Diminishing Heschel


Today we received an email from UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies.The mailing reported on the impressive array of programs that the Center seems to be constantly sponsoring. One program, however, caught our eye, a conference on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel—“Moral Grandeur & Spiritual Audacity”—to take place on the UCLA campus and at UCLA Hillel on May 3 and 4.

The conference has a noted lineup of speakers and panelists ranging from UCLA professor David Myers to Heschel’s daughter Susannah Heschel (a professor at Dartmouth College) to Holocaust scholar Michael Berenbaum.

Amid the scholars and noted authorities one name stands out, the keynoter, Cornel West of Union Theological Seminary. West, a self-proclaimed prophet, who has come to study Heschel of late, is not known for his intellectual heft or rigor (Leon Wieseltier described his early academic work as “almost completely worthless”). Former president of Harvard Lawrence Summers, derided some of West’s output when he was still a professor there as an “embarrassment to the university.” West’s colleague in African American studies, Prof. Michael Eric Dyson of Georgetown University (a friend of West for over 30 years), recently wrote in The New Republic that “I knew Summers was right when he pointed to West’s diminished scholarly output.”

However, the caliber of scholars that the Center for Jewish Studies chooses to invite is the conveners’ business, not ours.

What is of concern is their decision to invite Cornel West to a Center for Jewish Studies convocation because of what he represents. While they have every right to invite scholars, clerics, or people off the street to present at their conference, one has to question the reasoning that would invite a virulent critic of the state of Israel and an advocate for the boycott, divestment and sanctioning of Israel to a conference not only sponsored by the CJS but on the subject of one of American Jewry’s most revered figures, Rabbi Heschel.

Academic freedom allows all forms of silliness to occur on campuses across America, unlike virtually any other institution in American life, academia allows its brethren to ignore and frustrate the wishes, intentions and policies of its administrators, trustees and donors with impunity. And so should it be.

But academics’ decisions should not be above questioning and criticism.

It is insulting to memorialize Rabbi Heschel, a Jewish leader who extolled the connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel with the likes of West.

Heschel made clear that “The Jewish people has never ceased to assert its right, its title, to the land of Israel. This continuous, uninterrupted insistence, an intimate ingredient of Jewish consciousness, is at the core of Jewish history, a vital element of Jewish faith.” Heschel also clarified the right of Jews to defend themselves, “We have a right to demand, ‘Love they neighbor as thyself.’ We have no right to demand, ‘Love they neighbor and kill thyself.’ No moral teacher has ever asserted, ‘If one stands with a knife threatening to kill you, bare your heart for him to murder you.’ There is no moral justification for self-destruction.”

In stark contrast, West has urged that American institutions divest from investments in Israel because, “the Israeli occupation of my Palestinian brothers and sisters is a crime against humanity. They are killing hundreds daily (sic) —but where are the voices?” He is an apologist for violence against Israelis, “there will be no security for our Jewish brothers and sisters—who have a right to security after 2,000 years of vicious hatred—as there can be no security predicated on violence.”

He was recently at Stanford to urge that the university adopt a policy of divestment from Israel, as always wrapped in the garb of his “prophetic” wisdom. Pompously, he described his condemnation of Israel as “based on moral criteria and spiritual standards that have to do with keeping track of the humanity of persons” (whatever that means). He then proceeds to argue that “Gaza is not just a ‘kind of’ concentration camp, it is the hood on steroids.” He urged action against Israel, “Well first I think we have to be very clear that the call for the end of the vicious Israeli occupation is today a kind of litmus test for progressives, because you have to sacrifice so much.”

West’s venom includes impugning those who are its friends and supporters. Last summer he spoke at a Washington, D.C. anti-Israel rally and attacked President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu as war criminals,

And what I want to say to my Black brother in the White House: Barack Obama is a war criminal – not because he’s Black, or half-African and white – but because his drones have killed 233 innocent children, and because he facilitates the killing of innocent Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and it would be true anywhere else.
Benjamin Netanyahu is a war criminal — not because he’s Jewish, but because he has chosen to promote occupation and annihilation.

