Mark Shiffer
Mark Shiffer
Passion for History

New film About the life of Rabbi Abraham Heschel

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Martin Doblmeier has produced a new documentary on the life of famous twentieth century Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The film, SPIRITUAL AUDACITY: The Abraham Joshua Heschel Story, takes a closer look at Heschel’s life and achievements.

And it is quite a story. Heschel was born in 1907 in what is today modern Poland. Descended from a line of Hasidic rabbis, Heschel had a traditional observant upbringing. Following yeshiva studies, Heschel was ordained a rabbi. Afterward, he went on to study for a doctorate at the University of Berlin. With the rise of Nazism, Heschel was able to get out of mainland Europe, first to Britain and then America. However, he lost his mother and sisters in the Holocaust.

It’s difficult to peg Rabbi Heschel religiously. He grew up in a scholarly Orthodox world and was ordained a rabbi there. However, his more secular university studies appeared to widen his philosophical and religious horizons.

Upon arriving in the United States in 1940, Heschel was employed as faculty at Hebrew Union College, the main seminary of liberal Reform Judaism. But he didn’t stay there for long. Heschel was uncomfortable with the lack of observance of Jewish laws in Reform Judaism. Yet, he also didn’t fully embrace what he saw as the strict narrow legal codes of Orthodoxy.

Heschel eventually turned to the middle ground of Conservative Judaism, which upheld many Jewish traditional customs, but also allowed for the modern critical study of Torah and Talmud. Even there, Heschel was often at odds philosophically with his peers. But he did take a position teaching Jewish Ethics and Mysticism at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary of America, until his death in 1972.

Abraham Heschel was a prolific writer and author of many books. Among the focus of his writings were the human relationship to God, the essence of faith, and the important role the ancient prophets of the Bible played. Heschel was arguably among the most notable Jewish philosophers and writers of the twentieth century, in that he was and still is widely read in the non-Jewish world.

Taking a page from the activist writings of the old Biblical prophets, Heschel with his unkept white hair and long beard, played a significant and sometimes controversial role in twentieth-century history, particularly in the United States.

Heschel marched with Martin Luther King Jr. and was at the forefront of the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Leaders of the movement, including King, often looked to the Torah’s Exodus story as inspiration for the centuries-long fight for black freedom from slavery and oppression.

Andrew Young, a former congressman and activist in the Civil Rights Movement, recalls in SPIRITUAL AUDACITY that Abraham Heschel was not only an expert on the Hebrew prophets of the Bible. The man himself was like a prophet in his words and actions on behalf of African-American freedom and equality in America.

Heschel was active in the anti-Vietnam War protest movements, speaking out against growing civilian casualties in the conflict. He also campaigned in the movement for human rights for Soviet Jewry under oppressive Communist rule.

Perhaps one of Heschel’s most long-term accomplishments was his work with the Catholic Church in the 1960s. Through much dialogue, Heschel was influential in the removal of many aspects of the Catholic liturgy that were offensive to Jews, including calling for all Jews to be converted to Christianity and blaming them for the death of Christ.

Filmmaker Martin Doblmeier explains in an email that he made the Heschel documentary as part of a series of films he is doing on great religious figures of the twentieth century, people that were influential beyond their faiths. Other religious leaders examined in the film are Reinhold Niebuhr, Howard Thurman, and Dorothy Day.

Mr. Doblmeier added, “I think what makes these figures worth remembering is how they first grounded themselves in their particular faith tradition, and in that grounding, they then felt compelled to speak out against the great social and political injustices they witnessed around them. Often they did that at great personal risk.”

SPIRITUAL AUDACITY: The Abraham Joshua Heschel Story begins airing on PBS stations May 5, during Jewish American Heritage Month. More information on the film, including educational materials, can be found at www.journeyfilms.com.

About the Author
Mark Shiffer is a freelance writer living in Canada. He has a degree in history and loves writing about the subject. Mark particularly enjoys Jewish history, as it encompasses a massive time span and many regions of the world.
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