MONTREAL — Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was among the greatest Jewish theologians and philosophers of the 20th century, but as his daughter, Susannah, made clear recently, he was no austere, pious figure, nor was he a prisoner of dogma and ritual.
On the contrary, her father was a “subversive” – as he thought all Jews should be – a joyous figure suffused with love and enthralled by life, spirituality, God, mysticism, the divine and his fellow man, as well as the search for truth, social justice, nobility and being, she said at the annual Sam & Helen Steinberg Lecture at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim.
What might appear contradictory in her father was anything but, she said during an eloquent and moving reflection on his life – just the sensibility of someone who could not be categorized and did not want to be.
For example, his background was steeped in Orthodoxy and Chassidut – his great-great grandfather was the “Apter Rebbe” – yet for 27 years he taught Jewish ethics and mysticism at New York’s Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, allowed his only child to have a bat mitzvah, and befriended popes and Christian theologians.
While he revelled in Shabbat and, as described in an appreciation by Reuven Kimelman, possessed the “marvel of presence,” he could also be a staunch political activist who was consumed by injustice, which is what he considered American involvement in the war in Vietnam
Once, Heschel recalled, he refused to pray after news of children being napalmed.
“Praying is a privilege,” his daughter remembered him saying. “If you are silent [amid injustice], you forfeit your right to pray.”
Heschel, a professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, said her father saw all people as a “reminder of God.”
When he said prayer should be subversive, he meant no one should pray and then go away feeling self-satisfied. Feeling a bit “disturbed,” he felt, would be more appropriate, she said.
As a teen, Heschel recalled that one day she realized that “I have a life! And it’s mine!”
She related that revelation to her dad, who responded simply: “Yes, but what are you going to do with it?”
In other words, she said, “life was a gift to do something with.”
That sense of obligation in life was intrinsic in every breath her father took, she said: no moment was wasted, no book went unread, although little time was found for popular culture pursuits such as movies. The home was filled with love and meaning, intellectual fervour, questions, and more questions.
What she witnessed as she grew up was someone “who could change the quotidian into the awesome.”
For her father, to be a Jew was to be a responsible for the world.
Although Rabbi Heschel, who was born in Warsaw to “religious nobility” and came to New York in 1940, was politically engaged, and battled racism and injustices of all kinds, including civil rights for African-Americans and the liberation of Soviet Jewry, “he never despaired,” his daughter said, and was not given to moodiness, irritability, or melancholy. A “significant being,” he used to say, derived from three things: “God, the soul and the moment.”
No religion, he felt, had a monopoly on religious truth.
Rabbi Heschel’s most famous works include Man Is Not Alone, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism, The Sabbath, and Torah Min HasShamyim, which some consider his greatest work.
Her father, she said, enjoyed turning “religious assumptions upside down, such as in, ‘God needs us… [and is] in search of us.’ In other words, what does it mean to be needed?”
People who read his books would say, as individuals, that Rabbi Heschel, “understands me,” Heschel pointed out.
At home, she related, Rabbi Heschel could be playful. Her mother, Sylvia Straus, was a classical pianist who would play Bach or other great composers when her father requested. Her father, she said, had catholic tastes, with a profound knowledge of art, music, history and literature, particularly German literature.
He disliked “small-mindedness” in people, but especially loved Shabbat because you needed it “to survive civilization,” he would say facetiously, Heschel said.
Never, he would say, “substitute Halachah for God.”
Prayer, Heschel’s father believed, was not meant to be “petitionary,” but to make oneself “worthy of being saved,” she said.
The basic problem facing man, he thought, was “the negation of the spirit.”