Abraham Joshua Heschel

The Call of Transcendence

Shai Held
Indiana University Press, $45, 333 pp.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907–72) was one of the most eloquent religious figures of the twentieth century—a “jeweler of words,” in the estimation of one colleague. Prolific both as a scholar and as a devotional writer, he left work that continues to circulate widely within Jewish circles and beyond. A political activist, Heschel participated in the Selma Civil Rights March in 1965. (There is an iconic photo of him alongside Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and Ralph Abernathy.) Heschel viewed the march itself as a mode of worship: “I felt my legs were praying,” he recalled later. In 1965 he was one of the founding members of Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam.

Heschel played a key role in many interreligious initiatives. Among his Catholic friends were Jesuits Gustav Weigel and John Courtney Murray, as well as Trappist monk Thomas Merton. Yet his friendships with such influential Catholic figures did not preclude criticism, most notably when he intervened in the drafting of Nostra Aetate at Vatican II. A draft of the document asserted that “the church expects in unshakable faith and with ardent desire...the union of the Jewish people with the church.” In response, Heschel sent a statement to council participants, declaring himself “ready to go to Auschwitz any time, if faced with the alternative of conversion or death.”


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About the Author

Mary C. Boys is the Skinner and McAlpin Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and author of the forthcoming <i>Redeeming Our Sacred Story: The Death of Jesus and Relations between Jews and Christians</i> (Paulist Press).