Whose Was Heschel?

In order to attain an adequate appreciation of the preciousness that the Jewish way of living is capable of bestowing upon us, we should initiate a thorough cleaning of the minds. Every one of us should be asked to make one major sacrifice: to sacrifice his prejudice against our heritage. We should strive to cultivate an atmosphere in which the values of Jewish faith and piety could be cherished, an atmosphere in which the Jewish form of living is heartily approved or at least respected pattern, in which sensitivity to kashruth is not regarded as treason against the American constitution and reverence for the Sabbath is not considered conspiracy against progress.

Without solidarity with our forebears, the solidarity with our brothers will remain feeble. The vertical unity of Israel is essential to the horizontal unity of כלל ישראל. Identification with what is undying in Israel, the appreciation of what was supremely significant throughout the ages, the endeavour to integrate the abiding teachings and aspirations of the past into our own thinking will enable us to be creative, to expand, not to imitate or to repeat. Survival of Israel means that we carry on our independent dialogue with the past. Our way of life must remain such as would be, to some degree, intelligible to Isaiah and Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, to Maimonides and the Baal Shem.

A wide stream of human callousness separates us from the realm of holiness. Netiher an individual man nor a single generation can by its own power erect a bridge that would reach that realm. For ages our fathers have labored in building a sacred bridge. We who have not crossed the stream must beware lest we burn the bridge.

– excerpted from “Toward an Understanding of Halacha” by Abraham Joshua Heschel, pages 404-405; delivered at the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Sixty Fourth Annual Convention (Estes, Colorado), 1953, Volume LXIII, edited by Bertram W. Korn.

40 years ago today marked the passing of a long-standing professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS)–the founding bastion of Conservative Judaism. Conservative Jews have preserved the legacy of Abraham Joshua Heschel by naming after him the honors society of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s youth movement: The Abraham Joshua Heschel Honors Society of United Synagogue Youth.

A profound scholar, who once taught (albeit briefly) at the American Reform rabbinical academy, Hebrew Union College, Heschel lived a life that sounds nearly larger than life. This Jewish leader, who once marched with Martin Luther King Jr., was not only a published scholar, but also a published poet. He not only poured out his heart onto a page when comparing Kierkegaard and the lesser-studied Kotzker Rebbe, but he also fought with his soul against the War in Vietnam.

To attempt a full biography of Heschel here would be foolish, but suffice it to say that Conservative Jews often have much pride in the multi-talented rabbi who was once a teacher at their own seminary.

Despite the attitude of Conservative Jews towards him, the question must be asked: Was Heschel actually a Conservative Jew? Despite Conservative Jews’ sense of pride in Heschel, was he truly one of their own?

During his lifetime, Heschel completed his doctoral studies at the University of Berlin and sank into rabbinic studies at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, a denominationally unaffiliated German rabbinical seminary, where Judaism was studied through a critical academic lens. Prior to those forays into a more assimilated world, much of Heschel’s education took place within the walls of a traditional yeshivah (as it was also in the Orthodox world where he initially received his rabbinic ordination).

His religious fervor is evident in his writings–as is the immensity of his expertise in critical Jewish studies. Yet his scholarship did not appear to alter his religious practice. Despite his boldness in stating that the Torah itself is an interpretation (a midrash) of Divine revelation–the shape of his Jewish observance did not become somehow less Orthodox on account of his gutsy theology.

From my vantage point, it is tough to say that Heschel ever fully embodied Conservative Judaism. In fact, it would be say that Heschel was ever representative of a singular Judaism other than a well-read, globally minded, somewhat liberal Orthodox Judaism.

In his time, Heschel articulated beliefs that rarely matched up with those held by lay Conservative Jews and by Conservative Jewish leaders other than Heschel himself. His backgrounds in the Hasidic world and the critical scholarly world offered Heschel the combined advantages of textual knowledge and philosophical radicalism rarely found in the Conservative Jewish leaders (especially rabbis) of his time. Compared with Heschel and his upbringing, these contemporaries were raised in environments far less affected by Jewish knowledge, tradition, memory, and observance.

Yet Heschel was among the most charismatic voices in Conservative Judaism–not because what he preached most honestly matched with what Conservative Jews said, believed or ever came to believe, but because his primary audience happened to be those training to become Conservative Jews (not always leaders, and those training to become leaders did not always succeed).

If brains are not enough to impress someone, sometimes looks will make a person outstanding. Simply put, Heschel’s teachings may in ways be less preserved in the popular imagination than the way he looked. Heschel looked a lot more frum than many other leaders in the Conservative Jewish world. Conservative Judaism, often lacking strong leadership, found an inspiring–perhaps exotic–image in Heschel. While his appearance changed over the years, the visual that came to be associated with the greatness of Heschel has never been the rare clean-shaven photo of the scholar, but rather the wild hair and outstretched beard of a sage.

It is fortunate that Conservative–and non-Conservative–Jews today often embrace Heschel’s name and his writings (whereas, when Heschel was alive, JTS was apparently an atmosphere where his presence was often unwelcome and absent). But Heschel is frequently hailed by liberal Jewry as “one of their own” when, in fact, almost everything about his biography, practice and philosophy differed completely from the experience of approximately 99% of non-Orthodox Jews. Heschel–deeply spiritual and politically liberal–did not find his intellectual home in an American Hasidic community. By the sake token, Heschel–committed to traditional text study and stringent observance of mitzvot–did not necessarily find a home in the American liberal Jewish community. I wonder if Heschel actually never found a home.

My own estimation is that, as much as Conservative–or any other–Jews want to claim Heschel as their own, it is vital to recognize how he was rarely welcomed as one of anyone’s own in his lifetime. I suspect that today he still would be out of place at JTS–or any liberal or Orthodox institution.

When Heschel spoke of the Jews, he spoke fervently of K’lal Yisra’el, but he spoke on behalf of no one other than himself and a Judaism no one has ever known since.

Let his memory not be a false idol. May his memory be a blessing.

About the Author
Jonah Rank is a musician, writer and co-founder of Jewish Eyes On The Arts. Jonah received a B.A. in Music at Columbia University and a B.A. in Jewish Music at the Jewish Theological Seminary. At the latter, Jonah is now enrolled as a rabbinical student. He is the secretary of the new Conservative prayer book Siddur Lev Shalem (Rabbinical Assembly: New York, NY--expected circa 2016).