Why it matters

Abraham Joshua Heschel has so much to say that we all need to hear.

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, Darfur and countless other places including right here in the United States where the lusting after profits has 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.  

His lifelong concerns speak to moral issues we currently face: 

  • the responsibility of the citizen in a free society
  • reverence for the holiness manifest in individual life
  • the importance of removing religious triumphalism from the interreligious encounter
  • compassion for and righteousness on behalf of the weakest members of society
  • the necessity of living for something beyond our material aspirations. 

In an age when religion is being used to divide people, Heschel points to the underpinnings of faith which we all share -- the sense of wonder, awe and radical amazement.

For Jews, especially those who feel disconnected from their own religious heritage, Heschel is an inspiring reminder of the spiritual depth of the Jewish tradition, the beauty of its practices and how richly imbued they are with meaning. 

In a post-Holocaust world where a belief in God’s presence and concern for humanity has been searingly tested, Heschel stands as a beacon of faith, especially in light of his personal experience of loss.  His writings and his life story give powerful answers to the questions, Why is Judaism worth preserving? -- Why should I live as a Jew?

Both by example and in his speeches around the country and the world, Heschel conveyed the deepest spiritual values of Judaism, fostering a sea change in Christian thinking. 

He made an enormous personal impact upon Christians when, in 1965, he became the first Jewish visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary.  In the words of James Carroll, author of Constantine’s Sword, “it wasn’t until I read Heschel thatI understood what Judaism was about … [and] … how important it is for Christians to know the Hebrew Bible in order to have a deeper understanding of their own religion.”

While profoundly devoted to his own tradition, Heschel deeply respected other religions and believed that it was imperative for people of different faiths to talk to one another for the sake of our future on this planet.  “We must choose between interfaith and internihilism,” he often said,  “No religion is an island.” 

Shortly before his death, and against his doctor’s orders, he flew to Rome to attend a conference on the future of Jerusalem, with Jewish, Christian and Islamic leaders. “It is important to remember now that, while I have prayed from the heart for Muslims all my life, I have never prayed with them before, or been face-to-face with them to talk about God,” he said, … “we must go further.”

In an age of “the Fear Factor,” “smart bombs,“ and the targeting of civilians in “Holy War,” Heschel’s insistence on reverence for the human being as an image of God is an impassioned cry of conscience against the moral removal we can all-too-easily lull ourselves into, especially in times of war and ethnic strife. 

Perhaps most importantly, Heschel believed that human beings are perpetually called upon by God who is anything but unmoved by human affairs, and who is in search of every one of us to perform meaningful acts of righteousness. He taught that one of the primary needs of a human being is the need to be of spiritual service, for self-surrender to something greater than our own egos.

It is a call to responsibility, and not only for our personal behavior and family obligations.

Heschel stressed that God needs human beings to challenge the wrongs in their society where and when they see them. Having personally witnessed the rise of Hitler while living in Germany, he was all too aware of the savagery a state unchallenged by its citizenry was capable of.   “How many disasters do we have to go through in order to realize that all of humanity has a stake in the liberty of one person?” he would cry out.  “In a free society, some are guilty, all our responsible.” 

For Heschel one of the requirements of piety, going back to the time of Moses, has been to speak truth to power.  This was in the forefront of his mind in protesting the United State’s role in Vietnam, and it is a concern that resonates today as American citizens confront revelations about our nation’s role in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, secret overseas CIA prisons, warrantless domestic eavesdropping, and the suspension of habeas corpus for American citizens. 

For American Jews, the call to responsibility also comes in facing the painful disparity between Israel’s stated democratic, ethical ideals and its on-the-ground behavior toward Palestinian and Lebanese civilians and toward Israeli Arabs in times of war and intense provocation.

Heschel’s is a voice sorely missed; it would enrich us greatly to be given another opportunity to heed his words.

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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