What do I see when I see a man? I see him first as one other specimen of the human species, then as a specific, particular individual who can be named or identified; but then he stands before me as the only entity in nature with which sanctity is associated. All other sacred objects in space are made holy by man. Human life is the only type of being we consider intrinsically sacred, the only type of being we regard as supremely valuable. The particular individual may not be dear to me—in fact I may even dislike him. But he is dear to someone else, to his mother, for example, although that too is not the reason for his eminence. For if even nobody cares for him, he still is a human being.
– Abraham Joshua Heschel, Who Is Man, page 33.
Abraham Joshua Heschel was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1907. His parents were both admired religious leaders. His father, Moses Mordecai Heschel, was a highly respected Hasidic rabbi whose congregation consisted mostly of impoverished Jews. Heschel’s mother, Reizel Perlow, was also greatly admired for her spiritual piety. She often took on a rabbi’s role, as men and women would ask her to pray on their behalf.
Both of his parents were following in the tradition of their highly revered Eastern European Jewish families. Abraham Heschel was named after his grandfather, who was a close disciple of Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, also known as the Baal Shem Tov. The appellation Baal Shem Tov is translated in English as “Master of the Good Name.” He is known as the founder of Hasidism, or Jewish mysticism. The Baal Shem Tov was born into an Eastern Europe where Jews were frequently oppressed and persecuted. It was a dark moment in Jewish history, but the Baal Shem Tov brought light and joy. He challenged his followers to see the presence of God everywhere, but especially in their fellow human being. “Unlike the sages of the past, who delivered discourses about God” wrote Heschel in his book A Passion for Truth, “the Baal Shem . . . brought God to every man.”
The Baal Shem Tov was a major influence on Eastern European Jewish life in general, and on Heschel in particular. From his early childhood, many hoped he would continue the work of the Baal Shem Tov. In the book Abraham Joshua Heschel: Exploring His Life and Thought, Jewish scholar Samuel Dresner states that “At the age of 4 or 5, scholars would place him on a table and interrogate him for the surprising and amusing answers he would give them” (13). Heschel’s father passed away when he was ten years old. By that young age, this prodigy had already mastered many classical religious texts and proved himself to be a good communicator. Many saw such promise in the young boy that they called for him to become the successor to his father.
Although he was a promising religious leader, as a teenager Heschel decided to pursue secular studies at a gymnasium in Vilna. But he couldn’t shake free from his religious calling. After graduating from the gymnasium, Heschel went to the University of Berlin where he earned a doctorate in Jewish studied. During the mid 1930s, he taught Talmud (historical Jewish discussions and traditions concerning the law, ethics, philosophy, and customs) at the University of Berlin.
Unfortunately, the Jewish culture of Eastern Europe where Heschel grew up was destroyed by Nazi German. On October 28, 1938, Hitler ordered Polish born Jews living in Germany to be expelled. That night, Heschel and 12,000 others awoke in the middle of the night to the German Gestapo demanding to take them by train to the Polish border. This expulsion marked the beginning phase of the Holocaust. Soon Nazi Germany would destroy Heschel’s European homeland. But before that could happen, he was invited to come to the United States, where the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati offered him a teaching position. After five years at Hebrew Union, Heschel spent the rest of his teaching career at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Heschel escaped Nazi Germany, but his mother and four sisters did not. They were murdered by the Nazi onslaught. Heschel spent the rest of his life torn between the life of joy he received from the Baal Shem Tov and the pain he experienced at the hands of the Nazis. He knew that although God was present to every human, there was something radically wrong with the world. Paradoxically, in the horrific experience of the Holocaust, Heschel gained strength from the only person whose influence rivaled the Baal Shem Tov: Rabbi Menatham Mendle of Kotzk, also known as the Kotzker. Whereas the Baal Shem Tov emphasized joy, the Kotzker could only feel pessimism and despair at the horrors humans inflict upon one another. The Kotzker made a prophetic judgment that the world was not right. In A Passion for Truth, Heschel wrote that the Kotzker “felt the crassness of the world, its falseness, its corruption.” The Holocaust was one more obvious example that there was something drastically wrong with the world and with human relations. The Kotzker influenced Heschel to boldly make prophetic judgments against the violence human inflict upon one another, while the Baal Shem Tov influenced Heschel to push people beyond our propensity for violence by emphasizing God’s joyful presence for the world.
Heschel believed that violence was a major concern for humanity, but it was also God’s concern. Throughout his life Heschel stressed God’s pathos. He described God’s pathos in his seminal book, The Prophets, stating, “Pathos in all its forms reveals the extreme pertinence of man to God, His world-directness, attentiveness, and concern. God ‘looks at’ the world and is affected by what happens in it; man is the object of His care and judgment.” He also claimed that “God’s presence in the world is, in essence, His concern for the world. One word stands for both. And both are expressions of His unity. Divine unity implies concern. For unity means love” (618 and 619).
Heschel believed that God’s pathos, God’s concern for worldly affairs, was a result of God’s radical immanence. God is not somewhere out in the universe, detached from the world. Rather, God is radically present in the world and in the lives of humans. The ethical and theological implications of God’s immanence are summed up in Heschel’s book Man is Not Alone, where he wrote, “Whatever man does to man, he also does to God” (225). God’s presence in human life inspired Heschel to be involved in many social justice issues. He was invited to participate in the Second Vatican Council and challenged the Catholic Church to drop all language that spoke of anti-Judaism and an appeal to conversion. After he personally met with Pope Paul VI, that language was abandoned. He joined the civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, holding hands with Martin Luther King, Jr. He also protested the war in Vietnam, claiming that “The answers to that misery was not in killing the rebels but in seeking a just solution to the economic and political issues in the land” (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, 225).
Heschel passed away in 1972 from heart failure. He had two books at his bedside: a Hasidic classic and an exploration of the Vietnam War. Those books symbolize Heschel’s life. He lived between the tensions of the Baal Shem Tov and the Kotzker; between the tensions of a world full of God’s joyful presence and a prophetic judgment of a world full of human violence. Throughout it all, Heschel believed God had not abandoned the world and that humans are responsible to respond to God’s presence. God cries out when humans suffer. He wrote, “There is an eternal cry in the world: God is beseeching man … An air of expectancy hovers over life. Something is asked of man, of all men.”
Heschel continues to ask: “How will we respond to the cry of God?”
Questions for Individual or Group Consideration:
- Do you agree with Heschel that “whatever man does to man, he also does to God?” If you do agree, how might that change the way we treat our enemies?
- Do you think it is important to balance the joy of the Baal Shem Tov with the despair of the Kotzker? What might happen if we primarily emphasized joy? What might happen if we primarily emphasized despair?
- How do you think Heschel’s experience in his youth influenced his adult life?
- Heschel wrote before our present ecological crisis. Does his emphasis on the sanctity of human life bother you? Does his emphasis on the sanctity of human life distract us from caring for the environment?
For further reading see:
Abraham Joshua Heschel, A Passion for Truth (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1995)
Abraham Joshua Heschel, I Asked for Wonder (New York: Crossroads, 2000).
John C. Merkle, ed., Abraham Joshua Heschel (New York: Macmillan, 1985).
Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man is Not Alone (New York: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1951).
Abraham Joshua Heschel, Who Is Man? (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1965).
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Earth is the Lord’s (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 1995; Originally published in 1949).
Maurice Friedman, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Ellie Wiesel: You Are My Witnesses (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1987).
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets (New York: HarperCollins Perennial Classics, 2001; Originally published in 1955).