Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Courtesy of the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel


Carl Stern




ANNOUNCER: On the occasion of the Jewish High Holiday of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, NBC News in associa­tion with The Jewish Theological Seminary of Amer­ica brings you the special ETERNAL LIGHT program “Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel Revisited”.


Here is NBC News correspondent Carl Stern.


MR. CARL STERN:    Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel was the foremost Jewish theologian when he died ten years ago. He was Professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and a dis­tinguished author, lecturer, philosopher and acti­vist. Though he had written prolifically, he had never done any interviews on tape or film that might have conveyed the power and vigor of his thoughts. But, remarkably, he did such an inter­view here on NBC just two weeks before his death. Tens of thousands of requests for copies of his comments came in the mail. It was an extraordin­ary event.


Dr. Heschel was a scholar and a man who thought deeply about God, and religion, and the traditions of his faith, and who yet found a way to nix wisdom with candor and excitement about the events of the day. He was active in the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the Vatican Council. An active, not a passive view of religion is the key to understanding Heschel.


What follows is a compressed version of the inter­view he did ten years ago, still exciting, still remarkable. [A Conversation with the Late Dr. Abraham Heschel (program no. 205, aired 4 February 1973). The last program, an hour-long interview conducted by Carl Stern of NBC News, was taped ten days prior to Heschel's death.]




STERN: I brought these books from home. They’re only a small portion of the books you’ve written. What was there in your life, especially your early life, that would give you the thoughts to fill so many books?


DR. ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL: Hard work, training, and a good environment. I was very fortunate in having lived as a child, and as a young boy, in an environment where there were many people I could revere, people concerned with problems of inner life, of spirituality, and integrity. People who have shown great compassion and understanding for other people.


STERN: But your life itself has not been an easy life. You escaped from Poland just before the Nazis came

in. What experiences of life have found their way into these books?


HESCHEL: I would say, again, my background, my early up­bringing. I would criticize my early upbringing as deficient in one respect and very rich in ano­ther respect. Deficient in what may be called the art of relaxation, sports. I’m not the sporting type, unfortunately. But very rich in moments of exultation. This enabled me to stand a little bit above the circumstances of life,  and to take a perspective from which I could see the world so to speak from a higher point of view. In other words, I was trained as a child to live a life, or to strive to live a life, which is compatible with the mystery and marvel of human existence.


STERN: One of the most arresting titles of your many books would be this one: God in Search of Man. Is

God in search of man?


HESCHEL: It’s a paradox.       In fact, if God would consult me, I would tell Him ...


STERN:  Does He?


HESCHEL: He doesn’t. He’s too wise to consult me.


I would say, “Why do you care about man?’ The biggest message of the Bible, and of the Prophets of Israel is that God takes man seriously.


You remember, He created Adam and Eve, and they immediately failed. He was disappointed, but lie kept them alive. Then they gave birth to two boys, very nice boys. I’m sure they got an excellent education in a private school, or in a public school, I’m not sure. But, certainly, in a good environ­ment. They didn’t live in the slums, you know.


And you know what one brother did to the other. God should have been disgusted. He said, “No, I will keep the human species alive. I’m waiting. Maybe someday there will be a righteous generation.’


And throughout history, as seen by the Bible, there is one disappointment for God after another. But He’s still waiting, waiting, waiting for mankind which will live by justice and compassion. He’s in search of man.


Now, let me say to you, there are essentially three points. One, “God in search of man”, to me is a homily of all of the Hebrew Bible. Two, it ex­presses the idea of Judaism about the position of man in the universe. Man is terribly important. If God is so concerned about man, which surprises me again, why shouldn’t God be concerned more about, let us say, cosmic energy, or the astronaut techniques? He’s interested about widows and orphans in Jerusa­lem. My Lord, if He were to ask me, I would say, it’s beneath your dignity; you, God of the Universe, should be concerned about the poor, about the disadvantaged? Yes, He is. Man is very important to God.


