A dream too far: Lessons from Selma

There is something tragic about the civils rights movement—the very fact that it was needed in the first place. Why did it have to be such a big deal to give Blacks the right to vote? By today’s standards, it seems downright absurd to deny Blacks, or anyone else for that matter, this fundamental right.

It was that simple notion of voting that lingered anxiously in my mind this past Shabbat as I walked for hours through the streets of Selma, Alabama. I was on a Martin Luther King weekend solidarity mission organized by my friend Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, who runs the modern Orthodox Ohev Shalom synagogue in Washington, D.C. A few months ago, at his Shabbat table, Herzfeld invited me join his community for the three-day journey to honor the civil rights movement. Having a teenage daughter who loves any idea that includes the words “social” and “justice,” I signed up for the adventure.

Among the many things we did—including praying in a 117-year-old synagogue in Selma, visiting the home where Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spent the night before marching with King, and crossing the Edmund Pettus bridge that kicked off that famous five-day march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965—I think what stuck with me the most was that long afternoon walking with my daughter through the decaying town of Selma.

Two ideas clashed during our walk—hope versus despair. In a museum, I would see words of hope from heroic quotes such as this one, from President Lyndon Johnson in 1965:

“The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.”

This is the part of Selma that reminds you of how oppressive things used to be during the days of segregation, when Blacks could not even pull up at an ice cream counter or register to vote.

But as we walked through streets with abandoned buildings and broken down homes, with one storefront after another peddling “pay day loans” and a boarded-up building with an old “Rite-Aid” sign, I couldn’t help thinking about the limits of Johnson’s “most powerful instrument ever devised by man.”

What good is the powerful freedom to vote if you’re living in a place that feels like an enormous prison with a Walmart?

What good is the right to pick your political leaders if those leaders keep betraying you?

President Johnson saw this coming in his 1965 speech, which is why he challenged Black leadership to move beyond the success of the civil rights movement:

“This act is not only a victory for Negro leadership. This act is a great challenge to that leadership. It is a challenge that cannot be met simply by protest and demonstrations.”

When you see the sad state of Selma today, it’s hard not to conclude that this town of 20,000 mostly Black residents is in need of strong leadership– at the local, state and federal levels.

One of the few remaining Jews in Selma shared some candid thoughts with me about how Selma is often used by political leaders at all levels for “photo-opportunities”— to burnish their street cred for fighting for Black rights.

Fighting for “rights,” though, doesn’t seem to be the dream of the day in Selma. They have every right to walk into a movie theater, but the theater burned down years ago and was never replaced. They have every right to vote for the candidate of their choice, but their lives are as miserable as ever.

No, the dream I saw as I walked through Selma on Shabbat was the dream to make a decent living and put those “pay-day loans” hustlers out of business. 

We saw a ray of hope at our Shabbat dinner Friday night. His name is Darrio Melton, the young new Black mayor of Selma. If he takes his job as seriously as he takes his city, there is hope. “Selma is the birthplace of American democracy,” he told us, meaning that until Blacks got their civil rights, America could not claim to be a real democracy. 

In speaking with us, both publicly and in private, it was clear that Melton would love nothing more than to attract more visitors to his little town. Maybe that’s why his key campaign promise was to address the city’s current crime problem. He understands that no city can succeed and attract jobs and businesses until it makes it safe to do so. 

Melton has benefitted from the Black right to vote. If he fails to deliver on his promises, he will diminish the power of this basic right. But if he does deliver, he will honor the “most powerful instrument ever devised by man” and the many who were forced to fight for something they should never have had to fight for.

Standing on holy ground

We arrived in Selma, Alabama to stand and march on holy ground. The first day of the NAACP’s “Journey for Justice” – which will march from August 1 beginning in Selma, Alabama through more than 40 days to rally in Washington, DC on Sept. 16 – my colleagues from the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Rabbi Seth Limmer, Rabbi Bruce Lustig, Rabbi Beth Singer and Rabbi Jason Rodich and I stood on holy ground. And then we marched onward in the blazing heat (106 degrees at times) along the scorching asphalt of Highway 80.

