Educational Materials

Study Guide

Heschel and Jewish Tradition

Jewish tradition and culture, especially that of Eastern Europe, played an enormous part in shaping Heschel’s identity. He was born in Warsaw, Poland, descended on both sides from long and illustrious lines of Hasidic rebbes, Jewish rabbinical and spiritual leaders whose positions were passed down from father to son. Heschel’s family tradition, Hasidism, was (and remains) a pietistic and partly mystical Jewish spiritual tradition dating back to the eighteenth century. Its founder, known as the Baal Shem Tov (“master of the good name”), and his teachings are held in great reverence. However, Heschel found himself straddling the pietistic traditions of his ancestors and the exacting but engaging culture of German intellectual life. He became a rabbi and a professor instead of the rebbe of a Hasidic community. Nonetheless, as his daughter, Susannah, asserts, Heschel’s Hasidic roots and spiritual disposition can be discerned in almost all of his writing and thinking. Tragically, the world of Eastern European Jewry from which Heschel descended was all but extinguished in the Holocaust, or Shoah. His 1950 book, The Earth is the Lord’s, the first book Heschel published after coming to America in 1940, is an elegy for that lost world, which Heschel saw as providing an essential spiritual foundation for Judaism itself. It was a vital Judaism, combining contemporary practice and interpretation of scripture with traditional Hasidic piety, which Heschel argued was the “antidote” to the ills that plagued the modern world. The more humankind pursued power and self-interest, the more it needed what religion, and specifically, this vital Jewish tradition, had to offer.

Questions to Consider

  1. Heschel wrote his dissertation on the prophets as Nazism was gaining influence in Germany. In what ways might his interpretation of the prophets reflect Heschel’s own circumstances as a Jew in Germany in the early 1930s?
  2. In the film, Shai Held suggests that Heschel went back to the prophets at times when the need to assert human dignity and justice was greatest. That is, in the 1930s in Germany and again in the 1960s in America. (Heschel published The Prophets in 1962.) For Heschel, the Hebrew prophets were foremost advocates for social justice. Do you agree with this interpretation of the prophets? Do they have special relevance in times when human dignity and the ideal of justice are threatened?

          How might some German scholars’ dismissal of the Hebrew Bible in the 1920s and ‘30s, largely due to anti-Semitism have                      influenced the German church’s ability to counter Nazism?

  1. What, according to Heschel, are the primary characteristics of a prophet? Are the Hebrew prophets men and women with a special knowledge of the future or a special knowledge of or identification with God?
  2. Susannah Heschel suggests that it was their shared appreciation for the Hebrew prophets that cemented the friendship of Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr. and which drove much of their own activism. Do you see a connection here between Heschel’s interpretation of the prophets’ message and the work of both men in civil rights, against the war in Vietnam, and on behalf of marginalized groups (in Heschel’s case, Jews under Soviet oppression)?
  3. Arnold Eisen suggests that Heschel’s work on the prophets is a “call to action,” a challenge to modern-day readers to address injustice and inequity and to challenge oppressive authority as the Hebrew prophets did. Is this how you read the prophets, as exemplars of a way of living and of action that contemporary readers are to follow?
  4. Heschel interprets the Hebrew prophets as men who are imbued with the divine pathos; that is, they feel what God feels for humankind and experience God’s own joy or disappointment at human behavior. Can you imagine feeling what God feels? Do you envision God as having feelings or emotions, or of being affected by human actions in any way? Does this seem plausible to you?
  5. At a birthday celebration for Heschel shortly before his own death, Martin Luther King, Jr. called Heschel a “true prophet.” In fact, both men have been described as prophets by others within and beyond their own lifetimes. Do you consider Heschel a prophet? Do you think he saw himself as one, or simply someone who helped amplify the voices of the classical prophets?
  6. Like the ancient Hebrew prophets, Heschel also critiqued the religious institutions of his time, seeing much of contemporary Judaism as being wrapped in platitudes and inauthentic rituals. Is there a place for the prophet in critiquing contemporary religious practices, in whatever tradition? Is this a helpful role, in your opinion, or a destructive one? Can the prophet ever be a popular figure?

    What price do prophets pay for challenging the status quo, in ancient times or today? Did Heschel pay a price for some of his stances, especially regarding civil rights and the Vietnam War?

  1. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann praises Heschel for going beyond the established historical approach to the prophets. What do you think Heschel adds to the centuries-old discussion and understanding of the Hebrew prophets? What role does poetry and metaphor play in Heschel’s conception of the prophet?


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