Abra­ham Joshua Hes­chel: A Life of Rad­i­cal Amazement

Julian E. Zelizer

  • Review
By – October 18, 2021

The newest addi­tion to the excel­lent Jew­ish Lives series of Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press is a biog­ra­phy of Abra­ham Joshua Hes­chel, the prophet-like rab­bi who in the 1960s joined Mar­tin Luther King, Jr. to advance the cause of civ­il rights. At the head of the 1965 protest march with King and oth­er lead­ers from Sel­ma to Mont­gomery, Alaba­ma, Hes­chel sum­ma­rized his par­tic­i­pa­tion with an oft-quot­ed remark, I felt my legs were praying.”

Julian Zeliz­er tells this inspir­ing sto­ry with pas­sion and with clar­i­ty, in a flu­id style that offers plea­sur­able reading.

Civ­il rights was just one of the caus­es Hes­chel embraced; he was also a leader in the Sovi­et Jew­ry move­ment, and, con­tro­ver­sial­ly, in inter­faith dia­logue and the anti-Viet­nam war move­ment. With his insis­tence that Jew­ish obser­vance and social activism were nec­es­sar­i­ly linked, Hes­chel ven­tured where oth­er reli­gious lead­ers of the time feared to go.

Born into a Hasidic dynasty in War­saw in 1907, Heschel’s for­ma­tive years were times of great change, with his Jew­ish learn­ing and his pious life com­ing into con­tact with the sec­u­lar world, par­tic­u­lar­ly when he moved to Berlin in 1927, where he attend­ed and earned a doc­tor­ate at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Berlin.

As con­di­tions for Jews began to dete­ri­o­rate, Hes­chel knew he had to leave Europe. Sal­va­tion came from the Hebrew Union Col­lege, the Reform movement’s rab­bini­cal sem­i­nary in Cincin­nati. Its pres­i­dent, Julian Mor­gen­stern, was recruit­ing Ger­man Jew­ish schol­ars, and offered Hes­chel a posi­tion. He arrived in this coun­try in 1940.

While exceed­ing­ly grate­ful that Mor­gen­stern and HUC had saved his life, Hes­chel was not at home at the Reform insti­tute. Mean­while, his fam­i­ly was not able to leave Europe. To expe­ri­ence the atro­cious in the dis­tance makes me mute,” he wrote in anguish to his friend Mar­tin Buber, dev­as­tat­ed by the deaths of fam­i­ly members.

In 1945, Hes­chel was offered a posi­tion at the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary in New York, the rab­bini­cal sem­i­nary of the Con­ser­v­a­tive move­ment, the denom­i­na­tion with which he came to be asso­ci­at­ed. He accept­ed, com­fort­able with its more tra­di­tion­al approach to Jew­ish obser­vance, but he was not ful­ly accept­ed as a seri­ous schol­ar by his colleagues.

Nev­er­the­less Hes­chel was, accord­ing to author Zeliz­er, a writ­ing machine” — includ­ing The Sab­bath, God In Search of Man, Man Is Not Alone, and in 1962, The Prophets. With that book, writes Zeliz­er, Heschel’s the­ol­o­gy start­ed to mesh with real-world activism.” At his first civ­il rights address in 1963, he told the assem­bled lead­ers, Prayer and prej­u­dice can­not dwell in the same heart,” call­ing racism unmit­i­gat­ed evil.” It was a cri de coeur for action root­ed in his reli­gion, and a call he fol­lowed for the rest of his life until he died in 1972, at the age of just 65.

Gila Wertheimer is Asso­ciate Edi­tor of the Chica­go Jew­ish Star. She is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has been review­ing books for 35 years.

Discussion Questions