With a sacred Torah scroll brought from Chicago Sinai, we – like our colleagues 50 years ago – took one step after another to restore the Voting Rights Act, for jobs and educations, and to renew and reinvigorate the historic alliance between the Reform Jewish Community and the African American community.  

We began in prayer standing before the Amelia Boynton House with leaders of the NAACP, State Senators, US Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) and representatives of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).  I was asked to lead a prayer as well.  It came from my heart.  

We stood in front of the dilapidated house where Amelia Boynton lived and strategized. She organized the 1965 march to Montgomery and her home served as a meeting place and office in Selma for civil rights activists. It was Amelia Boynton who was beaten unconscious on Bloody Sunday and the picture of her on the ground went viral in 1965.  

One would have thought such an important place as this house would be a national museum. One would have thought it would be a national treasure, preserved by our government. But it is falling apart. The front and back yard are overgrown with weeds.  It is boarded up with graffiti and broken windows and the roof is caving in. It cried out to me as a metaphor that even though there have been advancements for African-Americans in our country, there is still so much in shambles as innocent children and adults are murdered and harassed by police, poverty is still rampant, educational equality is lacking in many neighborhoods, and voter suppression still alive and well. 

The Central Conference of American Rabbis made racial justice a priority long ago, when we first resolved to combat race-based discrimination in education back in 1938. And as we prayed together on Shabbat Nachamu, I knew more than ever before that our work as Rabbis must dive deeply again into this work for justice and equality for our brothers and sisters, for all of our children, and for our country. It is truly our job as rabbis to bring comfort to those who are discomforted and bring discomfort to those who see no problems.

The march began with a rally at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where I spoke again on behalf of the CCAR, as did our colleague Seth Limmer who cradled the Torah in his arms. Together we represented along with our colleagues the Reform community’s commitment to this holy work.  And then we began, step by step, two by two, over the bridge just as Heschel and King had done 50 years ago.  I could feel the tears welling up as the Torah was passed to me.  I took hold of it just on the other side of the bridge where the batons and cattle prods were used against the marchers on that Bloody Sunday. 

And still the work is not finished.  Equality is far away for so many, as the rundown buildings and houses on the highway surrounded us on Shabbat Nachamu in our bright yellow NAACP T-Shirts. 

I know from my own work as an LGBTQ activist, allies are critical to changing the world.  Many of you have been my allies.  And for that I am grateful. And many of us in the American Jewish community have continued since the earliest days of the civil rights movement to be involved with our African American friends and family in the struggle for equality.  But it can no longer remain just a pulpit exchange on MLK weekend as important as it is. We have to join in the march. More than 150 of my colleagues are marching cradling the Torah like I was able to. 

If you haven’t thought about going – there is still time to march for a day.  If you can’t, consider, helping sponsor meals for the Marchers.  Let us do the real work side by side in each of our cities and towns and in our nation. 

I know I stood on holy ground in Selma and Montgomery this weekend.  It is time for all of us to stand together with our African American family and friends to restore the Voting Rights Act, and to truly bring justice and equality to our country once and for all. 

Rabbi Denise L. Eger is President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Founding Rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami

Our annual Purim cover: Kanye interrupts Bibi, Foxcatcher gets sequel, Lyft offends with logo

Click on cover image to enlarge.

Cover design by Lynn Pelkey. Headlines by Jewish Journal staff, Esther D. Kustanowitz and Elon Gold.

More Purim 2015

Events calendar
Recipe: Funfetti cheesecake hamantaschen
Recipe: Bibi’s hamantaschen
Recipe: ‘Pop Tart’ hamantaschen
Recipe: Taco hamantaschen

Submit your Oscars Ballot – Win prizes!

