Abraham Joshua Heschel Bio

My father was a unique combination of a Hasidic voice of compassion and mercy, always seeing the goodness in other people, and a prophetic voice of justice, denouncing hypocrisy, self-centeredness, and indiffer-ence. My father wasn't interested in assigning blame or claiming victim-hood, but as the Bible does, he showed us a vision of who we might become. His was a voice of inspiration, not argumentation, rooted in Jewish religious thought. What he once wrote of East European Jews applies to him as well: "Jewishness was not in the fruit but in the sap that stirred through the tissues of the tree. Bred in the silence of the soil, it ascended to the leaves to become eloquent in the fruit."' So, too, Jew-ishness infused my father like the sap of a tree, and his eloquence was the fruit of his deep Jewish piety and learning.
Particularly extraordinary is the diversity of those who regarded him as their teacher: Catholics, Jews, Protestants, whites and blacks, liberals and conservatives, pious and secular, Americans, Europeans, Israelis. His life challenges our conventional expectations. Here is a rabbi whose books were praised by Pope Paul VI as helping to sustain the piety of Catholics; an Orthodox Jew with a white beard and yarmulke marching for civil rights and demonstrating against the war in Vietnam; an immigrant from Poland whose work is included in anthologies of exceptional English prose.
My father described himself as a "brand plucked from the fire of Eu-rope," rescued from Poland by an American visa just six weeks before the Nazi invasion. His survival was a gift, because he became a unique religious voice in an era in which religion was in grave danger, according to his own analysis. The Hasidic Jewish world of Eastern Europe in which he was raised was far from the environment in which he wrote and taught in the United States. He came from a rebbe's family in Poland, from a Jewish civilization that was suddenly eradicated in the middle of his life¬time by the Germans, in whose universities he had studied and in whose language he had written about Jewish religious thought. Despite the hor¬rors he experienced—the murder of his mother, sisters, friends, and rel¬atives, the destruction of the world which had nourished him—his life continued to reflect the holy dimension he was able to evoke in his own original and unique words.
Words, he often wrote, are themselves sacred, God's tool for creating the universe, and our tools for bringing holiness—or evil—into the world. He used to remind us that the Holocaust did not begin with the building of crematoria, and Hitler did not come to power with tanks and guns; it all began with uttering evil words, with defamation, with language and propaganda. Words create worlds, he used to tell me when I was a child.
They must be used very carefully. Some words, once having been uttered, gain eternity and can never he withdrawn. The Book of Proverbs reminds us, he wrote, that death and life are in the power of the tongue.
MY FATHER was born in Warsaw on January 11, 1907, the youngest child of Moshe Mordechai and Reizel (Perlow) Heschel. His mother and father were each descended from distinguished Hasidic rebbes, a family of nobility in the Jewish world. Nearly all the great Hasidic leaders of Eastern Europe, those who inspired and led the pietistic revival that began in the eighteenth century, were among my father's ancestors. He cherished and revered them. I remember as a child how often he used to take small, fragile books from his shelf, Hasidic seforim, show them to me, read a little with me, and tell me with awe about the great-grandfathers who had written them. This is your inheritance, he would say. Far from feeling burdened by the greatness of his heritage, he felt gratitude, humbleness, and reverence for his ancestors. "I was very fortunate," he told an inter-viewer, "in having lived as a child and as a young boy in an environment where there were many people I could revere, people concerned with problems of inner life, of spirituality and integrity. People who have shown great compassion and understanding for other people."'
As a small child he was accorded the princely honors given the families of Hasidic rebbes: adults would rise when he entered the room, even when he was little, recognizing that he was a special person. He would be lifted onto a table to deliver drushas, learned discussions of Hebrew texts. He was considered an illui, a genius. His world was one of intense piety and religious observance, and he felt grateful, as he described much later, that he grew up surrounded by people of spiritual nobility. As the baby of the family, he was loved and fussed over by his older sisters, Sarah, Devorah Miriam, Esther Sima, and Gittel, and his brother, Jacob. He was teased and coddled the way youngest children of large families are. He was only three years old when his oldest sister, Sarah, married their first cousin, the Kapitshinitzer rebbe, and he remembered being at the wedding, running around excitedly among the adults. Even as a small child he took his religious obligations very seriously. He seemed amused and embarrassed when he told me that when he was sent as a five year old on an errand to a female neighbor, he would ask that the object he was borrowing be placed on a table—according to ultra-Orthodox custom, a man should not give or receive from a woman's hand.
His was a large extended family. His mother was the twin sister of the Novominsker rebbe, Alter Israel Simon Perlow, who lived in Warsaw, and there were many cousins, nieces, and nephews. The family's first tragedy came in 1916, when my father was nine years old and his father
died during an influenza epidemic. It was devastating for the family. Shortly before I turned nine, I developed a fear that the same thing might happen to me. I asked him, over and over, how he could survive such a terrible thing. He used to say, in a way that was so sad for me to hear, that he just wished he could talk to his father again, just once more, even for one hour.
As a teenager my father began publishing his first articles, short studies, in Hebrew, of talmudic literature, which appeared in a Warsaw rabbinical publication, Sha'are Torah, in 1922 and 1923. When he grew older, he began to read secular books, in addition to his Talmud studies. He said his mother worried at not hearing him chant Gemara while he studied, knowing that he was reading what he should not. Finally, with the approval of his family, he decided to go to Vilna to study at a Gymnasium. There he completed his examinations on June 24, 1927, at the Mathematical—Natural Science Gymnasium. He also became involved with a Yiddish poetry group, Jung Vilna, and published, as his first book, a volume of Yiddish poems, Der Shem Hamefoyrosh: Mentsch, written during his years in Vilna and published in Warsaw in 1933, dedicated to his father's memory.' The poems were greeted warmly in the worlds of Yiddish and Hebrew belles lettres; they brought him to the attention of, among others, Chaim Nachman Bialik, who wrote to him from Israel with an enthusiastic letter of congratulations.
Among my father's childhood friends from Warsaw few survived. One who did was the Yiddish writer Yechiel Hoffer, who immigrated to Israel and wrote autobiographical novels in which my father appears as a young man. Another was Zalman Shazar, a Zionist and Hebrew writer who later became President of the state of Israel. They remained good friends throughout their lives; letters from Shazar to my father, written in Hebrew, address him, "To the friend of my soul, master of joy, son of holy people." In 197o, on the occasion of President Shazar's eightieth birthday, my father wrote a tribute to him in Yiddish: "He is a Jew who lives with visions. He carries in himself a song that calls and awakens sleeping souls." My father also gave President Shazar a mezuzah that had once stood on the doorpost of the synagogue of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, in the little East European town of Mezibizh.
After Vilna, in 1927, my father went to study in Berlin, to participate in what he felt was the great center of European intellectual and cultural life. He enrolled at the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums
"A brokhe dem nosi" (Greetings to President Shazar on his eightieth birthday) in Die goldene Keyt, Tel Aviv, No. 68 0970), p. 26. Shazar sent a telegram to the Israel Bonds dinner honoring my father in December 197o: "To Abraham Joshua Heschel, my cherished friend . . . The descendant of so saintly a line now brings to American Jewry sparks of holiness and true radiance."
Click on the link below to download the entire biography.