It was in the early ’60s when I first became acquainted with the luminous writing of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972); I was at a camp in Clinton, Connecticut, attending a week-long gathering of college undergraduates who were members of Conservative synagogues, mostly in the New York metropolitan area.
Given that our discussions during that particular week in June focused on the many dimensions of Shabbat, it is not surprising that we students were exposed to numerous readings from Heschel’s classic but compact book, “The Sabbath” (1951).
During my 36 years as a congregational rabbi, I have on countless occasions included in our Shabbat worship the following words from Heschel’s book: “He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil.
“He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal of embezzling his own life. He must learn to say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man …. Six days we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.”
As you can see for yourself, Heschel’s prose is poetry.
During my five years at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), Rabbi Eugene Borowitz helped me fathom the depths of two of Heschel’s more challenging works: “God in Search of Man” (1955), an attempt at a more or less systematic Jewish theology, and “The Prophets” (1962), Heschel’s probing of the inner lives of such biblical prophets as Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah.
Despite the complexity of the subject matter, Heschel manages to preserve in both books the poetic grace of his writing style.
At times, however, in both “God in Search of Man” and “The Prophets,” Heschel’s rhetoric tends to overwhelm the rationality of his arguments and leads us into the realm of the non-rational, or even the irrational.
Perhaps Borowitz is correct in suggesting that Heschel is a “sophisticated fundamentalist” when he insists on the power of the words of our Hebrew Bible to trump our reasonable doubts on a wide variety of traditional Jewish beliefs.
On the other hand, one might affirm that Heschel is not trying to bludgeon his readers with Orthodox dogma, but rather he is speaking to our hearts as well as to our minds.
Heschel went on to transform his profound love and respect for the Hebrew prophets into a passion for social action in the cause of social justice. He worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. in the fight for civil rights and racial justice here in America.
Many of you have seen the photo of Heschel and MLK, Hawaiian leis draped around their necks, in the front row of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, on March 21, 1975. And many of you have heard the words of Heschel’s recollection of that march: “I felt my legs were praying.”
The one and only time I saw Heschel in person was in the late ’60s, when he was speaking at a Save Soviet Jewry rally on the Morningside Heights campus of Columbia University. In a voice filled with prophetic wrath, he challenged the crowd: If you fail to do your part in rescuing your fellow Jews trapped in the Soviet Union, “your children and grandchildren will spit on your graves!”
In his tireless effort to repair our broken world, Heschel proved to be a man filled with “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity,” the title of a book of his collected essays, edited by his daughter, Sussanah Heschel, and published in 1996, 24 years after her father’s death.
A few weeks ago, I received a brief note from my friend and colleague, Rabbi Andy Klein, in an envelope that contained one of Heschel’s Yiddish poems, along with an English translation by Rabbi Morton Leifman. After a bit of research, I discovered that the poem, “Ich un Du/“I and You,” was the first in the collection of Yiddish poems that comprised Heschel’s first published book, in Warsaw in 1933.
Here is the first of the five stanzas: “Transmissions flow from your heart to Mine,/trading, twining My pain with yours./Am I not – you? Are not you – I?”
Here Heschel dares to speak the first of five stanzas from God’s point of view! We hear an echo of Heschel’s assertion that God is in search of man, and an echo of Martin Buber’s German edition of “Ich und Du,” “I and Thou,” in which Buber explores the intimate personal relationship that some men and women are able to establish with God, the Eternal Thou.
And now the fifth and final stanza, where Heschel addresses God: “When a need pains You, alarm me!/When you miss a human being/tear open my door!/You live in Yourself, You live in me.”
“Du lebst in Dir, Du lebst in mir.” “You live in Yourself, You live in me.”
With these words of poetry, Heschel declares his love for God. With these words, Heschel reveals the eternal source of his moral grandeur and his spiritual audacity.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.