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.
Secret Agent Krystyna Skarbek – the inspiration for James Bond’s Vesper Lynd
Maria Krystyna Janina Skarbek (1908-1952) was born in Poland to a Catholic father and a Jewish mother from a wealthy family. From a young age, Maria enjoyed horse-back riding, skiing, and extreme physical activities. At 22, her father died and her mother’s family wealth ran out. Skarbek got a job in a Fiat dealership but fell ill from the fumes. To regain her health, she returned to the slopes and spent the majority of her time skiing and hiking. With the outbreak of World War II, Skarbek fled to London and enlisted in the British Army. She found her way into the Secret Intelligence Service and was sent to Hungary for “espionage, reconnaissance and sabotage”. From there she re-entered Poland by hiking across the mountainous border. Skarbek first attempted to save her mother from the Nazis, but her mother refused to leave and was killed in a camp. Skarbek’s main work was to organize the transfer of vital intelligence reports out of Warsaw to the SIS. (One of these correctly revealed Germany’s planned invasion of the USSR, of critical importance to the Allied victory). She also assisted in smuggling weapons and exfiltrating key military personnel. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1941, Skarbek bit her own tongue until it bled, then pretended to have virulent tuberculosis and used the cover to escape her captivity. She made her way through the Balkans to Turkey, then to the SIS headquarters in Egypt. Upon arrival, she was suspected of being a counter-spy secretly working for the Germans! Thankfully, she cleared her name and returned to work. In 1944 she was posted in France under the name ‘Madame Pauline’. Here were some of her most infamous missions, including demolishing bridges and infiltrating a Nazi prison to save her commanding officer. After the war she was awarded with an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and France’s Croix de Guerre. However, she was dismissed from service with only a month’s salary and left alone in Cairo. She slowly rebuilt her life as Christine Granville. Sadly, in 1952 she was assassinated in a hotel room. Skarbek’s story inspired Vesper Lynd, the original ‘Bond Girl’ in Ian Fleming’s first 007 story Casino Royale. Many consider her Britain’s first female secret agent.
Words of the Week
God transforms spirituality into physicality; the Jew makes physical things spiritual. – Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov