Duke is now home to the private writings of one of the twentieth century’s most unique and active religious figures.
Earlier this month, the Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library acquired the personal papers of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, an influential 20th-century Jewish philosopher, writer and activist famed for his involvement in the civil rights movement and in protests against the Vietnam War. Duke acquired the collection—which includes personal letters, notes, documents, photographs, original manuscripts and pieces of hate mail—from Susannah Heschel, Rabbi Heschel’s daughter and professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College. The acquisition adds to Duke’s commitment to be a leader in both human rights and religious studies.
The material spans five decades of work and includes pieces in Yiddish, Polish, German, English and several other languages. It will take up to a year to fully archive and preserve the materials in the collection, some of which are nearly a century old, said the library’s human rights archivist Patrick Stawski. After this process, the documents will be available by request through the Rubenstein Library and organized in an online catalogue.
“The special collections library has long-standing strength in acquiring Judaica and Jewish thought, and there’s a very fine human rights program at Duke,” Susannah Heschel said. “I’m glad my father’s papers are part of that collection in human rights.”
Rabbi Heschel was born in 1907 in Poland and spent much of his early life as a prominent Jewish intellectual in Europe. After emigrating to the United States in 1940—escaping the Holocaust—Heschel wrote and taught extensively about Judaism, mysticism, philosophy and social action. Until his death in 1972, Heschel was a prominent social activist, inspired by the call to be a catalyst for equality that he believed Judaism entailed. Rabbi Heschel represented American Jews at the Second Vatican Council and marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma in 1965, an experience that he famously called “praying with my feet.”
Although biographers and scholars have studied Rabbi Heschel and his work for decades, this material has never before been available, leaving the recorded history of such a unique and influential figure incomplete.
“People who have written about my father have never come to ask me to look at his papers,” Susannah Heschel said. “As a result, the story of his life and work have been distorted in a partial way. It’s important to me to see his legacy in a more complete way.”
The Rubenstein Library also houses the papers of Rabbi Marshall Meyer—the founder of the conservative Judaism movement in Argentina and Rabbi Heschel’s student.
“Rabbi Heschel and his student and friend Rabbi Marshall Meyer represent the beginning of a tradition of social justice rooted in the civil rights movement and continuing with human rights efforts today,” Stawski said.
The recent acquisition of Rabbi Heschel’s papers will permanently unite the legacy of these two figures, said Eric Meyers, director of the Center for Jewish Studies and Meyer’s nephew.
“Human rights activists will be able to explore their two lives together,” Meyers said. “Rubenstein will be a major destination to study the connection between Jewish religion, human rights and social action as a major component of religious behavior in the 20th century.”
The University hopes to use the new material in future courses, especially those exploring the intersection of religion and human rights.
“Duke in the 21st century is committed to this sort of material, to look to our religious traditions as a way of supporting human rights for the future,” Meyers said.
Susannah Heschel will visit Duke Jan. 21, a day honoring Heschel’s friend and fellow key religious figure in the civil rights movement, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to dedicate the collection and deliver an address honoring her father’s legacy.