Elie Wiesel: Mentor and teacher of generations


Elie Wiesel was a soul on fire. The spiritual intensity of his Chassidic upbringing permeated and fashioned the core of his being. Like Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi, Wiesel was one of those rare and exceptional individuals who became living legends during their own lifetime. 

His life-story is a living proof that ultimately, in the final analysis, there is more to celebrate than to denigrate in the human condition. 

As an impassioned Jew, Wiesel spent the bulk of his existence studying and writing about the foundational texts of Judaism. As a humanistic activist and a universal conscience, Wiesel embraced all of humanity, and endeavored to use his privileged global status in order to try and put an end to the monstrosities of ethnic cleaning and genocide. 

On a more personal level, Wiesel was an exceedingly generous man, and I was fortunate enough as to benefit from his generosity of spirit first-hand. 

Back in my twenties, when I was a doctoral student in philosophy in New York City, Wiesel and I prayed in the same synagogue in proximity to each other. Wiesel was accessible and friendly. After having completed my doctorate, Wiesel expressed his interest in my work. He gave me his office address, and asked me to send him my thesis. His request turned out to be much more than mere social politeness. As it turned out, Wiesel was genuinely interested. After having read my work, Wiesel actually took the time to call me, and share with me his thoughts and feedback. As a result of this, Wiesel was instrumental in helping me publish my first book. Needless to say, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude and appreciation.

I was far from being the sole young scholar and writer who benefitted from Wiesel's extraordinary generosity of spirit. He was always eager to embrace and encourage young scholars, writers, and leaders. His benevolence reflected the spirit of his biblical namesake Eliezer, who was the faithful servant of Abraham. Wiesel himself was also a true and dedicated servant, of humanity and of God. 

The encounter with Elie Wiesel left an invaluable imprint on my soul, as well as my intellectual and spiritual development. Like millions of others, I felt a little orphaned by the news of his death. When Prime Minister Menachem Begin abruptly retired from office in 1983, he famously said: “No man is irreplaceable”. He was almost right. No one can replace the vacuum that Wiesel left as the unofficial mouthpiece of an entire generation of survivors. His death signifies the end of an era, but his spiritual and political legacy is perpetual and everlasting. Now it is up to us to continue his work.

Doctors, Lawyers and Other Jewish Women


When she was 16, KCRW General Manager Ruth Seymour was captivated by her studies with the Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich. “Yiddish is magic,” he told her. “It will outwit history.”

Seymour took his words to heart. Of late, she has been doing her part to help the mamaloshen survive. In 1995, she and KCRW teamed up with the National Yiddish Book Center to create “Jewish Short Stories,” a National Public Radio series read by actors such as Leonard Nimoy and Jeff Goldblum. The program was a peculiar excursion in time-travel: back to the days of golems and rebbes and schlemiels all living together in the shtetl. Yiddish, apparently, worked its magic: At least half the NPR network ran the program, including markets as unlikely as Coos Bay, Ore., and Bozeman, Mont. KCRW sold well more than 1,000 cassette sets of the series.

This year, the program is back by popular demand, and because Seymour wanted to bring the series into the postmodern era.

“This is a darker, edgier series,” says Seymour, adding that a Sholom Aleichem story explores the suicide of one of Tevye’s daughters.

Once again, celebrities agreed to work for the union base rate of around $11 an hour — perhaps because of the Yiddish yearnings latent in Ashkenazi DNA. William Shatner, Richard Dreyfuss and Ed Asner signed on, as did directors Arthur Hiller, Jeremy Kagan and Claudia Weil. “Chicago Hope” star Hector Elizondo, of Puerto Rican heritage, said that he was drawn to the series because he has converso blood.

The 18-part series, dubbed “Jewish Stories from the Old World to the New,” includes stories and novel excerpts by authors such as Bernard Malamud, E.L. Doctorow, Saul Bellow and Max Apple. It also includes a number of works by women writers: Allegra Goodman’s “The Four Questions” humorously explores the conflict between three generations of American Jews; Pearl Abraham’s “The Romance Reader” focuses on a restless Chassidic woman; Leslea Newman’s “A Letter to Harvey Milk” examines the friendship between an elderly Jewish man and his lesbian creative-writing teacher.

Ironically, Seymour, who has created Mexican and Korean short-story programming for KCRW, says the only critics of “Jewish Stories” have been…Jewish. “Some people fear that publicly celebrating our Jewish heritage will excite anti-Semitism, which is ridiculous,” she says.

