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Reflections on Heschel's Upcoming Yarzheit

Posted on Jan 5, 2012

By Jan Caryl Kaufman

I will never forget where I was on December 23, 1972 when I learned of the passing of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. I was a junior in college and had gone to my evening classes at the Baltimore Hebrew College. I was looking at a bulletin board a few minutes before class and our philosophy professor told us that Rabbi Heschel had passed away.

The previous year, my class had studied Jewish philosophy from a B’nai B’rith reader with selections from dozens of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment Jewish thinkers. Years before I decided that I wanted to be a Conservative rabbi and paid close attention to the two Conservative rabbis in the book who were alive at the time – Rabbis Heschel and Mordecai Kaplan. I had come to think of myself as a neo-Kaplanian with a little Heschel mixed in. So, what did I mean by that? For me it meant that the Jewish people were at the core of my Jewish identity, but I believed in a supernatural God who created the world. It meant that the lessons of our prophets to do justly and walk in God’s ways were just as crucial to my Jewish observance as were my allegiance to kashrut, Shabbat, daily davening and other ritual mitzvot.

The inspiration from reading Heschel from that B’nai B’rith series led me to read more Heschel. When I graduated from college one of my teachers, Rabbi George Berlin and his wife, Dr. Adele Berlin gave me a copy of A Passion for Truth, about the Kotzker rebbe and Kierkegaard. I received the book on the day of my graduation which was Erev Shavuot. That yontiff I was transported into another world reading this Heschel book. I better understood Rabbi Heschel’s message of religious imperative played out in the modern world against a backdrop of intellectual acuity.

Over the years I had the privilege of meeting Rabbi Heschel’s widow, Sylvia and becoming a friend of his daughter, Prof. Susannah Heschel. I treasure my relationship with Susie and as her father’s yahrzeit approaches, I am indebted to his legacy.



Note: This article was corrected on Jan. 5 2012 to reflect A. J. Heschel's correct year of death. Heschel's 40th yarzheit will be in 5773.

Rabbi Heschel's funeral

I was in my last year of Rabbinical School at JTSA the semester that Dr. Heschel died. I was in his class that semester, studying Yehuda HaLevi's Kuzari, and I recall that he missed several sessions because he did not feel well. It was during winter break, but living in NJ I came back into the city for the funeral. It was at a funeral home on Amsterday Avenue and the crowd was huge. My guess, in retrospect, is that the Hadisic family (which was present in large numbers and very distinctly because of their dress) making the arrangements would not allow the funeral to be at JTS, where it belonged. If I remember correctly, it was Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, a"l, who did the major Hesped, but my memory may be faulty at this point. The memory that is most clear is the crowd pushing to participate in carry the aaron as we walked several blocks to the waiting hearse. 

 I too remember...

I too remember the day so well.  My friend Rich and I drove from Lincoln, Nebraska to Highland Park, Illinois to visit friends from Camp ramah.  We drove up to Rabbi Sam Dresner's(zl) house, since Hannah was one of the friends we were visiting, and Mrs. Dresner ushered us into Rabbi Dresner's study where he was in profound grief.  He then quizzed us about what we were reading and implored us to read "A Passion for Truth" which had only recently been completed.  Rabbi Dresner who also was fascinated by the Kotzker rebbe shared with us several amazing vignettes about Heschel and I believe it was one of the first times, I also expereinced the power of being present for one in mourning--particularly in the period prior to the funeral itself.

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