Bob Schwartz

Tag: Abraham Joshua Heschel

MLK and AJH: Two Friends, Two Prophets

Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr. at Arlington National Cemetery, February 6, 1968.

“Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America. His mission is sacred, his leadership of supreme importance to every one of us.”
Abraham Joshua Heschel

From Two Friends, Two Prophets, Plough Quarterly, by Susannah Heschel, Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and daughter of Abraham Joshua Heschel.


Two Friends, Two Prophets: Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King Jr.

It’s easy to forget how unusual the friendship between Heschel and King was in its day. The two came from very different backgrounds – King had grown up in Atlanta, Georgia, while Heschel arrived in the United States as a refugee from Hitler’s Europe in March of 1940 – “a brand plucked from the fire,” as he wrote. Yet the two found an intimacy that transcended the growing public rift between their two communities….

Heschel and King shared a disdain for the popular liberal Protestant theology of the era, and a skepticism for orthodoxies. They mocked Paul Tillich’s definition of God as the “ground of being,” helpless in the face of injustice. Both thought that Karl Barth’s theology left “the average mind lost in the fog of theological abstractions,” as King wrote….

The March on Washington took place in August 1963, with more than two hundred thousand people participating.

“The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” Abraham Joshua Heschel

Their pleas were met by a disappointing silence. President Kennedy did not declare a state of moral emergency, nor did clergy donate a month of salary to housing and education. If anything, the tensions in the United States grew even more dire. Just weeks later, on September 15, 1963, a church in Birmingham was bombed, killing four young black girls. That same day, James Bevel and Diane Nash launched the Alabama Project that ultimately led to the famous march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.

The prophets – both Heschel’s book and the biblical figures – drew Heschel and King together. Both men were trained theologians who also knew how to preach. King was the organizer and public figure, while Heschel was the theologian and scholar with the voice of a public intellectual. Prophetic rhetoric has a long public history in the United States, yet it was not only the prophets’ words that stood out. For King and Heschel, the prophets were extraordinary human beings with passionate emotional lives, people who knew how to pray and who created powerful symbolic moments….

The 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery was a major event for both Heschel and King. A few days before the march took place, Heschel led a delegation of eight hundred people to FBI headquarters in New York City in order to protest the brutal treatment of demonstrators in Selma. On Friday, March 19, two days before the Selma march was scheduled to begin, Heschel received a telegram from King, inviting him to join the marchers. Heschel was welcomed as one of the leaders in the front row of marchers, with King, Ralph Bunche, and Ralph Abernathy. Each of them wore flower leis brought by Hawaiian delegates. In an unpublished memoir that he wrote upon returning from Selma, Heschel describes the extreme hostility he encountered from whites in Alabama from the moment he arrived at the airport, in contrast to the kindness he was shown by King’s assistants….

Were Heschel and King the prophets of America? Neither claimed the title, but each spoke of the other as a prophet. In introducing King to the audience, Heschel asked, “Where in America today do we hear a voice like the voice of the prophets of Israel? Martin Luther King is a sign that God has not forsaken the United States of America. God has sent him to us. His presence is the hope of America. His mission is sacred, his leadership of supreme importance to every one of us.”

In response, King stated that Heschel “is indeed a truly great prophet…. Here and there we find those who refuse to remain silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows, and they are forever seeking to make the great ethical insights of our Judeo-Christian heritage relevant in this day and in this age.”

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Dogen and Heschel on Time

Zen Master Dogen (1200-1253) and Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) would have understood each other, liked each other, despite the seven centuries that separate them. Brilliant, visionary and overwhelmingly articulate, they were heirs to two rich traditions, Zen Buddhism and Judaism, which they further refined into pure essence. Their inspired prose is poetry, the poetry of the thing itself.

Both wrote about time in ways that exceed our comprehension by a step or two, so we run to keep up: Dogen most astutely in his essay Uji: The Time Being; Heschel in his book The Sabbath.


When you are at this place, there is just one grass, there is just one form; there is understanding of form and beyond understanding of form; there is understanding of grass and beyond understanding of grass. Since there is nothing but just this moment, the time being is all the time there is. Grass being, form being, are both time.

Each moment is all being, each moment is the entire world. Reflect now whether any being or any world is left out of the present moment….

Mountains are time. Oceans are time. If they were not time, there would be no mountains or oceans. Do not think that mountains and oceans here and now are not time. If time is annihilated, mountains and oceans are annihilated. As time is not annihilated, mountains and oceans are not annihilated.

