What Would A.J. Heschel Be Doing or Advocating Today?

At the Philadelphia “Heschel/King Festival” last week, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Abraham Joshua  Heschel’s death (his Yarhzeit), I was asked to speak about what this man, now recognized as the most significant American Jewish theologian of the 20th century (and my mentor at the Jewish Theological Seminary)  would have been advocating or what would he want from us were he alive today. Here’s much of what I said:

What Does Heschel Want from Us Today?

Abraham Joshua Heschel, z”l (Zeecrhono Lee’vracha – “may his memory be a blessing”),  taught that “Judaism is spiritual effrontery….The most urgent task is to destroy the myth that accumulation of wealth and the achievement of comfort are the chief vocation of humanity.  How can adjustment to society be an inspiration to our youth if that society persists in squandering the material resources of the world on luxuries in  a world where more than a billion people go hungry every night?  …{we must} insist that life involves not only the satisfaction of selfish needs, but also the satisfaction of a divine need for human justice and nobility.”  {from the essay “existence and celebration” in the collection MGSA  Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.

Heschel insists on the centrality of a tikkun olam, a transformation of the world. He is not talking of the trivialized notion of Tikkun Olam that got adopted by the Reform Movement in Judaism and is now mostly about maneuvering for liberal legislation in Washington D.C. or about once a month inviting homeless people for a warm night in your synagogue, valuable as both of these activities really are. No, he is talking about fundamental global transformation.

Yet Heschel speaks of nobility as part of the goal of tikkun—which he defines  as overcoming the triviality, ego-centrism, materialism, and emptiness of much contemporary life in Western societies.  His point is that tikkun olam must be accompanied by tikkun ha’nefesh—the internal transformation of our selves. These two must go hand in hand.

AGAIN, THIS IS NOT the trivialized version of Tikkun hanefesh as getting good therapy or meditating for ten minutes each morning, valuable as those are also. It is about a fundamental inner re-alignment of ourselves to the spiritual dimension of reality and to a deep connection with our own souls that comes with disciplined spiritual practice.

Prayer can be helpful. But for Heschel, To pray means to bring God back into the world, a world which has strayed so far from God’s will that God is in exile from the world S/He created. P. 110 MGSA.

Prayer is to create God’s kingdom right here on this planet,now. So on the Days of Awe, Heschel says, “Jews cry out of the depth of our disconcerted souls, a prayer for redemption: U’vecheyn:   And so, Lord our God,  let awe of you permeate all your  works, that all you have creaated works may be in awe of you, and all who have been created prostrate themselves before You,  and let them all band together and create  ONE UNION TO do Your will with a whole heart.

Now you can understand why Heschel, when asked how he could think it was a holy act for a religious Jew to be marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. said he was Praying with his feet.  As Heschel puts it: “to worship is to expand the presence of God in the world. And yet, the path to this bringing of God in the world is not just social justice, but also inwardness, silence, an openness to the mystery of the universe, the mystery of living and dying, of knowing and non-knowing.

So if Heschel were with us today, he would be challenging the lifeless experience that most people have in church or synagogue—which is part of why religious life is experienced as formalistic and emotionally unengaging. He railed against this fifty years ago, and he would be even stronger about this today for many, though certainly not all, of the religious institutions of our society.

And he would have called for all of us to get together in one unified movement, the One Union of the prayer he cites. , What is the nature of the One Union, agudah achat, to do God’s will with a whole heart. It must be a network of spiritual progressives of every religion, and of  “spiritual but not religious” progressives as well—all who are open to a politics that is both social justice oriented and oriented to —to challenging the distortions of the world while simultaneously  healing the spiritual distortions in ourselves.

Now, to be a spiritual progressive doesn’t mean that you have to believe in God or believe in New Age flaky notions. Rather, to be a spiritual progressive means accepting A New Bottom Line—so that every social, political and economic institution and practice—our corporations, our government policies, our educational system, our legal system,our economic system—are all judged efficient, productive, or rational NOT only to the extent that they maximize money and power, the OLD BOTTOM LINE, but ALSO to the extent that they maximize love and caring, kindness and generosity, ethical and envirornmental sensitivity, enhance our capacity to respond to other human beings as embodiments of the sacred and enhance our capacity to respondto the universe with Awe, Wonder and Radical Amazement. If you can embrace the New Bottom Line, YOU are a spiritual progressive and should join the actual Network we’ve created in Heschel’s spirit and memory. Tikkun magazine itself was created in part as an attempt to carry out Heschel’s mandate to future generations, and his spirit has been guiding us since we began in 1986.

