if not now, when?

If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?
If I am for myself alone, then what am I?
And if not now, when?
-Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 1:14


Rabbi Hillel put it very succinctly back in the first century in his famous commentary on life’s crucial decisions.  What matters in the long run, is not our intentions, no matter how well meaning, but our actions.  

That is why I appeal to you today for your financial and moral support in carrying on the message of another great rabbi who also had much to say about the deep significance of taking action:

Acts are a challenge to the soul  … How else can one learn the joy of loving-kindness if not by enacting it? .... We do not have faith in deeds; we attain faith through deeds …”

The author of these reflections was Abraham Joshua Heschel — rabbi, scholar, teacher, poet, a devout Jew, a fervent advocate for the oppressed, a champion of interfaith dialogue  --  one of the great religious voices of conscience of the 20th century.

Most Americans -- even, sadly to say, most American Jews -- have never heard of this amazing and inspiring man.  While widely known in progressive religious circles and often mentioned in the same breath as spiritual giants such as Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, Thomas Merton, Mother Theresa and Gandhi, Heschel, to our nation’s great spiritual and moral loss, is still a jewel waiting to be discovered by a wider audience. This is a moral scandal that must be corrected.  

And that is what I have taken it upon myself to do.   For the past six years I have been working on a feature-length documentary entitled Praying With My Legs; Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Search for a Meaningful Existence, a film celebrating Rabbi Heschel’s life, thought and transformational impact on those he has come in contact with through his words and persona.

Until now, there has been no preserved film record of this extraordinarily important Jewish thinker and activist’s life and work.  Not until this film have Arthur Green, Susannah Heschel, Elie Wiesel, William Sloane Coffin, Daniel Berrigan, Andrew Young, James Lawson, Sayyed Hossein Nasr, Kenneth Woodward and many many others been contacted and interviewed to place Heschel in his proper historical context and to preserve for generations to come their very important memories and insights into Heschel’s enduring significance both as a brilliant religious thinker and as a compassionate and committed human being.

Praying With My Legs brings together such disparate voices as: a group of Benedictine monks who warmly remember Heschel’s visit with them at their priory, a memory so deeply engrained that 40 years later, one monk begins to cry as he describes what it was like to watch Rabbi Heschel in prayer; Dr. Sayyed Hossein Nasr, who as a young Muslim scholar spent three days sitting next to Heschel at secret interfaith conference held at the Vatican; Rabbis Rolando Matalon and Marcelo Bronstein of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, a remarkable institution of Jewish renewal, who talk about the personal meaning they each have derived from Heschel’s books on The Sabbath and on prayer as well as the inspiration they found in his political activism when they were young rabbinic students in Argentina under a brutal military dictatorship; the late Reverend William Sloane Coffin who tells of an incredible meeting between Robert McNamara and a group of clergy opposed to the Vietnam War, including a morally outraged Heschel; Elie Wiesel, who recounts Heschel’s agony over Vietnam and the efforts made by some Jewish leaders to tone down his rhetoric; Susannah Heschel, who tells of the night her father left to go to Selma to march with Martin Luther King, and her fear that she would never see him again. 

These interviews and far more are woven together with two major network television interviews that Heschel gave at the peak of his power and charisma, along with archival video and audio, including some amazing finds from powerful speeches Heschel gave going back to the 1950s.  In short, the picture emerges of a life lived with great passion and integrity, from the Hasidic shteibls of Warsaw to the forests of Vilna to the boulevards of Nazi Berlin to the streets of Selma, Alabama; a life lived at the forefront of some of the most significant human rights campaigns of the 20th century that have daily relevance for the spiritually challenging world we find ourselves living in today. 

And that’s not all.  Heschel’s profound religious ideas, which are studied in universities, seminaries, and wherever spiritual seekers gather, and which continue to evoke transformational insights, will here be presented through a blending of his words and evocative cinematic imagery.

Abraham Joshua Heschel has so much to say that is relevant today.  His emphasis on the holiness and sanctity of the human being as being made in God’s image is a concept that is sadly being violated every single day in places like Iraq, Dafur and countless other locales including right here in the United States where corporate profits have justified the creation of an anxious, indebted and overworked middle class and a lower class that simply cannot make ends meet.  His teachings on the Sabbath as a sanctuary in time again go to the issue of the dignity of the human being as well as to the need to nourish the soul and realize the value of being, not just doing.  These teachings also remind us that the Earth is the Lord’s, that human beings are meant to be caretakers of this planet, not just exploiters of its resources.  His impassioned writings on the Hebrew prophets remind us of the necessity of speaking truth to power, for as his fellow spiritual radical, Martin Luther King put it, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  And Heschel’s religious concept of Radical Amazement continually makes possible the surprise needed to be shocked out of complacency by the injustices in society.  

This film MUST be completed and made available to the communities it so strongly speaks to: Jews, Christians, Muslims, African Americans, interfaith advocates, spiritual progressives, social justice activists, college students, and spiritual seekers.

In order to make that happen, an additional $190,000 is now needed for filming to be completed in the United States, Europe and Israel. This will enable me to conduct critical interviews with people such as Andrew Young and John Lewis in Atlanta, who will speak of Heschel’s major role in the civil rights struggle and his partnership with Martin Luther King in the anti-war movement; with Prof. John Merkle in Minneapolis, a Catholic theologian who’s dedicated his life to interfaith work and has written two books on Heschel’s religious thought; with Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolfe in Chicago who can speak to Heschel’s early years in America learning English and inspiring a group of students at Hebrew Union College known as “the piety boys;”  in Brooklyn with Heschel’s Hasidic relatives who can speak to a side of Heschel not often seen in public; in Jerusalem with Father Thomas Stransky who worked closely with Heschel during the historic Second Vatican Council, with Dr. Rivka Horowitz who writes movingly and perceptively about Heschel’s writings on prayer, and with Rabbi Levi Kelman of Rabbis for Human Rights, who has been deeply inspired by Heschel’s political activism.

What is required is a leap of action ....”

I urge you, if you have ever once been inspired by Heschel’s spiritual profundity or his passion for justice, that you perform a mitzvah (a tax-deductible one at that) by supporting this film with a personal or organizational contribution. If that is not possible at this time, please consider hosting or co-hosting a fundraising party.  There is currently a 73 minute work-in-progress available for viewing as a DVD for those interested.  And please make a copy of this letter and pass it on to someone else who you believe will want to help.  It is through individuals like you and through foundations offering direct and challenge grants (which have been matched!) that this film has progressed to its current state. 

I am asking you to commit to an act of generosity and conscience.  I am asking you to help me to complete this film this year, so that the words and persona of this spiritual giant can reach a 21st century audience hungry for moral direction and spiritual uplift.

I invite you to make a tax-deductible contribution for the film to the New York Foundation for the Arts, a 501c(3) organization which is the film’s fiscal sponsor.  

Please make out your check to the New York Foundation for the Arts, earmarked for Praying With My Legs, and mail it to:

Ways & Means Productions
285 Riverside Drive, #15D
New York, NY 10025-5228

Or, if you prefer, you may make a secure online contribution to the film on the New York Foundation for the Arts' website here.

* * * *

In every generation, there are a few remarkable individuals whose beings are suffused with a courageous, infectious and unstoppable need to do good in the world.  Endowed with eloquence, charisma and the ability to sacrifice, they inspire us to deeds of goodness we didn’t know we were capable of.  They leave the world a better place for their presence.

Such an individual was Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Every instant is an act of creation....a beginning, opening up new roads…”

...If not now, when?

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Praying With My Legs  

Praying With My Legs

Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Search
for a Meaningful Existence

A FILM BY STEVE BRAND