To buy a CD or audiocassette of the series, or for programming information, call (310) 450-5183 or (800) 292-3855.

Other Voices


The evening following the final session of theSecond International Conference on Feminism and Orthodoxy, I attendeda small family dinner and celebrated the wedding of a SatmarChassidic couple. Among the guests were men with long curledpayot (it’spronounced “payyes” there), and some wearing shtreimels (the fur hat worn bysome Chassidic men). All of the women’s heads were covered with wigs,and some even wore a small pillbox hat atop it, according to thedecree of their respective rabbis. The women were elegantly (butmodestly) attired in unrevealing clothing and were segregated fromtheir men by tall walls. While the men sang joyously, the womengossiped. When the men rose to dance, most of the women werevicariously reveled by staring at them through the cracks in thewall. (Of course, it is forbidden for the men to watch the womendance, and not one single male deigned to take even a quick”peek.”)

The contrast between the ideas expressed anddebated at the conference just a few hours earlier and the interestsof those 60 Chassidic family members at the dinner could not possiblyhave been greater. What could the Orthodox feminists offer thefervently Orthodox?

Indeed, I discovered that only one person at thedinner had even heard of the conference, and she was under themisconception that the reason for the event was because women wantedto change the Torah.

Wishing to debunk that fallacy, I wondered how Icould possibly communicate to these women the concerns of those 2,000attendees at the conference. When I finally told them of thefeminists’ concerns about the agunah issue (the fate of a womanunable to obtain a Jewish divorce unless she accedes to the demands,including extortion, of her husband), I saw a glimpse of recognitionon the faces of these Chassidic women. It was obvious that they, too,suffer from this indignity.

When I mentioned the issues of domestic violencediscussed at the conference, the women at the dinner told me shockingstories of incest, pederasty, and sexual and physical abuse of thewomen in their own insular community — the very heart of Boro Parkand Williamsburg. Now we were speaking a common language.

Indeed, the conference did address issues ofgender bias in the language of prayers and traditional texts, thehalacha of women’s tefillah (prayer) groups, the expansion of women’sroles in the synagogues, et al. But these concepts were as foreign toChassidic women as a visit from a Martian.

Similarly, the subjects covering Talmudiceducation for high school girls would have been useless in the Satmarcommunity, where the girls’ schools do not even allow textual studyof the Pentateuch and the Commentaries, let alone the Talmud. Thesessions on rabbinic ordination of women and the eliminating of kolisha (women’s singing voices, which Orthodox men may not hear) wouldbe equally alien to such fervently Orthodox women.

But the sessions on domestic violence and theplenary conference on the agunah would have been lauded — notnecessarily because all would agree on the solutions proposed, butbecause all women in the Orthodox world can identify with theseconcerns, whether or not they wear a wig, cover their arms, or danceat segregated celebrations.

The commonalities, rather than the differences ofideology, were the central focus of the conference. There was trulysomething for everyone. The standing-room-only sessions attested tothe success of the endeavor. The attendance doubled from last year’sconference, which further proved that the identification of feminismwith Orthodoxy was no longer perceived as an oxymoron.

Has the concept of feminist Orthodoxy reached thelevel of the mainstream? It is highly unlikely that Chassidic womenor traditionalist Orthodox women will ever embrace that terminologyand adopt it as their own. But feminism, in and of itself, iscertainly not defined equally in the world. Traditional women’ssightline-impaired Orthodox synagogues may alienate some ModernOrthodox women, yet, to others, this type of separation creates asource of spiritual comfort. While some are offended by the sexistlanguage in prayers, others embrace it purely for its rich tradition.While some demand acknowledgment of women’s roles in the tradition byadding the mother’s name during various celebrations or honors,others are content to accept the status quo.

However, the impatience with rabbinicfoot-dragging on the resolution of the agunah problem, and thefrustration with rabbis insensitive to the plight of battered womenis a uniting force that fuels the movement.

As further attestation to the success of theconference, mainstream Orthodox rabbis, not previously identifiedwith the feminist cause, spoke at the conference and discredited someof the many myths of meta-halacha. One couldn’t help but laugh when arabbi described how a synagogue, during the middle of this century,was forbidden by its rabbi to use electricity (on the weekdays)because electricity had never been used in his grandfather’ssynagogue.

