Heschel was a descendant of preeminent rabbinic families of Europe, both on his father's and mother's side. In his teens he received a traditional yeshiva education, and obtained traditional smicha (rabbinical ordination); he then studied at the University of Berlin, where he obtained his doctorate, and at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, where he earned a second liberal rabbinic ordination. He later taught Talmud there. Escaping from the Nazis, he found refuge both in England and America, where he briefly served on the faculty of Hebrew Union College, the main seminary of Reform Judaism, in Cincinnati.
Increasingly uncomfortable with the lack of observance of Jewish law at HUC, Heschel sought an academic institution where critical, modern scholarship of the Bible was allowed, and yet also held that Jewish law was normative (i.e. the way that Jewish people should actually live their lives.) He found such a place in 1946 when he came to the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS), the main seminary of Conservative Judaism. He accepted a position there as Professor of Jewish Ethics and Mysticism, where he served until his death in 1972.
Rabbi Heschel explicated many facets of Jewish thought including studies on medieval Jewish philosophy, Kabbalah, and Hasidism. He has a special interest in the prophets, and in the proper way for Jews to incorporate religion into their lives. His books contain civil but pointed rejoinders towards those in Reform Judaism who no longer held that Jewish law was normative, and also towards those in Orthodox Judaism, who Heschel held valued legalism over the spirit of the law. However, did not fully fit in JTS either. Heschel encouraged a punctilious observance of normative Judaism, and the Americanized student body, for the most part, did not respond well. Heschel was particularly looked down upon by his colleague Mordechai Kaplan, founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, and many students who attended JTS in the 50s sympathized with Kaplan over Heschel.
Heschel was also known as an activist for civil rights in the USA, and an activist for freedom for Soviet Jewry. He is one of the few Jewish writers to be widely read by members of all denominations of Judaism, as well as by many within Christianity. His most influential works include "Man is Not Alone", "God in Search of Man", "The Sabbath", and "The Prophets".
"all it takes is one person.....and another.....and another.....and another.....to start a movement"