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And the nominees are…


American Sniper
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything


Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game


Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything


Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Julianna Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild


Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash


Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Laura Dern, Wild
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birman
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods


Big Hero 6, Don Hall, Chris Williams and Roy Conli
The Boxtrolls, Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable and Travis Knight
How to Train Your Dragon 2, Dean DeBlois and Bonnie Arnold
Song of the Sea, Tomm Moore and Paul Young
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Isao Takahata and Yoshiaki Nishimura


American Sniper, Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach
Boyhood, Sandra Adair
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Barney Pilling
The Imitation Game, William Goldenberg
Whiplash, Tom Cross


Birdman, Emmanuel Lubezki
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Robert Yeoman
Ida, Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski
Mr. Turner, Dick Pope
Unbroken, Roger Deakins


American Sniper, Written by Jason Hall
The Imitation Game, Written by Graham Moore
Inherent Vice, Written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson
The Theory of Everything, Screenplay by Anthony McCarten
Whiplash, Written by Damien Chazelle


Birdman, Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
Boyhood, Written by Richard Linklater
Foxcatcher, Written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Screenplay by Wes Anderson; Story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness
Nightcrawler, Written by Dan Gilroy


“Everything Is Awesome,” The LEGO Movie
“Glory,” Selma
“Grateful,” Beyond the Lights
“I'm Not Gonna Miss You,” Glen Campbell … I'll Be Me
“Lost Stars,” Begin Again


The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Mr. Turner
The Theory of Everything


The Grand Budapest Hotel
Inherent Vice
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner

Ida, Belgium
Leviathan, Russia
Tangerines, Estonia
Timbuktu, Mauritania
Wild Tales, Argentina


Finding Vivian Maier
Last Days in Vietnam
The Salt of the Earth


Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Our Curse
The Reaper (La Parka)
White Earth


Boogaloo and Graham
Butter Lamp (La Lampe au Beurre de Yak)
The Phone Call


The Bigger Picture
The Dam Keeper
Me and My Moulton
A Single Life


The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner


The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy


Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
X-Men: Days of Future Past

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Why I don’t want to watch the (white) Oscars this year

In my family, the Academy Awards are an annual event celebrated with the kind of specific rituals more often associated with major cultural events: the days of predictions beforehand; the festive spread of Fritos, onion dip and enough nosherei to feed a small army; the red-carpet gossipfest; even the inevitable boredom — all are part of our family’s life cycle, as ingrained as the Fourth of July. Even as our children grow up and move out of town, we watch the Oscars in virtual togetherness, texting feverishly: “Can you believe what she’s wearing?” “Adele Dazeem?!”

But this year I won’t be breaking out the onion dip. I can’t. The almost-complete shutout of any artist of color in any category is too nauseating. To hoist a glass and laugh along with the jokes will feel like enjoying a party at a whites-only country club.  

There may be a million reasons why “Selma” was shut out almost entirely from awards, starting with the inaccurate representation of LBJ’s conversations with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. “Selma” got nods only for best picture and best song, notably bypassing director Ava DuVernay and actor David Oyelowo; as a comparison, Oliver Stone’s conspiracy-theory movie, “JFK,” which took far more liberties with the truth, was nominated for eight Oscars, including best director, best supporting actor and best screenplay. Even this year, “The Imitation Game,” whose director was nominated, has been widely criticized for exaggerating Alan Turing’s role in cracking the Nazi codes; “Foxcatcher,” whose director was also nominated, bears so little resemblance to actual events that it is astonishing that the DuPont family has not sued for defamation.

But for me, it’s not only that the near-shutout of “Selma” feels particularly galling in the context of Ferguson, Eric Garner and marches in the street to remind America that #blacklivesmatter. It’s not only that DuVernay, however you may feel about her interpretation of LBJ, has made a powerful portrait of a movement whose work is still not finished, nor that Oyelowo has given a stunning portrayal of King, nor that Carmen Ejogo is luminous in her portrayal of Coretta Scott King.  

