This week in Jewish history | Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel born - World Jewish Congress

This week in Jewish history | Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel born

This week in Jewish history | Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel born

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., center, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, second from right, march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, March 21, 1965. (c) Susannah Hesche

On 11 January 1907, Abraham Joshua Heschel was born in Warsaw, Poland. 

Heschel, whose parents were Rabbi Moshe Mordecai and Reizel Perlow Heschel, received a traditional Jewish education before he received his PhD from the University of Berlin in 1933 and his rabbinic ordination from the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in 1934.  

Following his ordination, Heschel became the director of the Central Organization for Jewish Adult Education in Frankfurt, Germany, succeeding Martin Buber. He then taught in Warsaw and London before emigrating to the United States in 1940, shortly before the Nazi invasion of Poland. In 1945, he became a professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City, a post he held until his death. He would go on to marry Sylvia Straus on 10 December 1946. 

Heschel believed that the teachings of the prophets in the Torah were a clear call for justice, and he emphasized the importance of social action as an expression of the ethical concern of the religious man. Perhaps most famously, Heschel protested alongside Martin Luther King Jr. for equal rights for African Americans and called for an end to the U.S. military intervention in Vietnam.   

In March 1965, Heschel joined Martin Luther King Jr. and other religious leaders in Selma to march for voting rights. He found the march spiritually fulfilling, recalling that he felt as if his “legs were praying” as he walked next to King. 

On 4 April 1967, when King delivered an address against the Vietnam War, Heschel followed him as a speaker and ended his own presentation by saying, “I conclude with the words of Dr. King: ‘The great initiative of this war is ours. The initiative to stop it must be ours.’”  

King would later remark that “Rabbi Heschel is one of the persons who is relevant at all times, always standing with prophetic insights.  

Discussing these issues, Heschel became a prolific writer. Among his best-known works are The Earth Is the Lord’s (1950); Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (1951); The Sabbath: Its Meaning to Modern Man (1951); Man’s Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism (1954); God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (1956); and The Prophets (1962; originally published in German in 1936). 

Heschel passed away on 23 December 1972 in New York.