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.
Abraham Silver (1893-1963) was born in what is today Lithuania (then Poland) to an Orthodox Jewish family, the son and grandson of rabbis. The family settled in New York when he was nine years old. He first studied at the Orthodox Yeshivat Etz Chaim (now Yeshiva University), where he founded a Zionist youth club that later became Young Judea, America’s first Zionist youth organization. He eventually took up studies at the University of Cincinnati and Hebrew Union College, America’s main seminary for Reform rabbis. (It was during this time that he changed his name to Abba Hillel Silver.) After graduating, he served as the rabbi of a small town in West Virginia for two years, and then took the helm of Temple Tifereth-Israel in Cleveland, which is still one of the largest Reform synagogues in America. He went on to serve in this position for nearly 46 years, and the synagogue would come to be known as “Silver’s Temple”. He made the congregation less “Reform” and more traditional—Sabbath services were held on Sunday (!) before he took over and moved them back to Saturday. He was also instrumental in making Zionism acceptable within Reform Judaism, which was staunchly anti-Zionist at the time. Meanwhile, he founded the Anti-Nazi League, and managed to form a successful boycott of Nazi German goods in the 1930s. Silver was not only concerned with the Jewish community, but became well known as a worker’s rights and civil rights activist. Among other achievements, he helped draft Ohio’s first unemployment insurance laws. His greatest passion was the re-establishment of a Jewish state in Israel. Silver campaigned across the country to raise funds and support (among both Jews and Christians). He co-founded the United Jewish Appeal, and between 1946 and 1949 headed the American branch of the Jewish Agency. Silver also met with President Truman numerous times to get him to recognize a Jewish state. It was Silver who gave the critical speech at the United Nations on May 8, 1947, convincing the international body to vote for Partition. His words were later described as “Israel’s acceptance speech”. He returned a year later in May of 1948 to deliver the news to the United Nations that Israel had declared independence. Had Chaim Weizmann not accepted, it is believed Silver would have been Israel’s first president. In 1952, Silver was selected to give the blessings at President Eisenhower’s inauguration. He won numerous awards, and also published seven popular books on Judaism, along with many penetrating sermons and essays. The town of Kfar Silver in Israel is named after him. Today is his yahrzeit.
Words of the Week
Generally his view was that it was not new liturgies we needed, but the reading of prayers in the kind of earnest and exalting way that could not help but uplift the mood of the worshippers. He himself conducted every service as though it were fresh, revelatory, almost with a Hasidic touch of intensity—with kavvanah, which was one of his favorite words. He constantly urged me to read, to study, and to write…
– Leon I. Feuer, Abba Hillel Silver: A Personal Memoir
Abraham Tzvi Idelsohn (1882-1938) was born in Latvia to a religious Jewish family. He studied to be a synagogue cantor. At 27, he made aliyah to Israel and worked as a musician and composer. In 1919, he opened a Jewish music school. A few years later, he left for Ohio where he served as professor of Jewish music at Hebrew Union College, the major seminary of Reform Judaism. Between 1914 and 1932 he published his ten-volume magnum opus, Thesaurus of Hebrew Oriental Melodies. Many consider him “the father of Jewish musicology”. His most famous melody is undoubtedly ‘Hava Nagila’. In December of 1917, British army general Edmund Allenby defeated the Ottomans and conquered the Holy Land for Great Britain. The Jews of Israel were elated, and celebrated the general’s arrival in Jerusalem. They asked Idelsohn to compose a song for the special occasion. Idelsohn remembered an old happy tune he had adapted from a Hasidic niggun. The song was a hit. A few years later, he asked his music class to write words for the song.
A young Moshe Nathanson (1899-1981) was in that class, and wrote a couple of simple lines based on Scriptural verses from Psalm 118. The rest is history. Nathanson was born in Jerusalem, the son of a rabbi. In 1922 he moved to Canada and double-majored in law and music at McGill University. He ended up studying at what is now the prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York. From there, he was hired to be the cantor of the first Reconstructionist Synagogue, and served in that role for the next 48 years. He wrote an important four-volume tome of liturgical songs. Nathanson also spent 10 years broadcasting Jewish music on American airwaves (“Voice of Jerusalem”) and dedicated much of his life to promoting Jewish folk music. Today, Nathanson’s and Idelsohn’s ‘Hava Nagila’ is the most recognizable Jewish/Hebrew song in the world, and a staple of every bar mitzvah and wedding. There is even a full-length documentary about it, called Hava Nagila (The Movie). This past year marked the song’s centennial anniversary.