I am certain that if my teacher Heschel were standing here today he would be telling us that the One Union, the “aguda achat” called for by the Jewish High Holiday prayers,  or what we now call our Network of Spiritual Progressives should focus on five priorities:

1. The destruction of the planet earth as humanity continues day by day to rip apart the life-support system of the planet in order to allow corporations to make profits even at the expense of polluting the water, air and the oceans, through fracking and through creating global warming, through turning farmland into malls and highways and urban sprawl in which our vehicles join in polluting the air. Destroying species, reproducing human life at a rate so fast that the earth cannot possibly produce enough food for all the population growth coming in the next decades.  To be environmentally serious must  be more than symbolic acts of recycling or eating organic food and buying from local farmers markets and avoding polluting vehicles and other small but nevertheless significant private acts. To genuinely address the threat to life on this planet  necessarily lead us to call for the replacement of globalized capitalism with a new economic and political system based on prioritizing protection of all life on the planet, responding to the earth not as a depletible resource but as our mother and our partner in God’s scheme. We must seek environmental justice, knowing well as we do, that those who will suffer first and most from global scorching (as Rabbi Arthur Waskow rightly calls global warming) are those innocents in third world countries who did not benefit from the destructive behavior of the global capitalist oil and gas and coal firms who have taken the lead in destroying the world’s air and water, and Monsnato and others who are polluting the world’s food supplies. It is the relatively poor and powerless whose homes and farmland and livelihoods will be most vulnerable as global warming escalates in the next few decades. Yet Heschel would have asked us to insist on looking at the natural world around us as something sacred, something we have no right to claim as ours to use as we will, but rather to respond to it with awe and wonder (more on that below).

2.     Reclaiming democracy and getting money out of politics. A fist step is the ESRA—Environmental and Social Responsiblity Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which you can read at www.tikkun.org/ESRA–which is now being sponsored by the Network of Spiritual Progessives and was introduced into Congress by former Congressman Dennis Kucinich.  It is a plan both to take money out of politics altogether by requiring that elections be funded only publicly and banning all other monies from elections, but also requiring social and environmental responsibility from the large corporations.

Moving on to what else Heschel would call for:

2. Reorganizing the global economy so that we can eleminate global poverty, and share the bounties of this planet in a just and generous way.  First step:www.tikkun.org/GMP  The Global Marshall Plan.  In his 1963 telegram to President Kennedy, addressing the poverty in the African American community, Heschel mentioned the way our society humiliates the poor, though he had not yet lived through the time in our own recent election, in which the poor are made completely invisible and ignored. I think he may have been referring to the prevalence of the theory that our economy and society are basically a meritocracy in which wherever you end up on the financial ladder is a reflection of your fundamental worth. Heschel totally rejected that way of thinking, and recognized that people who internalized that worldview would come to feel terrible about themselves and disrespectful toward anyone who had not “made it” in the society. And of course this would apply particularly to people of color who are systematically placed in positions in the society that make them far more likely to not “make it” by conventional economic terms. Heschel understood this, and after witnessesing the uccess of America’s Marshall Plan to help rebuild Europe after World War II, he called for a Marshall Plan for America’s Black community. Today, he would be calling for the Global Marshall Plan that the Network of Spiritual Progressives has developed and which has been introduced into Congress by the first Muslim member of the House of Representatives, Keith Ellison. Please read it at www.tikkun.org/GMP

3. Embracing an ethos of non-violence whose first steps should be the elimination of all nuclear weapons, then the elimination of all weapons, the banning of the production of bullets for any and all existing weapons, the banning of drones from the sky and then the retraining of armies so that they can move from the militarist strategy for “homeland security” which involves trying to dominate or control others around the world in the interests of our own nation, whether that be through military, economic, cultural or diplomatic means, to a strategy of generosity for homeland security based on treating others as embodiments of God, a strategy that would manifest first thorugh a Global Marshall Plan implemented with humility and respect for the traditions and wisdom of all people on the planet.  But that ethos of non-violence must be taught in the schools, in our neighborhoods, and in our workplaces, so that being skilled in caring for others and caring for the planet become prerequisites for any employment in our global society.

4. Heschel would have insisted, as we do, that a central task for humanity’s survival and spiritual dignity is the opening of our souls and hearts to the grandeur and mystery of all being, and  integrating that into our lives as a continuing replacement to the corrupting influence of a utilitarian approach other human beings, to animals, and to nature. Heschel talked about this by calling for us to develop our capacities for awe, wonder and radical amazement.  Humanity, he said, will not perish from lack of information, but rather from lack of appreciation and wonder at the grandeur and mystery of all that is. This is not a consciousness to be ghetto-ized to  Fridays in the mosques, Shabbat in the synagogues, Sunday in the churches—it should be integrated into every aspect of our lives and central to our politics and the kind of political party and movement we must create. Imagine a spiritual progressive political party: call it the Love and Generosity Party (or tell us what you would name it). It would give equal attention to fostering our capacities for love and generosity, awe and wonder and radical amazement, as it gave to supporting programs like the Spiritual Covenant with America (which you can find at www.spiritualprogressives.org).