Zen Master Dogen, Uji: The Time Being, translated by Dan Welch and Kazuaki Tanahashi, in The Essential Dogen.


Every one of us occupies a portion of space. He takes it up exclusively. The portion of space which my body occupies is taken up by myself in exclusion of anyone else. Yet, no one possesses time. There is no moment which I possess exclusively. This very moment belongs to all living men as it belongs to me. We share time, we own space. Through my ownership of space, I am a rival of all other beings; through my living in time, I am a contemporary of all other beings. We pass through time, we occupy space. We easily succumb to the illusion that the world of space is for our sake, for man’s sake. In regard to time, we are immune to such an illusion.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath.


 

Rosh Hashanah 5779 – Abraham Joshua Heschel on Repentance

In the realm of spirit, there is no difference between a second and a century, between an hour and an age. Rabbi Judah the Patriarch cried: “There are those who gain eternity in a lifetime, others who gain it in one brief hour.” One good hour may be worth a lifetime; an instant of returning to God may restore what has been lost in years of escaping from Him. “Better is one hour of repentance and good deeds in this world than the whole life in the world to come.” (Avot 4:22)
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

Abraham Joshua Heschel: “I am an optimist against my better judgment.”

If you have the time—and you should make the time—please watch this half-hour interview of Abraham Joshua Heschel from 1972, shortly before he died.

It doesn’t matter whether you believe in God, the Bible or religion. That such a person might grace the world and our lives is testament to the human possibility. Few of us will reach that height, but just knowing that there is such light among us should inspire us dimmer bulbs.

“I am an optimist against my better judgment,” he says. On our better days, so should we all try to be.

The Heart of Shabbat

The Heart of Shabbat

On Shabbat
The mountains walk away
Gone beyond
Not to distract
With grandeur in space
Reminders of time
In their absence

Further reading:

The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel

Mountain and Waters Sutra, Dogen (“The green mountains are always walking”)

The Heart Sutra, translated by Red Pine (“Gate gate, paragate, parasangate, bodhi svaha”)

 

Heschel for Passover (or Any Time)

A reader reminds me that a year ago, I posted about including readings from Abraham Joshua Heschel in the Passover seder (A Heschel Haggadah).

You will find the readings I included in last year’s seder below. As regular readers know, I’ve mentioned Heschel a few times in this blog, and more frequently in my conversations and discussions. He may be the greatest of modern masters of Judaism or of any spiritual traditions. He is not always easy, but he is accessible, inspirational, mind-and-soul-stirring at a depth that lasts. His is not fast food; it is a long, rich, delicious meal that nourishes you for a lifetime and that you never forget—kind of like a seder. In addition to Elijah, who we expect at every seder, Heschel would be so welcome any time.

Along with the readings below, I urge you to take a look at some of the collections of readings available and then, if you like what you find, check out some of the many books (I am particularly fond of The Sabbath, but there are so many worthy ones).

Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings

The Wisdom of Heschel

I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology  (“Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.”)


THE MEANING OF EXISTENCE is experienced in moments of exaltation. Man must strive for the summit in order to survive on the ground. His norms must be higher than his behavior, his ends must surpass his needs. The security of existence lies in the exaltation of existence.

This is one of the rewards of being human: quiet exaltation, capability for celebration. It is expressed in a phrase which Rabbi Akiba offered to his disciples:

A song every day,
A song every day

 

THE TABLETS ARE BROKEN whenever the Golden Calf is called into being. We believe that every hour is endowed with the power to lend meaning to or withhold meaning from all other hours. No moment is as a moment able to bestow ultimate meaning upon all other moments. No moment is the absolute center of history. Time is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose periphery is nowhere.

 

THE WORLD COULD NOT EXIST at all except as one; deprived of unity, it would not be a cosmos but chaos, an agglomeration of countless possibilities … Life is tangled, fierce, fickle. We cannot remain in agreement with all goals. We are constantly compelled to make a choice, and the choice of one goal means the forsaking of another.

 

THE PROPHETS PROCLAIMED that justice is omnipotent, that right and wrong are dimensions of world history, not merely modes of conduct. The existence of the world is contingent upon right and wrong … The validity of justice and the motivation for its exercise lie in the blessings it brings to man … Justice exists in relation to a person … An act of injustice is condemned, not because the law is broken, but because a person has been hurt.

 

THE HEART IS OFTEN A LONELY VOICE in the marketplace of living. Man may entertain lofty ideals and behave like the ass that, as the saying goes, “carries gold and eats thistles.” The problem of the soul is how to live nobly in an animal environment; how to persuade and train the tongue and the senses to behave in agreement with the insights of the soul.

