Forty-five years ago on December 23, 1972, Abraham Joshua Heschel, the eminent Polish-born American rabbi, passed away at the age of 65. He was one of the leading Jewish theologians/philosophers of the 20th century.
Heschel’s Brilliant Book
Although he was the author of several books, the most notable was The Prophets, published in 1962. That was when I was a financially poor seminary student. But along with Here I Stand, R. Bainton’s book on Luther, Heschel’s book was one of the very few non-textbooks that I bought. I thought then that it was a brilliant book—and I still do.
Recently I looked to see how Heschel interpreted the Old Testament prophecies of the birth of Jesus. I was quite surprised that in the 16-page “Index of Subjects and Names” there are only two brief references to Jesus—and one of those is in a footnote—and nothing listed for Messiah.
Christians, of course, see numerous Old Testament passages as prophecies of Jesus. (This website lists “353 Prophecies Fulfilled in Jesus Christ.”) But Heschel apparently didn’t think a single one of those were prophecies about Jesus.
Heschel’s Passion for Justice
According to Heschel, one of the main characteristics of the Old Testament prophets was their passion for social justice. In the opening paragraphs of the first chapter of his book, he cites Amos 8:4-6 as an illustration of the prophets’ condemnation of injustice. Then his 11th chapter is titled simply “Justice.”
Heschel identified with the OT prophets in many ways. In the 1960s, he marched for justice with Martin Luther King, Jr., and his daughter says that he was “close friends” with Christian justice-seekers such as Daniel and Philip Berrigan as well as with William Sloan Coffin when he was the Protestant chaplain at Yale.
Sadly, though, it seems that not only did Heschel not see the birth of Jesus as having been prophesied in the Old Testament, he apparently did not even consider Jesus a Jewish prophet—although Jesus self-identified with the words of the prophet Isaiah at the beginning of his public ministry (see Luke 4:16-21).
In his book How God Became King, N.T. Wright emphasizes that the “fulfillment of Israel’s story” is “in the story of the Messiah” (p. 112). That clearly seems to have been Jesus’ understanding, and it certainly was the early church’s understanding of Jesus. But that was not something Heschel could accept or affirm.
In his book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, which I introduced (here) earlier this year, Brian Zahnd tells about sitting with his dying father, who could no longer communicate with him. On one occasion in that situation, BZ said he was reading Heschel’s book The Prophets—which I found most interesting.
BZ makes only positive statements about Heschel—such as, “Everything I’ve ever read from Heschel has shown him to be a thoroughly God-saturated soul.”
As he was leaving the hospital that particular night in 2009, though, this question “erupted from some fundamentalist outpost” in his brain: “Is Abraham Joshua Heschel in hell?” BZ concluded that such an idea was “irredeemably ludicrous” (pp. 118-120).
Because of his worldview/faith, Rabbi Heschel could not accept the core beliefs of his Christian friends—or of others who are followers of Jesus Christ, such as BZ or me. But even though he could not acknowledge Christ or the prophecies about him, we can accept/affirm him as one who truly believed in “the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Eph. 3:1).
In this Christmas season, may we all nurture a passion for justice such as Rabbi Heschel—and especially such as Jesus Christ—embraced.