STERN: And the third point?


HESCHEL: The third point would be the nature of religion. The nature of religion is not just a long-ranging feeling of man searching for God. I think that God is more in search of man, than man is in search         of God. He gives us no rest.


We have for generations, for decades, for centuries, tried to refute the existence of God, as if He didn’t exist! And in spite of everything, man is still searching. Man is still waiting. Man is still longing. Man has discovered and is discover­ing, that man without God is like a torso, a body without a head.


STERN: But man is searching also because -- if you’ll forgive me -- there’s a certain absurdity, a certain

purposeless, or perhaps undiscoverable purpose.


Let me cite an example. Ten days before Martin Luther King was killed, you as a good friend of his, addressed a convention of the Rabbinical Assembly. And you said, “Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America.” And then ten days later he was dead in the most cruel and purposeless fashion.


It’s that sort of question that challenges faith. How do you explain that?


HESCHEL: If we understand the Bible properly - and very few people these days study the Bible properly - we itemize the Bible and tear it to pieces, instead of immersing in the thought of the Bible - you discover that God shares life with man, and He has given man freedom. A very questionable gift, and the most outstanding gift man has. Man can do anything.


When the first son of the first couple decided to murder his brother, he did what he pleased. And God did not interfere.


STERN: But that raises the question, though, if you’re saying that if God were to control every aspect of man’s life, it would not be living, then that raises the question: why pray to God, then? If God is not going to interfere, if God is not go­ing to intervene, if God is not going to help, then what is the role of prayer?


HESCHEL: First of all, let us not misunderstand the nature of prayer, particularly in Jewish tradition. The primary purpose of prayer is not to make requests. The primary purpose of prayer is to praise, to sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song, and man cannot live without a song.


Prayer may not save us, but prayer may make us worthy of being saved. Prayer is not requesting. There is a partnership of God and man. God needs our help. I would define man as a divine need. God is in need of man.


In history, He cannot do the job alone, because He gave us freedom. And the whole hope of mess­ianic redemption depends on God and on man. We must help him. And by each deed we carry out, we either retard of accelerate the coming of re­demption.


Our role in history is tremendous. I mean, our human role.


Absurdity, yes, plays a major role. In fact, it’s the greatest challenge to existence, not only to religion. The greatest challenge to all activi­ties, to political activity, to economic activity, to the whole idea of progress, is the encounter with absurdity. And if I were to be asked what is the meaning of God - a difficult question to answer in one sentence ...


STERN: Well, I’ll ask you, what is the meaning of God?


HESCHEL:      I would have to use a number of sentences. One, the certainty that there is a meaning beyond mys­tery, that holiness conquers absurdity. And with­out holiness we will sink in absurdity.


STERN: Where is holiness? Is it what’s in the Bible? Is that where one finds holiness?


HESCHEL:      I don’t believe in monopoly. I think God loves all men, and has given many nations, has given all men an awareness of His greatness, and of His love. And God is to be found in many hearts all over the world, not limited to one nation, or to one peo­ple, to one religion.


But you have to understand, again, to come back to the problem of uniqueness, What has the Hebrew Bible given us, in particular, that is not to be found anywhere else? I would say the particular appreciation of the greatness of man, of man’s tremendous potentiality as a partner of God. This idea, to me, is not to be found anywhere else.


STERN: In one of your earlier writings, you said, “No philosophy can be the same after Auschwitz and Hiroshima.” Is that what you meant? What change did it make in your philosophy?


HESCHEL: I think I indicated to you completely the unrel­iability of our cultural securities, of our cultural foundations. If Germany, which developed such a high culture, such marvelous music, so many beauti­ful cathedrals, so many scientists, if the German people is capable of doing what they did, how can I rely on humanity?


There is a drive for cruel deeds in all men, as there is a drive for goodness in all men. But you need more than the drive for goodness to overcome the drive for evil. You need some greater help. And that greater help, I believe, is a little fear and trembling, and love of God.


