Rabbi Abraham Heschel on Racism

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Racism is man’s gravest threat to man – the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

About Rabbi Abraham Heschel

By Erica Nadelhaft, HHRC Northern Maine Educator

Abraham Heschel was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1907. He received a PhD from the University of Berlin in 1933 and a liberal rabbinic ordination from the Hochshule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums in 1934. In 1937, Martin Buber appointed him as his successor at the central organization for adult Jewish education and the Judisches Lehrhaus in Frankfurt on the Main. The Nazis deported him to Poland in 1938, where he taught at the Warsaw Institute for Jewish Studies. From there he went to London, where he established the Institute for Jewish Learning. In 1940 he emigrated to the United States. He was an associate professor of philosophy and rabbinics at Hebrew Union College in Cincinatti for the next five years.  In 1945, he became Professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. 

For Heschel, religious belief was deeply tied to social justice and action. Much of his scholarly work focused on Medieval Jewish philosophy and philosophers. He wrote about famous Jewish thinkers such as Sa’adiah Gaon and Maimonides as well as on Hasidism and ultimately became one of the most influential modern philosophers of religion. “Heschel’s lifework can be seen as consisting of two parallel strands: (1) the undertaking to study and interpret the classical sources of Judaism and (2) the endeavor to offer to his contemporaries a theology which results from the application of the insights of the traditional sources to the problems and questions which the modern Jew faces.” (https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/abraham-joshua-heschel) One of his most influential texts, The Sabbath (1951), explores the idea of time: contrasting the spatial way of thinking about time of modern, technical societies with the Jewish understanding of time as separated into ordinary and holy time.

Heschel firmly believed that if one understood that each and every human being carried a spark of the Divine within them, one could not harbor hatred for any fellow human being. He used his writing and speaking to promote social justice. In 1963 he spoke at the National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. There, he proclaimed that Americans had the chance to find redemption through their efforts to combat racism. In 1965 Heschel marched next to King in the Selma to Montgomery March. He also spoke out against the Vietnam War.

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