It would be a gross exaggeration to imply that allthe goals set at last year’s conference had been achieved. But theprogress made was tangible and substantial. Women’s voices arebeginning to be heard in the search for halachic solutions to variousproblems affecting women. Two Modern Orthodox synagogues have hiredfemale “congregational interns,” whose job descriptions closely mimicthose of an assistant rabbi as counselor and teacher (one of themeven gives sermons from the pulpit). For the first time in Israel, agroup of women are about to receive certification to interpret thelaw (to become a posek) in the area of Niddah (ritual purity) — awelcome innovation to women who are reluctant to address these highlyprivate issues to a male rabbi.

But the most significant progress reported hasbeen the single new solution to the agunah issue. Rabbi EmanuelRackman, whose courage to withstand the enormous rabbinic oppositionwas lauded even by those who disagreed with him, described themethods used by his year-old beit din — of annulling the marriage onfraud grounds, thus eliminating the husband’s power to extort for aget (Jewish divorce). Not surprisingly, this beit din has beensubjected to enormous criticism, and there has been no other beitdin, to date, to follow suit. (As one fervently Orthodox rabbi wasreputed to privately admit, if they freed all women who were beatenby their husbands, there would be too many divorces.)

The most vocal opponents in the fervently Orthodoxrabbinic community were invited, but refused to attend theconference.

The forum did provide the opposing voices of twoModern Orthodox rabbis. One feared the “annulment” solution, claimingthat it would place all marriages in jeopardy. Instead, he lauded theJerusalem beit din, which reputedly freed “tens” of women a year bythreatening to jail or withhold drivers’ licenses from recalcitranthusbands. (Of course, this rabbi neglected to mention that theestimated 5,000-plus agunot in Israel would have to wait as long as500 years for their freedom at the pace of the Jerusalem beit din.)Another rabbi’s objections to the annulment solution was his concernthat this “quick” progress, without the “process” of enlisting thesupport of many other Orthodox rabbis, is doomed to failure. But whatappears to rabbis as being too hasty in resolving painful women’sissues is seen as slow motion to Orthodox feminists.

If there could be a short summation of thistwo-day conference, it would be the urgent need for Orthodoxfeminists to repair the world (tikkun olam) — so that 51 percent ofthe Orthodox population (that is, the women) is not shoved silentlyinto the realm of passivity in the face of oppression; so that womenwho wish to pray in a tallit and read the Torah at the Western Wallmay do so; so that religious women scholars will be taken equallyseriously with their male counterparts in areas of education,interpretation of halacha, and spiritual quest; so that Jewish lawwould no longer sanction a man’s right to withhold the get or allowhim to extort his wife for a Jewish divorce; so that the limits ofhalacha are stretched to ensure that Orthodox women need not feelthey are more valued contributors to the secular world than they areto the religious one.

Finally, it was perceived that only the feministOrthodox appeared to have the courage and the ability to reach out tothose on the religious right and the religious left, and they’re theones who appeared to be the torchbearers for tikkun olam between theOrthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist. Whether thesegoals are attainable in the near future, or indeed ever, willprobably be the subject of the next International Conference onFeminism and Orthodoxy.

Alexandra Leichter is a family law attorney inBeverly Hills and is a member of the Modern Orthodox Westwood VillageSynagogue.


The Chief of Staff


>

Abraham Joshua Heschel said that he prayed for one thing: the giftof wonder. He prayed for astonishment, for the capacity to besurprised. As he wrote, “I try not to be stale. I try to remainyoung. I have one talent, and that is the capacity to be tremendouslysurprised at life and at ideas. This is to me the supreme Chassidicimperative.”

Heschel asked for surprise, and he gave surprise to the world. Hesurprised his faculty peers at the Jewish Theological Seminary; hesurprised his students and his friends.

What in the world was this man, named after his grandfatherAbraham Joshua Heschel, the Apter Rav, the last great rebbe ofMezvisch in the province of Podolia, Ukraine, doing, marching inSelma alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. RalphAbernathy and the Rev. Andrew Young?

What in the world was this Jew from Warsaw, whose life was sodeeply immersed in Chassidism and whose last two volumes, written inYiddish, on the life and thought of Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, doingin a march from Selma to Montgomery on behalf of the civil rights forAfrican-Americans?

What was this Jewish scholar, immersed in kabbalah, doing, leadinga delegation of 800 people into FBI headquarters in New York? Whatwas this bearded rabbi, surrounded by 60 police officers, doing,presenting a petition of protest against the brutality of the policein the South?

What was this pietist doing, heading a national Committee ofClergy and Laity Against the Vietnam War?

Dr. Robert McAfee Brown, the distinguished Protestant clergyman,told me how important Heschel’s anti-Vietnam War protests were andhow his theological views impacted Catholics and Protestants alike,including the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, who referred to Heschel as”Father Abraham.”

