Rabbi Jim Rudin

I may not have been an actual classroom student of Heschel's, but I could, and did, stand on his shoulders.  

Interreligious Affairs Director (DATES), American Jewish Committee
Fort Meyers, Florida
A Jewish Perspective

Transcribed from an Interview

I’m very proud that my rabbinical school, Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, brought Rabbi Heschel to the United States, where he taught for some years. I want to pay tribute to the HUC president at the time, Rabbi Julian Morgenstern, who had the commitment and resources to save Rabbi Heschel’s life.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was able to position religious mysticism into an academic context. Prior to that, Jewish academia was largely a world of rationalism, Talmud, and maybe Midrash, but certainly not mysticism. He brought a sense of awe and wonderment into the academic world and also into the mainstream of Jewish religious thought. Part of the reason that he could accomplish this was because of his deeply rooted Jewish learning. He married this sense of wonder with his intellectual rigor. 

I was ordained as a rabbi in 1960. I went into the Air Force military chaplaincy and was stationed in Japan and Korea for two years. When I returned to civilian life, I served in Kansas City for two years as an assistant rabbi. By that time, Rabbi Heschel was becoming nationally and internationally known. 

And of course, in 1963, he gave a now-famous speech at the Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago, where he first met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was there that Rabbi Heschel said, “At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses . . . The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate.” This speech also included the notable statement, “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” His link to Dr. King was notable; they saw in one another modern-day prophets and charismatic leadership qualities. 

Heschel deeply affected my own professional life: specifically, the role he played at the Second Vatican Council. The Council adopted the Nostra Aetate Declaration in 1965. The Latin means “in our time,” and it fundamentally changed the ways Jews and Catholics interacted with each other. 

A year earlier on September 14, 1964, the day before Yom Kippur, he met with Pope Paul VI in Rome because a proposed version of the Declaration included some troubling conversionary language. Rabbi Heschel pushed the church leader on the issue of conversion, saying,  “As I have repeatedly stated to leading personalities of the Vatican, I am ready to go to Auschwitz any time, if faced with the alternative of conversion or death.”  Heschel made it very clear that the statement’s language on conversion was unacceptable, not only to him, but to the global Jewish community. This language was removed, changing thousands of years of church doctrine.

The next time Heschel impacted me was in 1967. I was one of the first rabbis to travel to Israel after the Six Day War. He had written a superb book about Israel, Israel: An Echo of Eternity, and he expressed for all of us the dread and fear Jews everywhere experienced during the run up to the Six Day War.

After hearing about him since I was a student at HUC-JIR in New York, I first met Rabbi Heschel when he came to the American Jewish Committee headquarters in 1970 or 1971. At that point, he was the Jewish voice of opposition to use of destructive napalm and, indeed, the war in Vietnam, which resonated with me because I had been in Asia when the American military buildup was starting. 

Rabbi Heschel broke out of the narrowness of some parts of the Jewish community. Heschel was in America, doing American things. He was involved with civil rights, whether you agreed with him or not. He was there with MLK in Selma, Alabama. He was also anti–Vietnam War. He was in many public arenas taking personal, religiously inspired stands. 

One of the most important things he did for interreligious work was leaving the JTS building and crossing the street in Morningside Heights in NYC to teach at neighboring Union Theological Seminary. By crossing the street, he built a human bridge. Those connections at Union and his personal meeting with the pope made my work much easier because I could talk about Rabbi Heschel’s extraordinary commitment to interreligious dialogue. This gave me enormous credibility in my work as the director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee. I may not have been an actual classroom student of Heschel’s, but I could, and did, stand on his shoulders.  

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