STERN: Yet, you are convinced of man’s nobility. You write, “Man is concerned with ends, not only with needs.” Do you suggest that’s what makes man super­ior to all other things?


HESCHEL:      Yes, I am. I must say that in the tradition of Juda­ism, I have a very high estimation of the nature of man. And, frankly, I do it in defiance of many theories very current in the academic life of America, in the contemporary literature of America and in other countries.


Yes, if I were to say what challenges me most in the Hebrew tradition, is the high view Jewish tra­dition takes of the nature of man.


STERN: You say there is a uniquely Jewish view of man?




Let me first stress one point. The point is what is mentioned in the beginning of The Book of Genesis, that God created ‘man in his own image. Frankly, if Moses had consulted me, I would have told him,        don’t say it, it’s an impossible statement. First of all, isn’t it absurd to say that man is created in the image of God? And, secondly, it contradicts a major principle of the Ten Commandments. It says, “Thou shalt not make an image of God.”

So God made an image of God Himself, against His own law?

It is a scandalous statement.


Upon thinking about it further, I realized that I have to understand its meaning. And this I believe is its meaning. You see, God is invisible, not only invisible, any thought of him is so inadequate He’s almost unthinkable. Any time, any moment, I know, I think, I assume that my thought of God is adequate, then I know I fail. He’s so mysterious, and so surpassing the power of the human mind, that I always have to live in the paradox around Him, pray of Him, and realize that I am cap­able of being, of experiencing being thought by Him, rather than think of Him, or think Him.


Now, God is invisible, but you can’t live without God. So God created a reminder, an image. What is the meaning of man? To be a reminder of God. God is invisible, and since he couldn’t be every­where, he created man. You look at man and you’re reminded of God.


STERN: But there are men who live without God.


HESCHEL: Uh-h, let me first conclude my essential idea.


What is the mission of man? According to the Jew­ish view, to be a reminder of God. As God is com­passionate, let man be compassionate. As God strives for meaning and justice, let man strive for meaning and justice.


Yes, if there are people who don’t believe in God, I would say God’s mercy is so great that he helps even those who don’t believe in Him. But, philos­ophically speaking, they have very little founda­tion. Because I say again to you, what I indic­ated to you before in our conversation. The whole basis for moral behavior, for moral acts, is very precarious. Why should I sacrifice my interests in order to help another human being at high cost to myself?


There was an old idea in America that virtue pays. And the idea was very helpful to many people, un­til some of us discovered that crime pays even more. And it does. So, why not commit a crime?


I say again, the situation is too serious, too pre­carious to be left alone, for man to be left alone. I say that this world in itself is so fantastically mysterious, so challengingly marvelous, that not to realize that there is more than I see, that there is endlessly more than I can express, or even conceive, is just being underdeveloped intellect­ually.


STERN: But that is the wonder of it, the torment that man has. The problem-solving machine that he is -- that you think is, I detect, is the essence of be­ing, of living a human life.


HESCHEL: Yes, you see that is true. But, you see, one of the great sins of contemporary education is to give the impression you can solve all problems, or there are no problems.


Actually, the greatness of man is that he faces problems. I would judge a person by how many deep problems he’s concerned with.


STERN: Is not the quest of religion, though, to give one a sense of inner peace?


HESCHEL: But you have to understand the meaning of inner peace. Let me give you first an example of a person who has no problems. Let me give you a dramatic, fictitious picture. Here stands a man, and I’ll tell you, this is a man who has no problems. Do you know why? He’s an idiot!


Because a man has problems. And the more complicated, the more -- the richer he is, the deeper his problems. This is our distinction, to have problems, to face problems. Life is a challenge, not just a satisfaction. And the calamity of our time is to a Jew’s life, to pleasure only. I’m not against pleasure. But the greatness of life is experience, in facing a challenge, rather than just having satis­faction.


I would be frightened if I were to be ruled by a person who is satisfied and has the answers to every­thing.