 

HUMAN LIFE IS HOLY, holier even than the Scrolls of the Torah … Reverence for God is shown in our reverence for man. The fear you must feel of offending or hurting a human being must be as ultimate as your fear of God. An act of violence is an act of desecration. To be arrogant toward man is to be blasphemous toward God.

 

TO PRAY is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live.

To escape from the mean and penurious, from calculating and scheming, is at times the parching desire of man … Prayer clarifies our hope and intentions. It helps us discover our true aspirations, the pangs we ignore, the longings we forget. It is an act of self-purification … It teaches us what to aspire to, implants in us the ideals we ought to cherish.

 

THE MOST MAGNIFICENT EDIFICES, most beautiful temples and monuments of worldly glory, are repulsive to the man of piety when they are built by the sweat and tears of suffering slaves, or erected through injustice and fraud. Hypocrisy and pretense of devoutness are more distasteful to him than open iniquity. But in the roughened, soiled hands of devoted parents, or in the maimed bodies and bruised faces of those who have been persecuted but have kept faith with God, he may detect the last great light on earth.

 

WHAT WOULD ART HAVE BEEN without the religious sense of mystery and sovereignty, and how dreary would religion have been without the incessant venture of the artist to embody the invisible in visible forms, to bring his vision out of the darkness of the heart, and to fill the immense absence of the Deity with the light of human genius? The right hand of the artist withers when he forgets the sovereignty of God, and the heart of the religious man has often become dreary without the daring skill of the artist. Art seemed to be the only revelation in the face of the Deity’s vast silence.

Paradise

berliner-rabbinical-seminary-1988

A story is told about a rabbi who once entered heaven in a dream. He was permitted to approach the temple in Paradise where the great sages of the Talmud, the tannaim, were spending their eternal lives. He saw that they were just sitting around tables studying the Talmud. The disappointed rabbi wondered, “Is this all there is to Paradise?” But suddenly he heard a voice, “You are mistaken. The tannaim are not in Paradise. Paradise is in the tannaim.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays

 

Days of Awesome: Day 1 (Rosh Hashanah)

 

I brought them out of the land of Egypt and I led them into the wilderness. I gave them My laws and taught them My rules, by the pursuit of which a man shall live. Moreover, I gave them My sabbaths to serve as a sign between Me and them, that they might know that it is I the Lord who sanctify them.
Ezekiel 20:10-12 (New Jewish Publication Society translation)

Note from The Jewish Study Bible:

The Sabbath is the foundational sign of the covenant (Exod. 20.8–11; 31.12–17). Scholars have suggested that the Sabbath became particularly significant in the exile, as holy time replaced the vacuum of holy space (the Temple); this might explain why the Sabbath plays such a significant role here. As in Exod. 31.13, 17 (from the Priestly tradition), it is viewed as a sign, namely a symbol acknowledging God as Creator.

Here we are confronted with the phenomenon at the heart of this holiday. At the heart of every holiday. At the heart of religion and reality itself. We are concerned with space. We are concerned with being. We are concerned with time too. But we may not be properly concerned, in a balanced way that accounts for time, space and being.

We can rule space, or at least pretend to. If you visit New York or other great cities, you see how people have shaped space to their liking and purposes. But where in New York or elsewhere have even the richest and most powerful ultimately shaped time? We can mark time, but do we understand? To help us understand, time is set aside. It may be by God, it may be by our society or community, it may be by and for those close to us.

The Sabbath each week, and the Days of Awe each year, are set aside to be different than the other days of the week or of the year. Different in fact than any other days of eternity. In part to remind us of present eternity.

For more, see The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel and The Time-Being by Zen Master Dogen, which can be found in Enlightenment Unfolds.

This is the first post in a very small project/experiment in random wisdom I call The Days of Awesome. In addition to the standard and traditional forms of worship and contemplation associated with the Jewish High Holy Days (also known as Days of Awe), each day of the holiday I will be studying a randomly selected chapter of the Tanakh (also known as the Jewish Bible or the Old Testament), which has 39 books containing a total of 929 chapters.

Among other things, this is inspired by the I Ching and by social theorist and philosopher Gregory Bateson, who is quoted as saying “I am going to build a church someday. It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.”

The Whole Wheat of Spirit and the Millstone of Reason

Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth

Going beyond pure reason is a trip too far for many, to a place where the possible and the impossible seem to coexist on equal terms.

But why not go beyond, at least for a visit or vacation? You never know what you will find or learn there.

Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun
Oh but mama that’s where the fun is
Bruce Springsteen, Blinded by the Light

To the pious man God is as real as life, and as nobody would be satisfied with mere knowing or reading about life, so he is not content to suppose or to prove logically that there is a God; he wants to feel and to give himself to Him; not only to obey but to approach Him. His desire is to taste the whole wheat of spirit before it is ground by the millstone of reason. He would rather be overwhelmed by the symbols of the inconceivable than wield the definitions of the superficial.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man Is Not Alone

Recommended:

The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism: Second Edition, Geoffrey W. Dennis

The new edition of a thoroughly readable and accessible compendium of information and insights. Fun for the casually curious, valuable for the interested reader and researcher.

From the Introduction:

Judaism is one of the oldest living esoteric traditions in the world. Virtually every form of Western mysticism and spiritualism known today draws upon Jewish mythic and occult teachings—magic, prayer, angelology, alchemy, numerology, astral projection, dream interpretation, astrology, amulets, divination, altered states of consciousness, alternative, and rituals of power—all have roots in the Jewish occult….

Modern Jews like to imagine that magic has been swept into the dustbin of history by the long, inexorable progress of rationalism. More than that, Jews have been taught from our youth that Judaism has always possessed an essentially naturalistic worldview and that magic, merely a marginal Jewish preoccupation at most, was just an anomaly resulting from our being situated (and corrupted) by the superstitions of our neighbors. But that’s not entirely accurate. It is only in the last two centuries that Jews have fully embraced science, but we have always been looking for ways to change the world for the better, whether it be through science, medicine, or “practical Kabbalah.”

Even today, rationalism has not completely displaced our sense that there is a mystical potential at work in the world; Occam’s razor has never been able to fully overpower the Sixteen-Sided Sword of the Almighty. Millions of people, both Jews and gentiles, continue to believe that the stars influence our lives. Most Americans believe in the reality of angels. Jewish techniques of dream interpretation and for combating the evil eye are still widely practiced today. When you read the entries of this book on topics such as these, you will realize that magical thinking and enchanting deeds have always had a place in Judaism and, however much some might want to dismiss Judaism’s miraculous and wondrous traditions, the presence of Jewish magic in Jewish life has merely been eclipsed, never uprooted; it still has the potential to empower us.

A Heschel Haggadah

 

Heschel Stamp

Each Passover is an opportunity to craft a special theme and text for the seder meal and celebration. The haggadah is the guide to the seder. It always incorporates the traditional order and elements that have been a part of the seder for centuries—most especially the retelling of the exodus story. Beyond that, one can follow the same exact text year after year, or can get creative. In recent years, creativity has been a hallmark of Passover and the haggadah.

It is a happy struggle for me to determine which haggadah to use for seder. Happy because it is a way to deeply consider Passover, the seder, and the group of guests joining us at the table. Our library has haggadot from years past, both those in published book form and those made up of pages printed and compiled ourselves. (I am a little partial to the one that includes scenes from The Ten Commandments movie.)

After weeks of study, and with a previous suggestion about using FDR’s Four Freedoms as a possible theme, I’ve decided to make this a seder featuring the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel. I’ve mentioned Heschel a few times in this blog (and mentioned his daughter, Professor Susannah Heschel, too). I’ve run out of superlatives to recommend his work. So as I’ve said before, he is the great Jewish thinker and writer of the 20th century, and that is only the start. He is also a model of enlightened religious thought in action. He marched with Dr. King in Selma—as can be seen in the famous photo, Heschel looking every bit the bearded biblical figure. And it was to Heschel’s seder that Dr. King planned to go in April 1968, when he was gunned down in Memphis.

In that same vein, here is a message that Heschel sent to President Kennedy in 1963:

To President John F. Kennedy, The White House, June 16, 1963

I look forward to privilege of being present at meeting tomorrow at 4 p.m. Likelihood exists that Negro problem will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Church synagogues have failed. They must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. Let religious leaders donate one month’s salary toward fund for Negro housing and education. I propose that you Mr. President declare state of moral emergency. A Marshall Plan for aid to Negroes is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.

Now begins my review of Heschel’s volumes, looking for small excerpts that will convey the essence of Heschel and the holiday, but won’t make the seder too long. For me, if we just took part in the seder, ate a great meal, and read Heschel aloud all night, it would be fine. Let’s see how that goes.

For an introduction to the words and works of Abraham Joshua Heschel:

The Wisdom of Heschel

Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings

I Asked For Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology

“Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.”