A Spiritual Radical

There are some, and they are not many, who can write and speak and think religiously in a way that transcends one religion while speaking from within that religion. No one has done it better than Abraham Joshua Heschel, and we are grateful to the prodigious research of Edward K. Kaplan for now finishing the second volume of Heschel’s biography (Spiritual Radical: Abraham Joshua Heschel in America, 1940-1972). Those professors who use Heschel’s idea of pathos from his famous book on the prophets (The Prophets (Perennial Classics)) will do themselves a favor by steeping that book in the context of Heschel’s life in New York and the USA as a leader of Judaism, theology, and the civil rights movement.

I have a question: Which theologian, speaker, person from another faith has impacted your faith the most?

Heschel was a part of Conservative Judaism, but he impacted both Reform and Orthodox Judaism, and he was a friend of Reinhold Niebuhr (gave the eulogy at Niebuhr’s funeral) and so impacted Protestant liberal theology, and he was a tireless prophet in speaking into justice issues in the USA, so he influenced public opinion and policy. As a Jew who had experienced the ravages of Hitler’s monstrosities, he wrote and spoke out of experience into the issues of religious tolerance and human dignity. It was this context that made him a singular brilliant voice in the civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s. As one who knew war he became a tireless critic of America’s involvement in Viet Nam.

Some impressions: A busier man I have not read about, but somehow he managed to be a man of prayer and of contemplation and study. Because of the number of invitations to speak, Heschel was driven to convert his lectures and talks into books, and some of those books later in his life contain some of his most powerful rhetoric. That oral context gave his rhetoric even more potency.

Heschel was a passionate man, and it got him into the thickets at times and at other times drove him to the heights of eloquence. This passion marked the poetic rhetoric of everything he wrote, from his book on the prophets to his studies that were called the Jewish Summa Theologica [and I’ll avoid listing all his books].

From Heschel I’ve learned so much. To Kaplan I am deeply indebted for letting us know the man.

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  • DRL

    Heschel and Buber all the way! Thanks Scot!

  • Susan N.

    “Which theologian, speaker, person from another faith has impacted your faith the most?”

    Gandhi. His commitment to live what he believed inspires me. The tragedy of his being turned away from a South African church due to the color of his skin, and his conclusion that Christians are so unlike Christ, convict me to be the kind of person who would not contribute to turning someone away from Christ.

    My mother- and father-in-law. Though they are devout Hindu Brahmin, they have embraced me into their family and respected my faith. I want to live up to the respect they have shown me by reflecting Christ to them well and truly.

  • Paul W

    Jacob Neusner.

    The Incarnation of God: The Character of Divinity in Formative Judaism

    Judaism When Christianity Began: A Survey of Belief and Practice

  • Ron Spross

    Heschel. In fact, after seeing in the last couple of decades how religion — evangelical Christianity in my case — is subverted, even defined, by culture and politics, what “faith” I have left is thanks in no small part to Heschel.

  • Yeah, Heschel for me as well.

  • Duane

    Definitely Heschel. His idea of God in search of man has deeply influenced how I think about God and about life. “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity,” edited by his daughter Susannah,is a collection of some of the lectures you mention and contains some of my favorites.

  • Scott

    Thich Naht Hahn, Gandhi, Rumi, Chuang Tzu

    I find amazing connections among the mystics of all religions.

  • Dana Ames


    My book group read “God in Search of Man” some time ago. Since then, I have been convinced that I will meet AJH beyond the curtain.