In a very deep sense, religion has two things. First of all, it’s an answer to the ultimate prob­lems of human existence. And it also has another side. It is a challenge to all answers. It is living in this polarity of these two points.


STERN: But there are so many religions that say come to us, and we -- and you will have no problems. We will solve your problems. Here’s the word of God, He will solve your problems.


You don’t accept that.


HESCHEL: No, I don’t accept it, because it contradicts every­thing I’ve learned about life, from experience, from philosophy, from history, and from the Bible. If I look at the Bible, God is full of problems. Imagine, He created man! He created man and his own will, with his own freedom, and man is a problem to him. Look at the Bible: God is always wrest­ling with the problem of man. Even God has problems.


This is a deep ingredient of existence: problems. And the tragedy of our education today is we are giving such easy solutions: Be complacent, have peace of mind, everything is fine. No, wrestling is the issue! Facing the challenge is the issue!


STERN: Some politicians have told us they’re going to do something about solving the problem of the diffi­cult finances that church-related or religiously-oriented schools are in now.  Will that be good? Is it wise for the government to help out those religiously-oriented schools that are in difficulty?


HESCHEL: This is a complex issue, constitutionally..


STERN: I won’t ask you to go to the constitutional ques­tion.


HESCHEL: Yes. But I can only ask you -- I can only give you an answer from that point of view.


The secular schools have failed. They have failed on a variety of levels.


Let me give you an example. I don’t want to pigeon­hole the human soul, but it’s quite obvious that the human soul has several capacities, let’s say, mind, will, emotion. It’s true, the schools give plenty of information, food for the mind, but do nothing about training of emotions, do nothing about the training of the will.


For example, one of the most important things in            life a human being faces is not only to know how           to build a machine, but also how to overcome envy. It’s an irrational, destructive power in every man. What does the school do about it? The secular school. Nothing!


So, I’m disappointed. The American educational sys­tem, on all levels, has proved to be a terrible disappointment.


Religious schools? That’s a new problem. I only wish I could tell you the religious schools are do­ing a perfect job. I would say the religious schools deserve support because they are doing partly a good job. They at least teach people some of the great classical ideas of the religious tradi­tion, and we cannot live without religious tradi­tion. Because take away the religious tradition -- what is left? You know what is left: read contemporary literature. And give the contempor­ary literature, the novels, as a source of inspira­tion for our young people, what will they get? The Psalms no one reads. You’re not allowed to read the Psalms in the school. How can you be human without being able to pray?


We need religious education.


To this very day our young people are craving for some deeper meaning. Our young people are craving for religious outlook, and what they get is stone, and no bread.


STERN: Well, what you’ve said, though, is that there’s something more than relevance needed. That’s an over-used expression. You use the term in your writing, “validity”, religion must have validity. What makes a religion valid?


HESCHEL: No, if it is true, if it corresponds to real ur­gencies and questions and problems.


Let me give you an example of what I mentioned to you before. Our entire civilization today revolves around one idea, interest or need. And we are taught, the greatest thing alive is to satisfy one’s need and interests. Actually, our way of living revolves around one principle: self-interest, self-interest. There is nothing else but self- interest.


This is a fallacy according to religion, and religion is right, valid. Because if everything is self- interest, then there is no love. Can you imagine humanity without love? If love is only self-interest, then love is a fake, a



STERN: You’re telling me of the nature of man, not the nature of God, aren’t you?


HESCHEL: Yes, the nature of God is that man should have ends, not only needs. The difference between an animal and a man is not in needs. An animal has needs. Man has needs, too. But man, in addition to needs,

has to have ends, goals to strive for. The great task of religion is to teach man how to convert ends into needs. But what we do instead is to convert needs into ends.


And needs are unreliable as a standard because some needs are authentic, some needs are false.


Look at advertisement. Advertisement is trying to evoke in us needs which we are not in need of.


