A Jubilee Tribute Project

“The essence of prayer is a song, and man cannot live without song.” —Abraham Joshua Heschel

The Jewish Theological Seminary was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s academic home for 27 years. A few years after Heschel’s death, I had a conversation with a professor of religious philosophy from another faith. He told me that he admired something uncommon and irresistible about Heschel’s philosophical work, to which he gave a memorable expression of appreciation. He noted that while it was expected that people in his profession would argue for their assertions, Heschel added to that another quite-different pedagogical technique: He sang. And this was what that professor now wished to introduce to his students.

We began collecting materials to explore Heschel’s continued reverberations at the 50th anniversary of his death. Yet this jubilee yahrzeit was just a starting point for ongoing engagement with his legacy.

In that half-century, as it was during the more than three decades of his teaching in the United States, so many had the privilege of benefiting from his prodigious scholarship and the inspirational humanity reflected in his teaching and writing. And all the while, his many disciples did more than drink from the well of his learning; they heard the songs that came both from his prophetic sadness at the injustices of the world and most of all from his profound faith in God and in human beings. Those melodies have been woven into their lives and, in the greatest tribute of all, have been echoed in how those disciples’ students have been taught. Heschel’s song and spirit is carried on through the work of so many who shared their experiences of encountering him.

Heschel’s Abundance

The scroll of Ecclesiastes contains this verse: “The rich man’s abundance doesn’t let him sleep” (Ecclesiastes 5:11). The author of a midrash on this verse expressed puzzlement as to why wealth, of all things, would lead to tossing and turning at night. The answer offered was as follows:

A man who is distinguished and wealthy in the knowledge of Torah will teach many students and disseminate his knowledge among the masses. When he dies, the disciples he raised do not permit him to be forgotten. They occupy themselves with his Torah, quoting in his name and recalling him to mind constantly. Thus they do not permit him to sleep undisturbed in his grave . . . as it is said: Moving gently the lips of those that are asleep (Song of Songs 7:10). Hence, the rich man’s abundance doesn’t let him sleep.

Has there been any teacher of religion in our time of whom this can be said more than of Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory? 

A Living Treasury of Testimony

At JTS, the primary base from which Heschel taught, we believe that a most fitting memorial to his life and work is a living treasury of testimonials to the effect that Heschel’s life and work has had on untold multitudes. We are reaching out to the extraordinarily wide universe of seekers (in virtually every faith and every language under the sun) whom he touched and inviting them to write short pieces attesting to how they encountered Heschel’s thought, how it directed their intellectual and spiritual lives, and how it continues to sing within them. You can find many responses to these questions in this site. We encourage you to share your thoughts for others to see how Heschel lives in you.

This will create an enduring memorial to a peerless thinker, writer, and mentor whose wealth will not allow him to sleep.

Rabbi Gordon Tucker
Vice Chancellor of Religious Life