My Legs Were Praying: Theology and Politics in Abraham Joshua Heschel (Article by R. Arthur Waskow)

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

"My Legs Were Praying": Theology & Politics in Abraham Joshua Heschel

Dear Chevra,

We urge you to make use -- for example, in adult-education classes -- of this article by Rabbi Arthur Waskow on the way in which Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel united the "spiritual" and the "political" in his thought and work.

These passages have been supplied by The Shalom Center as part of its effort to encourage continuing annual observance of the Yohrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. We began this effort with the 25th Yohrzeit, which feel very close to Martin Luther King's Birthday in in 1998. All around the world, more than 400 observances of Rabbenu Heschel's Yohrzeit reawakened study of his writings and action in his memory.

This coming year, the 40th Yohrzeit falls on December 30-31, 2012 (18 Tevet).

"My Legs Were Praying": Theology & Politics in Abraham Joshua Heschel

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow*

By 1960, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel had become well-known and respected among rabbis and other Jewish scholars and teachers, and among some circles of Christian clergy and theologians, as a wise and provocative theologian and scholar of Judaism. From 1963 (when he spoke at the first Conference on Race and Religion) until his death in 1972 (just after visiting a Catholic priest imprisoned for his anti-war activity), Rabbi Heschel became well-known to much wider circles of Jews and other Americans of other and of no religious involvement, as a result of his public action on behalf of racial equality and against the Vietnam War.

What was the relationship between Heschel the theologian and Heschel the social activist? Some have applauded the first and have described the second as naive and ill-advised; but an examination of Heschel's writings from 1943 to 1970 suggests that they were so deeply intertwined as to be a single seamless whole.

The theology for which Heschel first became known among Jewish and Christian scholars and spiritual seekers was exemplified in the book title: "God in Search of Man." The theology of a suffering God searching for a mentshlich humanity owed a great deal to Heschel's Hassidic origins. Hassidic rebbes had daringly asserted that the text "I am God and you are My witnesses" meant that if human beings refused to witness, then God (as it were) ceased to be God.

Heschel himself said that his study of and writing on the Prophets during the 1950s brought him to a personal life-transformation: that this study of the Prophets as channels for God's pathos, God's suffering in contemplation of injustice and oppression, drew him out of the library and into the streets where the Prophets had spoken.

When Heschel came back from marching alongside Rev. Martin Luther King in the voting-rights march in Selma, Alabama, in the spring of 1965, he said, "I felt my legs were praying" -- a powerful statement that he himself saw his actions as part of his relationship with God, not a separate matter of "politics."

Again, any Hassid might have said that his legs were praying -- but he would have meant that through joyful dance, all his bones -- his legs as well as his jawbone -- were praying. It was Heschel who gave this Hassidic understanding a twirl, so that for him it came to mean prayer through a social-action march.

But we do not have to wait until 1965 and the Selma March to make this connection. There is considerable evidence, stretching back at least until 1943, that Heschel's thinking had woven a certain sense of society and politics into the fabric of his theology long before his work on the Prophets in the 1950s. (He had written his doctoral dissertation on the Prophets long before, in the early 1930s.)

His comments on society, culture, politics, and religion going back twenty years before the Conference on Religion and Race suggest that his public actions from 1963 to 1972 cannot be sundered from his Jewish scholarship and theology.

In February 1944, Heschel published a remarkable talk on "The Meaning of this War" that must have been written the previous year. In it he said: "We have failed to offer sacrifices on the altar of peace; now we must offer sacrifices on the altar of war.... Let Fascism not serve as an alibi for our conscience.... 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? . . .

"Good and evil, which were once as real as day and night, have become a blurred mist. In our everyday life we worshipped force, despised compassion, and obeyed no law but our unappeasable appetite. The vision of the sacred has all but died in the soul of man." ("The Meaning of This War [World War II]," pp. 210-212. Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Susannah Heschel, ed. [Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996]).

These two paragraphs appear on the same page of the essay. One may seem to speak in the language of politics, the other in the language of religion. To Heschel they were the same tongue. Indeed, it was the mother tongue, his own mama-loschen as a Polish Hassid. Early in the essay, he asks the question: "Who is responsible [that the war has soaked the earth in blood]?" And he answers as a Hassid would, by quoting the Baal Shem Tov: "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 was shown to him is also within him." (p. 209.) In this beginning may be heard the first version of what Heschel in the 1960s said again and again: "In a free society, some are guilty; all are responsible." This nexus might be described as the crucial hinge between what to others might have seemed an inward, individualized mysticism, and what to others might have seemed an outward, socialized politics. To Heschel they were inescapably the same truth, and they were rooted (as the rest of the essay makes clear) in the Rabbinic midrash that God held Mount Sinai above the entire people, threatening them collectively to crush them under it if they refused the Torah. All are responsible.

