Resonating with the words of Heschel…

OK, first order of business, my mother is doing better!

My sister is doing a marvelous job of supporting her, as always, and she’s now safely back in the hospital, and no longer expressing active suicidal thoughts. And that’s a huge relief.

It could easily be different tomorrow, but, one day at a time, right?


Today, on my way in to work, I listened to the podcast of the program, On Being with Krista Tippett, one of my favorites. This program was broadcast in our area on 12/8/2012 –  it was a rebroadcast that I had heard before, but Heschel, and Arnold Eisen, deserves a repeat listen. And, I had even listened to the unedited interview a few days previous, and I recommend both!

The links to listen to the program are here:

A few moments that caught my ear, today:

  • Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: I would say about individuals, an individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. I am surprised every morning that I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil, I’m not accommodated. I don’t accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere; I’m still surprised. That’s why I’m against it, why I can hope against it. We must learn how to be surprised. Not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.
  • Mr. Eisen: Heschel wrote that his life was altered when he did a doctoral dissertation about the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. And what he found compelling there was that the God who created heaven and earth cared about the fate of widows and orphans. And he said, “This is somehow scandalous. It’s beyond logic. How could it be that the great God of all the world cares about individuals and therefore about you and about me? And why would this be so?” And the message of the prophets is that God needs us in some way. He’s not making a metaphysical statement here. He’s not entering into statements about whether God is perfect or in process or any of this; he’s just announcing the same message that the biblical prophets did over and over again: that God wants something from us. That God needs us to help God make this world better.
  • in 1965, that he gave a famous lecture titled “No Religion Is an Island.” It included these words:”Parochialism has become untenable … The religions of the world are no more self-sufficient, no more independent, no more isolated than individuals or nations …We are all involved with one another. Spiritual betrayal on the part of one affects the faith of us all.”
  • Abraham Joshua Heschel often used the word “embarrassment.” “The cure of the soul,” he wrote, for example, “begins with a sense of embarrassment, embarrassment at our pettiness, prejudices, envy, and conceit; embarrassment at the profanation of life. A world that is full of grandeur has been converted into a carnival.”
  • from an interview in 1972, just two weeks before Rabbi Heschel’s death:

Carl Stern: That raises the question, though, if you’re saying that if God were to control every aspect of man’s life it would not be living. And that raises the question why pray to God, then? If God is not going to interfere, if God is not going to intervene, if God is not going to help, what is the role of prayer?

Rabbi Heschel: First of all, let us not misunderstand the nature of prayer, particularly in Jewish tradition. The primary purpose of prayer is not to make requests. The primary purpose of prayer is to praise, to sing, to chant. Because the essence of prayer is a song and men cannot live without a song. Prayer may not save us, but prayer may make us worthy of being saved. Prayer is not requesting. There is a partnership of God and men. God needs our help.

  • Mr. Eisen: One of Heschel’s favorite lines: “Some are guilty but all are responsible.”

I have read a lot of Heschel’s writings, and I know I must read the rest…

He was an extraordinary person, a mystic, and I want to understand better what he was trying to say.

I have never been all that drawn to a notion of a “personal relationship with God”.  I’ve always thought that God probably had better things to do than worry about my petty concerns.  But listening to Chancellor Eisen, for whom I have great respect, talk about Heschel’s conception of God – ineffable, yet yearning for humanity, yearning for a personal relationship – I wonder.  Maybe the ineffable nature of God leaves room for a personal relationship.

I wonder…

Listen to the podcast, and share with me (or with On Being) what you think…


Addendum, Friday morning, Dec 14, 2012 – there was another reason that I wanted to post this about the On Being interview with Chancellor Eisen about Abraham Joshua Heschel.  As sometimes happens, my listening to it happened to converge with my reading of the first High Holiday sermon given by our interim rabbi, David Abramson, and he cites Heschel:

Abraham Joshua Heschel writes a lot about paradoxes, about tensions in Judaism, foremost among them in his writings is the tension between keva and kavannah, between structure and spirit, between the technical details of a mitzvah [commandment] and simhah shel mitzvah [joy of mitzvah]. And he’s right in pointing out that, usually, the tangible trumps the intangible. At worst, Heschel teaches, it becomes what he calls “religious behaviorism,” a mechanical performance of rituals almost entirely devoid of spirit. Watch your step, Heschel cautions us, lest your Judaism becomes simply religious behaviorism, lest keva, structure, completely eclipses kavannah, spirit.

But keva is important. Without keva, without the structure of Jewish life, I think, there really can be no true kavannah, no spirit. We need keva in order to achieve kavannah. We need Shabbat Ha-malkah, the Shabbat rules, in order to achieve Shabbat Ha-kallah, the spirit of Shabbat. We need p’ratim shel ha-mitzvot, the details of the mitzvot, in order to achieve simhah shel mitzvah, the joy of mitzvah.

This reference echoes my own experience with Judaism and religion – I don’t see it as limiting, or constricting, but paradoxically, the boundaries are liberating.  And joy results.

Shabbat shalom.

Leave a Reply