Abraham Joshua Heschel: A Life of Radical Amazement By Julian E. Zelizer • Yale University Press • 2021 • 328 pages • $26
Religion in politics hasn’t always been the exclusive domain of conservatives. In the 1960s, leading religious figures—both Christian and Jewish—were at the forefront of progressive politics. They took advantage of their pulpits to challenge segregation and the Vietnam War. The most famous Jewish clergy among them was Abraham Joshua Heschel, a Polish emigre ordained as an Orthodox rabbi and hailing from a long line of Hasidic rabbis.
Princeton history professor Julian E. Zelizer has written a political biography of Heschel that portrays him as a mentor for progressive activists today whether religious or not. He is not a theologian or religious scholar, although—and certainly this explains the connection to Heschel—he is the son and grandson of rabbis, both of whom knew Heschel. The book is part of Yale University’s “Jewish Lives” series, a set of biographies exploring Jewish identity. It’s a sociopolitical examination of Heschel’s influence, not a theological one. Heschel’s extraordinary religious thinking has already been chronicled in his many books, along with other Jewish and non-Jewish scholars’ tractates. This book, however, is written for a general audience. One minor complaint: The book has small mistakes that a careful copy editor could have found—and that a well-versed reader of the Jewish communal world will surely find. But overall, this book could be a primer for progressives of all stripes looking for inspiration from a person of faith.
Heschel’s emigration to America was not typical for someone with his background. Having studied at a yeshiva in Poland, he then went on to study at the University of Berlin, where he earned his PhD in secular philosophy, with minors in art history and Semitic languages. The year was 1927, and there was still a reasonably vibrant and free intellectual life in Berlin. By 1938, things began to unravel for Heschel (Kristallnacht happened that November). Fortuitously, in 1940, Heschel received an offer for a position at the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. The president of the seminary, Julian Morgenstern, was determined to reconnect students with their Jewish traditions by hiring more European Jewish scholars. He lobbied the U.S. Department of State to allow HUC to hire European Jewish intellectuals as a “College in Exile.” Encouraged by the German Jewish scholar Martin Buber, who himself escaped Germany for Israel, Morgenstern began to advocate for Heschel’s entry into the United States. When the invitation came through on April 6, 1939, it was already extraordinarily difficult to obtain a U.S. visa. While awaiting entry, Heschel was able to leave for London, where he had family. It would take almost another year for his U.S. visa to come through. Six weeks after he left his family home in Warsaw, the Nazis launched their blitzkrieg against Warsaw. As Zelizer writes, Heschel’s sister Esther was killed in the bombing; his mother (already widowed) and another sister, Gittel, would die later on during the war—his mother of a heart attack, after German police broke into her home, and sister in the Treblinka Concentration Camp. A third sister, Devorah, died in Auschwitz. Heschel refused to return to Germany or Poland during his lifetime.
Representing the most liberal segment of contemporary Judaism, Hebrew Union College was the furthest thing possible at the time in soul and spirit from Heschel’s theology and practice. Heschel, hailing from generations of Hasidim, found himself among a group of scholars and students who saw religion as more rooted in rational thought than in spirituality and ritual. But there was a convergence between the Polish refugee and the more liberal scholars among whom he found himself in their shared political activism. Indeed, as Heschel became more politically active in his new home, it was mostly Reform rabbis who joined his efforts in civil rights and anti-war activism across the United States.
As important as this experience may have been, in 1945 he was offered a fulltime, permanent position at the more traditionally religious Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City, a city where he’d remain for the rest of his life. At the time, JTS, as Zelizer explains, was trying to recreate a religious and intellectual life lost to Hitler. It was the perfect place for Heschel. The JTS tie also helps account for the impact Heschel had on Zelizer, since that is where his grandfather, a rabbinic colleague of Heschel’s, and his father, a rabbinic student there, crossed paths with Heschel.