That Heschel, knowing his own family and millions of other Jews had already been savagely murdered, could draw on the depths of Hassidism to call Jews themselves, along with all of Western civilization and culture, to face their own share of responsibility for letting the disaster happen-- that was remarkable enough. That he said "the vision of the sacred" had been killed by "greed, envy, and the reckless will to power," by not addressing such economic issues as unemployment as religious questions -- this is astonishing. It makes clear that the Heschel of the 1940s was not merely in embryo, in potential, the Heschel of the 1960s; he was already who he became. By 1951, in the wake of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, Heschel published his lyrical celebration of Shabbat. The book is filled with tales of the mystics, from Rabbis like Shimon Bar Yochai to Kabbalists and Hassidim. Nowhere can there be found a more joyful celebration of the spiritual depths and heights of Shabbat.

And in the same book we find a political-cultural critique of Modern technological and industrial society, whether capitalist or statist: To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money, . . . on which man avows his independence of that which is the world's chief idol . . . a day of armistice in the economic struggle with our fellow men and the forces of nature-is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man's progress than the Sabbath? (From The Sabbath [Farrar Straus and Young, 1951], pp. 27-29.)

How proud we are of our victories in the war with nature, proud of the multitude of instruments we have succeeded in inventing, of the abundance of commodities we have been able to produce. Yet our victories have come to resemble defeats. ... Selling himself into slavery to things, man becomes a utensil that is broken at the fountain." (From The Sabbath, pp. 3, 27.)

Some might say "Yet we find in the same book. . ." Heschel would have said, "Therefore we find in the same book. . ." Indeed, this "therefore" may have run even deeper in Heschel than conscious and deliberate utterance. In one of the lyrical-mystical passages in The Sabbath, Heschel wrote: "Time is like an eternal burning bush. Though each instant must vanish to open the way to the next one, time itself is not consumed. . . . Time has independent ultimate significance; it is of more majesty and more provocative of awe than even a sky studded with stars.... Time is the process of creation, and things of space are results of creation. When looking at space we see the products of creation; when intuiting time we hear the process of creation."

Here there is an extraordinary synthesis. Looking for a metaphor to describe the sacred flow of time, Heschel turns to the Burning Bush. But if one were deliberately to choose from all the tales and moments of Jewish tradition, the crystalline moment for the birth of freedom -- the Bush would be that story. Here there appears the Call to political as well as spiritual freedom. Here God tells Moses to demand that Pharaoh free the people.

What seems remarkable about this passage is precisely that Heschel, when he wanted to speak of the deepest mystical significance of the flow of time, turned -- perhaps without any conscious planning -- to the moment of "political" freedom." Beneath even Heschel's carefully crafted prose deliberation there seems to be a still deeper, uncrafted awareness of their unity. He hints that the mysterious process of living through ever-appearing, ever-disappearing time is itself One with the process by which a gaggle of slaves becomes a free community. Then Heschel explicitly moves to connect the two in still another way by distinguishing "things of space" from the flow of time. "Things of space" can be owned, and the combat for their ownership can easily become the arena in which we ourselves become "owned" objects, slaves. It is the flow of time, which cannot be owned, that sets us free.

So it should be no surprise to find Heschel asserting in the same breath in 1970, in the pages of Conservative Judaism, these same "two" commitments to the spiritual and the political -- for to him they were simply one commitment:

"The beginning of prayer is praise. The power of worship is song. To worship is to join the cosmos in praising God. . . . Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision." ("On Prayer," pp. 257-267, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Susannah Heschel, ed. [Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996]).

Because prayer is a song of praise in which we join the cosmos to praise God, prayer must be subversive, even revolutionary. If the pyramids are not overthrown, the cosmos is still in slavery; how can it praise?

Even on an issue not often noted by students, followers, or critics of Heschel, the issue of drugs, he roots his social critique in a mystical mind-set:

"I interpret the young people's escape to drugs as coming from their driving desire to experience moments of exaltation.... The classical form of exaltation is worship.... But exaltation is gone from the synagogue [and] from the church.... Our life thus devours the wisdom of religious tradition without deriving from it sources of renewal and uplift.... The new witnesses for a revival of the spirit in America may well turn out to be those poor miserable men and women who are victims of the narcotics epidemic. If we will but . . . try to understand their misguided search for exaltation, we can begin the task of turning curse into blessing." ("In Search of Exaltation," pp. 227-229, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity,. To the Prophets as a source of Heschel's social activism we must, then, add the mystical Hassidim whose tales and outlook he soaked up from infancy. And of course, one juicy life-practice Heschel soaked up was the way to think by making midrash. On February 25, 1964, he spoke at another Conference on Religion and Race. The Shabbat of Parashat Beshallach, in which the Israelites cross the Red Sea and in the Wilderness grumble because they have no water, fell that year on January 25. Heschel may have been writing his speech just before or after that Shabbat. This is what he said:

"The decisive event in the story of the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt was the crossing of the Red Sea. . . . It was a moment of supreme spiritual exaltation, of sublime joy, and prophetic elevation for the entire people. . . .