STERN: Consistent with the Jewish faith, you never write much -- in fact, I don’t recall your writing at all about a life hereafter. Lots of religions are predicated on the idea of salvation, rather than this earthly existence. You don’t talk about that sort of thing. Why is that?


HESCHEL: Actually, I did write an essay on this problem, which I read at an international conference on death, etc., in Florence about three years ago. But, frankly, I’ll give you the real answer, We believe in an afterlife, hut we have no information about it.


STERN: And therefore you can’t write about it?


HESCHEL: I can write about it in terms of belief.


STERN: Or expectation, or hope?


HESCHEL:      I did. I did.


STERN: But you think that’s less important than life on earth?


HESCHEL: I think that’s God’s business what to do with me after life. This, here, it’s my business what to

do with my life. So, I leave it to Him. I am so busy trying to live a good life, and I don’t always succeed, I have no time to worry what God’s going to do with me once I’m in the grave. Who knows what He expects of me in the grave?


STERN: And through all of this, I find this uniqueness in your feelings of a collaborative effort between God and man.




STERN: It’s a sharing.


HESCHEL:      Yes.


STERN: It’s a powerful concept. I’m not sure how we can help God.


HESCHEL: You see, there is an old idea in Judaism, found in the Bible, strongly developed by the rabbis, and very little known. And that is that. God suf­fers when man suffers.


There’s a very famous text that says: Even when a criminal is hanged on the gallows, God cries. He says, “Woe unto Me.” He is very unhappy when man is unhappy.


There is this great sympathy of God on the part of man. God identifies himself with the misery of man. I can help Him by reducing human suffering, human anguish, and human misery.


STERN: We have just about a minute or so left. I should say at the start, Dr. Heschel indicated an interest in directing a message at young people, and I don’t know that I ever gave you the chance I promised you that I would give you.


HESCHEL: I would say to young people a number of things, and I have only one minute. I would say let them remember that there is a meaning beyond absurdity. Let them be sure that every little deed counts, that every word has power, and that we do, everyone, our share to redeem the world, in spite of all absurdities, and all the frustrations, and all the disappointment. And above all, remember that the meaning of life is to live life as if it were a work of art.


You’re not a machine. When you’re young, start working on this great work of art called your own existence. One, remember the importance of self-discipline. Second, study the great sources of wis­dom, don’t read the best-sellers. And, third, remember that life is a celebration, or can be a celebration. There’s much of entertainment in our life. And entertainment is destroying much of our initiative and weakens our imagination. What’s really important is life as a celebration.


In a very deep sense I would say that the addiction from which so many people suffer, is due to the fact that man cannot live such a shallow life, stale; he needs exultation, he needs moments of celebration.


One of the most important things is to teach man how to celebrate life.


STERN: You talked earlier of slanders. May I give you an example of something which is not a slander? Perhaps the most astute comment on your work was made by Professor Marty of the University of Chicago/ And he said, “Rabbi Heschel’s work, unlike other philosophers, is directed not only at the mind, but at the heart and the will.


I could not have said it so perceptively.


Thank you so very much for being with us.






Dr. Susannah Heschel is a distinguished 1973 Trinity College (CT) graduate. 

Biographical Sketch: Susannah Heschel received her Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Pennsylvania in 1989, and was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Colorado College in 2005.
Her scholarship focuses on Jewish-Christian relations in Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries, and her numerous publications include a prize-winning monograph, Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus (University of Chicago Press), which won a National Jewish Book Award, and a forthcoming book, The Aryan Jesus: Christians, Nazis and the Bible (Princeton University Press). Several years ago she published a volume of her father`s writings, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays of Abraham Joshua Heschel, with a biographical introduction. Prof. Heschel has also written extensively on feminist issues related to Jewish Studies and edited a classic collection, On Being a Jewish Feminist, first published in 1983.
In addition to her academic work, she has written and lectured frequently on Jewish and feminist issues, sits on the advisory board of Brit Tzedek v`Shalom, and is an enthusiastic member of the National Council of Jewish Women.