Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home

Abraham Joshua Heschel

(1907 - 1972)

Abraham Joshua Heschel was a Jewish American rabbi, scholar, and philosopher who was very active in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.

Heschel descended on his father's side from Dov Baer (the Maggid) of Mezeritch and Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apta (Opatow); on his mother's side from Levi Isaac of Berdichev. After traditional Jewish studies, he obtained rabbinic ordination (semikhah). At the age of 20 he enrolled in the University of Berlin, where he obtained his doctorate, and at the Hochschule fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums, where he also taught Talmud and received a second liberal rabbinical ordination. In 1937 Martin Buber appointed him his successor at the central organization for Jewish adult education (Mittelstelle fuer juedische Erwachsenenbildung) and the Juedisches Lehrhaus at Frankfurt on the Main. Deported by the Nazis in October 1938 to Poland, he taught for eight months at the Warsaw Institute of Jewish Studies. He immigrated to England, where he established the Institute for Jewish Learning in London. In 1940 he was invited by Julian Morgenstern to teach at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where he was associate professor of philosophy and rabbinics for five years. From 1945 he taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS) as a professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism. In 1946 he married Sylvia Strauss, who gave birth to Susannah Heschel, who followed in the footsteps of her father as a scholar of Judaism. Heschel visited Israel and called for the renewal of the prophetic vision in Zion. He served as a professor at JTS until his death, combining his professional activities with extensive social action.


Heschel wrote books and studies on medieval Jewish philosophy – on Saadiah Gaon, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Maimonides, and Don Isaac Abrabanel – as well as on Hasidism. He became one of the most influential modern philosophers of religion in the United States, and his work is widely recognized in Jewish and Christian circles. Heschel saw the task of the philosopher of religion neither in the construction of a "religion of reason" that draws on non-Jewish sources nor in the analysis of "religious experience." The first substitutes philosophy for religion; the second tends to replace it with the psychology of religion. Heschel's own works attempt to penetrate and illumine the reality underlying religion, the living and dynamic relationship between God and man, through the empathetic understanding of the documents of Israel's tradition and of the experience of the religious Jew. Although he brought to this task the tools of modern philosophy, he pointed out repeatedly that no amount of rational analysis alone can ever exhaust the richness and fullness of this reality. He therefore highlighted the fact that reason itself discloses its own limits and that the ineffable quality of the Divine cannot fully be reduced to any scheme of conceptual categories because man apprehends more than he can comprehend.

Heschel's lifework can be seen as consisting of two parallel strands: (1) the undertaking to study and interpret the classical sources of Judaism and (2) the endeavor to offer to his contemporaries a theology that results from the application of the insights of the traditional sources to the problems and questions which the modern Jew faces. Thus he started out with a book on prophecy (Die Prophetie, 1936), which presents a phenomenology of prophetic consciousness, and a biography of Maimonides treating the existential confrontation of Aristotelian philosophy with rabbinic Judaism. Studies in the field of Ḥasidism continued this undertaking. He published his first American book under the title The Earth Is the Lord's (1950) on Jewish life in Eastern Europe. In his three-volume Hebrew word, Torah min ha-Shamayim be-Aspaklaryah shel ha-Dorot (1962, 1965; third volume published posthumously in 1990), he presented the assumptions and ideas underlying the Talmudic views of Torah and revelation and discovered two major trends in ancient Jewish thought which became formative in all subsequent Jewish history. In these two trends, epitomized by Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva, halakhic differences reflect different aggadic positions of faith. Rabbi Akiva maintained that the Torah is written in a heavenly language, which stimulates vision and opens one up to mystery, whereas Rabbi Ishmael asserted that the Torah is written in the language of man, which promotes logical thinking and the search for peshat (the plain meaning).

The results of Heschel's wide-ranging studies contributed to the formation of his original philosophy of Judaism, expressed in his two foundational books, Man Is Not Alone (1951) and God in Search of Man (1955). Religion is defined as the answer to man's ultimate questions. Since modern man is largely alienated from reality, which informs genuine religion, Heschel tried to recover the significant existential questions to which Judaism offers answers. This leads to a depth-theology that goes below the surface phenomena of modern doubt and rootlessness and results in a humanistic approach to the personal God of the Bible, who is neither a philosophical abstraction nor a psychological projection but a living reality that takes a passionate interest in His creatures. The "divine concern" or "divine pathos" is the central category of Heschel's philosophy. Man's ability to transcend his egocentric interests and to respond with love and devotion to the divine demand, to His "pathos" or "transitive concern," is the root of Jewish life with its ethics and observances. The ability to rise to the holy dimension of the divine imperative is at the basis of human freedom. The failures and successes of Israel in responding to God's call constitute the drama of Jewish history as seen from the viewpoint of theology. The polarity of law and life, the pattern and the spontaneous of keva ("permanence") and kavvanah ("devotion"), inform all of life and produce the creative tension in which Judaism is a way of prescribed and regular mitzvot as well as a spontaneous and always novel reaction of each Jew to the divine reality.

