim b'Espakloriah shel Ha-Dorot (Revelation in the Mirror of the Generations) demonstrates that concepts thought by scholars to have originated with classical Kabbalah in the Middle Ages began to be articulated in antiquity by the rabbis who shaped halakhic Judaism.
My father first met Martin Luther King, Jr., in January 1963 and began his long involvement in the civil rights movement. They met at a Chicago conference on religion and race sponsored by the National Conference of Christians and Jews and became good friends as well as colleagues. Writing, lecturing, and demonstrating on behalf of civil rights, my father was an effective figure. When the police blocked the entrance to F.B.I. headquarters in Manhattan, it was he who gained entry to present a petition protesting police brutality against civil rights demonstrators in Alabama.
When my father joined the famous Selma march in 1965, he was welcomed as one of the leaders into the front row of marchers, with Dr. King, Ralph Bunche, and Ralph Abernathy. In an unpublished memoir he wrote upon returning from Selma, my father describes the extreme hostility he encountered from whites in Alabama from the moment he arrived at the airport, and the kindness he was shown by Dr. King's assistants, particularly the Reverend Andrew Young, who watched over him during the march with great concern. Just before the march began, a service was held in a small chapel, where my father read Psalm 27, "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?", and Dr. King gave a sermon describing three typologies among the children of Israel in the wilderness. For my father, Dr. King's emphasis on the exodus, rather than on Jesus, as a model for the movement was important, and he invited Dr. King and his family to join us at our Passover Seder. Dr. King's assassination in April 1968 came just before Passover; we had expected him to spend the holiday with us.
For my father, the march was a religious moment; he wrote in his memoir, "I thought of my having walked with Hasidic rabbis on various occasions. I felt a sense of the Holy in what I was doing. Dr. King expressed several times to me his appreciation. He said, 'I cannot tell you how much your presence means to us. You cannot imagine how often Reverend Vivian and I speak about you.' Dr. King said to me that this was the greatest day in his life and the most important Civil Rights demonstration." With sadness, my father adds, "I felt again what I have been thinking about for years--that Jewish religious institutions have again missed a great opportunity, namely, to interpret a Civil Rights movement in terms of Judaism. The vast number of Jews participating actively in it are totally unaware of what the movement means in terms of the prophetic traditions."
About six months after the Selma march, my father, together with John Bennett and Richard Neuhaus, founded what became one of the strongest organizations opposed to the war in Vietnam, Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam. Over and over, in speeches at universities, synagogues, and anti-war rallies, he denounced the murder of innocent people in Southeast Asia and proclaimed, "In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible." However difficult it may be to stop the war today, he said, it will be even more difficult tomorrow; the killing must end now.
The crimes committed in Vietnam were subversive to our values, and also to our religious lives, he insisted. Someone may commit a crime now and teach mathematics an hour later. But when we pray, all we have done in our lives enters our prayers. As he had articulated in his early essays in the 1940s, the purpose of prayer is not petitionary. We do not pray in order to be saved, my father used to stress, we pray so that we might be worthy of being saved. Prayer should not focus on our wishes, but is a moment in which God's intentions are reflected in us. If we are created in the image of God, each human being should be a reminder of God's presence. If we engage in acts of violence and murder, we are desecrating the divine likeness.
The anguish my father felt over the war in Vietnam was relentless; I often found him in the middle of the night, unable to sleep. The tension grew worse in the spring of 1967, as hostile Arab countries threatened Israel with a military build-up and U.N. troops withdrew from their peace-keeping positions. Israel's extraordinary military success in the Six-Day War was a great relief, and my father flew there immediately. The trip inspired his magnificent evocation of the land of Israel's religious significance to Judaism, Israel: An Echo of Eternity.
Zionism for my father was not solely a political issue, and he was critical of much of Zionist theory for its single-minded political and secular emphases. Neither statehood nor cultural nationalism, he argued, could substitute for Judaism's religious teachings. He presented these views in the United States and in Israel, often at Zionist conventions, where he warned that simply living in the State of Israel was no panacea for resolving issues of Jewish identity.
My father and mother and I made our first trip to Israel in the summer of 1957. The establishment of the State seemed like a miracle, and my father used to speak about it to me with a tone of wonder.
His reputation as a theologian of significance within the Christian community began with a glowing review by Reinhold Niebuhr of Man Is Not Alone in 1951. Abraham Heschel, Niebuhr wrote, was "one of the treasures of mind and spirit by which the persecutions, unloosed in Europe, inadvertently enriched our American culture .... It is a safe guess that he will become a commanding and authoritative voice not only in the Jewish community but in the religious life of America." What a contrast between the German Protestant theologians of the 1930s, debating whether the Old Testament should be eliminated from the Christian canon, and Reinhold Niebuhr's positive view of Hebrew scripture and of Judaism! This led to further contacts and ultimately into a close friendship. They were neighbors and often took walks together. Niebuhr's praise and the friendship that developed between them was profoundly important to my father; for him they were hopeful signs of new kind of relationship between Jews and Christians. Niebuhr himself asked my father to deliver the eulogy at his funeral, which he did. Niebuhr, he used to say, understood his work better than anyone else. With all the differences in their beliefs, both had similar understandings of the role of a theologian--not simply philosophical discussion, but political activism--and they shared a deep love of the Hebrew Bible.