Heschel was severely criticized by Jewish leaders because anobsessive President Johnson had not too subtly threatened Jewishleaders that opposition to his war on Vietnam would adversely affectthe cordial relations between his administration and the State ofIsrael.

What was Heschel, whose father was buried next to the Baal ShemTov, doing, flying repeatedly to Rome during the deliberations ofVatican II, negotiating with Cardinal Bea, urging the elimination ofits mission to convert Jews? What was he doing, trying to affect theschema on the Jews and the mythic charge of deicide — the murder ofChrist by Jews?

Here again, Jewish leaders criticized him. They told him that itwas not dignified for him to fly back and forth to Rome. They saidthat they did not believe he would be successful. Heschel’s response:”What right have you not to believe and, therefore, not to attempt?”Heschel tried and succeeded. Heschel is the only Jewish thinkerquoted by a pope in this century. The pope was Paul II. AfterHeschel’s death, the Catholic publication “America” devoted an entireissue to his memory.

Heschel the Jew knew his place. His place was alongside King andwith the hounded marchers who were surrounded by the furious whitemobs.

Heschel the rabbi knew his place. After the march, he wrote, “WhenI marched in Selma, my feet were praying.” And with characteristichonesty, he added: “I felt again, as I have been thinking about foryears, that Jewish religious institutions have again missed a greatopportunity: namely, to interpret a civil rights movement in terms ofJudaism. The majority of Jews participating actively in it aretotally unaware of what this movement means in terms of the prophetictradition.” That was an important critique. Judaism is not areligious faith that can stand idly by as history passes. Judaism hassomething to say today to America and to the world, just as it did tothe Canaanite and Moabite and Amorite in the times of the Bible.”

The single deepest influence upon Heschel was the Jewish prophet.The prophet was his doctoral dissertation. The prophet drove his lifeand teaching. It was as a Jewish prophet that he addressed theConference on Religion and Race in Chicago in 1963. Before anaudience of blacks and whites, Christians and Jews, he started inthis manner: “The first conference on religion and race took place inEgypt. The main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses said,’Thus saith the God of Israel, “Let My people go.”‘ And Pharaohanswered, ‘Who is the Lord that I should heed His word? I will notlet them go.’

“The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end.Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The Exodus began, but it is farfrom being complete. It was easier for the children of Israel tocross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain universitycampuses.”To understand Heschel, one has to understand his prophetictheology. Heschel’s God was not like the conventional God of thephilosophers or the theologians, including those of Judaism, such asPhilo or Moses Maimonides. Their philosophic conception of God waslogical, analytic and refined. Their God was modeled after Greekphilosophy, after the likeness of the God of Aristotle and Plato.

The God of the philosophers is perfect, by which they mean that Heis immutable and unchangeable — omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent.God has it all. God has no needs — no need for human affection, noneed for sacrifice or prayer.

This Hellenistic philosophy converges with much of Hindu andBuddhist viewpoints. The Hindu doctrine of karma, the law ofconsequences, operates inexorably, automatically. The deepestspiritual wisdom of karma counsels us to escape this wretched world,full of struggling and endless craving. Its wisdom counsels us toblow out the candle. Extinguish the self. Tear out the roots ofdesire.

Heschel sees God differently.

He sees God and human suffering through the eyes of the Jewishprophets. Judaism loves life and appreciates the desires of the heartand celebrates its Joy. It does not deny that there is suffering, butit does not remedy its pain by escaping from this world: Yes, thereis suffering, and we have an obligation to relieve suffering, tospread balm upon the wounds of the human being, to use science andcompassion, and to beautify life here in this world.

Unlike the Indian philosopher, the prophet declares: Do not blowout the candle of desire. Do not paralyze yourself with theanesthetic of nirvana. Recognize the pains and trials of life. But donot deny or abandon its reality. Transform it. Repair it. Mend it.While you emphasize the transmigrations of your past life, youforsake the holiness of opportunities in the present here and now.

Contrary to the Hellenistic theological point of view, Heschelsees God as anything but neutral or indifferent, cool or remote.Heschel understands God as caring, as being concerned, as needingfriends, as needing people, as entering into covenants with Israeland with humanity.

