In these urgent times we have a role model for how the Jewish community can stand with the community of black people and stand against all racial and environmental injustice and contempt. Once again, I turn to Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Last night I wrote to his daughter Susannah: My father, she told me last year, would be pacing his room, incredulous, horrified at the hate and supremacism from the highest office in the land. ‘My father,’ she wrote now, ‘would have been marching in today’s demonstrations and pleased that we are together, black and white.’
Heschel was raised in tight-knit Hasidic Warsaw, a world full of spiritual passion. Jewish Vilna, where his thirst for wider learning took him next, had poetry and vision. In Berlin he devoted himself to studying for his PhD the moral outrage and compassionate commitment of the prophets of Israel. He was rescued from Nazi Europe in the 12th hour, ‘A brand plucked from the fire’.
He met Martin Luther King in 1963 at a meeting in Chicago on race and religion. He took his audience straight to the core of the Bible:
At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. . . . The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate.
That same year, as King was preparing the march in Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the two men were called to the White House by JFK. Heschel replied with a telegram:
Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes…The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.
Weary of insipid American synagogues, Heschel enjoined and cajoled Jews to expose ourselves to the vital presence of God, translating the impassioned inner life of Hasidism into the English language and the largely unreceptive world of 50’s and 60’s America.
For Heschel as for King, spirituality and activism were as inseparable as river and water. They were both not just students but disciples of the prophets, orators of God’s fierce opposition to indifference and injustice. Religion was not dogma but the living awareness of the urgency of God, an awareness which did not, must not and could not stop in the consciousness alone.
It demanded action. I once desired a quiet life, Heschel wrote. That was not possible: silence before wrong was a betrayal of God. His famous answer to what he was doing next to Reverend King in Selma Alabama, ‘I was praying with my legs,’ was only logical: the realisation of what God wants from us must flow from the heart to the hands and the feet. What impelled him to march was not deviance from Judaism, but its fulfilment.
All that, as Ben Okri said when we spoke last week, was two generations ago. Every hour has its own urgency; God ‘korei ladorot, calls to each and every generation’ and every generation must answer.
We live today not only with unresolved, but with resurgent racism, amidst rhetorics of xenophobia renewed by forgetfulness of the past and reinvigorated by disdain and fear. We live too amidst the uprising of the sea and the revolt of the very atmosphere against contempt and abuse. There never was a more urgent now.
Every one of Judaism’s thrice daily prayers condemns indifference: why ask God to heal the sick, bless the earth and bring justice, if we do little? It’s idle, if we are idle.
A Jewish life, a religious life of any kind, must be a dedicated life, now.