Heschel's Yohrzeit: What would he do about the Iraq war?

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 12/1/2004

The following words of Torah, of Wisdom, were written by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in 1943.

E M B L A Z O N E D O V E R the gates of the world in which we live is the escutcheon of the demons. The mark of Cain in the face of man has come to overshadow the likeness of God. Ashamed and dismayed, we ask: Who is responsible?
History is a pyramid of efforts and errors; yet at times it is the Holy Mountain on which God holds judgment over the nations. Few are privileged to discern God's judgment in history. But all may be guided by the words of the Baal Shem: If a man has beheld evil, he may know that it was shown to him in order that he learn his own guilt and repent; for what is shown to him is also within him.
Let Fascism not serve as an alibi for our conscience. We have failed to fight for right, for justice, for goodness; as a result we must fight against wrong, against injustice, against evil. We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace; now we must offer sacrifices on the altar of war
Indeed, where were we when men learned to hate in the days of starvation? When raving madmen were sowing wrath in the hearts of the unemployed?
Tanks and planes cannot redeem humanity. A man with a gun is like a beast without a gun. The killing of snakes will save us for the moment but not forever. The war will outlast the victory of arms if we fail to conquer the infamy of the soul: the indifference to crime, when committed against others.
God will return to us when we are willing to let Him in-into our banks and factories, into our Congress and clubs, into our homes and theaters.

The yohrzeit (death-anniversary) of Rabbi Heschel -- the 18th of Tevet in the Jewish calendar — this year comes on January 17-18, 2006 -- just a few days after the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King. (The two of them worked closely together in opposing the Vietnam War, encouraging each other when former friends and supporters of each condemned his speaking out against the war.)

It is the Jewish custom to honor the death-date of a person, not the birth-date, on the grounds that we never know fully who a person is until the end. We honor the dead by absorbing what they taught and how they lived.

When Heschel wrote the passage above, in an essay called The Meaning of This War (World War II), he knew that most of his family and millions of others had been murdered.

He did not shrink from blaming the murderers; he did not condone their acts because their nation had been badly treated after World War I.

Yet he also said that responsibility rested upon all who had failed to act long earlier — to make a society decent enough to grow decent people, decent enough to prevent the disaster.

How does this passage read today? Imagine these words: "Let terrorism not serve as an alibi for our consciences. What were WE doing when ---"

We are making it available now, to help you prepare for the study. In that spirit, I hope not only Jews but all who are wedded passionately to the God of peace and justice will study Heschel's teachings and his actions -

Perhaps in our varied congregations as they celebrate Dr. King's birthday during the weekend of January 13-16, at home the evening of January 17 and again on the Shabbat of Sh'mot, the beginning of Exodus, the beginning of our liberation from Pharaoph and slavery, we should renew our visionof our own liberation from war and the growing Pharaonic notion of the Presidency that we are facing.

Read the rest of this essay that Heschel wrote in 1943, and many other selections we suggest for study.

These are some of the words. What was the life?

Heschel was a Polish Hassid, scion of a desperately poor but spiritually rich family --

who became a Talmud expert and a companion of the Yiddish-socialist Yiddishe Arbeiter Bund (Jewish Workers Union) in Vilna,

and then a Berlin-trained philosopher, the last Jew to receive a Ph.D in philosophy there after Hitler came to power (his dissertation was on the Hebrew Prophets),

who was named by Buber as his successor in leading the Free Jewish House of Study in Frankfurt but was soon expelled from Germany by the Nazis and lived for months in a no-man's-land on the Polish border,

who was rescued by the Hebrew Union College to teach in Cincinnati and then came to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where he wrote profound and piercing theologies that drew admiration from God-thirsty Christians, who undertook dialogue with the Pope when most Jews of his religious bent were bitterly opposed,

who said that his renewed study of the Prophets and his work on a book about them - then and still the most profound insight into them - convinced him that he must (like them) go into the streets to act, rather than stay in his study to write;

who walked beside Martin Luther King at Selma and later said "My legs were praying,"

who condemned the US War in Vietnam and refused to be quiet about it even when Israeli officials and American Jewish leaders demanded that he shut up,

who helped encourage Dr. King when he was similarly being condemned by Negro leaders for going beyond the world of civil rights and race to oppose the war;

who had arranged for Dr. King to have his first Passover Seder at the Heschels' home in 1968 - on April 14. Dr. King was killed on April 4;

who became the honorary chair of the Jewish Trees and Life for Vietnam Campaign, responding to the deliberate effort of the US government to destroy the forests of Vietnam and the Torah's prohibition on killing trees even in wartime;

who told Reform rabbis they must reconsider the value of ritual and daily practice, and told Conservative rabbis they must act on behalf of social justice, and that the future of America depended on whether it followed the prophetic teachings of Dr. King;

who became close friends with the radical Catholic antiwar priests, the Berrigans, and who suffered his fatal heart attack near the end of 1972 just after a prison visit to hearten them;

who wrote that prayer was useless unless it was subversive, unless it shattered pyramids of callousness and power.


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