Abraham Joshua Heschel: A Memoir

Rabbi Arthur Green

Abraham Joshua Heschel: A Memoir

Dear Chevra, We urge you to make use for example, in adult-education classes of this memoir by Rabbi Arthur Green on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

This article have been supplied by The Shalom Center as part of its effort to encourage continuing annual observance of the Yohrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. We began this effort with the 25th Yohrzeit, which fell very close to Martin Luther King's Birthday in 1998. All around the world, more than 400 observances of Rabbenu Heschel's Yohrzeit reawakened study of his writings and action in his memory.

This coming year, the 27th Yohrzeit falls on December 26-27, 1999 (18 Tevet).

Please see further information on the Council for the Heschel Yohrzeit.



By Arthur Green*

As a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the mid-1960's, I had the great privilege of studying privately with Abraham Joshua Heschel, surely the towering religious figure of American Jewry in the post- war era. I had read several of Heschel's theological writings years earlier; they had played an important role in drawing me, the product of an assimilating second-generation American Jewish home, into a lifelong love of Judaism and of Hasidism in particular.

It was in the 1960's that American Jewry began to come to terms with the great tragedy of European Jewry; the very term "holocaust," as applied to those events, was born in that decade. More than any other American Jewish figure, Heschel, whose mother and sisters had died in Warsaw/Treblinka, stood as a symbol of Polish Jewry and of all that had been lost. His book The Earth Is the Lord's was the best-known collective memorial to Eastern European Jews available in those days. In Heschel we caught a glimpse of a Jewish religious passion that linked the ancient prophets and his own immediate ancestors, the Hasidic masters. He seemed to embody both the greatness and the tragedy that were our lot.

But being a young follower of Heschel was not easy. "Where are the pain, the anger, the outcry?" we used to ask. Wiesel's Night appeared, telling us the unvarnished truth that God had died on the gallows at Auschwitz. Richard Rubenstein's After Auschwitz told us it was blasphemy to continue to believe in divine providence any longer. Heschel still spoke of faith, of sacred deeds, of the beauty of holy living. How could he do it? How could he go on speaking the old religious language without the events of his own lifetime rendering his words hollow? Heschel's answer to this challenge was just where he said it would be: not in words, but in deeds. We came to understand that it was Heschel the holocaust survivor who marched with Martin Luther King, Heschel the holocaust survivor who helped inspire the first activists for Soviet Jewry, Heschel the holocaust survivor who spoke out with such passion and courage against an unjust war, proclaiming (in wonderful Yiddish-accented parody of John F. Kennedy) "I am a Vietnamese!" It was in these acts and others that Heschel offered his response.

The shadow of the holocaust marked all of its survivors; indeed it continues to shape the collective behavior of the entire Jewish people more than half a century later. But survivors were transformed in a variety of ways. Some previously pious Jews gave up every shred of religion; others, including many Orthodox survivors, became more self-isolating and extreme than before the war. Some survivors, convinced that the Jews remain "a nation that dwells alone," learned from the holocaust that Jews must stand up always and only for their own kind. Heschel belonged to a small but important group who insisted that the holocaust's message was uncompromisingly universal and of absolute urgency. Having lived in Germany through the mid 1930's, and being in touch again with postwar German religious thinkers, Heschel knew much about the guilt of bystanders. The reality of the holocaust would never permit him to join their ranks.

It was too easy, Heschel felt, to blame God for the holocaust. The failure, he insisted, was essentially a human one. It was the depravity of human beings acting in defiance of faith that had given us the concentration camps. It was human beings, transgressing what he insisted was religion's most essential teaching, the creation of every person in God's image, who had brought about the unimaginable degradation of their fellow humans. In the privacy of the survivor's own prayers God might indeed be questioned; Heschel's attraction to the Kotsker rebbe, closeted away in his study for nineteen years, was probably his way of identifying with the most searing of religious questions. But our task, Heschel insisted, was not that of reconstructing religion but of rebuilding humanity. If humanity had failed, the only thing to do was to be more human and to show others how to be more human. This could be done only by example, and example is what Heschel provided.

Heschel's thought is a rejoining of the prophetic and Hasidic legacies. He liked to tell the Hasidic tale of Rabbi Raphael of Bershad who invited a group of his disciples to come share with him in a ride in his coach. "But there is not enough room!" a disciple cried out, "the rebbe will be crowded." The master replied: "Then we shall have to love each other more. If we love each other more, there will be room for us all." Heschel understood that all of humanity rides in that coach, one that can be either the divine chariot of God or the crowded, sealed railway car. The choice, he insisted, is a human one, and we who have escaped the terrors of hell are here to help all our fellow humans make that choice.


* Rabbi Arthur Green is a professor of religion at Brandeis University, a former president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, one of the founders of Havurat Shalom, and the author of Tormented Master and Seek My Face, Speak My Name, among many other works of Jewish scholarship and spirituality.

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