We are raised with the God of the philosopher. But this impassiveGod Heschel denies. God did not create the universe and humanity andthen resign from the world and from man. Heschel, deeply influencedby the Jewish mystical tradition, contends that God needs man, Godneeds allies, God needs help. Heschel’s God is marked by pathos,rachmonis. God feels; the prophet feels. The God of the prophets isangry at justice. The God of the prophets is moved to tears by theoppression of the weak. He is outraged by the humiliation of theweak.

For the classical theologians, God is concerned with eternalessence, with definitions and proofs. But the Jewish prophet’s God isconcerned about widows, and orphans, and poor people, and pariahs,and strangers, and aliens, and the submerged and the beaten. TheJewish prophet’s God is angry at the corruption by kings, priests andunscrupulous entrepreneurs. God is not aloof. God cannot standslavery, humiliation, oppression. He condemns it whether it comesfrom Jews or non-Jews.

The prophet is not the philosopher. The prophet feels fiercely.Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony of voice,to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. TheJewish prophet is not tranquil. He is no Zen master beyond humanstress and tears. He is filled with agitation and
anguish, andrefuses to acquiesce and accept. The prophet cannot sleep, and hegives no sleep to those he addresses.

The Jewish prophet hates bribery and ritual deceit. God will notbe fooled by sacrifices and incense. Listen to the voice of Jeremiah:”Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incenseto bow and go after other gods that you have not known and then comestand before Me in this house which is called by My name and say, ‘Weare delivered.'”

So, what was this man, this rabbi, this Jew, doing in Selma and inRome and in Vietnam? He was there because he was a serious Jew whotook the prophets seriously. He was in Selma, Rome and Vietnam, justas Abraham was at Sodom and Gomorrah. The prophet refuses to be mute.

Heschel’s critics have derided his theology as filled withanthropomorphisms, images that are taken from human beings. Thecritics may be right: Heschel’s God is morally all too human. Butthere is something that is deeply persuasive in Heschel’s God ofmoral pathos. He may not be right about how God feels or reacts, butis he not right about the attributes of God that are revealed in theconscience of the prophet? We may have philosophic quarrels aboutHeschel’s conception of God, but not with his morality. The propheticexperience of God as a Being filled with pathos, must be behaved byhuman beings. Men and women who believe in God behaviorally cannot beindifferent. For, as Heschel writes, “the opposite of good is notevil but apathy.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right), Ralph Bunche,Martin Luther King Jr., and Ralph Abernathy in 1965 on the Selma toMontgomery march.

How did such a friendship develop between Martin Luther King Jr.and Abraham Joshua Heschel? How is it that on the occasion of the60th birthday of King, Heschel said, “The whole future of Americawill depend upon the influence of Dr. King.”

And it is King who described Heschel as “one of the great men ofour day…a truly great prophet…. All too often, I have seenreligious leaders amid the social injustices that pervade our societymouthing pious irrelevancies. But Rabbi Heschel is one of those whorefuses to remain silent behind the safe security of stained-glasswindows. He has been with us in many struggles. I remember marchingfrom Selma to Montgomery, how he stood by my side.”

Heschel knew where his place was as a Jew.

Heschel marched because it is not only important to protest but todo so in public, in the sight of men and women.

Heschel was able to reach out to non-Jews, to Christians of allcolors and of all creeds, because he understood that, while we maypray in different languages, our tears are the same. That profound,deep, Jewish theological humanism and universalism is needed todaymore than ever.

“What do we need to attain a sense of significant being?” Heschelasked. He answered, “Three things: God, a soul and a moment.” Thesethree are always here. Just to be is a blessing. Just to live isholy.

Saluting Heschel

Celebrate the life and work of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr.Martin Luther King Jr. at these events:

Jan. 16

* Temple Israel of Hollywood

7300 Hollywood Blvd.

(213) 876-8330

Excerpts of Heschel’s theology (Part 1) at the Family ShabbatService, 7:30 p.m.

* Kol Tikvah Congregation

20400 Ventura Blvd.

Woodland Hills

(818) 348-0670

Rabbi Steven Jacobs and Dr. Clinton A. Benton of the CalvaryBaptist Church of South Central Los Angeles will hold a jointcelebration of Heschel and King at the Sabbath services, beginning at7:30 p.m. Cantor Caren Glasser and the Calvary Sanctuary Choir willparticipate. The service is open to everyone.

Jan. 17

* Excerpts of Heschel’s theology (Part 2) at Temple Israel’sShabbat Service, 10:00 a.m.

Jan. 18

* Temple Israel’s Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh teaches a class onHeschel’s theology

* Rabbi Laura Geller will teach three seminars on Heschel and Kingat the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Yom Limud at Taft High School.For times and information, call (818)587-3250.

