The Abraham Heschels Of Today

And it is not the teaching which is the essential, but the action (M. Avot 1:16)

Note:Parts of this post have been corrected.since publication.

In belatedly commemorating Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s 100’s birthday, the Center for Jewish History bemoans the absence of a contemporary equivalent, asking “Where are the Abraham Heschel’s of today?” For many liberally inclined Jews, Heschel was the Gadol Hador – a prolific, erudite, knowledgeable scholar who synthesized traditional texts, academia, with contemporary sensibilities and ethics of activism. The problem, apparently, is that no one – or at least not enough people – has sufficiently assumed Heschel’s mantle.


From a preceptive of finding a replacement or figurehead, the pursuit of the next Heschel is futile. Heschel’s mystique has grown after his death such that he becomes more mythical than real. As with the Orthodox figures of R. Soloveitchik or R. Shlomo Carlebach, followers will extol the values of deceased leaders to the point of unattainable iconic status.
Furthermore, Heschel’s legacy is enhanced by the romantic longing for the halcyon activism of the sixties. Heschel lived in a unique period of social upheaval where there the injustice and inequality were blatant and the society ready for confronting the necessary drastic social changes.

This is not to say that people today are ambivalent to social justice. In fact “social justice” is not only a core mantra among the Reform and Conservative movements, but more Orthodox synagogues are becoming sensitive to various social issues. One problem however is a greater confusion as to what constitutes “social justice.” In the sixties the fight was for equality of opportunity, and leveling the cultural playing field for an open democratic society. This was a clear supportable message with specific defined goals (such as voting rights). In contrast, social justice today is highly personal, subjective, and consequently, controversial.

For example, the issues of living wages, union rights, or socialized medicine will not attract those who believe an free and open market is more ethical and democratic, let alone defending those rights in the Jewish sources. In fact some banner issues of social activists such as gay rights or Palestinian sympathizing may actually seem contradictory to Jewish ideals precluding some from associating with the social justice community.

Even when there is a moral clarity, effective social justice requires clearly defined goals to achieve. In Heschel’s day the ethic of democracy demanded the result desegregation. This was achieved through a campaign legislative and and social changes promoting a very specific form equality. Today’s issues and goals are not as concrete or beyond the scope of a social movement. We cannot eliminate disease or poverty nor can we end the genocide in Darfur without federal (and likely military) intervention. In light of the quixotic nature of many contemporary social justice issues, the conversation has shifted from a call constructive action towards the more abstract “raising awareness.” The goals of pragmatic realizable social change have been replaces with the symbolism of cultural and ideological affiliation.

Interestingly enough, social justice of symbolic gestures can be found in Heschel as well. Consider Heschel’s most revered stand against oppression, his marching with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma Alabama. Proudly wearing his Kippa, Heschel specifically dressed identifiably Jewish. The sartorial symbolism was no doubt an visibly emphatic demonstration of solidarity between the Jewish nation and the civil rights struggle.

My father, a former student of Heschel,1 likes to relate the untold half of this story. Specifically, Heschel’s overt display of Jewishness in this context potentially jeopardized the Jewish community of Alabama. Heschel returned to the relative safety and tolerance of New York, the Jewish of Alabama, already cultural outsiders in the South, would now have to contend with a double dose of bigotry. Lest one think Heschel wore the kippa for traditional religious reasons, my father recalls Heschel specifically not wearing a kippa around YU.2

This anecdote is not to discount Heschel’s impact on the civil rights movement nor should it discredit his accomplishments. My point is that the contemporary culture of modern social justice has adopted the most superficial aspects of Heschel.
Where are the Heschels of today? Some chose to follow his role as a philosopher, defining their social justice in abstract pontifications of sermons, symbolism, or slogans. Their social justice is one of guilt, passivity, and ultimately deferring action to someone else. On the other hand, there are others who live by implementing Heschel’s teachings in their day to day lives through various initiatives or volunteering or contributing to tikkun olam in any number of ways. The problem is you rarely hear of them since most of them are too busy to attend conferences on social justice.


1. My father also likes telling the following story from his experience in Prof. Heschel’s class. Apparently, back in the day Prof. Heschel had a habit of misplacing papers with the students being liable for their alleged delinquency. While such absent-mindedness would not be surprising for such an abstract philosopher, producing another typed copy was no small matter for the student – this being in the antediluvian days before word processors. When my father turned in his paper he asked Dr. Ruth Sussman, secretary to dean of rabbinical students, (Niel Gillman in those days) for a receipt and when the papers were inevitably misplaced my father produced said receipt. The embarrassed secretary defended, “I shouldn’t have given you that!” to which my father replied, “ah, but you did.”
2. Though my father reports in the name of R. Tendler that he did put on a kippa before entering the Beit Midrash.

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