It’s that there are no other African-American nominees from any other movie at all. In a roster of dozens of nominees, there is only one single person of color — Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu — and he is not American, so, in fact, there is not a single American person of color.  

To contextualize this whitewash, remember that the Oscars are taking place in Los Angeles, a city whose population, according to the latest U.S. Census, is less than 50 percent white — 48.5 percent of people living here are Latino; 9.6 percent are African-American. More than 11 percent are Asian, and the rest are mixed race, American Indian or Pacific Islander. These minoritized groups, taken together, are, in fact, the majority of Angelenos. Am I crazy if I feel sick celebrating an industry that, despite being based in one of the most vibrantly multicultural cities in the world, almost exclusively tells stories by and about white people? Am I crazy when I bristle at the word “minority” when used to refer to a majority of our population?

We can dismiss all of this by saying that the Academy is made up a bunch of old, out-of-touch white men, but these awards are a pretty accurate reflection of the movies that Hollywood green-lights. The Writers Guild of America reports that 95 percent of screenwriting jobs in 2014 were taken by white people. According to a recent UCLA report, film directors of color make only 12.2 percent of movies, while actors of color play only 10.5 percent of leading roles. Of the 90 percent of movies with white leads, half of them featured a cast that was over 90 percent white.  

This gross underrepresentation speaks to the entrenchment of Hollywood’s white bubble, but the problem goes far deeper; it goes to lack of access in the entertainment business to internships and job opportunities, which in turn goes to the lack of educational equality for children of color, who are far more likely than white children to grow up in poverty. Latino-American children are twice as likely to grow up in poverty than whites. African-American children are three times as likely to grow up in poverty. In turn, children growing up in high-poverty communities are being educated in a system that has been decimated by slashes in funding that have eliminated arts education and even libraries from low-income neighborhoods.  

When I taught in a high school in South Central Los Angeles, I was stunned to find that many of my students could not sing a single note on key. Why? They’d never had a music class. Ever. High schools are required to offer students one arts class during their entire four years; many offer only that, and some offer none at all, despite the requirement. In a city with so much talent, where the entertainment business is the fifth-largest income producer, why have no companies reached out to low-income communities to offer any arts education for children?  Where is the bridge between the glitter of the red carpet and the hundreds of thousands of children living in poverty only a few miles away?  

So, forgive me if I skip the party in front of the TV this year. I can’t have fun celebrating an industry that, so many years after the civil-rights heroes were beaten down in the streets in their quest for justice, remains starkly segregated. I can hope, as King said, that the arc of our moral universe bends toward justice. And I will shut my eyes and try as hard as I can to believe it. 

Ellie Herman is a writer, teacher and life coach.

Echoes of Selma: Angeleno recalls Alabama summer of ‘65

How big of a “We” were the Jews in “We shall overcome”?

Since the nationwide release of “Selma” a week before the national holiday commemorating the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., I have wondered about the extent of Jewish participation in the civil rights movement. Was it just the Selma marches? Was our support also financial, in the voting booth? Or something more?

Albert Vorspan and David Saperstein concluded in their 1998 book “Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice: Tough Moral Choices of Our Time” that “Jews served in the forefront of the fight to end racial segregation in education, public accommodations and voting.” But wanting to hear it from someone who was actually in the “forefront,” I spoke with a Jewish recruit in the fight.

David Sookne may not sound like someone who served on the front lines of our nation’s battle for civil rights. The semi-retired mathematician and computer programmer — a resident of suburban Los Angeles with whom I pray a couple of times a month — is exacting in speech and even tempered.

David Sookne in 2013. (Edmon J. Rodman)

He’s also blessed with an excellent memory: Sookne can name the people in the Roosevelt administration down to the level of the undersecretary.

So he vividly recalls his seven weeks spent in Alabama’s rural Crenshaw County as a foot soldier in the voter registration campaign for blacks organized by King through the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. It was the summer of 1965 — after the Selma marches but before the passage of the Voting Rights Act that would be one of their outcomes.

