Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) -- rabbi, scholar, teacher, poet, a devout Jew, a fervent advocate for the oppressed, a champion of interfaith dialogue  --  was one of the great religious voices of conscience in modern times. He was the author of enduring books on spirituality, among them The Sabbath, Man is Not Alone, God in Search of Man, and The Prophets. PBS’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly has named Heschel one of “the 25 most influential religious figures of the 20th Century.”

Photo: C. Mat Gilmour

But Heschel was much more than a religious philosopher.  Having spent 10 years in Germany  - getting his doctorate at the University of Berlin, then working with Martin Buber in Frankfort - he experienced firsthand the nightmarish transition from life under the Weimar Republic to life under a Nazi dictatorship.   He was rescued from the fate of his fellow European Jews by Hebrew Union College’s “Scholars Project,” which ultimately was able to secure visas to America for just a handful of European Jewish intellectuals. Heschel’s mother and three sisters perished in the Holocaust.

His experience of unchecked racial and religious hatred indelibly marked Heschel.  Scarred by his loss and grief-stricken by his powerlessness to help his fellow Jews, Heschel, as he rose in stature in America, was to become a passionate advocate for the oppressed, invoking and even embodying the zeal of the Prophets of Ancient Israel, those original speakers of truth to power.  

Photo: AP Images

He was the key Jewish figure in the American civil rights movement, in the course of which Heschel, the descendent of luminous Eastern European Hasidic rebbes, developed a profound friendship and theological partnership with Martin Luther King. Together they stood in the front line of the historic Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights march.

Together with Daniel Berrigan and Richard John Neuhaus, Heschel co-founded the first and largest group of clergy opposed to the Vietnam War, and he was among the first to speak out on behalf of religious freedom for Soviet Jews.

Photo: Library of Congress

Perhaps because of his own people’s history, Heschel became a champion of interreligious dialogue.  “We must choose between interfaith and internihilism,” he would say.  “No religion is an island.”  

He played a critical role (including a dramatic meeting with Pope Paul VI) in the formulation of the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on the Jews,” a document which began a transformation of 2000 years of poisoned Catholic-Jewish relations, and continues to reverberate through interfaith relations today, pointing the way to what might be possible.

Photo: United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism

To his fellow Jews he brought a challenge and a song … intertwined. In a post-Holocaust world where belief in a loving God was violently shaken, often shattered, Heschel wrote about piety…faith…prayer… the holy dimension.  He didn’t ignore the agony … nor did he succumb to it.  Instead he climbed to that highest rung of sadness that his Hasidic forbears spoke about, turning despair into a song. 

And so he wrote about the Ineffable; about meaning beyond mystery; about a God who … in the end … cares.

He also wrote about the importance of the Hebrew Bible and of observance; of performing mitsvot, acts of ritual holiness. He expanded this to include acts of moral holiness that people of all faiths could identify with and perform, strengthened in their own beliefs.

Until now there has been no preserved film record of this extraordinarily important Jewish thinker and activist’s life and work. Not until this film have Arthur Green, Susannah Heschel, Elie Wiesel, William Sloane Coffin, Daniel Berrigan, Andrew Young, James Lawson, Arnold Eisen, Sayyed Hossein Nasr, Kenneth Woodward and many many others been contacted and interviewed to place Heschel in his proper historical context and to preserve for generations to come their very important memories and insights into Heschel’s enduring significance both as a brilliant religious thinker and as a compassionate and committed human being.

Praying With My Legs brings together such disparate voices as:

  • a group of Benedictine monks who warmly remember Heschel’s visit with them at their priory, a memory so deeply engrained that 40 years later, one monk is overcome as he describes what it was like to watch Rabbi Heschel in prayer;
    >Watch video     
  • Dr. Sayyed Hossein Nasr, who as a young Muslim scholar spent three days sitting next to Heschel at secret interfaith conference held at the Vatican;
  • Rabbis Rolando Matalon and Marcelo Bronstein of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, a remarkable institution of Jewish renewal, who talk about the personal meaning they each have derived from Heschel’s books on The Sabbath and on prayer as well as the inspiration they found in his political activism when they were young rabbinic students in Argentina under a brutal military dictatorship;
  • the late Reverend William Sloane Coffin who tells of an incredible meeting between Robert McNamara and a group of clergy opposed to the Vietnam War, including a morally outraged Heschel;
  • Elie Wiesel, who recounts Heschel’s agony over Vietnam and the efforts made by some Jewish leaders to tone down his rhetoric;
  • Susannah Heschel, who tells of the night her father left to go to Selma to march with Martin Luther King, and her fear that she would never see him again. 

These interviews and far more are woven together with two major network television interviews that Heschel gave at the peak of his power and charisma, along with archival video and audio, including some amazing finds from powerful speeches Heschel gave going back to the 1950s. 

In short, the picture emerges of a life lived with great passion and integrity, from the Hasidic shteibls of Warsaw to the forests of Vilna to the boulevards of Nazi Berlin to the streets of Selma, Alabama; a life lived at the forefront of some of the most significant human rights campaigns of the 20th century that have daily relevance for the spiritually challenging world we find ourselves living in today. 

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Transformational figures like Abraham Joshua Heschel come along rarely. What Einstein meant to 20th century science, such was Heschel’s impact on 20th century theology. There is no comparable figure in American Jewish history.

The film is being made under the fiscal sponsorship of the New York Foundation for the Arts.  All contributions are tax-deductible.

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Praying With My Legs  

Praying With My Legs

The Radically Amazing Life & Times                                 of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel