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    Suffering with God

    The Prophetic Legacy of Abraham Joshua Heschel

    By Susannah Heschel

    March 2, 2021
    • Rev. Audrey Taylor Gonzalez

      Incredible truth. Thank you! I will read this over and over. It charges my soul!

    The daughter of the great American rabbi says we need prophetic voices like his more than ever. The following is abridged from her introduction to Thunder in the Soul: To Be Known by God, an introductory collection of her father’s writings.

    We live in an age of despair, which would seem justified considering the compounding crises we face – economic, viral, political, environmental. Yet despair, my father used to remind me, is forbidden; to despair is to deny that God is with us, and that we are given no challenge without the resources to cope. My father, Abraham Joshua Heschel, is one of those resources. He speaks in the prophetic tradition of hope – the prophets know that unless we understand the very depths of corruption, misery, and despair, the hope we offer is superficial. Only the prophet who gives voice to the silent agony, who rages against injustice, whose passion exudes from every word, can offer true hope that “evil is never the climax of history,” that redemption will come.

    According to my father, the crises we face today are also a religious problem: “the systematic liquidation of man’s sensitivity to the challenge of God.” With that phrase, my father defines the purpose of his life’s efforts. Religion begins with a sense of embarrassment, he writes in his book Who Is Man, “the awareness of the incongruity of character and challenge, of perceptivity and reality, of knowledge and understanding, of mystery and comprehension.” He used to say, “God begins where words end.” In order to pray we need a refinement of the inner life, a sharpened conscience, a recognition that “prayer is action, an event.”

    “The beginning of wisdom is awe of God,” the Bible says, which my father translates: Embarrassment, loss of face, is the beginning of faith; it will make room within us. He writes, “I am afraid of people who are never embarrassed at their own pettiness, prejudices, envy, and conceit, never embarrassed at the profanation of life.” Embarrassment is meant to be productive; an end to embarrassment would bring a callousness that would threaten our humanity.

    Our lives are what brings God into our world.

    Yet my father did not view religion as a form of self-abasement. On the contrary, religion is an awareness that God needs us. God is waiting for us, he writes in God in Search of Man. Like Abraham, who found God by contemplating nature, we can sense God in the marvels of nature. We can also come to awareness of God through studying the Bible. And then there are sacred deeds. In a striking passage in The Sabbath, he points out that we make the Sabbath holy: “The Sabbath is the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man.” Holy deeds are the mitzvot (commandments) of Torah; they are prayers in the form of deeds. When my father returned from the 1965 civil rights march in Selma he said, “I felt my legs were praying.”

    Awareness of God leads us to recognize that our life is not merely a gift but also a mandate to make our lives witnesses to God. Indeed, our lives are what brings God into our world. An old Hasidic teaching my father often quoted says that someone came to a rebbe to ask, “Where is God?” The rebbe answered, “Does not the psalmist say, ‘The whole earth is filled with God’s glory?’ God is where you let God enter.” In The Earth Is the Lord’s my father writes, “In the days of Moses, Israel had a revelation of God; in the days of the Baal Shem [the founder of Hasidism], God had a revelation of Israel. Suddenly, there was revealed a holiness in Jewish life that had accumulated in the course of many generations.” If being created in God’s image means living a life that will serve as a reminder of God, then the purpose of Jewish life is to offer God a revelation of human holiness.

    colorful illustration of Abraham Joshua Heschel

    Artwork by Julie Lonneman

    How do we let God enter? My father used to tease his audiences: “When did God break the Ten Commandments?” He went on, “The Ten Commandments say, ‘Thou shalt not make an image of God.’ Yet God created us in his image.” We are, he pointed out, the only image of God that we have. To live as an image of God is to live so that those who come to know us are reminded of God. My father often quoted an old midrash, or rabbinic commentary, “I am God and you are my witnesses; if you are not my witnesses, then I am not God.”

    There is no single path of a particular religion, though, nor is there a particular way to live as a Jew. In Man Is Not Alone, my father draws on the old rabbinic teaching that divine revelation is different for each person. The Torah comes to each of us in a unique way, renewed every day. One cannot be Jewish the way one’s grandparents were Jewish: “A vibrant society does not dwell in the shadows of old ideas and viewpoints; in the realm of the spirit, only a pioneer can be a true heir. The wages of spiritual plagiarism are the loss of integrity; self-aggrandizement is self-betrayal. Authentic faith is more than an echo of a tradition. It is a creative situation, an event.”

