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.