Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was born into a distinguished Hasidic family in Warsaw, Poland. As a child he was expected to become the spiritual leader of his group. From a very young age, Heschel immersed himself in the study of traditional sacred Jewish texts, including the Hebrew Bible, the Talmud, and the Zohar; and the classical Jewish commentaries, especially Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Isaac 1040-1105), the outstanding commentator on the Bible and Talmud. In 1925 Heschel went to Vilna, now known in Lithuanian as Vilnius, to prepare himself for university study. Vilna was known as "the Jerusalem of Lithuania" because it was, at that time, the greatest center of Jewish learning.
Heschel was already an ordained rabbi when he arrived in Berlin in 1927. He received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Berlin in 1933 for a dissertation on the Hebrew prophets. In 1938 the Nazis deported Heschel to Poland. He left Poland in 1939, just 6 weeks before the invasion of Poland. In 1940 he arrived in the United States to teach at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. From 1945 until his death in 1972, Heschel was professor of Jewish ethics and mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.
Heschel is considered to be the foremost spiritual Jewish thinker and activist in the 20th century.
Heschel, whose writings are authentically Jewish, has had a far-reaching impact not only on the Jewish community but also on Christians and members of other faith communities. Many Jews and Christians consider Heschel to be the Jewish saint of his generation. Heschel wrote significant works on the Bible, on the Talmud, on the major medieval philosophers, including Judah Halevi and Moses Maimonides, and on some of the major Hasidic leaders, including the Baal Shem Tov (1690-1760), the founder of Hasidism. His best-known work, however, is his book entitled God in Search of Man, a book on his own philosophy of Judaism. It is devoted to showing three interrelated ways through which contemporary human beings can open themselves to God or, more precisely, through which they can respond to a God who is in search of human beings. The three ways are the way to God via the world, the way to God through the Bible, and the way to God through sacred deeds.
For Heschel the idea that God is in search of human beings, that God is a God of pathos who needs human beings and is affected by their actions, is the most fundamental idea of biblical thought. This idea, which lies at the core of Heschel's thinking, was already developed in his 1933 doctoral dissertation. Heschel returned to develop this idea more fully in his major work, The Prophets, published in 1962.
Heschel tells us that his own life was transformed by his deep immersion in the Hebrew prophets. After 1962 he left his study more and more frequently to become involved in a number of social and political issues. He opposed American involvement in the Vietnam War. He devoted a great deal of time to the Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., and he addressed himself to the plight of the Jews in the Soviet Union.
Heschel remains the most significant thinker to address the critical issue of the religious diversity of the world. In his essay "No Religion Is an Island," he presents a radical view of the world's religions. Heschel argues that no religion has a monopoly on truth or holiness and that the diversity of religions is the will of God.
Heschel was the most important Jewish voice during the meeting of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). He played a major role in shaping the Church's view of Judaism. On several occasions Heschel met with Pope Paul VI and convinced him to remove a paragraph in the document that called for the conversion of the Jews. A few weeks before he died, Heschel left the following message for young people: "And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to build a life as if it were a work of art. You're not a machine. And you are young. Start working on this great work of art called your own existence" (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, 412).