The CJS may claim that the conference is about Heschel and that West’s bizarre and hostile comments are on a separate topic, only tangentially related to “moral grandeur and spiritual audacity. That will be a hard argument for the Center’s head, Todd Presner, to make.

He recently cancelled a long-planned appearance at the University of Illinois because the university had denied tenure to a professor of American Indian Studies for a series of truly incendiary comments about Israel and Jews.(see below)*  The University pointed out that the professor (Steven Salaita) who was scheduled to teach classes comparing issues related to the experiences of Native Americans and Palestinians, “lacked the professional fitness to serve on the faculty of the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.” Despite that finding and the nature of Salaita’s comments, Presner didn’t want his name to be connected to the university’s because to speak, he wrote to the university president, “would be to condone your actions and the leadership of your office and your board.” 

Apparently, for Presner, trumpeting a professor with manifest hostility to Israel and its supporters as a keynoter at a convocation on Heschel is not “condoning” West’s nasty rhetoric and message. Why he claims righteous indignation with the University of Illinois’ action and not West’s isn’t clear.

It is a sorry day when a Center for Jewish Studies allows a manifestly hostile, angry, and anti-Israel spokesman to accrue the legitimacy he desperately seeks (“he hungers for the studio” according to Dyson) by exploiting its good name and its reputation. It has chosen to diminish its own conference with a self-important keynoter who has, in the words of his colleague, Prof. Dyson, “a callous disregard for plural visions of truth, West, like the prophet Elijah, retreats into a deluded and self-important belief in his singular and exclusive rightness.”

His “rightness” is wrong.

* Salaita's tweets and comments:

Zionist uplift in America: every little Jewish boy and girl can grow up to be the leader of a monstrous colonial regime.”

“If #Israel affirms life, then why do so many Zionists celebrate the slaughter of children? What’s that? Oh, I see JEWISH life.”

“Zionists: transforming antisemitism [sic] from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.”

“Let’s cut to the chase: If you’re defending #Israel right now you’re an awful human being.”

On June 19, 2014, after three Israeli teenagers were reported kidnapped and presumed dead, Dr. Salaita posted a statement on Twitter which read: “You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the f**king West Bank settlers would go missing.” Dr. Salaita continued to post this comment even after the three teens were found murdered later that month.

From Heschel to Ramon


Heschel West Day School in Agoura Hills is changing its name to honor Israel’s first astronaut.

During a Kabbalat Shabbat filled with song and dance on June 3, school leaders announced that the entity will be known as Ilan Ramon Day School beginning in September. As such, it becomes the first known school in the country to make its namesake the astronaut who was killed during the space shuttle Columbia’s fatal 2003 mission, according to Yuri Hronsky, head of school.

“He, as a person, is … both an Israeli and an American hero,” Hronsky said. “He embodied a lot of the values that we hold dear: family, community, discovery, love for learning, Judaism,” Hronsky added. “He believed in the seeking of the undiscovered potential of the world, which is what science is about, in the same way we sort of look on every child — that our job is to work toward the undiscovered potential of every child.”

The renaming comes as the school kicks off the celebration of its 18th anniversary. It also makes good on a promise the founders made to eventually change the name it took after school leaders at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge helped them start the Conejo Valley school in 1994.

While the two schools were always independent, the Heschel board made its head of school available to get Heschel West off the ground and implement curriculum, Hronsky said.

“When we hit our 18th year this year, we sort of looked at it as a really opportune moment to step out with a new identity,” he said.

And if there was ever any confusion between the two schools in the past, there is no need to worry about that anymore.

“Each school really will have its own clear identity and will be able to move forward in very positive ways,” said Betty Winn, head of school at Heschel in Northridge, which is entering its 40th year. “I think that it’s a great time for both schools. … It’s just kind of a coming of age for everybody.”

Heschel West leaders created a committee late last year to begin the search for a new name. They conducted extensive interviews and surveys with past and present students, their families and community members to help divine how the school and its values were perceived and how that might be reflected in a name. In May, they decided on Ramon.

The son of a Holocaust survivor, Ramon was 48 when he lifted off into space as part of the crew of the Columbia, which broke apart over Texas during re-entry into the atmosphere. The Israel Air Force pilot was a payload specialist involved with numerous scientific experiments.

