On March 21, 1940, Abraham Joshua Heschel alighted from the RMS Lancastria in New York, a refugee from Europe who was starting a new life in America at the age of 33. The Polish-born Heschel, descended on both his mother’s and father’s sides from Hasidic rabbinical dynasties, would make his name as a theologian and teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and as a figure inspired by the biblical prophets who saw it as his responsibility to speak out on issues of political and social significance.
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Heschel was born in Warsaw on January 11, 1907, the youngest of Moshe Mordecai Heschel and the former Reizel Perlow’s six children.
Heschel received a traditional yeshiva education and received Orthodox rabbinical ordination, before moving to Berlin. He was awarded a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Berlin in 1933. During the same period he also taught and studied at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies, where he underwent a second, Reform ordination.
Arrested by the Gestapo and deported
In 1937, Heschel succeeded his friend and colleague Martin Buber as head of the Lehrhaus, a Jewish adult-education center in Frankfurt, remaining until October 1938, when he was arrested by the Gestapo and deported back to Poland.
In July 1939, six weeks before the German invasion of Poland, Heschel left Warsaw for London, with the help of Rabbi Julius Morgenstern. Morgenstern, the president of Hebrew Union College, succeeded in acquiring visas to the United States for Jewish scholars in Europe.
Heschel stayed long enough in London to establish the Institute for Jewish Learning, a Lehrhaus-like institution, before his papers came through and he was able to sail for the United States. (A month after Heschel arrived in New York on the Lancastria, the vessel was requisitioned as a British troop ship. Two months after that, on June 17, 1940, thousands of people died when it was hit and sunk in a German air raid).
Black shoeshine man, white customer
In “Spiritual Radical,” the second book of his two-volume biography of Heschel, Edward K. Kaplan writes how one of the first sights he encountered when disembarking in Manhattan was a black man shining the shoes of a white customer, a common site in New York in the mid-20th century. For Heschel, it was a disturbing introduction to race relations in the country where he would spend the remainder of his life. (Heschel died on December 23, 1972, at the age of 65.)
In fact, most people who recognize Heschel’s name today know it in connection with his support of the civil rights movement, which included traveling south to Selma, Alabama, in 1965 to march by the side of Martin Luther King Jr., in demanding federal protection for African-Americans who wanted to vote.
But Heschel was more than an outspoken rabbi. He had a well-developed theology which understand being religious as more than submission to ritual law.
He was devout in his religious observance, but he considered ethical concerns as no less critical to being a good Jew – or a good member of any religion, as he did not see Judaism as having a monopoly on divine wisdom.
Heschel’s first five years in the United States were spent teaching at HUC in Cincinnati. Grateful as he was to the school for rescuing him, he was very happy to be able to move to New York in 1945, when he was appointed professor of ethics and mysticism at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.
And as someone who regarded himself as “a brand plucked from the fire, in which my people was burned to death,” and as a successor to the biblical prophets, about whom he wrote extensively, it was natural and obvious for him to be actively engaged in the moral dilemmas then facing society.
Another anecdote recounted by Kaplan in “Spiritual Radical” concerns the time he listened as rabbinical students discussed the complicated halakhic question of whether gelatin is kosher. An impatient Heschel interrupted his students to ask, “Gentlemen, can you tell me if the atomic bomb is kosher?”