The Legacy of Abraham Joshua Heschel

Heschel Art

“Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel” by Pamela Chatterton-Purdy ( Based on a photo from March 21, 1965, this mixed-media piece shows Heschel arm-in-arm with Rep. John Lewis, Ralph Abernathy, Martin Luther King Jr., Ralph Bunche, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth during the march from Selma to Montgomery. Credit: Pamela Chatterton-Purdy (

Abraham Joshua Heschel was a singular figure in American Jewish history and, indeed, in Jewish thought. Born in 1907 and reared in the world of Polish Hasidim, Heschel studied philosophy and Biblical criticism in Berlin before becoming a pivotal figure in American Jewish and non-Jewish religious life, galvanizing Americans on issues of social justice. The conditions that produced a figure capable of such depth and breadth of traditional Jewish learning and secular studies seem no longer possible in our age, focused as it is on hyper-specialization. Heschel shared a vision of Judaism at once profoundly rooted in tradition and simultaneously subversive of the status quo. He offered a vision of Judaism that did not espouse separation from the larger society but rather demanded critical engagement with it. His theological commitments undergirded his courageous, outspoken efforts on behalf of the Civil Rights Movement, his protests against the war in Vietnam, and his work to improve Jewish and Christian relations. Given the singularity of his vision and the strength of his character, it should not be surprising that—nearly four decades after his death—his legacy remains towering and majestic in the consciousness of the American Jewish community and beyond.

In the wake of the centenary of his birth, a flurry of conferences and publications made clear that many find him to be a source of inspiration. And yet, while many claim discipleship and loyalty, there continue to be wide-ranging differences concerning his legacy and its relevance for our contemporary concerns. How fortunate then that Susannah Heschel has given us a new edited collection, Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings. Not only does this remarkable collection provide a sense of the breadth of Heschel’s interests and writings, but the ordering of the selections and the insightful introductions highlight the deep coherence of the different dimensions of his work. This volume brings together particularly rich and striking passages from Heschel’s oeuvre sure to draw readers into fresh and thoughtful conversations with this remarkable figure in modern Jewish thought.

Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings is perhaps the single best introductory text to the work of Heschel. There are six sections, which can stand alone or be read together. Passages from well-known works such as The Sabbath, Man’s Quest for God, Man is Not Alone, God in Search of Man, and The Prophets rub shoulders with lesser-known works such as Who is Man?, The Insecurity of Freedom, and A Passion for Truth, as well as previously unpublished works. In this context, with passages from various texts juxtaposed thematically, we see how Heschel’s philosophical theology undergirds his politics and his groundbreaking strides toward improving Jewish-Christian relations. Susannah Heschel’s substantial introduction to the volume provides an excellent biography of Heschel filled with insights into his life and thought. Additionally, she provides a helpful essay to introduce each section. The rich introductions and the previously unpublished material make this work of significant interest for scholars; the thematic focus and the editor’s guidance make the work accessible and relevant for students and thoughtful people interested in Judaism, Jewish-Christian relations, and American religious history. Moreover, the anthology illuminates the deep coherence of the different dimensions of Heschel’s work.

A Philosophy of Wonder

The Sabbath

"The Sabbath," by Ilya Schor. This wood engraving was created as an illustration for "Eternity Utters a Day," a chapter in The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel. Image Courtesy of Mira Schor.

Heschel’s writings on prayer, race, Jewish education, and the prophets all find their roots in his theocentric, or God-centered, vision. Heschel’s theocentrism does not simply challenge, but rather uproots and disrupts, our sensibilities. We moderns are accustomed to distancing ourselves from that which we think about; we believe that detachment or disinterestedness is the key to thinking carefully and critically. However, when it comes to matters of ultimate concern, Heschel charges that this mindset leads us astray. When it comes to religion, rather than doubt and disinterest, authentic thinking begins with “wonder or radical amazement.” When in the grip of wonder, we face a “state of maladjustment to words and notions,” because our ability to reason, our capacity to think and to judge, reaches its limits.

As a philosopher of wonder, Heschel offers a distinctly critical vision of modernity. Juxtaposing reason and wonder, Heschel explains that through reason “we try to explain or to adapt the world to our concepts,” while through wonder “we seek to adapt our minds to the world.” Reason assumes that we can grasp the world, that we can understand all that there is. However, as Heschel repeatedly asserts, there are levels of reality that cannot be brought into the “discursive levels of the mind” that we “see more than we can say.” Wonder and awe, dispositions that open us to the vastness of the universe, make us receptive to aspects of reality that lie beyond the categories of reason. The modern West has done a wonderful job cultivating the capacity to reason. Yet, as Heschel points out time and again, we have all but lost our ability for wonder and awe, and as a result, we have faced—and continue to face—a spiritual crisis.

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Robert Erlewine, author of Monotheism and Tolerance: Recovering a Religion of Reason (Indiana University Press, 2010) is an assistant professor of religion at Illinois Wesleyan University. He writes on German and American Jewish thought and philosophy of religion.

Source Citation

Erlewine, Robert. 2011. The Legacy of Abraham Joshua Heschel. Tikkun26(4): 11.

tags: Books, Judaism, Rethinking Religion   
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