JTS happened to be located across the street from the Union Theological Seminary, where the influential Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr taught. Niebuhr, at the time, was considered not only America’s leading theologian but a well-regarded public intellectual and liberal activist (he was a co-founder of Americans for Democratic Action and the International Rescue Committee). The two would become great friends and allies after speaking together at a meeting jointly sponsored by JTS and Union Theological Seminary. “They liked to walk home from their offices together; their apartments were only a few blocks apart,” writes Zelizer. “The two theologians were a sight to see. Heschel, about five foot six, and Niebuhr, well over six feet, with his body leaning over as result of a stroke, sauntered past the storefronts as they were deeply engaged in conversation about the philosophical and theological problems that informed their writing.”
This was an era, coming after the rise of communism and the end of World War II, when passers-by would notice such a duo. Religious leaders were widely recognized as public intellectuals. Unlike today, organized religion was on the upswing and leading theologians like Heschel and Niebuhr were seen as moral leaders. Black clergy, of course, played an extraordinarily prominent role too, as they provided the leadership core of the civil rights movement. The Black church was a source of inspiration for Heschel. His daughter, Susannah Heschel, a professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, described it this way in a PBS documentary about her father: “My father used to say if there is any hope for the future of Judaism in America, it lies with the Black church because there is a piety and religiosity that he remembered growing up in Warsaw.”
What Heschel is most noted for today is his participation in the iconic 1965 Selma to Montgomery March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. The photo of Heschel marching across the bridge in Selma, framed by John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Bunche, and the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth (along with an unknown nun) has been reproduced time and again, a sign of a liberal Black-Jewish coalition that lobbied together for the civil rights legislation that would soon come. Heschel’s portrait—with a white beard, glasses, and his unruly head of white hair created a striking photo. Yet, more than the optics, it was the commitment that resonated. After that march, Heschel wrote in his notes what became one of his most famous lines—and his legacy: “I felt my legs were praying.” This line, even quoted by Barack Obama, is often invoked today by rabbis engaged in civil and human rights activism. Heschel’s friendship and alliance with Martin Luther King Jr. extended way beyond the Selma march, as did his engagement with the civil rights movement overall. He joined in ongoing efforts to pass civil rights legislation and remained an activist for the rest of his life.
Zelizer tells the story of Heschel’s experience at the march in detail. When he and his closest friend, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, a JTS colleague, flew from New York to Atlanta to join King and other Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) leaders for the march, they were met by a young SCLC staffer, Andrew Young (later U.S. Ambassador to the UN under President Carter). According to Zelizer, Young had studied Heschel in seminary and considered Heschel to be an “intellectual father.” Heschel’s monumental study of the Hebrew prophets was especially significant: “Young carried around his copy [of Heschel’s book The Prophets (first published in 1962)] wherever he traveled.” Through the years, many Black clergy would comment about how their copy of this iconic book was heavily underlined and marked up. The civil rights activist and theological philosopher Cornel West has cited The Prophets as one of his “five most important books.” No doubt one of the lines that these leaders underlined was: “The purpose of prophecy is to conquer callousness, to change the inner man as well as to revolutionize history.”
There is a touching anecdote in this book where, one Sabbath, toward the end of the day, Martin Luther King Jr. visits Heschel at his apartment, accompanied by Reverend William Sloane Coffin, which was just blocks from the Heschels’ home. Heschel lived in an apartment on the Upper West Side with his wife, Sylvia, who was a classical concert pianist, and their daughter, Susannah. The Heschels were about to observe a ritual to end the Sabbath called havdalah. It is performed at the end of the Sabbath, at sundown, to herald the beginning of the new week. (The Jewish calendar counts days as beginning at sundown the night before.) It usually takes place at home and requires the use of a spice box and a braided candle.
“‘Just in time, you are just in time for the last bit of disengagement from the world we have to change . . . Shabbat!’” Heschel said to his friends . . . He let Coffin hold the ritual spices and King the candle while they chanted the prayers, smelling the spice box and collectively drinking a sip of wine. When they were done, the men sipped schnapps and smoked cigars.”
