Abraham Joshua Heschel


Biography of Abraham Joshua Heschel

Abraham Joshua Heschel (January 11, 1907 – December 23, 1972) was a Polish-born American rabbi and one of the leading Jewish theologians and Jewish philosophers of the 20th century.

Abraham Joshua Heschel was descended from preeminent European rabbis on both sides of the family. His great-great-grandfather and namesake was Rebbe Avraham Yehoshua Heshel of Apt. His father, Moshe Mordechai Heschel, died of influenza in 1916. His mother Reizel Perlow was also a descendant of Avraham Yehoshua Heshel and other Hasidic dynasties. He was the youngest of six children. His siblings were Sarah, Dvora Miriam, Esther Sima, Gittel, and Jacob.

After a traditional yeshiva education and studying for Orthodox rabbinical ordination semicha, he pursued his doctorate at the University of Berlin and a liberal rabbinic ordination at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums. There he studied under some of the finest Jewish educators of the time: Chanoch Albeck, Ismar Elbogen, Julius Guttmann, and Leo Baeck. Heschel later taught Talmud there. He joined a Yiddish poetry group, Jung Vilna, and in 1933, published a volume of Yiddish poems, Der Shem Hamefoyrosh: Mentsch, dedicated to his father.

In late October 1938, when he was living in a rented room in the home of a Jewish family in Frankfurt, he was arrested by the Gestapo and deported to Poland. He spent ten months lecturing on Jewish philosophy and Torah at Warsaw's Institute for Jewish Studies. Six weeks before the German invasion of Poland, Heschel left Warsaw for London with the help of Julian Morgenstern, president of Hebrew Union College, who had been working to obtain visas for Jewish scholars in Europe.

Heschel's sister Esther was killed in a German bombing. His mother was murdered by the Nazis, and two other sisters, Gittel and Devorah, died in Nazi concentration camps. He never returned to Germany, Austria or Poland. He once wrote, "If I should go to Poland or Germany, every stone, every tree would remind me of contempt, hatred, murder, of children killed, of mothers burned alive, of human beings asphyxiated."

Heschel arrived in New York City in March 1940. He served on the faculty of Hebrew Union College (HUC), the main seminary of Reform Judaism, in Cincinnati for five years. In 1946, he took a position at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS), the main seminary of Conservative Judaism, where he served as professor of Jewish ethics and Mysticism until his death in 1972.

Heschel married Sylvia Straus, a concert pianist, on December 10, 1946, in Los Angeles. Their daughter, Susannah Heschel, is a Jewish scholar in her own right. Heschel's papers are held in the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke University.

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