DURHAM — Duke University will acquire the papers of religious leader and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, helping the university reach a goal of becoming an academic leader in the study of religion and human rights.
The university announced this week that it will receive original manuscripts, correspondence and other documents written by Heschel – a 20th-century theologian, scholar and writer. Administrators and professors say Duke is the logical place for the documents because of its commitment to human rights and Jewish studies, as well as its location in the South, where Heschel built his civil rights legacy.
“Duke will be a destination research place for all of these subjects,” said Eric Meyers, a religion professor who directs the Duke Center for Jewish Studies. “As a major research university located in the historic South, civil rights has a special resonance.”
Heschel, who lived from 1907 to 1972, was widely known as a leader of the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War campaign in the United States. Heschel’s most famous theological works include “The Sabbath,” “Man is Not Alone” and “God in Search of Man.” He marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., and came up with the iconic phrase: “We pray with our legs.”
The collection, which spans five decades and four languages, was previously unavailable to scholars. The papers were obtained from Heschel’s family and will be housed in Duke’s David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
Duke already has several strong collections of religious material, which made the university a suitable location for the Heschel papers, said Andrew Armacost, head of collection development at the Rubenstein Library. In particular, Armacost said, Duke has a large amount of material related to various sects of Christianity as well as Judaism.
Additionally, Duke has a leading religion department and divinity school, Meyer said.
Two collections now joined
The Duke archives currently has the papers of Rabbi Marshall Meyer, another Jewish human rights activist and a student of Heschel, as well as Eric Meyers’ uncle. As soon as his uncle’s work arrived at Duke three years ago, Meyers knew the university should work to obtain Heschel’s papers.
“The unification of (this) human rights archival material throws light on two of the most important voices of the 20th century opposing injustice,” Meyers said.
Heschel’s daughter, Susannah Heschel, professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, said she is pleased that her father’s work will be united with the Meyer collection.
“I am delighted that my father’s papers have found a good home at Duke, which has long had an important research program in the fields of Jewish studies and religious studies,” she said in a statement.
In addition to his human rights work, Heschel served as the Jewish liaison to the Vatican during the Second Vatican Council. He was born in Poland but eventually moved to London and then New York, escaping the Holocaust.
Armacost said the papers will provide Duke students with a unique opportunity to handle original materials that bring together American history, Judaism and human rights.
“It certainly extends our collections related to social engagement and activism,” Armacost said. “It will bring a lot of attention and, I hope, create a lot of future research papers and interest.”