Students wear wristbands with the schools new name.

“I think the new name really stands for how we can move forward in new frontiers, new beginnings, uncharted territories, and still hold true to who we are,” said Bruce M. Friedman, president of the school’s board of directors and the father of one student and one alumnus.

“We’re educating children today for yet-to-be-defined careers, yet-to-be-defined industries, yet-to-be-defined challenges, and our new name symbolizes our core faith in ethics, morals, in values, but still speaks to how we will prepare our kids to meet the challenges of the future.”

Hronsky stressed that while the name of the National Blue Ribbon Award-winning school has changed, nothing else has altered.

“Same school. New name,” he said.

Heschel West has 150 students who range from 2-year-olds to fifth-graders. That’s an increase from 118 students last year, before it added a preschool, but below its 160 students in fall 2008.

“The school went through several years of struggling,” Hronsky said. “The parents at our school, a lot of them were in businesses that got really hammered, and it became financially harder for families, and the school was financially challenged for a few years.”

Tuition ranges from around $4,000 for the youngest children to $19,000 for the oldest. Last year, the school gave up on long-held plans to build a new campus in Agoura Hills, which was opposed by some residents, because it was no longer in its strategic interests, Friedman said.

Now, leaders remain squarely focused on the future. Shelly Hiskey, who has two children at the school and is co-president of the parent organization, said she’s not only thrilled with the choice of the new name, but she’s particularly happy with the organic process from which it came. It raised good questions about the institution, she said.

“What does our school stand for? What are the points that we cherish? What are the things that we want our children to learn at school?”

Still, Hiskey admits that it’s hard to let go of the old name.

“Imagine changing your child’s name after 18 years,” she said. “People have been used to that name, and it served our school well.”

Heschel, King and a Prayer for Peace


Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, “In a free society, some are guilty but all are responsible.” I have been mulling that quote over in my mind since I learned of the horrible assassination attempt on Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and the cold-blooded murder of the other innocent Arizonans in Tucson. Certainly, the main person guilty is the man who pulled the trigger, and he should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But, in Heschel’s formulation, all of us are somewhat responsible for what happened, for allowing our society to sink to such a level that our media spews violent rhetoric from prominent politicians and pundits without consequence; all of us are responsible for allowing the debate about guns and gun control, something that should be so sensible, to devolve into angry, violent reactions and prevent us from making laws that can protect people from the monstrous nature of daily firearm deaths in our country; all of us are responsible for supporting violent films and video games, glorifying violence on the screen that only serves to affect our children and our psyches. If we think it doesn’t have an effect, we are sorely deluding ourselves.

This is a tragedy not only for Arizona, but for all of America. If it turns out that this individual was connected to or influenced by extremist elements in our country, what will we do? What will we say? Everyone will condemn this publicly, but who will be ready to stand against these elements? We cannot condone people who use violent rhetoric and the dehumanization of public servants to create an environment that both legitimates hatred and tempts unstable personalities to engage in violent acts. We cannot condone language that “targets” opponents and places our adversaries on “hit lists.”

On a personal level, Rep. Giffords and her aide, Gabe Zimmerman, are Jewish, so I am saddened for our Jewish community. And, I am reminded of the run-up to the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in Israel, as I watched the summer before, living there, how the hateful rhetoric, grotesque posters and tacit approval from religious and political leaders for the killing ended in horror. And, as a human being and voice of peace, I am moved to call out and ask: Why? Why do we have to continue to see senseless violence cutting down the lives of innocent men, women and children? Will we allow violence and rage to overtake our great country?

The arc of history bends toward justice, Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, and as we celebrate his life and work this coming weekend, we need his voice and the voice of today’s Kings louder than ever. King’s values — love, compassion, nonviolence and tolerance — are being drowned out by the values of a fringe minority in our country. We have seen religion and religious rhetoric used throughout history to divide, to kill and to justify the worst crimes imaginable. Will we let that happen again here in 21st century America? We can and must overcome hate with love, overcome what Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik articulated when he said Arizona has become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry, by reminding all of us of our greater common humanity.

