It is as an individual that I am moved by an anxiety for the meaning of my existence as a Jew. Yet when I begin to ponder about it, my theme is not the problem of one Jew but of all Jews. And the more deeply I probe, the more strongly I realize the scope of the problem. It embraces not only the Jews of the present but also those of the past and those of the future, the meaning of Jewish existence in all ages.
What is at stake in our lives is more than the fate of one generation. In this moment, we, the living, are Israel. The tasks begun by the patriarchs and prophets, and carried out by countless Jews of the past, are now entrusted to us. No other group has superseded them. We are the only channel of Jewish tradition, those who must save Judaism from oblivion, those who must hand over the entire past to the generations to come. We are either the last, the dying, Jews or else we are those who will give new life to our tradition. Rarely in our history has so much been dependent upon one generation. We will either forfeit or enrich the legacy of the ages.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, “To Be a Jew: What Is It?”, in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, ed. Susannah Heschel (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996), 3-4. First published in Zionist Quarterly vol. 1, no. 1 (Summer 1951): 78-84.