Heschel developed a philosophy of time in which a technical society that tends to think in spatial categories is contrasted with the Jewish idea of hallowing time, of which the Sabbath and the holidays are the most outstanding examples (The Sabbath, 1951). He defined Judaism as a religion of the time, aiming at the sanctification of time. In his depth-theology, which is based upon the human being's pre-conceptual cognition, Heschel thought that all humanity has an inherent sense of the sacred; he pleaded for a radical amazement and fulminated against symbolism as a reduction of religion. Instead of advocating a sociological view of Judaism, he highlighted the spirituality and inner beauty of Judaism as well as the religious act while at the same time rejecting a religious behaviorism without inwardness. Heschel's way of writing is poetical and suggestive, sometimes meditative, containing many antitheses and provocative questions, and aims at the transformation of modern man into a spiritual being in dialogue with God.

Religion and Action

Underlying all of Heschel's thought is the belief that modern man's estrangement from religion is not merely the result of intellectual perplexity or of the obsoleteness of traditional religion but rather the failure of modern man to recover the understanding and experience of that dimension of reality in which the divine-human encounter can take place. His philosophy of religion has, therefore, a twofold aim: to forge the conceptual tools by which one can adequately approach this reality and to evoke in modern man – by describing traditional piety and the relationship between God and man – the sympathetic appreciation of the holy dimension of life without which no amount of detached analysis can penetrate to the reality which is the root of all art, morality, and faith.

Heschel applied in a number of essays and addressed the insights of his religious philosophy to particular problems confronting people in modern times. He addressed rabbinic and lay audiences on the topics of prayer and symbolism (see his Man's Quest for God, 1954), dealt with the problems of youth and old age at two White House conferences in Washington, and played an active part in the civil rights movement in the U.S. in the 1960s, and in the Jewish-Christian dialogue beginning with the preparations for Vatican Council II. Heschel thought that religious people from various denominations are linked to each other since "No religion is an island."

Heschel considered himself a survivor, "a brand plucked from the fire, in which my people was burned to death." He also regarded himself as a descendant of the prophets. He was a person who combined inner piety and prophetic activism. He was profoundly interested in spirituality, but an inner spirituality concretely linked to social action, as exemplified by his commitment to the struggle for civil rights in the U.S., by his protests against the Vietnam War, and by his activities on behalf of Soviet Jewry (see i.a. The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays on Human Existence, 1966).


J.J. Petuchowski, "Faith as the Leapof Action: The Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel," in: Commentary, 25:5 (1958), 390–97; F.A. Rothschild (ed. and intr.), Between God and Man: An Interpretation of Judaism from the Writings of Abraham J. Heschel (1965); S. Seigel, "Abraham Heschel's Contribution to Jewish Scholarship," in Proceedings of the Rabbinical Assembly, 32 (1968):72–85; F. Sherman, The Promise of Heschel (1970); S. Tanenzapf, "Abraham Heschel and his Critics," in: Judaism, 23:3 (1974), 276–86; M. Friedman, "Divine Need and Human Wonder: The Philosophy of A.J. Heschel," in: Judaism. 25:1 (1976), 65–78; B.L. Sherwin, Abraham Joshua Heschel (1979); S.T. Katz, "Abraham Joshua Heschel and Hasidism," in: Journal of Jewish Studies, 31 (1980), 82–104; H. Kasimow, "Abraham Joshua Heschel and Interreligious Dialogue," in: Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 18 (1981), 423–34; J.C. Merkle, The Genesis of Faith: The Depth-Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel (1985); J.C. Merkle (ed.), Abraham Joshua Heschel: Exploring His Life and Thought (1985); L. Perlman, Abraham Heschel's Idea of Revelation (1989); D. Moore, The Human and the Holy: The Spirituality of A.J. Heschel (1989); H. Kasimow and B. Sherwin (eds.), No Religion Is an Island (1991); E.K. Kaplan, Holiness in Words (1996); E.K. Kaplan and S.H. Dresner, Abraham Joshua Heschel: Prophetic Witness (1998); R. Horwitz, "Abraham Joshua Heschel on Prayer and His Hasidic Sources," in: Modern Judaism, 19:3 (1999), 293–310; E. Schweid, Prophets for Their People and Humanity. Prophecy and Prophets in 20th Century Jewish Thought (Heb., 1999), 234–54; A. Even-Chen, A Voice from the Darkness: Abraham Joshua Heschel – Phenomenology and Mysticism (Heb., 1999); E. Meir, "David Hartman on the Attitudes of Soloveitchik and Heschel towards Christianity," in: J.W. Malino (ed.), Judaism and Modernity: The Religious Philosophy of David Hartman (2001), 253–65; idem, "Love and Truth in the Jewish Consciousness According to Abraham Joshua Heschel," in: Hagut. Jewish Educational Thought, 3–4 (2002), 141–50; G. Rabinovitch (ed.), Abraham J. Heschel: Un tsaddiq dans la cité (2004).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.