The rabbi un­der FBI sur­veil­lance

Rabbi Jeremy Gor­don cel­e­brates the cen­te­nary of the birth of A J Heschel, cham­pion of civil rights and an in­spi­ra­tion be­hind Jewish so­cial ac­tivism to­day

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM -

The grand­fa­ther of all con­tem­po­rary Jewish so­cial ac­tivists, Abra­ham Joshua Heschel was born a hun­dred years ago this month. No one has ar­tic­u­lated the need for ac­tion with such po­etry and pas­sion, ei­ther be­fore or af­ter his pass­ing in 1972. But Heschel went be­yond wise and po­etic words; he matched or­a­tory with ac­tion. In th­ese be­lea­guered times, it is enough to give re­li­gion a good name.

This, telexed, re­sponse to an in­vi­ta­tion to meet J F Kennedy at the White House is typ­i­cal of Heschel’s unique blend of holy chutz­pah:

“I look for­ward to priv­i­lege of be­ing present at meet­ing to­mor­row. Like­li­hood ex­ists that ne­gro prob­lem will be like the weather. Ev­ery­body talks about it but no­body does any­thing about it. Please de­mand of re­li­gious lead­ers per­sonal in­volve­ment not just solemn dec­la­ra­tion. We for­feit the right to wor­ship God as long as we con­tinue to hu­mil­i­ate ne­groes. Church, syn­a­gogues have failed. They must re­pent. Ask of re­li­gious lead­ers to call for na­tional re­pen­tance and per­sonal sac­ri­fice. Let re­li­gious lead­ers do­nate one month’s salary to­ward fund for ne­gro hous­ing and ed­u­ca­tion. I pro­pose that you, Mr. Pres­i­dent, de­clare state of moral emer­gency…”

Two years later, at the height of civil un­rest in the South­ern United States, Heschel marched to Mont­gomery along­side Martin Luther King and other lead­ers of the civil rights move­ment. Heschel and King had met at a con­fer­ence on re­li­gion and race in 1963. Heschel’s speech opened with th­ese words:

“At the first con­fer­ence on re­li­gion and race, the main par­tic­i­pants were Pharaoh and Moses... The out­come of that sum­mit meet­ing has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to ca­pit­u­late. The ex­o­dus be­gan but it is far from be­ing com­pleted. In fact, it was eas­ier for the chil­dren of Is­rael to cross the Red Sea than for a ne­gro to cross cer­tain univer­sity cam­puses… Few of us seem to re­alise how in­sid­i­ous, how rad­i­cal, how uni­ver­sal an evil racism is. Per­haps this con­fer­ence should have been called Re­li­gion or Race. You can­not wor­ship God and at the same time look at man as if he were a horse.”

The two 20th-cen­tury prophets be­came warm friends; Heschel’s daugh­ter sug­gests that King was drawn to a re­li­gious leader whose re­li­gious faith cen­tered on the Ex­o­dus. King had been due to spend Seder night, 1968, with the Heschels in New York; his as­sas­si­na­tion break­ing their “this-world” friend­ship, Heschel spoke at King’s funeral.

What made Heschel stand out wasn’t his mere op­po­si­tion to in­jus­tice; it was his abil­ity to ar­tic­u­late its hor­ror. “That equal­ity is a good thing, a fine goal, may be gen­er­ally ac­cepted,” he noted. “What is lack­ing is a sense of the mon­stros­ity of in­equal­ity.”

Heschel had no truck with the ex­pec­ta­tions that came with his day-job, pro­fes­sor at the Jewish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary in New York; nor did he fear politi­cians or po­lice. In 1964 Heschel be­came one of three cochair­men of the anti-war coali­tion, Clergy Con­cerned About Viet­nam. In words that still echo in the con­text of con­tem­po­rary mil­i­tary en­gage­ments, he ar­gued:

“It is our duty as cit­i­zens to say no to the sub­servience of our gov­ern­ment, which is ru­in­ing the val­ues we cher­ish… The blood we shed in Viet­nam makes a mock­ery of all our procla­ma­tions, ded­i­ca­tions, cel­e­bra­tions. Has our con­science be­come a fos­sil, is all mercy gone?”

The FBI put him un­der sur­veil­lance. Many in the Jewish com­mu­nity felt he had gone too far. Heschel seemed undeterred, even driven, by such an­tipa­thy and ap­a­thy; po­lit­i­cal ac­tion was, for him, re­li­gious. “I felt my legs were pray­ing,” he said on re­turn from the march to Mont­gomery.

As a younger man, Heschel longed for private and schol­arly piety; his par­tic­i­pa­tion in the civil rights move­ment and his op­po­si­tion to the Viet­nam War came only in the last decade of his life.

That said, the roots of his adult protests can be seen in his ear­lier life. From the prophets, sub­ject of his PhD dis­ser­ta­tion, he learned “that while our eyes are wit­ness to the cal­lous­ness and cru­elty of man, our heart tries to oblit­er­ate the mem­o­ries, to calm the nerves and to si­lence our con­scious­ness.”

For Heschel, the prophets man­dated the ne­ces­sity of speak­ing out against power, par­tic­u­larly power wielded against the poor in the name of re­li­gion. Then, of course, there was the Holo­caust, the hor­ror that de­stroyed the world of his child­hood. As a visit­ing pro­fes­sor at a Chris­tian sem­i­nary, he in­tro­duces him­self as “a per­son who was able to leave War­saw, the city in which I was born, just six weeks be­fore the dis­as­ter be­gan. My des­ti­na­tion was New York; it would have been Auschwitz or Tre­blinka. I am a brand plucked from the fire of an al­tar of Satan on which mil­lions of hu­man lives were ex­ter­mi­nated to evil’s greater glory.”

Both his life and his schol­ar­ship led him to look be­yond a life of piety and study. He came to be­lieve even the “cul­ti­va­tion of in­ner truth can­not jus­tify re­main­ing calm in the face of cru­el­ties that make the hope of ef­fec­tive­ness of pure in­tel­lec­tual en­deav­ors seem grotesque.”

In his last decade, Heschel pro­duced com­par­a­tively lit­tle aca­demic work. In­stead of publi­ca­tions he chose protest. “In re­gard to cru­el­ties,” he taught, “some are guilty, but all are re­spon­si­ble.” Jeremy Gor­don is rabbi of St Al­bans Ma­sorti Syn­a­gogue. A J Heschel’s daugh­ter, Su­san­nah, will be speak­ing on her fa­ther’s lit­er­ary and po­lit­i­cal legacy at Jewish Book Week in Lon­don on Fe­bru­ary 28. See: www.jew­ish­book­

Rabbi Abra­ham Joshua Heschel with his friend, the great civil-rights ac­tivist Martin Luther King

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