Rabbi Heschel: The son of prophets

We live. Our message will never die. Let us realize our vision and live our God-given mandate.

Miami (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
As I write these words, my fellow Americans are celebrating the birth of their Savior. I wish them all a “Merry Christmas!” without an iota of resentment or anger – only the best for them on this important day in their calendar. I remind them that my Bible is a living testament to the destiny of my people and our God. My Scriptures are never a harbinger of the coming of Jesus as the Messiah. My Christian friends understand this. While I am close to many of my colleagues in the rabbinate, I often share my divrei Torah and Shabbat sermons with pastors. Together, we are “clergy of conscience,” standing up for what is right, despite our significant differences. That is America.
As I write these words, I think of a Christmas Day in Central Florida 70 years ago. A young man was soaking up the rays of the bright sun, looking forward to the end of a terrible war in which he wanted no part. Only weeks later he would be descending into a valley of the dead, a valley of dry bones, bones that he could not revive but witnessed. This was against his will. Whether this was God’s plan for him or it was just fate, I do not know. At age 50, I cannot fathom all the mysteries of human destiny or divine plans. But the 20-year old Jewish kid from Queens was in a Thousand Year Reich in its death throes after 12 short and terrible years.
On May 8, 1945, the day of Allied victory, he wrote home to his immigrant parents of skeletal yet courageous survivors, of synagogues converted into garbage dumps, and of being a Jew carrying a rifle without fear of retribution. Today, those who say this mass slaughter was a hoax just need read the words of that young man. Twenty-five years later that young man would grow into adulthood as my father, and would tell me the stories of that journey into the valley.
My father 15 years ago at age 75. He was a mild man, respected for his kindness, compassion and professionalism.
I always wanted to emulate him and make sure he was proud of me. I share with my father a similar life in many respects. We both had to confront harsh realities despite wanting to remain quiet, avoid quarrels, and simply enjoy listening to music and sharing a loving life with a loving wife. But as you know, friends, the wish to cower in the corner and hide in the shadows is not the destiny of most people. Often, life challenges us and reality demands a response. In this spirit, my father fought as an American infantry sergeant in Europe in 1945. In this spirit, while I do not place my life on the line as did my Dad, I serve as a rabbi in an area miles south of where my father sat in the Florida sun. And in the spirit of the Kotzker Rebbe, a great and uncompromising Hassidic master of the 19th century, I write these essays. This rebbe believed that self-deception was one of the worst sins. I have tried to remain faithful to the ideas of Kotzk and its great rebbe. I have wanted to make my father proud.
While many people possess sight, few possess vision.
I often think of one photograph in this regard: It is the famous picture of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching arm-in-arm with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama, at the height of the struggle for Civil Rights in America. While it is said that “one picture tells a thousand words,” I truly believe that this photograph has done a disservice to this great rabbi’s legacy.
This one photograph has created the skewed idea that Rabbi Heschel in some way is the High Priest of a Tikkun Olam cult. Instead of sitting down, opening Heschel’s writings and examining his thought in depth, most Jews use the Selma photograph as shorthand to follow Heschel’s message.
Heschel was a visionary and a man who fought idol worship in the spirit of Isaiah, Jeremiah and the Kotzker Rebbe. While he is rightly famous for his emphasis on Tikkun Olam and social justice, while he was a brilliant figure in his ecumenical efforts, he would never have accepted a Judaism that would tolerate self-deception and compromise to the realities of modernity. Would Rabbi Heschel, described by one biographer as a “spiritual radical,” ever betray the authenticity of what it means to be a Jew? His involvement in the fight for social justice – whether for Civil Rights or protesting Vietnam – was of one piece with his commitment to Judaism not as a “lifestyle” but as a serious lifetime commitment.
I am grateful to the Jewish Theological Seminary, the flagship institution of learning and training of clergy in the American Conservative Movement. Had it not been for JTS, I would not be writing these words and I would not even be on this Earth. My parents met at the Seminary and my father likely would have left the Jewish fold at some point had he not found a professional and religious home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. JTS has produced wonderful rabbis and has been a center of scholarship for more than a century. Rabbi Heschel was one of my mother’s outstanding teachers.
If I had not been accepted after my first application to Columbia University nearby, I would likely have studied at the Seminary. For me personally, while my major influences have been the rabbis ordained in Modern Orthodoxy by the master Yosef Dov Soloveichik, the Conservative Movement has provided me with a home to explore issues of ideology, history and theology.
I especially look to the Masorti Movement in Israel for inspiration and guidance. One of my outstanding professors in my graduate training in Jewish Studies is one of Rabbi Heschel’s last disciples and is a prolific interpreter of his teacher as a meaningful, fearless and utterly relevant Jewish theologian. Rabbi Heschel, as a “spiritual radical” is an important presence in my thought and education.
But I am very concerned about the politicization of Rabbi Heschel and the supreme centrality of politics in American-Jewish life. I believe that both political Liberals and political Conservatives do not realize that “the hands of Esau” are only a necessity to enable Jacob to speak in his own voice and be prepared for a reality of a world that seems to hate Jews more and more each day. Jacob, a simple man sitting in tents and studying Torah, needed to learn the skills of Esau and Laban to survive and overcome God in a wrestling match and to confront his brother. But the authenticity of Jacob’s voice is never in doubt. We are in danger as Jews at being swallowed by the extremes. Is there no ground between a Protestant-like Ethical Monotheism of Reform and an obsessive search for microscopic bugs in broccoli in some segments of the fundamentalist Orthodox world? Jewish destiny is central to who we are. It is God’s mandate – tikkun olam and ritual are there to bolster our role as a “treasured people.” These issues trouble me. They need to be addressed.
As I write these words on a Christmas Day in 2014, I would ask Jews all over the world for one thing in the coming secular year: Be bold. Let us not compromise on our vision. The visionaries of the world need not be ignored and shoved into a corner. Truth is not always pleasant and palatable. We are the sons and daughters of prophets, of nomads – mad, damned and unknown.
We are the scion of refugees, who wandered the world knowing no rest or respite. We are the architects of a glorious destiny and a blueprint for the coming generations.
We have endured the arson of history, we speak for the dead and we represent the living. We have descended into the valley and somehow, for those who endured, flesh covers their bones and our bones.
We live. Our message will never die. Let us realize our vision and live our God-given mandate.
The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.