More about heschel

issues confronted

Civil Rights

Abraham Joshua Heschel had been concerned about civil rights for African Americans ever since he befriended Larry Harris, a black headwaiter at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in the 1940s.  In 1963 was invited to deliver a keynote address at the 1st Conference on Religion and Race, in Chicago, Illinois, where he stated “it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses,” and compared racism to an “eye disease.”  It was at this conference that Heschel first met Martin Luther King.  Both men quoted the same passage from Amos:  “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”  They discovered that they had many theological affinities despite the fact that Heschel came from an Eastern European Hasidic background and King from the Black Baptist tradition of the American South. The two men became friends and in 1965 King invited Heschel to join him in the front rank of the Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March. Heschel became the most prominent Jewish figure in the civil rights movement.


In 1965, Heschel joined with Daniel Berrigan, a Catholic priest and Richard John Neuhaus, then a Lutheran minister, to form Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, the first and largest organization of clergy opposed to the war.  Heschel tirelessly traveled across the country making anti-war speeches, participated in annual mobilizations against the war in Washington, D.C. and contributed the essay “The Moral Outrage of Vietnam” to the book Vietnam: Crisis of Conscience.  He was an active supporter of George McGovern in the 1972 Presidential election campaign.  Heschel’s major objection to the war was the certainty that there would be great loss of civilian life because of the manner in which the U.S. was waging the war.  His position was an unpopular one at the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was a professor of ethics, and his anguish over the war contributed to his failing health in his last years. 

Soviet Jewry

Heschel and Elie Wiesel were among the first public figures in the Jewish community to speak out publicly against what Heschel considered the “spiritual genocide” being perpetrated against Jews living in the Soviet Union, who were being denied religious freedom and persecuted if they chose to live as Jews, even jailed for the crime of preparing matzah for Passover.  The organized American Jewish community at the time was largely silent, fearing getting embroiled publicly in international politics and the internal affairs of a superpower.  They preferred “quiet diplomacy.”  Heschel reminded them of what the American Jewish community did not do for the Jews of Europe during the Holocaust and challenged them to not let the last great European Jewish community in the world be wiped out, saying “I do not want future generations to spit on our graves, saying ‘here lies a community which, living in comfort and prosperity, kept silent while millions of their brothers were exposed to spiritual extermination.’”  His and others’ pleas that moral pressure be placed on the Soviet Union through demonstrations and other actions on behalf of Russian Jews would eventually lead to hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews being allowed to emigrate, and the easing of restrictions of Soviet Jewish life.


After the Six-Day War of 1967, the alliance between Christians and Jews on the left became fractured.  Many Christians who were active in the civil rights and anti-war movements could not understand how their Jewish colleagues could support Israel’s preemptive strike against her Arab neighbors.  Meanwhile, Jews were terribly saddened and angered that Christian made light of what Jews saw as an existential threat to the survival of Israel just 22 years after the horrors of the Nazi genocide was revealed to the world.  Heschel stepped into the fray, writing Israel: An Echo of Eternity, a lyrical yet open-minded paean to the deep significance of Israel and of the city of Jerusalem to the Jewish people.  The book conveyed Heschel’s deep love for the land of the Hebrew prophets as well as his belief that the plight of Arab refugees had to be equitably addressed.  He wrote, “We must ask the nations of the Middle East: … seek to think in terms of one family.  The alternative to peace is disaster.  The choice is to love together or to perish together.”  In the last year of his life, Heschel attended a secret conference of Jews, Christians and Muslims in Rome to discuss the status of Jerusalem and to further interfaith dialogue between the Abrahamic faiths.

Interfaith / 2nd Vatican Council

In 1962 Heschel was invited by Marc Tanenbaum of the American Jewish Committee to participate as theological point man in what were then secret talks with Vatican officials about the contents of a “Declaration on the Jews,” that was being prepared to be presented for a vote by cardinals and bishops from around the world at the historic Second Vatican Council in Rome.  This document, requested by Pope John XXIII, was the beginning of the Vatican’s response to the Holocaust.  Heschel, who lost his mother and three sisters in the Holocaust, prepared a 13-page memorandum listing suggestions for improving Catholic-Jewish relations.  Chief among them was that the Church condemn anti-Semitism and reject once and for all the charge that the Jewish people as a whole are responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. He called for the Church to renounce the teaching of contempt for Judaism that had poisoned relations between the two faiths for nearly two thousand years and to acknowledge the value of Jews “as Jews.”   It would take three years, and much political intrigue before the document would come to the Council floor for a vote.  At one point the document had been so watered down that it contained a clause hoping for the eventual conversion of the Jewish people to Christianity, which Heschel rejected vociferously, stating: “I’d rather go to Auschwitz than give up my religion.”  He went to Rome for a secret audience with Pope Paul VI to make the case for a stronger document.   Finally, in 1965, with much of the original language reinserted and the conversion clause excised, the document, now entitled Nostra Aetate, was passed at the Council by a vote of 2,281 to 88, creating a sea change in Catholic-Jewish relations.

In 1965 Heschel was invited to become the first Jewish theologian to assume a visiting professorship at the Protestant Union Theological Seminary, just across the street from the Jewish Theological Seminary. His inaugural lecture, entitled No Religion is An Island, is a classic text on interfaith dialogue, containing the phrase “we must chose between interfaith or internihilism.” He drew more students to his classes at Union than any other visiting professor in the school’s history.

His interfaith work included friendships and encounters (both personal and posthumous) with religious leaders, thinkers and activists of many different faiths including Reinhold Niebuhr, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, William Sloane Coffin, Daniel Berrigan, Richard John Neuhaus, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thich Nhat Hahn, Sayyed Hossein Nasr and James Carroll.  In his later years Heschel received an honorary degree from Notre Dame University and was awarded the title of “Rabbi to the World” by the College of St. Scholastica in Minnesota.

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Praying With My Legs  

Praying With My Legs

The Spiritual Witness of Abraham Joshua Heschel