In the Talmud, we learn about how the ancient rabbis differed passionately with one another on matters of law, but at the end of the day were able to eat together, pray together and marry their children to one another. That civility and respect used to exist in our country, and in our halls of government but has sadly given way to the bitter divides we currently see before us. We are all responsible for trying to rebuild what has been destroyed in recent years. If we don’t start now, I fear there will be more bloody days like the ones we witnessed in the streets of Tucson. That was not King’s dream, and it certainly would be our worst nightmare.

May God bless the families of those who died, and send healing and recovery to Rep. Giffords and the others injured.

Joshua Levine Grater is senior rabbi at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (

Heschel West lets go of land, but plans to grow


“Heschel West Day School is continuing to thrive and make good strategic decisions. One of them is to no longer pursue a capital project,” said Head of School Tami Weiser, referring to a campaign launched in 2008.

In March, the 72 acres that Heschel West families purchased in 1997 for a permanent campus were sold at auction to the city of Agoura Hills for nearly one-third of the original purchase price of $1.6 million.

The sale brings a decade-long dispute between Heschel West, Old Agoura residents and the city of Agoura Hills to an end. Weiser says her focus now is to bolster student enrollment, which she hopes will be helped with the addition of a preschool in September.

“We’re going to stay here and continue to grow this site. There is a niche for Jewish education in the Conejo Valley,” she said.

Founded in 1994 with 14 kindergarten students, Heschel West today is a combination of permanent and modular buildings with an enrollment of 118 students and a capacity for 260. The Blue Ribbon school, located off the 101 Freeway at Liberty Canyon in Agoura Hills, had 160 students in fall 2008. Heschel West is nondenominational in its approach, but Weiser prefers to call the day school “pluralistic,” because it includes students at all levels of Jewish observance and serves kosher food.

For the past decade, Heschel West had plans to build a permanent campus nearby that would accommodate up to 750 elementary and middle school students on 72 acres of rural/residential land in unincorporated L.A. County, adjacent to Old Agoura. The site, north of the 101 Freeway and east of Chesebro Road, would have included nine buildings on 21 acres, about 230 parking spaces and sports fields. But the property became the focus of a fierce turf war between the Jewish day school and the Old Agoura Homeowner’s Association (OAHA), which adamantly opposed the project over concerns about traffic and the overall impact on their equestrian way of life.

L.A. County approved the Heschel West project in 2007 and gave the school and opponents a year to work out their differences with OAHA and the city of Agoura Hills. Everything came to a head at a dramatic standing-room-only meeting in November 2008 at Agoura Hills City Hall. That night the city council approved a plan by a vote of 4 to1 that would require the school to help finance the widening of the Chesebro Road freeway overpass to mitigate expected traffic issues.

About 30 residents spoke out publicly against the proposed development at the meeting, with some accusing the city of capitulating to the will of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors, including Zev Yaroslavsky, whose district includes the Agoura Hills area.

Jess Thomas, president of OAHA at the time, accused Yaroslavsky of “abuse,” and “imposing his personal will on the approval process.”

“These are good people; I love Jess Thomas. I think he is a hero of the environment. But we made it clear years ago that the North Area Plan allows for a school on this property, and that if a school could be built that is compatible with the plan, we were going to approve it,” the supervisor said in an interview at the time.

In a 2008 interview with The Jewish Journal, Rick Wentz, then a Heschel West board member, said the school spent more than $2 million on consultants, studies and entitlements. And among the conditions Heschel West faced in its effort to construct the school was a $3.5 million contribution for traffic mitigation.

Heschel West had won the right to build its new school, but the downturn in the economy and a declining enrollment impacted its ability to move forward.

“It was not financially feasible for us to continue developing a property,” Weiser said.

In March, the land was sold at auction to the City of Agoura Hills for $630,000. City Manager Greg Ramirez was the only bidder on the property.

Despite the acrimony, Weiser harbors no resentment toward anyone in the community who opposed Heschel West’s plans, several of whom are Jewish.

“I don’t believe anti-Semitism played a role in this conflict,” she said.

The future of the 72-acre site is still uncertain. While local environmental group Save Open Space is hopeful the city will set aside the land as a wildlife corridor property, the city of Agoura Hills is also considering limited development.