Jan. 23

* Temple Emanuel

Beverly Hills

(310) 288-3742

The seventh- and eighth-graders of the temple’s day school willlead a special Erev Shabbat service honoring Heschel and King at 8p.m. Guest speaker will be Genethia Hayes, executive director of theSouthern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California and aleading African-American educator.

 

Highlights from a Life

Jan. 11, 1907: Born in Poland to distinguished Chassidicfamily. Educated at the University of Berlin and in Talmud andkabbalah.

1937: Appointed by Martin Buber as his successor at aJewish college in Frankfort am Main.

1938: Deported to Poland by Nazis, then immigrated toLondon, where he created the Institute for Jewish Learning. Hismother and several other family members are killed by Nazis.

1940-45: Professor at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.He marries Sylvia Straus.

1945: Professor at Jewish Theological Seminary.

1963: Heschel meets Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago.

1965: Marches beside King from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

1965: Co-founds Clergy and Laymen Concerned to oppose theVietnam War.

1966: Meets with Pope Paul VI and becomes involved inSecond Vatican Council.

Dec. 23, 1972: Dies in his sleep in New York City.

Major Works:

“Man Is Not Alone” (1950)

“The Sabbath” (1955)

“God In Search of Man” (1955)

“Israel: An Echo of Eternity” (1969)

“The Prophets” (1962)

Source: “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays ofAbraham Joshua Heschel,” edited by Susannah Heschel (Farrar StrausGiroux) *

The Prophet


Abraham Joshua Heschel said that he prayed for one thing: the giftof wonder. He prayed for astonishment, for the capacity to besurprised. As he wrote, “I try not to be stale. I try to remainyoung. I have one talent, and that is the capacity to be tremendouslysurprised at life and at ideas. This is to me the supreme Chassidicimperative.”

Heschel asked for surprise, and he gave surprise to the world. Hesurprised his faculty peers at the Jewish Theological Seminary; hesurprised his students and his friends.

What in the world was this man, named after his grandfatherAbraham Joshua Heschel, the Apter Rav, the last great rebbe ofMezvisch in the province of Podolia, Ukraine, doing, marching inSelma alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Rev. RalphAbernathy and the Rev. Andrew Young?

What in the world was this Jew from Warsaw, whose life was sodeeply immersed in Chassidism and whose last two volumes, written inYiddish, on the life and thought of Menachem Mendel of Kotsk, doingin a march from Selma to Montgomery on behalf of the civil rights forAfrican-Americans?

What was this Jewish scholar, immersed in kabbalah, doing, leadinga delegation of 800 people into FBI headquarters in New York? Whatwas this bearded rabbi, surrounded by 60 police officers, doing,presenting a petition of protest against the brutality of the policein the South?

 


 

What was this pietist doing, heading a national Committee ofClergy and Laity Against the Vietnam War?

Dr. Robert McAfee Brown, the distinguished Protestant clergyman,told me how important Heschel's anti-Vietnam War protests were andhow his theological views impacted Catholics and Protestants alike,including the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, who referred to Heschel as”Father Abraham.”

Heschel was severely criticized by Jewish leaders because anobsessive President Johnson had not too subtly threatened Jewishleaders that opposition to his war on Vietnam would adversely affectthe cordial relations between his administration and the State ofIsrael.

What was Heschel, whose father was buried next to the Baal ShemTov, doing, flying repeatedly to Rome during the deliberations ofVatican II, negotiating with Cardinal Bea, urging the elimination ofits mission to convert Jews? What was he doing, trying to affect theschema on the Jews and the mythic charge of deicide — the murder ofChrist by Jews?

Here again, Jewish leaders criticized him. They told him that itwas not dignified for him to fly back and forth to Rome. They saidthat they did not believe he would be successful. Heschel's response:”What right have you not to believe and, therefore, not to attempt?”Heschel tried and succeeded. Heschel is the only Jewish thinkerquoted by a pope in this century. The pope was Paul II. AfterHeschel's death, the Catholic publication “America” devoted an entireissue to his memory.

Heschel the Jew knew his place. His place was alongside King andwith the hounded marchers who were surrounded by the furious whitemobs.

Heschel the rabbi knew his place. After the march, he wrote, “WhenI marched in Selma, my feet were praying.” And with characteristichonesty, he added: “I felt again, as I have been thinking about foryears, that Jewish religious institutions have again missed a greatopportunity: namely, to interpret a civil rights movement in terms ofJudaism. The majority of Jews participating actively in it aretotally unaware of what this movement means in terms of the prophetictradition.” That was an important critique. Judaism is not areligious faith that can stand idly by as history passes. Judaism hassomething to say today to America and to the world, just as it did tothe Canaanite and Moabite and Amorite in the times of the Bible.”

