Remembering Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907 – 1972)
by Stephen Lendman
He was special. He mattered. He’s called a prophet’s prophet. He tried to shock people out of complacency into understanding and compassion.
He grew up in Poland. He came from a family of noted rabbis. His world was hasidic (“pious ones”) “rebbeim.” Rebbes are more than rabbis.
They’re the closest Jews come to experiencing prophecy. They taught him. They inspired him. They tested his convictions. They expanded his worldview. He matured into one of them. He surpassed them. He became an important figure.
He was the youngest of six children. His father died when he was aged eight. His maternal uncle adopted him. He was precocious. He showed early signs of greatness.
His mother, Rivka, was important in his life. She saw his potential. She encouraged it. She knew he was destined to become more than an ordinary rebbe.
He had traditional yeshiva training. He studied for Orthodox rabbinical ordination. In 1927, he began studies at the University of Berlin. It was one of the most avant-garde higher learning institutions of its time.
He studied philosophy. He became a fellow at a liberal institution called die Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums. He embraced Berlin cultural and intellectual life.
He pursued University of Berlin doctoral work. He did so after Hitler came to power. Had things been otherwise, he’d have become a leading German intellectual.
As a Polish Jew, he had no future. His status was precarious. He struggled to complete his doctoral work. He didn’t have much time.
He wanted his dissertation published before German universities stopped admitting Jewish students, letting them complete studies, and granting them degrees.
He succeeded. In 1934, he completed his dissertation. It discussed the “phenomenological analysis” of biblical prophets. It was a tour de force.
It reflected his desire to bring modern Jews and others into a relationship with the Bible’s living God. It was his passion to do so. God was no stranger in his life.
In 1962, his work was published. It’s special. It’s called “The Prophets
.” It provides profound understanding and insight.
He said prophets witness the world around them. They do so with special passion. Lives and souls are at stake. They explain “the mystery of (God’s) relation to man.”
They’re “some of the most disturbing people who ever lived.” They’re “men whose image is our refuge in distress, and whose voice and vision sustain our faith.”
Heschel’s book is special. It’s classic. It’s timeless. Writing it changed his life. He learned God wants human partners. He focused on what he could do.
He deplored Nazism. In October 1938, he was deported to Poland. Weeks before Germany invaded, he left Warsaw for London. His sister and mother perished.
So did two other sisters in Nazi concentration camps. He never returned. He never went home again. He once said:
“If I should go to Poland or Germany, every stone, every tree would remind me of contempt, hatred, murder, of children killed, of mothers burned alive, of human beings asphyxiated.”
In 1940, he came to America. He taught at Hebrew Union College. In 1945, he became New York-based Jewish Theological Seminary Professor of Ethics and Mysticism.
He taught. He studied. He wrote. He published. He focused on Eastern European Jewish piety, the inward character of Jewish observance, religious symbolism, Jewish views of humanity, and contemporary moral and political issues.
He cared. It showed. He’s called America’s most significant Jewish thinker. He was highly respected. Religionists of many faiths admired him. So did many others for his activism.
He championed civil rights. He deplored war. He supported anti-war efforts. He did so throughout the 1960s in Jewish/Christian dialogue.
His literary style was unique. It combined juxtaposing concrete and abstract ideas, suggestive similes and metaphors, aphorisms and images, and classical and existentialist philosophy.
He said reality occurs on a “preconceptual” level. A disparity exists between what we encounter and how it’s expressed.
Great philosophical, religious and artistic achievements evolve through movements. They do so when people sense more than they can say.
“In our religious situation we do not comprehend the transcendent,” he said. We are present at it. We witness it.”
“Whatever we know is inadequate. Whatever we say is an understatement.”
“Concepts, words must not become screens. They must be regarded as windows.”
Individuals confront the “ineffable.” They can’t express it in words. It isn’t a psychological state. It’s an encounter with mystery. It’s “within and beyond things and ideas.”
Divinity is “within.” It’s because the self is “something transcendent in disguise.”
Divinity is “beyond.” It’s “a message that discloses unity where we see diversity; that discloses peace where we are involved in discord.”
“God means: No one is ever alone.” Experiences awaken people to God’s presence. It’s pervasive. It reflects a “need to be needed.”
Religion explains peoples are more than bystanders. They have power. They have will. They know right from wrong.
Biblical prophets are spiritual models, he believed. They bore witness to God reaching out. They transmitted “divine pathos.”
It’s God’s outraged response to man’s sins. It’s his merciful response to his suffering and anguish.
