We are now marking the 50th yahrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was among Judaism’s leading 20th-century religious thinkers and activists. I was privileged to have been a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary during Heschel’s final years as a professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism there.
Heschel was a global leader who met with Pope John XXIII and influenced the content of the Second Vatican Council, which changed the Roman Catholic Church’s view toward Jews and rejected any theological basis for antisemitism. Heschel led antiwar protests opposing the Vietnam conflict and counseled conscientious objectors. He was among those who launched the movement to free Soviet Jewry. He was a spiritual mentor for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
Heschel taught that Jewish observance ought to be approached not as an all-or-nothing practice but a continuum on the ladder of religious commitment. Each person seeks to find their rung on the ladder, in accordance with their current needs and ever-changing point of view. The role of a synagogue and its leaders is not to stand in judgment — “You are right” or “You are wrong” — but to guide congregants in ascending the ladder, each at his or her own pace.
Heschel insisted that human beings need God — we have a spiritual thirst as tangible and compelling as our need for water. To quench that spiritual thirst, Heschel urged us to make a leap of faith. Why did he employ the metaphor of a leap? Because, he said, God is difficult to capture. He said that God is “ineffable, beyond all comparisons and all of human knowledge.” God can only become known to us through a leap, a spontaneous entry into what he called the Holy.
To encounter the Holy, we must recognize and seize opportunities to experience what Heschel called “radical amazement, awe, wonder” and I call “oh wow!” moments.
Heschel would begin his public lectures in the same way. He would lean over the lectern and announce: “Ladies and gentlemen, a great miracle has just occurred!” Members of the startled audience would cease talking, wondering: What miracle did we miss? He would continue, “Ladies and gentlemen, a great miracle has just taken place: The sun has gone down.” The audience members would look at the man with the long beard and prophetic manner, puzzled by his pronouncement.
But as Heschel continued to speak, his listeners would start to ponder — “What part of my spiritual self has been surrendered when a sunset no longer inspires me?” To be spiritually alive, we must hone our spiritual sensitivity to the awe and wonder in our everyday lives — “oh wow!”
As an exercise in appreciating the ineffable, Heschel urged people to watch toddlers. Give a tot a toy. Any toy! The kid plays with it for 15 minutes, and then explores the box it came in. That box, too, becomes an endless source of wonder, imagination, and creativity.
Unlike toddlers, we adults are trained to repress our instinctive, childlike capacity for awe. We come to tire of our encounters with even the most awesome experiences.
Remember when astronauts landed on the moon? Everyone watched. We were in awe. The second time, far fewer people were captivated. By the third time, most of us took this wondrous experience for granted.
Heschel remained confident that openness to oh wow moments can be cultivated. He pointed to Moses in the desert, surrounded by burning objects, coming to an awareness of an oh wow moment when the burning bush was not consumed. Moses proved himself fit to assume spiritual leadership. He made that leap of faith from his 24/7 task-oriented life as a shepherd and was able to see miracles taking place all around him. He thereby entered a path toward God.
We can do it, too.
Heschel also was a role model in finding ways to increase justice in the world. He taught that through acts of self-enhancement, by helping others, we discover our better selves. We become a shutaf, a partner with God in tikkun olam, the act of repairing the world. That approach led Heschel to committing himself to social activism
In 1963, Heschel accepted an invitation to address the Conference on Religion and Race that the National Council of the Churches, the Synagogue Council of America, and the National Catholic Welfare Conference convened in Chicago. His address applied the biblical Exodus story to modern times:
“Pharaoh — in the form of racism — is still not ready to capitulate. The Exodus began 3,000 years ago, but we are still stranded in the desert. It was easier for the Israelites to cross the Red Sea than for men and women of different color to enter many American institutions, colleges, universities, and neighborhoods.”
Heschel marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1965 Civil Rights march in Selma, Alabama, and explained to his JTS students that his participation in this action was the carrying out of a divine task. “I felt a sense of the holy in what I was doing,” he said. “Our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”
Just days after Dr. King’s funeral, which Heschel attended with Jewish activists, the young men turned to their mentor, asking, “Rabbi Heschel, what do we do now?”
Heschel responded: “You must teach the next generation, so that they will remake the world.”
As the descendants of Rabbi Heschel, we are enjoined to continue his legacy, to pursue enhanced spirituality and to repair brokenness within ourselves and within society.
May his memory remain a source of great blessing.
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, Ph.D., became rabbi emeritus of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell in 2020; he began there in 1979. He’s headed the Conservative movement’s International Rabbinical Assembly, the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues, the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel, and Mercaz Olami.