The single deepest influence upon Heschel was the Jewish prophet.The prophet was his doctoral dissertation. The prophet drove his lifeand teaching. It was as a Jewish prophet that he addressed theConference on Religion and Race in Chicago in 1963. Before anaudience of blacks and whites, Christians and Jews, he started inthis manner: “The first conference on religion and race took place inEgypt. The main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses said,'Thus saith the God of Israel, “Let My people go.”' And Pharaohanswered, 'Who is the Lord that I should heed His word? I will notlet them go.'

“The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end.Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The Exodus began, but it is farfrom being complete. It was easier for the children of Israel tocross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain universitycampuses.”To understand Heschel, one has to understand his prophetictheology. Heschel's God was not like the conventional God of thephilosophers or the theologians, including those of Judaism, such asPhilo or Moses Maimonides. Their philosophic conception of God waslogical, analytic and refined. Their God was modeled after Greekphilosophy, after the likeness of the God of Aristotle and Plato.

The God of the philosophers is perfect, by which they mean that Heis immutable and unchangeable — omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent.God has it all. God has no needs — no need for human affection, noneed for sacrifice or prayer.

This Hellenistic philosophy converges with much of Hindu andBuddhist viewpoints. The Hindu doctrine of karma, the law ofconsequences, operates inexorably, automatically. The deepestspiritual wisdom of karma counsels us to escape this wretched world,full of struggling and endless craving. Its wisdom counsels us toblow out the candle. Extinguish the self. Tear out the roots ofdesire.

Heschel sees God differently.

He sees God and human suffering through the eyes of the Jewishprophets. Judaism loves life and appreciates the desires of the heartand celebrates its Joy. It does not deny that there is suffering, butit does not remedy its pain by escaping from this world: Yes, thereis suffering, and we have an obligation to relieve suffering, tospread balm upon the wounds of the human being, to use science andcompassion, and to beautify life here in this world.

Unlike the Indian philosopher, the prophet declares: Do not blowout the candle of desire. Do not paralyze yourself with theanesthetic of nirvana. Recognize the pains and trials of life. But donot deny or abandon its reality. Transform it. Repair it. Mend it.While you emphasize the transmigrations of your past life, youforsake the holiness of opportunities in the present here and now.

Contrary to the Hellenistic theological point of view, Heschelsees God as anything but neutral or indifferent, cool or remote.Heschel understands God as caring, as being concerned, as needingfriends, as needing people, as entering into covenants with Israeland with humanity.

We are raised with the God of the philosopher. But this impassiveGod Heschel denies. God did not create the universe and humanity andthen resign from the world and from man. Heschel, deeply influencedby the Jewish mystical tradition, contends that God needs man, Godneeds allies, God needs help. Heschel's God is marked by pathos,rachmonis. God feels; the prophet feels. The God of the prophets isangry at justice. The God of the prophets is moved to tears by theoppression of the weak. He is outraged by the humiliation of theweak.

For the classical theologians, God is concerned with eternalessence, with definitions and proofs. But the Jewish prophet's God isconcerned about widows, and orphans, and poor people, and pariahs,and strangers, and aliens, and the submerged and the beaten. TheJewish prophet's God is angry at the corruption by kings, priests andunscrupulous entrepreneurs. God is not aloof. God cannot standslavery, humiliation, oppression. He condemns it whether it comesfrom Jews or non-Jews.

The prophet is not the philosopher. The prophet feels fiercely.Prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony of voice,to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. TheJewish prophet is not tranquil. He is no Zen master beyond humanstress and tears. He is filled with agitation and anguish, andrefuses to acquiesce and accept. The prophet cannot sleep, and hegives no sleep to those he addresses.

The Jewish prophet hates bribery and ritual deceit. God will notbe fooled by sacrifices and incense. Listen to the voice of Jeremiah:”Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incenseto bow and go after other gods that you have not known and then comestand before Me in this house which is called by My name and say, 'Weare delivered.'”

So, what was this man, this rabbi, this Jew, doing in Selma and inRome and in Vietnam? He was there because he was a serious Jew whotook the prophets seriously. He was in Selma, Rome and Vietnam, justas Abraham was at Sodom and Gomorrah. The prophet refuses to be mute.

