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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For Heschel, Jewish survival is a spiritual act. God’s concern with man is expressed in Judaism through the idea of a covenant imposing a mutual, correlative responsiveness on man and God both, because God needs man for the attainment of his ends in the world.

Heschel stands in that stream of modern Jewish thought which emphasizes the limitations of reason to grasp the full significance of the religious life. His approach has been called “devotional philosophy”, a religious rhetoric, mystical apologetics—all honored and accepted types if religious writing. Heschel himself characterized his method as “depth theology,” the attempt to rediscover the questions to which religion is the answer…Heschel is perhaps closest to the Neo-Orthodoxy tendency in modern Protestant thought (Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, and others) sharply critical of liberal religion’s assumption that man can perfect himself by his own unaided efforts and motivated, above all, by the aim to recover biblical faith as an inward dynamic process. Whereas Protestant Neo-Orthodoxy turns for inspiration to Luther and the other theologians of the reformation, in Heschel traditional Hasidic piety finds its authentic modern voice.

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Robert M. Seltzer

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