Sookne, then 22 and enrolled in a doctoral program in in theoretical mathematics at the University of Chicago, signed up after following the news stories about the Freedom Riders and Freedom Summer — a campaign to register black voters in Mississippi in 1964 in which several supporters and volunteers were murdered, including two young Jewish men.

After first driving home to Springfield, Md. — his parents didn’t want him to go — he headed for Atlanta.

Sookne had already had his first taste of the risks involved with working for civil rights.

During spring break in ’65, he was among three dozen University of Chicago student volunteers in Somerville, Tenn., helping to build a structure to be used as a meeting place for voting rights activities.

In the local home of the organizer, John McFerren, who was black and a World War II veteran, Sookne heard a car pull up outside, a “pop-pop-pop” and the car pulling away.

“McFerren went to the living room wall and pulled something out,” Sookne recalled. It was a bullet from “a .22,” he recalled McFerren saying.

“‘They are just trying to scare us,'” McFerren said, according to Sookne. “If they were trying to kill us, they would use something bigger.’”

“That was my introduction to the danger of voter registration,” Sookne said.

As part of the training in Atlanta, Sookne and hundreds of volunteers heard King speak, as well as Bayard Rustin, a pacifist and civil rights leader. He also went through about a weeklong training session that would help prepare him for the domestic battle ahead.

“We practiced various things like not reacting to insults,” said Sookne, who had a student deferment from service in the Vietnam War. “We also practiced curling up on the ground, protecting vital organs in case we got beaten up.”

At the end of the week, the volunteers were given their assignments, and Sookne drove his pale green Volkswagen Beetle in a caravan that stopped first in Montgomery, Ala. From there he drove to the small town of Luverne, where he met up with six others, including organizer Bruce Hartford, also Jewish, who had found the group housing in a local residence.

Sookne recalled that about five minutes after they reached town, they were met by the local police chief, Harry Raupach.

“He told us to write down name, address and next of kin,” Sookne said, “just in case something happened to us.”

He also recalled that Raupach, who was originally from the North — “and not a Klansman,” Sookne said — saved the group more than once from being beaten up.

Knocking on people’s doors at a time when the passage of the Voting Rights Act seemed imminent — the law would make registration easier — made signing up voters a hard sell. So the group members turned their efforts toward another goal: integrating local restaurants.

In the town of Brantley, they ran into trouble.

“They didn’t want their all-white restaurants integrated,” Sookne said.

At a nonviolence training session on a ball field there, he recalled “three carloads of young men in their late teens and 20s” pulling up, with perhaps five of them getting out.

“They told us we better get out of Brantley or they would beat us up,” Sookne said.

Hartford, who was also present, has written that the locals — he refers to them as “All Klan” — had “ax handles and chains and clubs.”

Sookne said the volunteers made a dash for his VW.

On the highway trying to make it back to Luverne, he could see that two cars were in close pursuit, with perhaps others farther behind. When the highway widened a few miles before the relative safety of Luverne, Sookne recalled one of the cars passing, pulling in front and boxing him in.

“We slowed to about 25 miles per hour,” Sookne said.

He took a turnoff and veered left “onto a winding gravel road where the VW had an advantage.” His car pulled ahead, but turning onto a second highway to Luverne, the Klansmen were still in pursuit.

Suddenly, Hartford recalled, a couple of cars “filled with black men armed with shotguns” got between the VW and its pursuers. Hartford, who was in the car, believes some people in Brantley had called them about the situation.

“They escorted us back into Luverne. The Klan didn’t want to mess with them,” Hartford wrote.

In the fall, back at college, Sookne received a letter from King sent to all the SCLC volunteers — 20 to 30 percent of whom were Jewish, both Sookne and Hartford estimate.

“It is a rare privilege in life to participate in the fulfillment of an idea whose time has come,” the letter began.

For Sookne it was also a way, he said, of expressing “Tzedek, tzedek tirdoff” — “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Even if, as it turned out, he was also being pursued.

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) *