In his book The Prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel stated, “The things that horrified the prophets are even now daily occurrences all over the world. There is no society to which Amos’ words would not apply.
Hear this you who trample upon the needy, and bring the poor of the land to an end, saying: when will the new moon be over that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath that we may offer wheat for sale, that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great, and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and sell the refuse of the wheat. Amos 8:4-6.
Abraham Joshua Heschel was a spiritual leader who cared not only for his own people, but for all people the world over. After surviving the horrors of the Holocaust he went on to become a rabbinical leader, professor, activist and author, He believed in social action and fought for civil rights with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr and protested against the Viet Nam war. He saw many changes in his lifetime and was responsible for bringing about positive societal changes himself.
Abraham Joshua Heschel was born in 1907 in Warsaw Poland. He descended from preeminent European rabbis on both sides of his family. Through the Holocaust he lost most of his family while still a young man. His father died when he was 9. His sister Esther was killed in a German bombing. His mother was murdered by the Nazis and his other 2 sisters died in a concentration camp.
Heschel attended school where he studied Talmud and Kabbalah. he then moved to Berlin and attended a university where he also taught Talmud. In 1937 Martin Buber appointed him his succesor at the Central Organiation for Jewish Adult Education.
In 1938 while renting a room in Frankfurt, Germany he was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Poland. Ten months later He left Warsaw for London with the help of HUC president Julian Morgenstern. He never returned to Poland, Germany or Austria. He wrote,
“If I should go to Poland or Germany, every stone, every tree would remind me of contempt, hatred, murder, of children killed, mothers burned alive, of human beings asphyxiated.”
Move to the United States
Heschel moved to the United States in 1940, relocating to New York City. He then served on the faculty of the Hebrew Union College (HUC) for 5 years. He married Sylvia Straus, a concert pianist in Los Angeles, California. In that same year he took a position at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, the main seminary of Conservative Judaism. He was professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism until his eath in 1972.
A Call to Social Action
Believing the teachings of the Hebrew prophets were a call for social action, Heschel worked for African American civil rights and met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr while at a conference on race and religion in Chicago. He marched with Dr. King in Selma. He also spoke out against the war in Viet Nam, stating in an interview on The External Light on NBC in 1972,
“How can I pray when I have on my conscience the awareness that I am co-responsible for the death of innocent peope in Vietnam? In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”
The presence of God
Abraham Joshua Heschel rose above the tragedy of the Holocaust to live a life dedicated to teaching the wisdom of the Judaism and participating in social action. He once said,
“We are called upon to be an image of God. You see God is absent, invisible, and the task of a human being is to represent the Divine, to be a reminder of the presence of God.”