"Then Moses led Israel onward from the Red Sea, and they went three days in the Wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the water because it was bitter. And they murmured against Moses, saying, "What shall we drink?"

"This episode seems shocking. What a comedown! -- Only three days earlier they had reached the highest peak of prophetic and spiritual exaltation, and now they complain about such a prosaic and unspiritual item as water.

"The Negroes of America behave just like the children of Israel. Only in 1963 they experienced the miracle of having turned the tide of history . . . . . the March to Washington. Now only a few months later they have the audacity to murmur, '. . . We want adequate education, decent housing, proper employment.' How ordinary, how unpoetic, how annoying! . . .

"That prosaic demand for housing without vermin, for adequate schools, for adequate employment -- right here in the vicinity of Park Avenue in New York City -- seems so trite, so drab, so banal, so devoid of magnificence.

"The teaching of Judaism is the theology of the common deed. God is concerned with everydayness, with the trivialities of life. . . . The prophet's field of concern is not the mysteries of heaven, the glories of eternity, but the blights of society, the affairs of the market place. . . . [The prophet] addresses himself to those who trample upon the needy, who increase the price of grain, use dishonest scales, and sell the refuse of corn. ("The White Man on Trial," published in a collection of Heschel's essays, The Insecurity of Freedom [Farrar Straus, 1996; paper, Schocken, 1972], pp. 101-102.)

And he ends,

"The Negro movement is an outcry of pain in which a sickness of our total society comes to expression: supersonic planes and sub-standard housing; esoteric science and vulgar ethics; an elite of highly specialized experts, and a mass of unprepared, unskilled laborers. . . .

"Religion becomes a mockery if we remain callous to the irony of sending satellites to the sky and failing to find employment for our fellow citizens, of a highly publicized World's Fair and insufficient funds for the extermination of vermin in the slums.

"Is religion to be a mockery ?"

The crucial way to think and stir others to think is by making midrash on the Torah; the crucial way to act is to make sure that religion does not become a mockery.

And in the arena of political conflict that most troubled some in the jewish community -- the question of the Vietnam War -- there too, Heschel drew on his sense of what God and Torah demanded. It was in recalling a prayer service in Washington, D.C., in January 1967, that he spoke some of his most scorching words about the war:

"Has our conscience become a fossil? Is all mercy gone? If mercy, the mother of humanity, is still alive as a demand, how can we say Yes to our bringing agony to the tormented nation of Vietnam?"

(From Heschel's "The Moral Outrage of Vietnam," in Vietnam: Crisis of Conscience, edited by Robert McAfee Brown, Abraham J. Heschel, and Michael Novak (Association Press, Behrman House, & Herder and Herder), p. 56.

And it was at the prayer service itself that he recalled one of his early memories of his Hassidic childhood and brought his life full circle by applying that memory to the Vietnam War:

Heschel told how as a seven-year-old he first read the Torah story of the binding of Isaac, of Isaac's near death at the hand of Abraham as the knife came flashing down. He recalls that he began to weep in fright and compassion.

" 'Why are you crying?' asked the Rabbi. 'You know that Isaac was not killed.'

"And I said to him, still weeping, 'But, Rabbi, supposing the angel had come a second too late?'

"The Rabbi comforted me and calmed me by telling me that an angel cannot come late.

"An angel cannot be late, but man, made of flesh and blood, may be."

(From Heschel's "The Moral Outrage of Vietnam," in Vietnam: Crisis of Conscience, pp. 51-52.)

And so the consistent thread of Heschel's life, the compassion and sense of collective responsibility nurtured in a Hassidic home and schooling, was carried into American society half a century later, to shape a spiritually rooted politics -- one in which prayer was subversive and a protest march could become, "My legs were praying."

The theology of a suffering God searching for a mentshlich humanity cannot be divorced from these calls to public action. The task for students of Heschel is not to separate the two but to examine more deeply in his footsteps what sorts of prayer do in fact shatter pyramids, and how to shape a politics that is not just a struggle for power but an act of prayer.


* This article appeared in a special issue on Heschel of Conservative Judaism, dated spring 1998.

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