A practical mystic

In many ways Heschel functioned as a rebbe without the trappings of a court.

This year marks the centennial of the birth of one of the most remarkable and influential leaders of religious Jewry, Abraham Joshua Heschel. Heschel was born into a hassidic family and grew up in the rich environment of pre-Holocaust Eastern Europe. He absorbed the lore and the feeling of shtetl life and of Hassidism and throughout his life remained true to the observance of mitzvot that was a part of that environment. He enrolled in the University of Berlin when he was 20 and added to his traditional Jewish studies a thorough education in both general culture and in the study of Judaism from a historical viewpoint. He formed a synthesis of all of these in his own life, his writings and his teachings. Saved from the oncoming Holocaust, going first to London and then, in 1940, by being brought to America, where he joined the faculty of the Reform seminary, Hebrew Union College, in Cincinnati. He left it five years later to teach at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. JTS and the Conservative Movement were perfectly suited to his way of life, his observance of mitzvot and loyalty to Halacha and to his modern way of thinking and understanding Judaism. In many ways he brought a revolution to the seminary and to the Conservative Movement. At that time, JTS was dominated by two forces: an emphasis on academic excellence that prized above all historical, textual study on the one hand, and on the other hand the overwhelming personality of Mordecai M. Kaplan, whose influence was in decline, but nevertheless potent. Heschel, in contrast, was not interested in textual analysis, nor did he deal in publication of manuscripts. For that reason, other faculty members never considered him a great scholar. His academic credentials, however, were impeccable, as proved by his books on Maimonides, Sa'adia, Kabbala and Hassidism and his masterwork, Torah Min Hashamayim. His concern, however, was not dry academics but living faith. He wrote books that inspired people; books that taught a Judaism based on belief in a personal God, but free of superstition and openly adopting modern views of the origins of the Torah and the development of Jewish law. As important as law was, ideas, beliefs and ethics were even more central to his concern. Religion for him was the answer to our ultimate questions. In every way possible - except for loyalty to Judaism and the Jewish people, which they both shared - Heschel and Kaplan were polar opposites. Kaplan reconstructed Judaism. Heschel revived it. Kaplan created a naturalist doctrine of God. Heschel taught a personal, living God "in search of man." For Kaplan the mitzvot were folkways, for Heschel they were imperatives. For Kaplan prayer was a problem. For Heschel prayer was the answer. Kaplan based his ideas on reason and science. Heschel based his on radical amazement, ultimate concern, an appreciation of the ineffable, a sense of wonder - without ever denying the importance of reason. In many ways he was similar to Martin Buber, but he was Buber with mitzvot, rooted in Jewish tradition. In many ways he functioned as a rebbe without the trappings of a court. Heschel had a profound influence on generations of rabbinical students and his books have continued to influence them after his untimely death in 1972. He was a master of language. Yiddish was his mother tongue and he wrote books and beautiful poetry in it. German was the language of his first academic works. Hebrew was the language of some of his most important works. He mastered English in such a way that his prose became poetry. He wrote poetic works on the shtetl, on the Sabbath, on Israel and Jerusalem that have yet to be equaled. His books on philosophy, his essays on prayer, on death, on aging all remain classics. Heschel was a severe critic of the American synagogue. He once wrote that it had "a severe cold." He was appalled that there was so little real worship, real prayer. He did everything he could to influence rabbis, cantors and laypeople to change services radically so that they would become true times of enthusiastic prayer. To a large measure he succeeded. Heschel always emphasized ethical and moral issues. This was seen above all in his involvement in two great movements: civil rights and anti-Vietnam war. The iconic picture of civil rights is Heschel marching arm-in-arm with Martin Luther King. Of that he said, "My feet were praying." Heschel and King had much in common. They were both men of profound faith and belief in God, men whose religious beliefs were combinations of the old and the new, men who believed that religion was more than personal observance but must influence society in a positive way. In addition, Heschel was influential in the Jewish-Catholic dialogue and in the work of the Second Vatican Council. Heschel's involvement in these general issues did not mean that he was not concerned with Israel and the Jewish people. He was equally involved in the Soviet Jewry movement and in support for the State of Israel. Anyone seeking a profound understanding of Judaism worthy of modern life, searching for inspirational words and a guide to living a meaningful, ethical, spiritual Jewish life could do no better than to read his books and to imbibe from them the spirit of this remarkable man. The writer is the head of the Rabbinical Court of the Masorti Movement and the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel.