Thursday, January 11, 2007

Remembering Abraham Joshua Heschel

Abraham Joshua Heschel (front row second from right) marching with Martin Luther King, Jr at Selma, Ala. March 21, 1965

Today is Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's 100th birth anniversay.

"When God gets up in the morning, the Holy One gathers the angels of heaven around and asks this simple question: “Where does my creation need mending?” Theology, said Rabbi Heschel consists of worrying about what God worries about when God gets up in the morning.

Some of his sayings resonate 35 years after his death: "Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge. ... Life without commitment is not worth living. ... In regard to cruelties committed inthe name of a free society, some are guilty, while all are responsible.... When I was young, I used to admire intelligent people; as I grow older, I admire kind people."

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was born on Jan. 11,1907 in Warsaw, Poland. When he died in 1972, he was one of the most important Jewish theologians of the 20th century. Yet he also had a profound impact on many Christian clergy and lay people; the late Coretta Scott King called Heschel "one of the great men of our time."

He would likely have been one of the 6 million Jews to die in the Holocaust had he not come to Cincinnati in 1940 to teach at Hebrew Union College, the Reform Jewish seminary. In 1945, he moved to the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where he taught Jewish ethics and mysticism until his death. There, he achieved international acclaim as a giftedteacher who inspired two generations of students, including many spiritual disciples.

Heschel's mastery of philosophy, authentic Kabbalah, Hasidic thought and Jewish mysticism was linked to a reverence for the biblical prophets, a love for the state of Israel, and a hatred of all forms of racism, bigotry and prejudice. Yet, academic teaching alone was insufficient for him, and Heschel translated his Judaism into decades of social justice activism and he became a leader in the American civil rights struggle. The iconic photo (above) shows Heschel marching together with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., during the 1960s. It was a moment, he said, when "I felt my legs were praying."

During the Second Vatican Council in Rome (1962-1965), Heschel met Pope Paul VI and helped pave the way for the historic "Nostra Aetate"Declaration that forever changed Catholic-Jewish relations. It was Heschel who persuaded the pope to delete a proposed paragraph thatreferred to converting Jews to Christianity.

At his death, Heschel was a prominent foe of the Vietnam War. He angered many when he offered the nation this choice: "Losing face (by withdrawing) or losing our souls (by continuing an unjust war)."


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