Schechter Logo for Print

Denying his own destiny, becoming great within himself: Abraham Joshua Heschel

In honor of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s 49th yahrzeit, Dr. Ari Ackerman, Lecturer for Jewish Philosophy and Golinkin Professor of TALI Jewish Education at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies gives us a detailed overview of Heschel’s life from his Warsaw childhood in a well-known, religious family to involving himself in the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States. Throughout his life Heschel continuously both denounces and draws on Hassidic thought. Watch the video or read the article to understand how he was both pushing Hassidism away and pulling it closer.

Watch the video and read the article:


Abraham Joshua Heschel was one of the most important Jewish religious leaders, scholars and philosophers in the decades following the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. I have had the opportunity to speak about Heschel philosophy on a number of topics in previous videos. In this video I want to speak more generally about Heschel and his relationship to Hassidism. On the one hand, Heschel was born to an illustrious Hassidic family in Warsaw and his great-great grandfather and namesake was the Apter Rav, one of Poland’s most important Hassidic rebbes and Heschel was seemingly destined to follow in his footsteps and become an Admor himself. But on the other hand he decided to distance himself from the Hassidic community from an early age. He studied secular subjects at a gymnasium in Vilna, wrote Yiddish poetry and then eventually pursued his doctorate at the University of Berlin. He left Europe and became a faculty member first at HUC, the Reform Seminary in Cincinnati, and then at JTS the Conservative seminary in NY. Implicit in this biographic trajectory is a criticism of the Hassidic way of life and worldview—particularly its separatist tendencies.

But nevertheless in developing his own unique religious philosophy he drew liberally from Hassidic sources. He quotes them extensively and even more importantly he incorporates seminal ideas from the Hassidic tradition. He views human beings as seeking out God through the divine presence manifest in the world: this notion is at the center of his work, Man Is Not Alone. And he views God as pursuing human beings, as attested to by the title of another of his works, God in Search of Man. These ideas form the foundation of his thought and Heschel in his genius was able to make them accessible by fashioning them in a modern idiom without suppressing their Hassidic spirit. Indeed, he uses these original Hassidic ideas to criticize what he feels is the overly utilitarian and egoistic values of contemporary consumeristic society. So in this sense at his core Heschel is a Hassidic thinker.

Shavua Tov@ Schechter

Prof. Ari Ackerman is the President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

President Ackerman is Associate Professor for Jewish Philosophy and Jewish Education. Prior to his elevation to president, Ackerman held the (David) Golinkin Professor of TALI Jewish Education.  He received his PhD in Jewish thought from Hebrew University and was a researcher at the Institute for Advanced Studies, Princeton University. His most recent book is a Critical Edition of the Sermons of Zerahia Halevi Saladin (Beer Sheva University Press, 2013). Prof. Ackerman’s new book on creation and codification in the philosophy of Hasdai Crescas – Hasdai Crescas on Codification, Cosmology and Creation (Brill Press, 2022) is newly published. President Ackerman lives with his family in Jerusalem.

Join our mailing list

Sign up to our newsletter for the newest articles, events and updates.

    * We hate spam too! And will never share or sell your email or contact information with anyone