Abraham Joshua Heschel


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Religious philosopher (1907–72). Heschel was descended on both his father's and mother's side from a long line of Hasidic Zaddikim. Heschel himself seemed destined to occupy the role of a Hasidic Rebbe but, while intensely loyal to Hasidism, he preferred, at an early age, to follow in the path of modern philosophy and scholarship, leaving his native Poland to study in Berlin at the university and at the Jewish Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judenthums. He was deported by the Nazis in 1938 but eventually escaped to London and was later invited to occupy a Chair at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, the main institution for the training of Reform Rabbis. Heschel was in not really at home in a Reform seminary and in 1946 he was appointed to the Chair of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, a position he occupied for the rest of his life.

Heschel was a prolific author. All his works have a strong mystical tinge, owing much to his Hasidic background. In his book on the Hebrew prophets (Die Prophetie), published in English as The Prophets (New York, 1962), Heschel broke new ground in biblical studies in seeing the prophets as participants in the divine pathos; an idea criticized by some thinkers as too anthropomorphic.

Heschel, in his Hebrew work on the doctrine ‘the Torah is from heaven’ and in his other works, develops the idea that the Torah, while it should not be understood in any fundamentalistic way—that God literally delivered all the precepts to Moses at Sinai—is, none the less, the record of the divine will.

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.

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