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A Discussion on the Life & Legacy of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

In anticipation of the release of the first full-length documentary about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, ICJS hosted a discussion with two experts who appear in the film: ICJS Jewish Scholar Ben Sax and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and ICJS Emeritus Trustee Taylor Branch.

After narrowly escaping the Holocaust, Heschel became one of the most influential—and controversial—religious voices in the United State as a mentor to the Civil Rights Movement and a pioneer in the work of interfaith dialogue.

Upon coming to the United States, Heschel was deeply troubled by the “racial prejudice in the American cultural milieu,” as Sax put it. Heschel’s understanding of Judaism, in concert with his firsthand experiences of prejudice and oppression, led him to work with African American congregations in the ongoing struggle for civil rights.

“The African American church actually took the narrative of the Old Testament as a way of liberating themselves, by bringing Christianity to its roots. For Heschel that was mind-blowing,” explained Sax. “That an oppressed people—oppressed by the same religious tradition that he was oppressed by—could use that tradition, and use what he saw as the quintessential Jewish voice to liberate themselves, meant that there was something that he could do with this community to make the United States a better place.”

In reflecting on Heschel’s intersection with the Civil Rights Movement, Branch noted its significance “theologically, but also historically, that [Martin Luther] King was about to embark on this great sacrifice that changed American history at the same time Heschel was literally trying to help the Catholic Church reform from its own anti-Jewish teachings for 2000 years of hostility to Jews,”

Heschel and King first met at a conference on race and religion in January 1963, where “they both discovered they were fringe figures with a tremendous belief that the heart of their faith was being ignored and required prophetic witness,” said Branch.

“Going into this film, I would try to ask yourself what it is that you think needs to be changed or bettered in society, and what is it that you’re actually doing to make that change. Heschel asks that of us and he really demands a certain sacrifice,” said Sax. “Going into the film with those questions, I have a feeling that Heschel’s life and thought will move you in a direction that you may or may not expect…. So use this movie as a way to inspire you to put yourself even more out in the world.”

The PBS film, Martin Doblmeier’s Spiritual Audacity: The Abraham Joshua Heschel Story, is the fourth and final installment in the Prophetic Voices film series that includes profiles of Reinhold Niebuhr, Howard Thurman, and Dorothy Day. You can stream the full documentary online or purchase the DVD.

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