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Jewish Roots of Kehilla’s Values Abraham Joshua Heschel – Part 1

by Rabbi Burt Jacobson

What were the Jewish origins of the spiritual and moral values that guided the fashioning of my vision of Kehilla Community Synagogue? Four prominent modern Jewish teachers influenced my life at crucial times during the 1960s, and the values I learned from them became vital to the founding of Kehilla. These teachers were Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Buber, Rabbi Arthur Green, and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. In this series of articles I hope to illuminate the lives, thought and activism of these teachers, and to share some personal memories of how they affected my life.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was arguably the most prominent Jewish religious and moral presence in mid-twentieth-century America. Heschel was one of my teachers in the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary, and I was able to study with him for four years. I was strongly drawn to his religious philosophy, which derived, in part, from his personal experiences of wonder, mystery and awe, what he termed “radical amazement.” One of the passages in his writing that I have returned to over the years is the following:

We live on the fringe of reality and hardly know how to reach the core. What is our wisdom? What we take account of cannot be accounted for. We explore the ways of being but do not know what, why or wherefore being is. Neither the world nor our thinking or anxiety about the world are accounted for. Sensations, ideas are forced upon us, coming we know not whence. Every sensation is anchored in mystery; every new thought is a signal we do not quite identify. We may succeed in solving many riddles; yet the mind itself remains a sphinx . . . 

Heschel was a model of Jewish spirituality for me, a teacher who combined scholarship, prayer, spiritual searching and political activism into an integral religious life. During my years at the Seminary, he became a renowned social activist, addressing public issues such as health care, juvenile delinquency, the elderly, and racism. In 1963, he spoke these words at the National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago:

This is not a white man’s world. It is God’s world. No man has a place in this world who tries to keep another man in his place. It is time for the white man to repent. We have failed to use the avenues open to us to educate the hearts and minds of men, to identify ourselves with those who are underprivileged . . . Racism is an evil of tremendous power, but God’s will transcends all powers . . . This world, this society can be redeemed. God has a stake in our moral predicament. I cannot believe that God will be defeated.

It was at that conference that Heschel first met the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the two became close friends and colleagues. Heschel gave himself to the cause of civil rights, marching alongside King in Selma, Alabama as they trooped to Montgomery.

Heschel also took an early and courageous public stance against the war in Viet Nam, at a time when few prominent American Jews dared to speak out about our involvement in that conflict. In 1972 Heschel stated:

The more deeply immersed I became in the thinking of the prophets, the more powerfully it became clear to me what the lives of the prophets sought to convey: that morally speaking there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. It also became clear to me that in regard to cruelties committed in the name of a free society, some are guilty, while all are responsible. I did not feel guilty as an individual American for the bloodshed in Vietnam, but I felt deeply responsible. “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor (Leviticus 19:15).” This is not a recommendation but an imperative, a supreme commandment. And so I decided to change my mode of living and to become active in the cause of peace in Vietnam.

I had been initially confused about the morality of the war—which the government always called a “police action.” Inspired by Heschel’s stance in opposition to the conflict, I finally decided to protest the war.

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