Heschel's critics have derided his theology as filled withanthropomorphisms, images that are taken from human beings. Thecritics may be right: Heschel's God is morally all too human. Butthere is something that is deeply persuasive in Heschel's God ofmoral pathos. He may not be right about how God feels or reacts, butis he not right about the attributes of God that are revealed in theconscience of the prophet? We may have philosophic quarrels aboutHeschel's conception of God, but not with his morality. The propheticexperience of God as a Being filled with pathos, must be behaved byhuman beings. Men and women who believe in God behaviorally cannot beindifferent. For, as Heschel writes, “the opposite of good is notevil but apathy.”

 


 

Abraham Joshua Heschel (second from right), Ralph Bunche,Martin Luther King Jr., and Ralph Abernathy in 1965 on the Selma toMontgomery march.

How did such a friendship develop between Martin Luther King Jr.and Abraham Joshua Heschel? How is it that on the occasion of the60th birthday of King, Heschel said, “The whole future of Americawill depend upon the influence of Dr. King.”

And it is King who described Heschel as “one of the great men ofour day…a truly great prophet…. All too often, I have seenreligious leaders amid the social injustices that pervade our societymouthing pious irrelevancies. But Rabbi Heschel is one of those whorefuses to remain silent behind the safe security of stained-glasswindows. He has been with us in many struggles. I remember marchingfrom Selma to Montgomery, how he stood by my side.”

Heschel knew where his place was as a Jew.

Heschel marched because it is not only important to protest but todo so in public, in the sight of men and women.

Heschel was able to reach out to non-Jews, to Christians of allcolors and of all creeds, because he understood that, while we maypray in different languages, our tears are the same. That profound,deep, Jewish theological humanism and universalism is needed todaymore than ever.

“What do we need to attain a sense of significant being?” Heschelasked. He answered, “Three things: God, a soul and a moment.” Thesethree are always here. Just to be is a blessing. Just to live isholy.

Saluting Heschel

Celebrate the life and work of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr.Martin Luther King Jr. at these events:

Jan. 16

* Temple Israel of Hollywood

7300 Hollywood Blvd.

(213) 876-8330

Excerpts of Heschel's theology (Part 1) at the Family ShabbatService, 7:30 p.m.

* Kol Tikvah Congregation

20400 Ventura Blvd.

Woodland Hills

(818) 348-0670

Rabbi Steven Jacobs and Dr. Clinton A. Benton of the CalvaryBaptist Church of South Central Los Angeles will hold a jointcelebration of Heschel and King at the Sabbath services, beginning at7:30 p.m. Cantor Caren Glasser and the Calvary Sanctuary Choir willparticipate. The service is open to everyone.

Jan. 17

* Excerpts of Heschel's theology (Part 2) at Temple Israel'sShabbat Service, 10:00 a.m.

Jan. 18

* Temple Israel's Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh teaches a class onHeschel's theology

* Rabbi Laura Geller will teach three seminars on Heschel and Kingat the Bureau of Jewish Education's Yom Limud at Taft High School.For times and information, call (818)587-3250.

Jan. 23

* Temple Emanuel

Beverly Hills

(310) 288-3742

The seventh- and eighth-graders of the temple's day school willlead a special Erev Shabbat service honoring Heschel and King at 8p.m. Guest speaker will be Genethia Hayes, executive director of theSouthern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California and aleading African-American educator.

 

Highlights from a Life

Jan. 11, 1907: Born in Poland to distinguished Chassidicfamily. Educated at the University of Berlin and in Talmud andkabbalah.

1937: Appointed by Martin Buber as his successor at aJewish college in Frankfort am Main.

1938: Deported to Poland by Nazis, then immigrated toLondon, where he created the Institute for Jewish Learning. Hismother and several other family members are killed by Nazis.

1940-45: Professor at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.He marries Sylvia Straus.

1945: Professor at Jewish Theological Seminary.

1963: Heschel meets Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago.

1965: Marches beside King from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

1965: Co-founds Clergy and Laymen Concerned to oppose theVietnam War.

1966: Meets with Pope Paul VI and becomes involved inSecond Vatican Council.

Dec. 23, 1972: Dies in his sleep in New York City.

Major Works:

“Man Is Not Alone” (1950)

“The Sabbath” (1955)

“God In Search of Man” (1955)

“Israel: An Echo of Eternity” (1969)

“The Prophets” (1962)

Source: “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays ofAbraham Joshua Heschel,” edited by Susannah Heschel (Farrar StrausGiroux) *