Tag Archives: Bible

Jew of the Week: Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

The Rabbi Who Marched With Martin Luther King Jr.

Rabbi Heschel

Avraham Yehoshua Heschel (1907-1972) was born in Poland to a long line of Hasidic rabbis from both his father’s and mother’s side. He was named after his ancestor, the Apter (or Apatower) Rebbe. After receiving semicha (rabbinic ordination) himself, Rabbi Heschel decided to pursue secular studies at the University of Berlin. (There he briefly crossed paths with three other future great rabbis: Yitzchak Hutner, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.) While earning his Ph.D in philosophy, Heschel also studied at Berlin’s Reform seminary and received a liberal rabbinic ordination to go along with his Orthodox one. Meanwhile, he was part of a Yiddish poetry club and published his own book of Yiddish poems in 1933. Heschel was arrested by the Gestapo in 1938 and deported back to Poland. He moved to London just six weeks before Poland was invaded by the Nazis. (His mother and three sisters perished in the Holocaust.) Heschel eventually settled in New York. He first worked at the (Reform) Hebrew Union College for five years before switching over to the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary. There he spent the rest of his career as a rabbi and professor of Jewish ethics and Jewish mysticism. Despite working at these institutions, Heschel never identified himself with any particular Jewish denomination, and was himself strictly Torah-observant. His discourses often weaved together Biblical, Kabbalistic, and Hasidic teachings. He especially focused on the ancient Hebrew prophets, and sought to revive their message in healing today’s world. Because of this, he was an active civil rights and peace activist. Heschel famously marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. Later that year, he presented King with the ‘Judaism and World Peace Award’. The two formed a very close friendship. Heschel also wrote numerous books, including five bestsellers. These books have been credited both with bringing countless Jews back to traditional observance, as well as opening up the study of Judaism to the wider world. Heschel worked hard to build bridges between Jews and gentiles. He represented the Jewish world at the Second Vatican Council between 1962 and 1965, successfully getting the Catholics to formally abandon the belief that Jews were responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion—and therefore that all Jews are “accursed”—and to remove all prayers derogatory to Jews. Heschel is considered one of the most influential Jews of the 20th century, and remains among the most widely read and studied Jewish philosophers and theologians. Today, the 18th of Tevet, is his yahrzeit.

Words of the Week

Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profane riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet’s words.
– Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right) with Martin Luther King Jr. marching on Selma in 1965.

Jew of the Week: Ezra the Scribe

The Sage Who Saved Judaism

“Ezra Reads the Law to the People” by Gustave Doré

Ezra ben Serayah (c. 5th century BCE) was born in Babylon to a family of Jewish priests, kohanim, descendants of Aaron. He spent his early days immersed in Torah study, under the tutelage of Baruch ben Neriah, disciple of the prophet Jeremiah. Ezra soon became the most renowned scholar and scribe in Babylon’s community of exiled Jews. Earlier, the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great had freed the Jewish community and permitted them to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. While the majority stayed in Babylon, a group of 42,360 Jews returned to rebuild Jerusalem. Unfortunately, few among them were learned, and in those first decades many ended up intermarrying with the non-Jewish settlers that were brought to Israel by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Ezra soon decided to head to Israel himself, along with a second wave of 1,500 Jews. Upon arrival, he wept at the poor state that the Jewish community was in. He immediately started teaching Torah, decreed that the Torah must be read publicly every Monday and Thursday (which is still done in all synagogues today), and put an end to intermarriages. So successful were his campaigns that the Tanakh states the Jews started to keep the holidays as properly and fervently as they did in the times of Joshua, the successor of Moses. As a priest, Ezra was involved in restoring the new Temple’s services. More importantly, he was able to discover and prepare a new Red Heifer, allowing the entire nation to be spiritually purified. Ezra wrote numerous holy texts, and is fittingly known as Ezra HaSofer, “the Scribe”. He composed the majority of the Book of Chronicles, which concludes the Tanakh, as well as the Book of Ezra, which records the historical events of the time. Ezra was one of the last prophets of Israel, and penned his prophecies under the name Malachi, also a Biblical book. He was one of the co-founders of the Great Assembly, a group of 120 prophets and sages who, among other things, codified the Tanakh and composed the first formal Jewish prayers (including the Amidah). The Talmud credits Ezra with reviving the Torah in the Holy Land, and even states that had Moses not given us the Torah, Ezra would have been worthy of doing so. He passed away on the ninth of Tevet, which is next Monday.

Words of the Week

Predicting rain doesn’t count, building an ark does.
– Warren Buffet

Jew of the Week: Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen (Credit: CBC)

Leonard Cohen (Credit: CBC)

Leonard Norman Eliezer Cohen (1934-2016) was born in Montreal, the grandson of a Lithuanian rabbi and a Polish immigrant who founded the Canadian Jewish Congress. Cohen grew up very close to his Jewish community, and attended Montreal’s Jewish Herzliah High School, where he was first inspired to take up poetry by a teacher. While studying at McGill University, he published his first set of award-winning poems. His second book of poetry found even more success, and was seen as an important work in Canadian literature, with one critic calling Cohen “the best young poet in English Canada.” Cohen moved to a small island off the coast of Greece and wrote prolifically, publishing several more books of poetry and novels. One of his later books – a Literary Award winner – was inspired by the Hebrew Bible and consisted of 50 poems that Cohen called “prayers”. Meanwhile, Cohen started recording music in the 1960s as poetry did not bring the income he hoped for. His first album was a big hit in the US and UK. It was his seventh album that had his most famous song, “Hallelujah”, which Cohen went through some 80 drafts writing, and “banging his head on the floor”. The song was inspired by various Biblical scenes, including the stories of Samson and Delilah, and King David and Batsheva. It would be covered by over 200 artists in dozens of languages, and become the subject of a whole book and BBC documentary. In 1994, Cohen entered a period of five years of seclusion during which time he was ordained a Zen Buddhist monk. However, he never abandoned his Jewish roots, and said, “I’m not looking for a new religion. I’m quite happy with the old one, with Judaism.” Cohen was known to keep Shabbat throughout his career, even while on tour. In his 2009 concert in Tel-Aviv, Cohen spoke Hebrew and ended the concert with Birkat Cohanim, the priestly blessing. During the Yom Kippur War, Cohen went to Israel to volunteer at a kibbutz before going to the front lines himself to entertain Israeli soldiers, saying he will “stop Egypt’s bullets”. In his 1972 Jerusalem concert he was so emotional that he had to walk off stage at one point. The crowd started singing to bring him back and a teary-eyed Cohen felt like “the entire audience turned into one Jew”. All in all, Cohen produced 15 albums (the last of which was released just three weeks ago), 13 poetry books, and two novels. He won a plethora of awards – including multiple Junos and Grammys, the Order of Canada, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – and inspired countless musicians, poets, and artists. He has been hailed as one of the most influential songwriters and greatest musicians of all time. Sadly, Cohen passed away earlier this week.

Words of the Week

There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
– Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen performing for the IDF, with Ariel Sharon looking on.

Leonard Cohen performing for the IDF, with Ariel Sharon looking on.