Abraham Joshua Heschel: A Prophet's Prophet

Heschel aimed, through his writing and teaching, to shock modern people out of complacency and into a spiritual dimension

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The following article is reprinted from Jewish People, Jewish Thought, published by Prentice-Hall.

His Life

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), a descendant of two important Hasidic dynasties, was born in Warsaw. After receiving a thorough Jewish education in Poland, Heschel entered the University of Berlin, where in 1934 he received his doctorate for a study of the biblical prophets… . In 1937 Heschel became Martin Buber’s successor at the Judisches Lehrhaus in Frankfort and head of adult Jewish education in Germany, but the following year, he and other Polish Jews were deported by the Nazis.

thinkers & thought quiz[Martin Buber (1878-1965) was a German-Jewish social and religious philosopher. The Frankfurt Lehrhaus, an experimental center for adult Jewish education, aimed to teach marginal, acculturated Jews about Judaism. Ed.]

After stays in Warsaw and London, in 1940 he came to the United States to teach at the Hebrew Union College. In 1945 Heschel became Professor of Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and began to publish a series of works, ranging from studies on the piety of East European Jewry and the inward character of Jewish observance, to religious symbolism, Jewish views of humanity, and contemporary moral and political issues. Before his untimely death, Heschel had become highly respected among American religionists of many faiths not only for his writings but also for his active role in the civil rights and peace movements of the 1960s and in the Jewish-Christian dialogue.

A Unique and Vivid Style

Heschel’s literary style is unique among modern Jewish religious authors. Remarkable juxtapositions of the concrete and the abstract, suggestive similes and metaphors, striking aphorisms and extended images, concepts from classical and existentialist philosophy, are all used to evoke the numinous quality of the divine and the capacity for human self-transcendence. Heschel's aim is to shock modern man out of his complacency and awaken him to that spiritual dimension fading from the contemporary consciousness. Because he stresses now one and now another polarity of the religious experience and because of the rich cumulative impact of his style, Heschel's point of view does not lend itself to paraphrase or brief summary. The following remarks are limited to a few characteristic themes.

Heschel's Thought: "Radical Astonishment" and Confronting the Ineffable

In Heschel’s view, the basic intuition of reality takes place on a “preconceptual” level; a disparity always remains between what we encounter and how we can express our encounter in words. The great achievements of art, philosophy, and religion are brought forth in movements when the individual senses more than he can say. “In our religious situation we do not comprehend the transcendent; we are present at it, we witness it. Whatever we know is inadequate; whatever we say is an understatement…Concepts, words must not become screens; they must be regarded as windows.”

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Robert M. Seltzer

Robert Seltzer is a Professor of History at Hunter College (CUNY).