    My father often said that he felt he was better understood by Christians than by Jews. Christians have a long tradition of theological discussion, whereas many Jews had turned away from theology, preferring political analyses of Jewish identity, or focusing on customs and ceremonies. He had grew up surrounded by people of “religious nobility,” but that entire world had been destroyed by the Nazis. In America, Judaism was something different, and he was sharply critical of the forms it took. The synagogue, he said, is where prayer goes to die. Congregants let the rabbi and cantor conduct “vicarious praying.” Too many people leave the synagogue just as they entered, feeling good about themselves, whereas prayer, he wrote, should be subversive. We don’t pray in order to achieve something else, he said, “we pray in order to pray,” to open a door to God, who is “a refugee in his own world.” If there is any hope for the future of Judaism in America, my father used to say, it lies with the black church, where he felt the spirit he had known in Eastern Europe.

    Hasidism inspired my father’s religiosity and also his social activism. Descended from generations of important Hasidic rebbes, he learned empathy from them, and how to lift people out of despair, restoring to them the joy of being Jews. Empathy was central to the prophets, too, he argued: “The prophet’s ear perceives the silent sigh” of human suffering. “The prophet’s word is a scream in the night. While the world is at ease and asleep, the prophet feels the blast from heaven.” Speaking on behalf of the silent, the prophet expresses God’s empathy, what my father calls “divine pathos.” It is God’s profound concern for humanity, God’s suffering in response to ours, that the prophet comes to convey: “The prophet hears God’s voice and feels his heart.”

    The opposite of good is not evil but indifference.

    How do we live in the prophetic spirit? After all, my father said, “some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Faith requires a prophetic response from us, involvement in the lives of others: “Man insists not only on being satisfied but also on being able to satisfy, on being needed, not only on having needs. Personal needs come and go, but one anxiety remains: Am I needed?” The prophet answers: Yes, profoundly.

    Modernity promised us that we could overcome ignorance and achieve great things, if only we would emerge from the tutelage of others and use our reason. By now we have discovered that man cannot live by reason alone; many thinkers, including my father, have pointed to the rationalization that underlay Auschwitz and Hiroshima. What has happened to our sense of wonder, of mystery, of the ineffable, all essential to our humanity yet suppressed as unnecessary to a modern age? We must foster them in ourselves, finding awe in the power and grandeur of nature, and express our deepest yearning through prayer. Without awe, our lives are impoverished, our society decays.

    Though we live in the present, we also live in biblical time – at the Passover Seder, the Haggadah reminds us that we must see ourselves as though we, too, have gone forth from Egypt. “I speak,” my father said, “as a member of a congregation whose founder was Abraham, and the name of my rabbi is Moses.” Speaking about religion and race in 1963, he opened, “At the first summit on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses,” continuing, “racism is satanism, unmitigated evil.” Having fled Nazi Germany he knew all too well that racism diminishes our humanity, denies God as the creator, and shatters every principle of the Bible. He understood the systemic nature of racism, how it is institutionalized in an economy that forces some people into horrendous poverty, and in laws that function as barriers to guaranteed rights of education, housing, and medical care.

    He also enjoined Martin Luther King Jr. to speak out against the war in Vietnam, which both of them viewed as linked to racism in American society. That war made him sick: he was outraged over the lies of American politicians and the callousness of a government killing thousands of innocent civilians. Yet why were Americans deceived by falsehoods of their government? The lies of politicians were abhorrent, but so was the gullibility of Americans. It seemed people would rather be deceived than face the truth. This was a religious problem, my father felt.

    There are such problems to address within every faith: “No religion, magnificent as it may be, can survive without repair from time to time.” Together we have to face the callousness that has overtaken us; the opposite of good, he writes, is not evil but indifference.

    In his extraordinary lecture, “No Religion Is an Island,” my father asks, “What is the purpose of interreligious dialogue?”

    It is neither to flatter nor to refute one another, but to help one another, to share insight and learning, to cooperate in academic ventures on the highest scholarly level and, what is even more important, to search in the wilderness for wellsprings of devotion, for treasures of stillness, for the power of love and care for man. What is urgently needed are ways of helping one another in the terrible predicament of here and now by the courage to believe that the word of the Lord endures forever as well as here and now; to cooperate in trying to bring about a resurrection of sensitivity, a revival of conscience; to keep alive the divine sparks in our souls; to nurture openness to the spirit of the Psalms, reverence for the words of the prophets, and faithfulness to the Living God.

    Contributed By SusannahHeschel Susannah Heschel

    Susannah Heschel, the only child of Abraham Joshua Heschel, is the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and the editor of Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays of Abraham Joshua Heschel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996).

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