My father's most important achievement in Christian-Jewish relations came in his involvement with the Second Vatican Council during the mid-1960s. At the invitation of the American Jewish Committee, my father traveled to Rome, where he formed a friendship with Cardinal Bea, who directed the composition of Nostra Aetate, the Vatican's pronouncement concerning relations with non-Catholic religions. He met with Pope Paul VI on several occasions, as well as with Cardinal Willebrands of Holland, and he took a strong stand during the moments when it seemed the Council was weakening its declaration concerning the Jews.
In 1971, my father traveled through Italy on a lecture tour, accompanied by my mother. A private audience with Pope Paul VI was arranged for them in Rome on March 17. Describing the visit afterward in a private memoir, my father said how pleased he was that the Pope had seen his writings as a help to Catholics to strengthen their faith:
When the Pope saw me he smiled joyously, with a
radiant face, shook my hand cordially with both his
hands--he did so several times during the audience.
He opened the conversation by telling me
that he is reading my books, that my books are very
spiritual and very beautiful, and that Catholics
should read my books. He expressed his blessing
that I may continue to write more books. He then
added that he knows of the great impact my books
are having upon young people, which he particularly
"Isn't it a burden to have a famous father?" people often ask me. But just imagine what kind of a father Abraham Heschel would be. I was only vaguely aware of my father's fame when I was growing up; as a father, he was wonderful, ever warm and loving and affectionate. I knew I could confide in him and always receive a sensitive and understanding response. I was free to interrupt him at any moment; he was never annoyed, but always looked up from his writing with a big smile of delight and exclaimed, "Susie!" as though we hadn't seen each other in ages. He loved being a father, playing games with me and my friends, even making up games for my birthday parties. American popular culture was utterly foreign to our home. My father had no idea of sports, popular music, movies, or T.V. I remember as a child teasing him, saying that he should Americanize himself, become "the sporty type," wear brown sport jackets instead of gray or blue suits, and learn to play golf.
Walking with my father was not a matter of reaching a destination but of creating a private time to talk. He would stop every few feet and discuss a point, then go a little farther. He loved to take walks on Sabbath afternoons, in Riverside Park across from our apartment building. When I was a little girl, he was always delighted to play games to keep me amused, and even corralled his colleagues to join us in "Simon Says" or "Red Light, Green Light." And when I grew tired from the walk, he would put me on his shoulders and carry me.
From my youngest years I was aware of discrimination against women, particularly in religious circles, and complained about it to my father. He always agreed with me, supporting me when I wanted a Bat Mitzvah and an aliyah for my sixteenth birthday, and agreeing that aspects of Jewish observance that were unfair to women had to be changed. He even suggested that I apply to the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, confident that one day women would be accepted there as students.
My father's book on the Sabbath, one of the most popular of his writings, evokes the spirit he created with my mother in our home, in which the Sabbath was both peacefully quiet and filled with celebration. The book beautifully describes the rabbinic, Kabbalistic, and Hasidic understandings of the Sabbath experience; together, my parents brought the text to life.
It was on a Sabbath that my father died. We were planning to go to the synagogue together on the morning of Saturday, December 23, 1972, but he never awakened. In Jewish tradition it is considered a sign of great piety to merit a peaceful death in one's sleep, even more so to die on the Sabbath. Such a death is called a kiss from God.
Most of the world that my father knew no longer exists. He was, as he wrote, "a brand plucked from the fire of Europe," and he became God's gift to us. The soil of Jewish piety in which he was bred was destroyed, but through him that world did not vanish. Like the Baal Shem Tov, he brought heaven down to earth, and in his writings we have a revelation of the holiness of Jewish life.
Susannah Heschel is currently serving as visiting professor of Jewish Studies in the Religion Department at Dartmouth College. This essay presents excerpts from her introduction to Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity Essays by Abraham Joshua Heschel, edited by Susannah Heschel, to he published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright [C] 1996 by Susannah Heschel All rights reserved.
and German, Dr.
Heschel is the
at Case Western
Ohio, a post
she has held
She completed her A.B. at Trinity College, Hartford, CT, a M.T.S. at Harvard Divinity School, and, in 1989, a Ph.D. in Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Since then she has also held teaching positions at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX, the University of Frankfurt, and Case Western Reserve. From January to May 1996 she was visiting professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth.
In addition to her teaching she serves on the Editorial Board of Shofar: Journal of Jewish Studies, is a member of the Consultation of Jews, Christians and Muslims at Princeton's Center of Theological Inquiry, and was Co-director of the Study of Judaism Division of the American Academy of Religion, 1988-1991. Her services asa a scholar have in demand around the globe, bringing her invitations to present papers and lectures in North and South America, Europe, Africa and the Middle East. In 1992 she lectured on Judaism and the environement at a panel of religious leaders at the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, and in 1994 lectured on Judaism and reproductive ethics at the UN Conference on Population and Development in Cairo.
Dr. Heschel's current research concerns Christian anti-semitism, particularly during the Nazi period.
nur von der
auch von Gottes
Suche nach dem
wir Ihn suchen,
ist das nicht
Sein Wille ist
die Bibel sie
sieht, kann in
ist auf der
Suche nach dem
Glaube an Gott
Antwort auf die