He said “A Jew is asked to take a leap of action rather than a leap of thought.”
“He is asked to do more than he understands in order to understand more than he does.”
“Whereas the term ceremony merely expresses what we think, mitzvah expresses what God will: a mitzvah (a commandment) is ‘a prayer in the form of a deed.’ “
He called Jewish survival a spiritual act. God’s concern is expressed through mutual responsiveness. God needs people to achieve his aims.
David Novak’s a noted Jewish theologian, ethicist and scholar. He’s an ordained rabbi. He’s trained in Catholic moral theology.
He was Heschel’s student. He called his significance “such that without him no Jewish thinker of my generation and the generations after could utter the name ‘God’ with intelligent passion in the public square.”
“The world of religious discourse for Jews in this society and culture has been forever changed by his life and work.”
“It is now simply impossible to think through the sources of the Jewish tradition – as opposed to merely describing them – without Heschel being either in the background or at one’s side.”
His scholarship, teaching, and writing transformed him. In 1965, he accompanied Martin Luther King to Selma, AL. They marched together.
“I felt my legs were praying,” he said. It was a powerful statement. It reflected his personal relationship with God. It was more than political activism.
In February 1944, he published a remarkable talk. It was on “The Meaning of this War. In 1943, he wrote it, saying:
“We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace. Now we must offer sacrifices on the altar of war.”
“Let Fascism not serve as an alibi for our conscience.”
“Where were we when men learned to hate in the days of starvation? When raving madmen were sowing wrath in the hearts of the unemployed?”
“Good and evil, which were once as real as day and night, have become a blurred mist. In our everyday life we worshipped force, despised compassion, and obeyed no law but our unappeasable appetite.”
“The vision of the sacred has all but died in the soul of man. Who is responsible (for soaking the earth in blood)?”
“If a man has beheld evil, he may know that it was shown to him in order that he learn his own guilt and repent; for what was shown to him is also within him.”
“In a free society, some are guilty; all are responsible.”
Societies let bad people do bad things. They could have acted. They could have intervened. They could have done something, anything.
Dismissiveness, indifference, and inattentiveness contributed to WW II. It’s true in all wars. It lets nations get away with murder and much more.
Heschel witnessed Hitler’s viciousness. Loved ones he cared about perished. He got out in time.
He said “the vision of the sacred” was killed by “greed, envy, and the reckless will to power.” By ignoring fundamental societal rights.
He said war victories resemble defeats. “Selling himself into slavery to things, man becomes a utensil that is broken at the fountain,” he believed.
“Time is like an eternal burning bush. Though each instant must vanish to open the way to the next one, time itself is not consumed.”
“Time has independent ultimate significance. It is of more majesty and more provocative of awe than even a sky studded with stars.”
“Time is the process of creation, and things of space are results of creation. When looking at space we see the products of creation. When intuiting time we hear the process of creation.”
“Things of space” can be owned. Competing for ownership can easily become an arena to become “owned” objects, slaves. The flow of time can’t be owned. It sets us free.
“The Negroes of America behave just like the children of Israel. Only in 1963 they experienced the miracle of having turned the tide of history.”
“The Negro movement is an outcry of pain in which a sickness of our total society comes to expression: supersonic planes and sub-standard housing; esoteric science and vulgar ethics; an elite of highly specialized experts, and a mass of unprepared, unskilled laborers.”
“Religion becomes a mockery if we remain callous to the irony of sending satellites to the sky and failing to find employment for our fellow citizens, of a highly publicized World’s Fair and insufficient funds for the extermination of vermin in the slums.”
“Is religion to be a mockery?”
“The teaching of Judaism is the theology of the common deed.”
“God is concerned with everydayness, with the trivialities of life.”
“The prophet’s field of concern is not the mysteries of heaven, the glories of eternity, but the blights of society, the affairs of the market place.”
Prophets address “those who trample upon the needy, who increase the price of grain, use dishonest scales, and sell the refuse of corn.”
In January 1967, he addressed a Washington, DC prayer service, saying:
“Has our conscience become a fossil? Is all mercy gone? If mercy, the mother of humanity, is still alive as a demand, how can we say Yes to our bringing agony to the tormented nation of Vietnam?”
He urged public action. He used prayer to shatter myths. He tried to influence politics. He did so through intellect, passion, and the power to do the right thing. It’s self-rewarding. It’s priceless.
His new book is titled “Banker Occupation: Waging Financial War on Humanity.”
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