Heschel Highlights, Part 4

Welcome to the fourth post in a series documenting the processing of the Abraham Joshua Heschel Papers.

In 1939, Julian Morgenstern helped Abraham Joshua Heschel travel from Warsaw to London just six weeks before Germany invaded Poland. In 1940, upon his arrival in the United States, Heschel began teaching at Hebrew Union College (HUC) where Julian Morgenstern was President. HUC was the main seminary for Reform Judaism in the United States and Heschel was the Associate Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Rabbinics there for five years. Heschel resigned from the HUC faculty on May 18, 1945 over ideological differences. As we process the Abraham Joshua Heschel papers, we learn more about the complex relationship between Heschel, HUC, and the leaders of Reform Judaism. Through letters, essays, handwritten notes, and his books, Heschel expressed concerns about the role of God, spirituality and adherence to Jewish law among Reform Jews. At a few points in Heschel’s life, these concerns bubbled up and he took action as part of his larger effort to infuse American Judaism with spirituality.

Photographs and documents from the Heschel Papers.
Photographs and documents from the Heschel Papers.

In 1945, Heschel’s theological divergence from HUC became a serious issue for him and he resigned his position. In a handwritten draft of his resignation letter to Morgenstern Heschel wrote “from the beginning of my affiliation with the college I fully realized that the HUC stands for a distinctive philosophy of Judaism which it tries to realize in practice and with which my own interpretation of Judaism is not in full accord.” Heschel’s resignation was accepted with sadness and respect on the part of Julian Morgenstern. In a letter dated May 19, 1945, Morgenstern wrote that he and the HUC Board of Governors wished to express their feeling that he was doing the “right and honorable thing.” A number of letters related to Heschel’s resignation echo this sentiment. Heschel’s students, colleagues and friends approved of Heschel’s decision and wished him well. Despite his issues with the philosophy of HUC, Heschel expressed an interest in sustaining his friendship with Morgenstern in his resignation letter: “I earnestly hope and wish, however, that the cordiality and warmth of our friendship will not be impaired by my leaving this institution.” It is clear from the amount of correspondence from Morgenstern that their friendship continued until Heschel’s death. From the correspondence surrounding Heschel’s resignation from HUC (and subsequent acceptance of a position as Associate Professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism at the Jewish Theological Seminary) it seems that Heschel continued to be on good terms with many of the acquaintances and friends that he made during his time at HUC. However, his ideological differences remained.

In 1953, Heschel caused a stir among his Reform colleagues when he gave an address to the Reform Rabbinic Organization, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), entitled “Towards an Understanding of Halacha.” Heschel appears to have denounced the CCAR for failing to hold to the doctrine of Halacha (Jewish law) in this address. From the correspondence we have surrounding the address and its subsequent publication by the CCAR, it is clear that Heschel earned himself both admirers and detractors as a result. However, even the harshest letters reveal a great deal of respect for Heschel. A 1954 letter that begins with the exclamation “I am profoundly shocked by your persistent misinterpretation of Reform’s position on practice” concludes with the author, a reform rabbi, noting that Heschel could be helpful to the Reform movement as they move forward. Another letter from a Reform rabbi seems wary of Heschel’s denunciation of the CCAR but the author also wrote that “all your papers have a few extra calories of spiritual warmth which lift the heart.” And yet another rabbi’s letter reveals the power of a meeting with Heschel to assuage anger: “But of my prior disturbance, I can say ‘gam zu l’tovah’ [this is also for good] for it provided the occasion for a most stimulating and edifying chat with you.” Heschel remained in constant communication with Reform Rabbis and the leaders of the Reform movement throughout his life and his correspondence reveals that this exchange was beneficial to Heschel, to many Reform rabbis and perhaps even to Reform Judaism.

Post contributed by Adrienne Krone, Heschel Project Assistant in Rubenstein Technical Services.