Celebrating Rabbi Heschel on a milestone yahrzeit

We are now marking the 50th yahrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was among Judaism’s leading religious thinkers and activists of the 20th century. I was privileged to have been a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary during Heschel’s final years there as a professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism.

Heschel was a global leader who met with Pope John XXIII and influenced the content of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II), which changed the view of the Roman Catholic Church toward Jews and rejected any theological basis for anti-Semitism. Heschel led antiwar protests opposing the Vietnam conflict and counseled conscientious objectors. He was among those who launched the movement to free Soviet Jewry. He was a spiritual mentor for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.

Heschel taught that Jewish observance ought to be approached not as an “all-or-nothing” practice, but as a continuum on the ladder of religious commitment. Each person seeks to find their rung on the ladder, in accordance with their current needs and ever-changing point of view. The role of a synagogue and its leaders is not to stand in judgment — “You are right” or “You are wrong” — but rather, to guide congregants in ascending the ladder, each at his or her own pace.

Heschel insisted that human beings “need” God; we have a spiritual thirst as tangible and compelling as our need for water. To quench that spiritual thirst, Heschel urged us to make “a leap of faith.” Why did he employ the metaphor of a “leap”? Because, he said, God is difficult to “capture.” He said that God is “ineffable, beyond all comparisons and all of human knowledge.” God can only become known to us through a “leap,” a spontaneous entry into what he called “the Holy.”

To encounter “the Holy,” we must recognize and seize opportunities to experience what Heschel called “radical amazement, awe, wonder.” What I would call: “Oh Wow!” moments.

Heschel would begin his public lectures in the same way. He would lean over the lectern and announce: “Ladies and gentlemen, a great miracle has just occurred!”

Members of the startled audience would cease talking, wondering: What miracle did we miss? He would then continue, “Ladies and gentlemen, a great miracle has just taken place: The sun has gone down.”

The audience members would look at the man with the long beard and prophetic manner, puzzled by his pronouncement.

But as Heschel continued to speak, his listeners would start to ponder — “What part of my spiritual self has been surrendered when a sunset no longer inspires me?” To be spiritually alive, we must hone our spiritual sensitivity to the awe and wonder in our everyday lives — “Oh Wow!”

As an exercise for appreciating the ineffable, Heschel urged people to watch toddlers. Give a tot a toy, any toy! He or she plays with it for 15 minutes. Then the child explores the box that contained the toy. That box, too, becomes an endless source of wonder, of imagination, of creativity.

In contrast to toddlers, we adults are trained to repress our instinctive, childlike capacity for awe. We come to tire of our encounters with even the most awesome experiences.

Remember when astronauts landed on the moon? Everyone watched; we were in awe. The second time, far fewer people were captivated. By the third time, most us took this wondrous experience totally for granted.

Heschel remained confident that openness to Oh Wow moments can be cultivated. He pointed to Moses in the midst of the desert surrounded by burning objects. Moses came to an awareness of Oh Wow moments like the burning bush that was not consumed. By doing so, Moses proved himself fit to assume spiritual leadership. He made that leap of faith from his 24/7 task-oriented life as a shepherd. He was able to continue to see miracles taking place all around him. He thereby entered a path toward God.

We can do it, too.

Heschel also was a role model in finding ways to increase justice in the world. He taught that through acts of self-enhancement, by helping others, we discover our better selves. We become a shutaf, a partner with God in Tikkun Olam, the act of repairing the world. That approach led Heschel to committing himself to social activism

In 1963, Heschel accepted an invitation to address the seminal Conference on Religion and Race convened in Chicago by a coalition of the National Council of the Churches, the Synagogue Council of America, and the National Catholic Welfare Conference. Heschel’s address applied the biblical Exodus story to modern times:

“Pharaoh — in the form of racism — is still not ready to capitulate. The Exodus began 3,000 years ago, but we are still stranded in the desert. It was easier for the Israelites to cross the Red Sea than for men and women of different color to enter many American institutions, colleges, universities, and neighborhoods.”

Heschel marched side by side with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1965 Civil Rights march in Selma, Alabama. Heschel explained to his JTS students that his participation in this action was the carrying out of a divine task:

“I felt a sense of the holy in what I was doing,” he said. “Our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

Just days after Dr. King’s funeral, which Heschel attended with Jewish activists, the young men turned to their mentor, asking, “Rabbi Heschel, what do we do now?”

Heschel responded: “You must teach the next generation, so that they will remake the world.”

As the descendants of Rabbi Heschel, we are enjoined to continue his legacy, to pursue enhanced spirituality and to repair brokenness within ourselves and within society.

May his memory remain a source of great blessing.

About the Author
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, PhD, was religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell, NJ, for more than four decades, retiring in 2021. He served as president of the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis (1993-95); as president of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues (2000-05); and as chair of the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel (2010-14). He currently serves as president of Mercaz Olami, representing the world Masorti/Conservative movement. He is the author of “It All Begins with a Date: Jewish Concerns about Interdating,” “Preserving Jewishness in Your Family: After Intermarriage Has Occurred,” and “Alternatives to Assimilation: The Response of Reform Judaism to American Culture, 1840-1930.”