Continuing Heschel in Our Lives: Prayer as Politics, Politics as Prayer (essay by R. Arthur Waskow)

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Continuing Heschel in Our Lives: Prayer as Politics, and Politics as Prayer

Dear Chevra,

We urge you to make use for example, in adult-education classes of this article on Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's way of connecting the "spiritual" and the 'political."

This article 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 fell very close to Martin Luther King's Birthday 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 27th Yohrzeit falls on December 26-27, 1999 (18 Tevet). Please see further information on the Council for the Heschel Yohrzeit.


Continuing Heschel in Our Lives: Prayer as Politics, and Politics as Prayer

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow*

For me, the crucial teachings of Abraham Joshua Heschel are that it is possible to carry on politics as if it were prayer, and that it is necessary to carry out prayer as if it were politics.

>From the great voting-rights march in Selma, Alabama, Heschel came back saying that he felt that his legs were praying.

And conversely, In the midst of a lyrical paper on prayer, "The beginning of prayer is praise. The power of worship is song. To worship is to join the cosmos in praising God," he continued:

"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."

These teachings betokened a deeper theology: The ecstasy of experiencing God comes not from fleeing the world but from healing it.

I hear these teachings as questions to our own generation: Not only, "Will you choose to walk this path?" but also, "If you choose this path, how will you shape it for yourself, how will you blaze it for others?"

For Rabbenu Heschel, these questions had real answers. I commend to everyone two recent books that unfold these answers: Susannah Heschel's wonderful collection of her father's essays, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity; and Edward Kaplan's Holiness in Words, his study of the way in which Heschel wove his prose to bear in its very fiber his teachings about wonder and responsibility. Kaplan's book includes an excellent study guide that will serve well all who wish to learn from Heschel.

During these twenty-five years since Rabbenu Heschel died, his Hassidic neshama must have been dancing to see an extraordinary renaissance in American Jewish life: new midrash and whole new ways of creating midrash; new music, dance, and drama; new categories of body-thought like drushodrama; feminist theology and eco-Judaism; dialogical davvening and ecstatic chanting; the reawakening of a new Hassidic energy and the legitimation of Jewish studies in secular academia.

But his Prophetic arms and legs have had much less to celebrate; for there has not been an analogous renaissance in the creation of a prayerful Jewish politics.

There have been hints, moments, pointers:

o Pesach Seders held at the edge of the Nevada nuclear-test site, a Tu B'Shvat Seder held in the midst of the ancient redwood forest each ending with an illegal walk-in onto the property of an earth-destructive agency; Hoshanah Rabbah celebrated on the banks of the Hudson River with a focus on the refusal of General Electric to clean out the poisonous PCB's it dumped there.

o Efforts to hold Jews ethically accountable for their actions as heads of great corporations;

o Decisions in some synagogues to make bringing a can of food for the poor as much a part of the Yom Kippur service as reading the Haftarah in which Isaiah demands that we feed the hungry;

o The creation of some versions of the Pesach Haggadah and the Al Chet for Yom Kippur that speak explicitly of resistance to oppression, the making of peace, and healing of the earth, today.

A trickle of experiment.

Yet the Heschel who acclaimed Shabbat as the "day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization," the Heschel who cried out that our "victories in the war with nature . . have come to resemble defeats. . . . Selling himself into slavery to things, man becomes a utensil that is broken at the fountain", that Heschel calls us to more than this trickle of experiment.

How do we actually turn Shabbat from a day when a small minority of Jews sit in uncomfortable pews to mumble dry prayers, into a day when not only Jews but millions of others join in a great celebration of this radically amazing universe?

How do we turn our reading of the Book of Ruth into a great movement to insist that everyone, even and especially the despised and outcast of our society, is entitled not to a dole but to a worthy job at worthy rates of pay?

How do we turn our reading of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years into a great movement to insist that everyone must have the time, the income, the freedom, the obligation, to rest and reflect, to love and make family, to dance in community?

How do we turn our Torah of the nonviolent midwives who resisted Pharaoh into new and more effective forms of nonviolent resistance to oppression, as King and Heschel themselves did?

These may seem grandiose visions. Very well; how do we turn them into daily practice?

1) At the level of hands-on action to meet immediate need that builds a longer-term relationship, synagogues might join in a Habitat for Humanity home-building project that benefits the poor. Habitat has recently reached out to the Jewish community from its own strongly Christian roots, setting up a Shalom Fund and inviting explicitly and affirmatively Jewish participation.

2) The Shefa Fund has organized the "Tzedek Economic Development Campaign," through which large and small Jewish institutions have begun to pool money for grass-roots investment in minority enterprises through community-oriented reinvestment funds and banks. Synagogues, Federations, and many other Jewish groups could both divert some of their endowment and savings reserves to these investment funds, and make available the trained business expert advice that such reinvestment also requires.

3. In many cities, efforts have begun to enact "living wage" laws that would require businesses that receive contracts from city and state governments to pay wages that bring their recipients above the poverty line typically at this point, about $7.25 an hour. If we took seriously not only Rabbenu Heschel's outcry for justice but also his yearning to renew the spirit of the Sabbath, we might urge that such laws also require time each day for quiet and non-work at the workplace, and also require paid leave for workers to volunteer for non-profit community service (as high executives now are paid for serving on museum and university boards).

4. In some cities, and in Congress, efforts are under way to make sure that workers in the new "workfare" program are not reduced to de facto slavery by elimination of hard-won protections for health and safety, joining unions, etc. Jewish groups could take their place in these efforts, and in similar efforts to make sure that the garment industry scene of so much historic Jewish sweat and blood, and so much effective organizing for workers rights not once again be turned into a Sweatshop Empire.

5. Rabbenu Heschel's teachings about Shabbat and about the spiritual joy of "radical amazement" with the world could renew and strengthen Jewish efforts to protect the awesome web of "adamah" the earth, close cousin of adam, us human earthlings from being turned into a mere tool of greed and depredation. The redwood forest, Chesapeake Bay, the lordly Hudson River, the Everglades, all need protection from corporate rape as does the planet's entire global atmosphere. Jewish groups could appear at endangered and endangering places, waving the palms and willow branches of Sukkot, planting trees in inconvenient spots like corporate driveways, using our arms and hands as Rabbenu Heschel used his legs at Selma: to pray.

Not till the creative energy that is transforming the Up-to-Heaven aspects of Judaism has been brought to these down-to-earth parts of our life-path, not till these trickles of experiment have become a mighty stream, can we say that our generation has actually learned from the life and the teaching of Rabbenu Heschel.

Or that we have learned to renew Judaism as a way of healing and transforming our lives.


* Rabbi Waskow is director of The Shalom Center and author of Down-to-Earth Judaism, Godwrestling, Round 2, and Seasons of Our Joy, among many other works of Jewish renewal.

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