top of page

Heschel's Biography

Rabbi Prof. Avraham Yehoshua Heschel - the rabbi of Martin Luther King

Rabbi Professor Avraham Yehoshua Heshel was born in 1907. He was a member of a Hasidic family and a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov. Heshel was the youngest of six children and at the age of 10 he was orphaned by his father. His uncle took him under his protection, and at the age of 15 he received rabbinic certification from Rabbi Menachem Zamba. Heschel's path in the Hasidic world was guaranteed. A bright future awaited him as a rebbe, with a successful match already arranged for him.
Following a personal crisis, Heschel decided that this path was not suitable for him. He completed his high school studies in Vilna and at the age of 20 enrolled to study philosophy, history of art and Semitic philology (study of texts) at the University of Berlin.
However, the rise of the Nazis to power undermined Heschel's expectations of the West, and he realized that the ethics of the Western world were not enough to balance its technological power. He decided to become a new kind of Jewish philosopher: not a thinker who addresses Jews only, but a prophet at the gate of labor to formulate a moral claim for everyone in the world in light of the origins of Judaism. At the end of October 1938, he was arrested by the Nazis and deported to Poland. About a month and a half before the outbreak of war, he was able to get out of Poland for London thanks to an American visa, which was obtained for him by the reform movement, and in March 1940 he arrived in the United States. Heschel began his career at Hebrew Union College - an institute for Jewish studies on behalf of the Reform movement in Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1945 he moved to teach at the Beit Midrash for Rabbis of the Conservative Movement - JTS. There Heschel was a professor and held this position until his death, in which he trained many students.
In 1946 he married Sylvia Strauss and they had one daughter, Susanna Heschel, who was a scholar of Judaism, republished her father's writings and is currently a professor of history.
Heshel was active and dealt a lot with the issue of the State of Israel. In 1967, after the Six Day War, during his visit to Israel he saw the Western Wall and Jerusalem and these were a great inspiration for him to formulate spiritual Zionism.


Martin Luther King

He is indeed a great prophet of truth. Here and there we discover those who refuse to remain silent behind the protective wall of the colored glass windows, who never stop asking for revelations of the relevance of the tremendous ethical insights of our Jewish-Christian heritage, for today, for our generation. I feel that Rabbi Hashel is one of the most relevant people of all time, always endowed with prophetic insight to guide us in these difficult days.

Heshel's public activity

Heshel believed that it was important to return the religious world (in all religions) to the preoccupation with social and moral matters, and at the same time he strove to connect the connection between Judaism and Zionism in a way that would be relevant to Jews whether they live in Israel or in the diaspora.

Struggle for civil rights

Heschel and MLK

"I remembered those walks that I walked alongside Rebbes on various occasions. I felt a sense of holiness in my actions. Dr. King repeatedly expressed his appreciation to me. He said, "I can't tell you how significant your presence is to us" (...) I felt again what I thought about the Jewish religious establishment years ago - that it once again missed a tremendous opportunity, the opportunity To interpret the civil rights movement in terms of Judaism"


Abraham Yehoshua Hashel, God Believes in Adam, p. 346

Heschel (second from right in the front row) next to Martin Luther King (center) during a march from Selma to Montgomery on March 21, 1965 (AP Photo)

Heschel worked extensively to promote dialogue and inter-religious cooperation, to promote civil rights and achieve equal rights for all US citizens regardless of religion, race and gender. One of his famous struggles was the struggle to achieve equality for African-American citizens, and he forged a deep friendship with a leader The struggle, Martin Luther King. A famous photo from 1965, in which Heschel is seen walking hand in hand with King in the great demonstration in Selma, became a symbol of the possible cooperation between Jews and blacks in the United States. Heschel said after that demonstration that he felt that his marching feet were "praying", that is, sustaining religious action.

War and morality – the war in Vietnam as a case study

"The more I delved into the thoughts of the prophets, the more it became clear to me - the validity of the message that emerged from the lives of the prophets: from a moral point of view, there is no limit to the care that a person must feel towards the suffering of a human being"


Abraham Yehoshua Hashel, God Believes in Adam, p. 67

Heschel was one of the most prominent speakers against the Vietnam War; He claimed that he learned from the prophets of Israel the moral duty to care for the suffering of human beings. In an interview with NBC he said: "How can I pray, knowing that at this hour thousands of innocent people are being murdered?"

His support in the struggle for the emigration of the Jews of the Soviet Union

"The attachment to our people, the love of Israel, the understanding and the feeling we have towards Jews wherever they are - these are the springs from which our strength springs. However, the problem is how to realize this attachment and this understanding in terms of the existence of the individual."

Heshel took an active part in leading the struggle to bring the Jews of the USSR to the Land of Israel. The struggle was a central part of social action in the Jewish community in the United States. Israel's victory in the Six Day War resulted in a Zionist awakening among the Jews of the Soviet Union, whose Jewish identity and attachment to the State of Israel were suppressed under the communist rule. The Soviet Union severed diplomatic relations with Israel and persecuted Jews who were suspected of Zionist and Jewish activities. Moshe Rabbino's call "Send my people" - which was used by Martin Luther King in his fight for equality - became the slogan of the struggle for exit permits for the Jews of the Diaspora from countries that denied this possibility, and in general the slogan of the struggle of the Jews of the USSR.

His call to deepen Zionism

Heschel giving a speech

"A main weakness is our attitude towards the State of Israel as a matter of course. We stopped marveling at the miracle of its very existence";"The Zionist idea embraces not only the land, but also the people. And by the word "nation" we mean both the biological entity and the essential thoughts and commitments it represents... For more than 1,800 years we were a nation without a land; now we may become a land without a people."

Heshel spoke at the 28th Zionist Congress in Jerusalem in 1972 in praise of Zionism 

(The Zionist Archive)

Heschel saw Zionism as an opportunity to establish a state that is far beyond a typical Western nation-state, but a model society that operates according to the vision of the prophets. He believed that Israel should express the Jewish values ​​of justice, equality and morality, and that the state would serve as a 'light to the nations' - in the sense of an inspiration to all peoples and countries in the world. "We must care with all our hearts for the very existence of the state, and at the same time we must seek an answer to the question about the quality of its existence, how and how to exist?"


Barack Obama

In the signing speech of his visit to Israel in 2013

Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heshel raised his voice for social justice and spoke of the State of Israel in words that, in fact, also described the struggle for equality in America: 'Our very existence is evidence that man must live towards greatness, that history is not always the work of man alone.' Our very existence, our very presence here tonight, is evidence that anything is possible. A huge ocean can separate our countries, but in the spirit realm we will always be neighbors and friends.

bottom of page