In recent months the life and work of Abraham Joshua Heschel have received much attention as the centennial of his birth was commemorated and the second volume of a biography was published. Although Heschel was closely identified with the Conservative Movement, his influence went far beyond that. The conference held in Israel, for example, was sponsored by an Orthodox institution, while his works are studied intensively in Christian circles as well.
Within the Conservative Movement, his influence was no less than revolutionary, moving that institution toward a more spiritual attitude, a rediscovery of the emotional side of prayer and greater interest in a personal God. Heschel brought the spirit of Hassidism to bear, together with an existential philosophy tempered by impeccable scholarship and the traditional Conservative adherence to critical scholarship. After Heschel, both the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Conservative Movement would never be the same again.
Most remarkable was Heschel's wide range of interests. It might be useful to merely scan but a few of his books to see what concerned him. One of his earliest works, based on a study originally written in German, was The Prophets. In addition to analyzing the messages of individual prophets, he also offered a defense of the institution of prophecy and of the possibility of divine inspiration. His admiration for the ethical basis of the prophetic message was later mirrored in his own life in the stands that he took on many matters including segregation and the Vietnam War.
Another early work, originally written in his native Yiddish, was The Earth Is the Lord's, a poetical depiction of the life of Jews in Eastern Europe. It was both an attempt to defend that life against those who saw it as inferior to Spanish Jewish culture, devoid of physical beauty and philosophical sophistication, and Heschel's tribute to a vanished world. He never wrote an entire book specifically about the Holocaust, although he referred to it in several works, but in a sense this was his Shoah book, a memorial to a world that had been destroyed. In it he depicted the beauty of the spiritual life of the shtetl. "Gradually the inner beauty of the old life and the emptiness of present-day civilization have been disclosed... A world has vanished. All that remains is a sanctuary hidden in the realm of spirit."
In The Sabbath, Heschel gives a meaning to Shabbat observance that makes it relevant to today's world. He depicts it as a sanctuary built in time rather than space, a day when we separate ourselves from the world of creation and competition and enter a time of true inner and outer peace. It is indicative that he does not try to give a guide to the details of what is permitted and what is forbidden, but to paint a poetic picture of Shabbat that would reveal its inner meaning and make it desirable to today's Jew.
Torah Min Hashamayim is one of the few books Heschel wrote that was intended more for scholars and rabbis than for the average reader. It was written in elegant Hebrew and has now been translated into excellent English by Gordon Tucker. In it Heschel traces the meaning of Torah and revelation as it has been understood through the ages and until the modern age. He gives a fascinating insight into the difference between the two schools of Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiba, the rational verses the mystical, and the implications for Jewish belief.
Man's Quest for God contains a collection of Heschel's many essays on prayer and spirituality. He campaigned vigorously against the coldness and sterility that he saw in American synagogues and urged a revival of true and meaningful prayer. "Prayer," he wrote, "is an example of the consecration of words. Prayer becomes trivial when ceasing to be an act in the soul."
What made Heschel so influential was that he was not an academician interested in the study of a subject, but an ardent exponent of a philosophy of living. Thus when he wrote about prayer, it was not to help us understand the history of prayer but to influence us as to how to pray and how to make prayer important in our lives. As a result he revitalized prayer within the Conservative synagogue.
Israel: An Echo of Eternity was Heschel's immediate reaction to the Six Day War. He reacted with wonder and astonishment at that war, at the return to old Jerusalem and to the Western Wall. He saw these events and indeed the very existence of Israel not as a fulfillment but as a continuing challenge to live up to the biblical meaning of having been granted this land. "The State of Israel is not the fulfillment of the Messianic promise, but it makes the Messianic promise plausible."
Perhaps his most important books which established his reputation as a theologian are Man Is Not Alone and God in Search of Man. Space does not permit a description of the contents of these books, but here too we have an approach to religion that is not analytical but poetic, and speaks to the need to live a different life in order to experience the meaning of God.
These books are no longer new. They have become classics. The danger with classics is that they are revered but no longer relevant. Yet Heschel's words are as vibrant and meaningful today as the moment when they were written, and are well worth our time.
The writer is an author and lecturer who serves as the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement.