Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was a twentieth century Jewish theologian whose intense commitment to social action brought him to the heart of the Civil Rights movement.
Born in Warsaw, Heschel was the descendant of rabbinic families on both his father’s and his mother’s side. After completing his traditional education and receiving rabbinic ordination, Heschel moved to Berlin, Germany, where he was a doctoral student at the University of Berlin and, at the same time, studied for and received an additional ordination from the Liberal Jewish Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Higher Institute for Jewish Studies).
Heschel remained in Germany until 1938, when he was deported by the Nazis. He returned briefly to Warsaw, where he lectured at Warsaw’s Institute of Jewish Studies, before escaping to the United States via London. (His mother and three of his sisters were killed during the war.) In America, Heschel first taught at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, OH, and then at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City. He was a highly-regarded theologian and scholar who published numerous works, the best known of which are The Sabbath and God in Search of Man.
Whereas many theologians remain entrenched in their research and writing, Heschel was also a major social activist. Perhaps his own words provide an insight into the philosophy that drove him: “A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought. He is asked to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does. (1)”
Heschel felt so strongly about the Civil Rights movement that he joined the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. on his famous march from Selma to Montgomery. He also protested against the Vietnam War, spoke out on behalf of Soviet Jewry and helped revise the Catholic Church’s sentiments toward Jews during the Vatican Council II (1962–1965).
(1) Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man, (New York, 1955), p. 283
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