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