“The city has always maintained that the property is best suited for a residential development in which it is zoned, with roughly a maximum of 15 homes,” Ramirez said.

Weiser says there has been some confusion over the sale of the property versus the continuation of Heschel West as a day school. She says the school, which recently dedicated its high-tech Ellie and Mark Lainer Library, isn’t going anywhere. 

“I didn’t like hearing about the demise of our school,” Weiser said. “It was the site, not our school.”

Looking back on the difficult battle, she said, “It was a challenging time, but we came out of it as a stronger community.”

Judaism From the Bottom Up


One of the most exciting experiments in Jewish transformation is taking place right here in Los Angeles.

Beit T’Shuvah is one of the nation’s only homes for rehabilitation and return that integrates the 12 steps and Judaism. To hear Rabbi Mark Borovitz’s interpretation of the Torah portion on a Friday evening is to understand what Abraham Joshua Heschel meant by "Judaism from the bottom up" — the crucial reconfiguration of our people that must take place, Heschel said, if Judaism is to answer the redemptive call of the next generation.

Judaism asks the essential questions, if only we’d listen, wrote Heschel in "Pikuach Neshama: To Save a Soul." "For what purpose am I alive? Does my life have a meaning, a reason? Is there a need for my existence? Will anything on Earth be impaired by my disappearance?"

Each Shabbat, Borovitz asks these questions of a packed crowd of 300 addicts, convicts, malcontents and their families at the House, on Venice Boulevard near Robertson. Usually, he quotes Heschel along the way. Sixty men and 40 women live at the complex, in three programs that constitute a life-skills training school more than a typical rehab. That ‘s because Borovitz and Harriet Rossetto, Beit T’Shuvah’s founder and CEO (and Borovitz ‘s wife) do not think of addiction as a terminal Jewish abomination, a shanda. They understand, as so many others are coming to know in their own lives, that addiction itself is only a symptom, (as Borovitz repeatedly says), an indication that we are in our "wrong skin" and have work to do.

Emblazoned on the Beit T’Shuvah stained glass window is the Talmudic challenge: "In the place where a penitent stands, even the perfectly righteous cannot reach." At a time when the standards of Jewish financial and spiritual ambition have reached excessive new heights, Beit T’Shuvah asks: do we mean this?

"Each of us has a Moses in our lives, leading us to freedom," Borovitz told the crowd last Friday. He spent 17 years in assorted criminal activities leading to jail and prison — as he says, stealing everything that wasn ‘t nailed down. His own Moses was a prison chaplain, Mel Silverman. Today Borovitz, who received ordination two years ago from the University of Judaism, is a chaplain at Los Angeles County Jail.

"We all have to make teshuvah," he told me. "If we each made amends and expressed gratitude around our Shabbat table — as we do here each Friday — the amount of addiction would be lessened. We would break the myth of the perfect family."

Recently, I wrote about the Addictions Conference held at the Skirball Cultural Center by our own Jewish Federation. It was a good first step for the so-called "rest" of us, the Jews who would rather not have 12-step programs in their synagogues for fear of offending the upscale gentry. (Another option in town is the Chabad Drug Rehabilitation Program, which treats dozens of addicts each year.)

But the battle is fought day after day. It begins with teshuvah, the radical notion that we are both imperfect and capable of change.

This is heavy stuff, but at Beit T’Shuvah, life itself is no parlor game. Borovitz and Rossetto are making it safe for Jews to say the unthinkable: that Judaism is for the lost, not only the found; for the wanderer, not the self-satisfied; that God will not lose faith with me, even if I have temporarily lost my way.

Borovitz, along with Rabbi Ed Feinstein, is revising the 12 steps used universally by Alcoholics Anonymous, and recasting them as 10 Jewish steps, beginning with "I am a holy soul. I have chosen paths that have led to separation and destruction."

Meanwhile, I am rising to applaud them on the eve of their annual fundraising dinner, to be held this Sunday, honoring community activist Annette Shapiro. After 15 years with Gateways Hospital, Beit T’Shuvah is on its own now, dependent on community support. You can’t get into the sold-out dinner, but you can visit any Friday night and see what ‘s coming down.

The Chief of Staff


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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) *