The Heschel-King Festival: Transcendence & Beyond

This past weekend, Mishkan Shalom — a strongly social-justice-committed Reconstructionist congregation in Philadelphia, one of the two Phyllis & I belong to, along with the Jewish-renewal congregation, P’nai Or  --  held a Heschel-King Festival to honor these two spiritual activists and – much more important -- learn from their prophetic partnership how to go forward. Four hundred people pre-registered, and many more showed up unannounced  -- a crucial critical mass of people deeply involved in the learning-teaching process.

I felt and feel deeply joyful with the extraordinary way all the pieces fit together at the Festival. Responses yesterday from many of the participants say the same thing: a moment of exaltation, even of Transcendence.

At dinner at our house just before the Festival, Dorothy Cotton (one of Dr. King’s closest co-workers) asked each of us in what moments of our lives had we felt we and the world were “in the flow.” Now I can answer, this past weekend.

Our Festival intertwined --
the calm, gentle words of Dr. Vincent Harding (who wrote the first draft of King’s most profound and most courageous speech; the one at Riverside Church that called not only for an end to the Vietnam War but for a whole “revolution of values” in American society) evoking Jesus as well as Dr. King, calling us toward the Beloved Community;
with Rabbi Michael Lerner’s sharp edges of Points 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, all Unrealistic and Absolutely Necessary;
the recitation by Dorothy Cotton of all the evidence that Dr King was lifted up by a movement he did not invent — and her call to us not to wait for charismatic leaders;
woven with the report by Rabbi Brian Walt of the journey he led of American Jewish, white Christian, and African-American nonviolent activists to meet the nonviolent activists of Palestine and their Israeli allies;
and the pointed challenge by Rev. Alyn Waller to make sure Black students from newly shuttered Philadelphia high schools are welcomed in Roxborough, the neighborhood where Mishkan Shalom is located;

 All pointing us beyond what Dr. King called the triplets of racism, militarism, materialism --  toward social transformation, toward demanding the Unrealistic.

All this woven with many different musics: prayer chanted and prayer danced, our own choir and a Baptist choir, the freedom songs of the ‘60s and of now, Gospel hymns, Bible Rap, “She Who” anthems, “world klezmer,”  poetry chanted and sung, even music of the eye --   photos of the civil-rights movement -----.  

At the very very end,  I was able to say and share some of the richness of my own learning from the Festival itself ---  two stories about  what came before the Festival and brought it about, and one story about what “came” afterward.

Story 1:  More than two years ago, I realized Rabbi Heschel’s 40th yohrzeit would be on Dec 31, 2012. I have been taught by Rabbi Jeff Roth that the biblical “40” may be symbolically connected to the 40 weeks of human pregnancy. So 40 days, or 40 years, are a pregnant pause before a new birth.

So The Shalom Center decided to try to create a national observance of “AJH + 40” as we did for “AJH +25,” which stirred 400 observances around the world. Then we focused on AJH alone, and on study and teaching about his writings. But this time we set the bar higher: to focus not on words alone but on the arts as well, and to seek a transmission of the MLK-AJH prophetic partnership,  looking not into the past but into the future.  What would MLK & AJH be  calling us to do, to birth, today?

I went to some extraordinary, renowned artists. Some of them were interested — but when we could not raise large-scale grant money and they could not secure major billings, they were not possessed of enough excitement — I mean really “possessed,” as in angelic possession --  to carry it off on shoestrings.

So after  almost 1 1/2 years of effort, I mournfully set the project aside.  Felt like a defeat, but what was the use of wasting more time?

Story 2: Last spring, Mishkan Shalom was in serious financial & spiritual disarray.  The community created a “Turn-around Committee,” and the Committee called for fresh ideas that might reenergize and/or  refinance Mishkan.  My dead proposal was sitting in a file drawer. It occurred to me that Mishkan was almost certainly the only congregation in the world that had a Heschel-King Room. Why not a Heschel-King Festival?!!

So I proposed something like that — and, Mishkan being Mishkan and the congregation having been roused by the crisis out of its  spiritual malaise — some few  people got excited. Those fired up others, both  in and beyond the congregation. Slowly there came into being a committee, and then things began to happen.

Now — why do I think these 2 stories are important to tell? I think they are powerful spiritual & political lessons:

As the traditional brocha says  (unfortunately abridged in the Recon siddur), “Blessed is the one Who gives life to the DEAD.  -- m’chayeh ha’meytim!”

In both these cases, there was not the death of either institution, but a real sense of defeat and grief.  

And the Holy One, YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh Who is the Interbreathing of all life,  Whose Name “YHWH” is the nickname of “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh,” I Will Be Who I Will Be,””I am always Becoming”     -- that Wholly ONE  of Becoming gave life to a project I had written off as dead and helped give new life to a community in disarray.  

REAL life, Transcendent life. Life-filled speakers, and Life-filled  prayer, and Life-filled poetry, and song, and photographs, and a showcase of social-justice work, and people dancing, blowin’ in the Ruach/ Wind in a transformative way.  

I think the lesson is: Keep always open to the possibility that an idea filled with passion and truth, even if it cannot win enough support in one form to make itself happen, may take on new life in another form, another venue.

Even more broadly, in any kind of crisis in our personal or communal or political lives, we keep in mind: The One may at any moment give life to the dead.

Story 3.   What “happened,” in this future tale, AFTER the Festival?

There is an extraordinary essay of Heschel’s, written in February 1964, six months after the Great March for Jobs and Freedom.

Heschel draws on the biblical story that just three months after the glorious and transcendent moment of crossing the (“Red”) Sea, the Israelites start grumbling and complaining about mundane, low-level things like not having water to drink or food to eat. How petty of them!

Just so, he says, only six months after the transcendent moment of the Great March and the “I Have  A Dream”  speech, the Negroes of America are grumbling and complaining: “There are rats in our houses. Many of us have no jobs.”

How petty of them!

And then Heschel says -- Not so petty!   God and the Prophets care about the mundane: Food. Housing. Jobs.

For me, and for many of us, the Festival was a moment of the Transcendent. Thank God and each other for it.

AND — it would be shameful if we treasured it as a memory, adorning it in a mental museum   -- instead of taking its words and its songs and its prayers and its meditative silences as incitement, as subversive (what Heschel said prayer must be), insisting we not only feed the poor but work for our whole society to end poverty;  not only that we recycle our paper plates, but insist our whole society end the burning of oil, coal, and gas that is burning our planet.

For all of us who experience such rich moments of Transcendence --  within our selves or in community or even in our whole society, as it was for many many Americans when Obama was first elected — the lesson is the same. Feel empowered, not satiated, by the moment of Transcendence.


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