Zelizer cites another visit from a clergy leader, the Jesuit anti-war activist Reverend Daniel Berrigan, to the Heschel family Passover seder: “The food was excellent; the prayers of intercession—for an end to war, for the peace that passes all understanding, for the victims of the war, in our country, for the victims everywhere; these were Heschel’s fervent prayers—and mine also. This . . . was an ecumenicism I could take seriously,” Berrigan recalled. This was typical Heschel; for him, religious ritual was tied up with a prophetic Judaism that demanded that every person engage with the world and seek to better it.
Heschel was also an early activist against the Vietnam War. He was a founder of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam with Reverend Berrigan and his brother Philip Berrigan, as well as Coffin and others. He spoke at the organization’s first anti-war vigil in New York City. Peter Steinfels, a former New York Times religion writer, writes about this event in a 1998 Times article “[W]hen [Heschel] rose to say the closing prayer at the group’s initial meeting at a Manhattan church hall, it was hard not to imagine that God himself was coming out against the war.”
In 1967, Heschel spoke at Riverside Church alongside King when King delivered his famous first speech against the Vietnam War. It was a monumental speech for King, who had until then been somewhat reticent about confusing his civil rights message with an anti-war one. Heschel had encouraged King to give the speech, agreeing to be there by his side. Heschel’s own words, also spoken that day, remain timeless and eerily relevant: “We are assembled here because our own integrity as human beings is decaying. The blood we are shedding in Vietnam makes a mockery of all our proclamations, dedications, commitments and celebrations. No triumph is worth the price of the terror that we commit in that land.”
It’s critical to understand that Heschel’s commitment to activism remained always grounded in theology. Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, a Reform rabbi who lives in Israel and whose father, Wolfe Kelman, was Heschel’s closest friend, put it this way in an email to me: “There is a kind of loop—Torah to politics and politics to Torah . . . not separate categories . . . One of the most powerful memories I have is of Heschel dancing with the Torah on Simchat Torah [a holiday marking the end of the annual cycle of Torah readings]—I really thought his soul was going to fly away from his body. What a love of Torah.”
“When I was a kid my father and Heschel would take me to Christmas Eve Midnight Mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The connection between spiritual intensity, love of Torah, interfaith and social activism as being all of one piece and not separate categories was his legacy to me,” Kelman added with regard to Heschel’s activism and interfaith work.
Echoing this sentiment, Steinfels (who is also a former editor of the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal) wrote in a 1998 The New York Times “Beliefs” column: “[A]ttention to the underlying religious experience helps explain why the works of Rabbi Heschel are used for mediation and inspiration in Catholic convents and Baptist Bible groups . . . This concept of ‘divine pathos’ was part of the thinking that tied Rabbi Heschel’s focus on prayer and spirituality so tightly with his commitment to justice.”
Heschel, suffering heart disease and hepatitis, died on December 22, 1972, in his sleep. At that time, he was still fully engaged in anti-Vietnam war activism. Two months later, his last television interview with Carl Stern of NBC News aired. Heschel told the audience: “I would say that God seems to be a non-religious person . . . He always mixes in politics with his social issues,” most likely smiling as he said this.
But there is no doubt that, were Heschel alive today, he’d be part of Reverend William Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign. He’d oppose religious challenges to LGBTQ equality and a woman’s right to choose. Despite being a lifelong Zionist, he would also be speaking out forcefully against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian people and challenging his own Jewish community to be universalistic in outlook. He’d be on the front lines against voter suppression. And he’d do it all as a religious Jew.
Rabbi Michael Marmur, a noted Heschel scholar at the Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem who is chair of Rabbis for Human Rights (and spends some of his Sabbaths in the Occupied Palestinian Territories aiding Palestinian farmers protect their land from hostile Jewish settlers), puts Heschel’s legacy this way: “If you take Heschel’s teachings seriously . . . One must find the appropriate barricade to get on.”
In the final chapter, as Zelizer examines Heschel’s legacy, he notes that “Heschel helped to carve out space for progressive religious voices on the national and international stage even as conservative forces tried to claim the church and synagogue for themselves.” Of course, as Zelizer bemoans, today religion in the public sphere is largely captured by a conservative movement that promotes a profoundly different religious viewpoint that restricts rather than expands civil and human rights. The example of Heschel shows us a different way forward.