It’s an iconic photograph, taken in March 1965 on the Selma to Montgomery March with Martin Luther King Jr in the clasp of a number of people. But right there, 2nd from the right, is a bearded man looking too old and venerable to be part of such an incendiary gathering. In the full gray beard and the yarmulke of the Rabbi is Abraham Joshua Heschel, the famous Jewish scholar and writer who was by that time 58 years of age.
Though he died in 1972 this man has has intrigued me for some time, ever since my wife bought his book The Sabbath. He had a remarkable life, born in Warsaw, Poland in 1907, he escaped the city just six weeks before the Nazi invasion of Poland and made his way to New York to teach, eventually, in the Jewish Theological Seminary there until his death. He wrote with great scholarly depth and with the heart and energy of a poet and became a prominent spiritual thinker in the US during the 50s and 60s, as widely read by Christians as by Jews.
Heschel played a central role in the key developments in Judaism in his day. Much like Christianity Judaism has been riven by theological debates between Orthodox, Reform and Conservative movements. He objected to the extreme legalism of Orthodoxy, as well as the de-spiritualised, pragmatic, sociological interpretations of the Reform movement. Above all, for Heschel, the God of the bible was Personal.
He was also irreversibly altered by his lifelong study of the Hebrew prophets. It was in recognition of the reality that worship of this Personal God must have ethical implications that lead him, even at his advancing age, to walk the streets with MLK and to become a prominent opponent of US policy in Vietnam.
In an effort to keep my mind ticking over this summer I have decided to read more about this man, investigate his writings and his life story and to see how his writings in his era may have contemporary application for life today for a Christian in Northern Ireland.
It’s not an academic study, though I’ll endeavour to get the details right, but it may serve as a light, personal and popular introduction to Heschel’s writing and thinking.