Another element of that spiritual progressive approach would be our insistence that we, all of humanity, need a universal repentance for the ways we’ve treated each other and the planet. This is a revolution in consciousness, away from the arrogance of power to true humility, and not just winning an election with some reformists—not just tinkering at the edge of what is wrong with our world, but a new global understanding, starting from humility and ending with atonement.

So spiritual progressives have an amazing challenge—to speak across all previously existing political boundaries, to awaken in everyone the already existing desire to have a life that connects to the ultimate meaning of existence.  Just as Heschel’s message, coming from the depths of Judaism, nevertheless has appealed and lit a fire in the souls of many Christians, Muslims and atheists, so it could today reach across traditional political boundaries and speak to people who today are on the Right because they have never heard anybody on the left or the progressive world speak of love, generosity or caring cominbed with  this sense of awe, wonder and radical amazement at the grandeur of the universe. Yet it is precisely these kinds of sentiments that underlie the actual feelings and desires of many liberals and progressives–they just rarely ever say that when they have the political microphone. Yet it is precisely in terms of these values that liberal and progressives movments might be most effective in challenging the globalization of capitalism not just because it is unfair and destroying the planet, but because it is a betrayal of God and an abandonment of the spiritual way of thinking about reality which is not a utilitarian way, and doesn’t only ask is this good for humanity, but also asks is this good for our relationship to the ultimate meaning of life and to the God of the universe.

4. Finally,  those of us who come from the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam must redeem Jerusalem and Embrace Israel andPalestine, helping each side of that struggle to move to a new commitment to fulfill the Torah commandment not only to love our neighbors, but as we are commanded, to “love the stranger, the Other, the one who is different, the one who is powerless.”  Heschel was enough of a Jewish particularist to want to see the State of Israel survive as an embodiment of Jewish values of social justice, peace, and love of neighbor and stranger.  Heschel’s heart was broken at the immorality of the war in Vietnam and the indifference of his colleagues at the Jewish Theological Seminary to the suffering of the Vietnamese people—I can only  imagine the suffering he would have experienced had he seen Jewish values transformed to be used as excuses for domination, cruelty, arrogance and the glorificaiton of amred might by the government of the State of Israel.

The Amidah or standing prayer religious Jews say 3 times a day: “let our eyes behold God’s return to Zion in compassion, rachamim,”  this call for the wisdom of the womb (the Hebrew word for compassion, rachamim, comes from the Hebrew word for womb, rechem),  this call for women’s wisdom that must now guide humanity in overcoming the still present distortions of consciousness supported by a patriarchal economic and political system, is the call that would have led Heschel today to stand with all the prophets of peace and justice who call for a new path of peace and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. Heschel would have stood with the Palestinians against those who were stealing Palestinian lands, engaging in torture and arbitrary imprisonment of Palestinians who protested the Occupation, and against other human rights violations of the current government of Israel against the Palestinian people. Similarly, he would have championed those who critiqued the racism and sexism coming from many Israeli religious fundamentalists.  And had he been alive today, he would almost certainly have been denounced for this ethical sensitivity, joining with all of the other prophets of the Jewish people today who are labeled “self-hating Jews” or anti-Semites by the Jewish establishment. Yes, Heschel, the great voice of 20th century Judaism, would almost certainly have been denounced as anti-Semitic or a self-hating Jew by those who equate Judaism with blind support for the current Israeli version of Zionism.

This is where Heschel would be leading us today were he with us.He would, I feel certain, be the chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives and the Shalom Center. And he would have taught us ways to integrate into all our activities the time for celebration of the universe, and for the repair of our souls, that must be a central component in our activities. He would have called us to abandon grandiosity and embrace humility, but he would have also insisted on the ultimate grandeur of the human soul and remind all of us that our highest dreams for ourselves and for the world are not foolish utopianism, but the call of God within us, a call that we must respond to both as individuals and through joining a spiritual progressive movement.

Joining and becoming active, creating a Network of Spiritual Progressives right here wherever you live—this is what Heschel meant when he said that what is needed today is not just a leap of faith, but a leap of action, I hope you’ll go to www.spiritualprogressives.org, JOIN the network as a dues paying member, and become my ally as we ally ourselves with the vision of Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Yehey zicronoe liv’racha—May his memory always be a blessing.

As always, your comments are welcome: email me: RabbiLerner.tikkun@gmail.com


2 thoughts on “What Would A.J. Heschel Be Doing or Advocating Today?

  1. Rabbi Heschel was as concerned with racial justice as any issue he ever faced, and stood arm in arm with the leaders who overthrew one hundred years of slavery that followed the legal emancipation.

    How troubled he would have been about the cultural annihilation being waged by Islamist butchers against Africa, the rape of the African continent and its authentic culture by crazed fanatics driven by the belief that Allah speaks only to them and those who believe in absolutist sharia law.

  2. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and legitimizing “Israel” to any degree makes him a complete contradiction to his civil rights position. “Israel’s” existence was predicated on ethnic cleansing and brutal persecution of the Palestinians. He is another perpetrator of zionist exceptionalism.

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