Prophet Sharing: Rabbi Abraham Heschel Taught Jews, Catholics, and People of All Religions How Both to Live and Die with Faith, Awe. and Courage

Article excerpt

IN 1994 MY PHYSICIAN URGED ME TO GO ON MEDICAL DISABILITY for HIV, diagnosed in 1985. "If statistically you only have a year or two left, why don't you travel or do some things you have always wanted to do?" he asked somewhat nonchalantly.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

With my new free time, I re-read Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's Man Is Not Alone (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux). At mid-life and suddenly on disability, I found myself drawn to his philosophy that "just to live is holy."

I try to live like Heschel every day, in "radical amazement," with reverence, wonder, and gratitude. Having long outlived my doctor's predictions, I find Heschel's philosophy just as compelling now and believe his teachings can inspire all people. Heschel has taught me to value life at every moment, even in the midst of illness, and to fight for important social justice issues.

This year marks the centennial of the birth of Heschel, considered one of the 20th century's greatest theologians. Like Martin Luther King Jr., with whom he marched in Selma, Alabama, Heschel was a religious leader for all. He worked particularly closely with Catholics, allying himself with Father Daniel Berrigan in the anti-Vietnam War movement and contributing to the Second Vatican Council. When Heschel died in 1972, the Catholic Jesuit journal America published an entire issue on him, the only Jew to receive this honor.

BORN 1907 IN WARSAW, POLAND, HESCHEL WAS THE DESCENDANT of some of the most important rabbis of Eastern Europe. As early as age 4, he was recognized as having an intellect far beyond his years. Heschel's first published work was a book of poetry in Yiddish, which for centuries had been the common language of the world of Eastern European Jews.

It was a world headed for extinction in 1940, when Heschel arrived in the United States. Having lost many of his relatives and colleagues in the Holocaust, he was keenly aware of surviving the slaughter--"I am a brand plucked from the fire, in which my people were burned to death."

Although he spoke little English when he arrived here, Heschel published some of the most influential books on religion ever written, including Man's Quest for God (1954), God in Search of Man (1955), and The Prophets (1962). His interests spanned all religions, and he cherished his relationships with men like Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and King. Heschel said that the Selma march "was like praying with my legs."

Heschel made history at the Second Vatican Council as a major influence on the church's declaration of its relations to non-Christian religions, Nostra Aetate, which in 1965 ushered in a new relationship between Catholics and Jews. …