Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel TZ”L

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel TZ”L became famous as an ally of Martin Luther King Jr. during the American civil rights struggle, and I suppose I’d first heard of him — from a distance — in that context.  Orthodox and Hasidic by his Polish birth, educated in the academy of Berlin, writer, Rabbi, writer, teacher, activist, prophet.  I was interested enough, apparently, to pick up a book of his essential writings, as collected by his only child Susannah Heschel, and available as part of the Modern Spiritual Masters Series from Orbis Books.  I read it over a series of weeks, a bit at a time.  On airplanes and in hotels as a travelled for work mostly.  It’s turned out to be one of those books that I suspect will stay with me for a long time … perhaps forever.  It’s a fantastic introduction to his thought and personality, and has made me want to delve even deeper into Heschel’s life and thinking by reading in full the various books that are excerpted in this collection.

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Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Arlington National Cemetery, 1968

The thing that upon reflection attracts me the most to Heschel’s writing and thinking is his rare combination of religious rigor and the actively holy and radical.  He was both a boy from Poland who felt most at home praying in small walk-up Hasidic Synagogues, and also an incisive prophet who demanded that all Jews, but particularly the solidifying Jewish middle class of the 60s consider whether things like nuclear weapons or the war in Vietnam were in any sense kosher.

He excelled at turning common Jewish ideas and religious tropes inside out.  He did this in a rather extra-midrashic way, quite outside the stream of usual disputation, and with a voice that spoke directly to the reader.  He turned ideas on their head because they needed to be exposed and transformed — not as an exercise, but as a necessity of justice.  In one of his reversals of perspective, he insisted that it was not humanity which sought God through religion, but God who sought humanity.   In another he noted that religiously correct prayer could be blasphemous if not supported by righteous action.  The world becomes inverted from the perspective of the Holy, in which identification with the other in the search for justice becomes the ultimate concern.

The purpose of this post is (in a somewhat ecstatic way) to share some little tidbits of his writings that I ended up reading and re-reading in this, my first encounter with Rabbi Heschel.  This was almost certainly take more than just this post, but please enjoy these first gems from my first encounter, with more to come.

On leadership and hubris:

I shudder at the thought of a society ruled by people who are absolutely certain of their wisdom, by people to whom everything in the world is crystal-clear, whose minds know no mystery, no uncertainty. (Who is Man, 1965)

One of his few public statements about the Holocaust:

Ours is a Godless world.  We Jews dance around the Golden Calf.  We have forgotten that we live in a world that is treyf.  The times are dark yet we do not even light the Sabbath candles.  Six million Jews went up in smoke.  Blood will remain silent.  But our conscience is mute as a wall.  We are inebriated and distracted by the follies of this world.  The martyrs do not need our decorations of kaddish — but we need someone to recite kaddish over us, for us, because we have lost our souls.  (Unpublished, 1963)

On Vietnam:

Vietnam is a personal problem.  To speak about God and remain silent about Vietnam is blasphemous.  (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity)

On sin:

What is sin?  The abuse of freedom.  A failure in depth, a failure to respond to God’s challenge.
The root of sin is callousness, hardness of heart, lack of understanding what is at stake in being alive.  (Unpublished manuscript)

Knowing God:

Knowledge of God has two ingredients:  thought and feeling.  Thought without feeling is deaf, feeling without thought is blind.  (Unpublished manuscript)

On prayer:

The future of congregational prayer depends on whether Jews will learn to pray while they are alone.   (Unpublished manuscript)

On interfaith understanding [not sure if I fully agree, but interesting]:

The first and most important prerequisite of interfaith is faith.  It is only out of the depth of involvement in the unending drama that began with Abraham that we can help one another toward an understanding of our situation.  Interfaith must come out of depth, not out of avoid absence of faith.  It is not an enterprise for those who are half learned or spiritually immature.  If it is not to lead to the confusion of the many, it must remain the prerogative of the few.  (Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity)

[to be continued]