Heschel’s Prophets, and Ours

Some forty years ago, in one of his last public appearances, the celebrated Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel said in an NBC television interview that “one of the saddest things about contemporary life in America is that the prophets are unknown.” He was referring to the ancient Hebrew prophets, who proclaimed the divine truth and yet were often “grossly inaccurate” because they concerned themselves with meaning, not facts, as Heschel had written. The rabbi spoke prophetically in that interview—which is to say, not very accurately.

Heschel died a few months later on December 23, 1972. But he lived to see and help usher in what he surely knew was one of the most prophetic moments in American history.

His timeless study, The Prophets, was published in late 1962, and it ushered out the soothing spiritual happy talk of the ‘50s. The Polish-born mystic wrote admiringly that the biblical prophet is “strange, one-sided, an unbearable extremist.” Hypersensitive to social injustice, the prophet reminds us that “few are guilty, but all are responsible,” Heschel declared.

The book was read widely in civil rights circles. In his 1963 “I Have a Dream Speech,” the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. echoed the prophet Amos—“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a might stream.” King used a translation barely known at the time but common today—Heschel’s translation. The standard rendering had been “judgment” rather than “justice.”

King and Heschel had first met in January of that year at a conference on religion and race, in Chicago, and the two became fast friends. In 1965, they and others locked arms in the first row of the march from Selma to Montgomery—a lasting image of that whole struggle. Afterward, Heschel remarked, “I felt like my legs were praying.”

By then, with his surfeit of white, wavy hair and his conspicuous white beard, Heschel looked as well as sounded the part of an Old Testament prophet. And within a year he was waging prophesy on another front, as co-leader of Clergy Concerned About Vietnam, a collection of kindred spirits emanating from New York City, where Heschel taught at the Jewish Theology Seminary.

This prophetic club included, among others, the otherworldly Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan and the swashbuckling liberal Protestant minister William Sloane Coffin, and the group persuaded King to ramp up his antiwar activism. Heschel struck the spiritual high notes when he preached at a 1968 mobilization in Washington about “the agony of God in Vietnam.” He declared: “God’s voice is shaking heaven and earth, and man does not hear the faintest sound.”

Devolving Prophecy

In the late ‘60s, young radicals imitated this style of prophetic denunciation; leaders of the secular New Left often spoke self-referentially of a “prophetic minority.” The counter-cultural stance took on a conservative hue in the late ‘70s, with the ascending religious New Right. Fundamentalist leader Jerry Falwell often credited King with his conversion to a political and confrontational faith.

In a way, much of politics today has gone prophetic. The vilification of one’s opponents, the overstatements about a “war on religion” or a “war on women,” the jeremiads against the one percent or the 47 percent, have come to be expected. (Outside of the religious right, it is largely in secular politics that one sees this skewing of prophetic discourse.) Do we really need more prophets uttering their “strange certainties” and speaking “one octave too high,” as Heschel affectionately wrote of the biblical prophets?

The rabbi would say yes, but he’d have in mind a different prophetic style.

He, King, and company usually found a way to join prophecy with civility, denunciation with doubt. This isn’t like walking and chewing gum at the same time. It’s much harder. Heschel said in his old-world way (as related by his biographer, Edward K. Kaplan), “Better to throw oneself alive into a burning furnace than to embarrass a human being in public.” King, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, pleaded with his white-clergy critics to forgive him “if I have said anything that overstates the truth.”

They did sail over the top at times, as when King, appearing with Heschel at Manhattan’s Riverside Church in 1967, branded America “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” But that’s what prophets do. In their realm, unreasonableness is no vice, particularly when seeking to “strengthen the weak hands,” as the prophet Isaiah said in regard to the lowly and oppressed.

And that was Heschel’s prophetic calling—not so much to take the right stands, but to stand in the right places. …read more

A Theology of Embarrassment

By some worldly measures, the mystic and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel was not very embarrassable. He had fled Poland just six weeks before the Nazi invasion there, and arrived in the United States in 1940 at a time when Jews, including his fellow rabbis, were trying hard to look and sound like other (preferably secular) Americans. Heschel contributed little to the effort.

At the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the professor would show up at 7:00 a.m. morning services donning a prayer shawl and tefillin—two small leather boxes containing scrolls with passages from the Torah (he wrapped one box around an upper arm, the other, around his forehead). During prayers he swayed back and forth while the other professors “sat stiffly, dignified,” his biographer Edward K. Kaplan noted. Heschel sported a yarmulke and grew what eventually turned into a conspicuous white beard with a surfeit of tousled white, wavy hair, as though he were vying for the lead role in a movie about the ancient Hebrew prophets.

Heschel did have, however, a sense of what he termed “ultimate embarrassment.” As he saw it, this is the feeling all people of faith should have, when they stand in awe of a God who is just and righteous, who demands more of them and their world.

I am afraid of people who are never embarrassed at their own pettiness, prejudices, envy, and conceit, never embarrassed at the profanation of life…. There are slums, disease, and starvation all over the world, and we are building more luxurious hotels in Las Vegas.

These words were penned by Heschel in 1965—the same year he strode with Martin Luther King in the front line of the march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights. Susannah Heschel, a noted religious-studies scholar at Dartmouth, says her father (who died in 1972) looked upon embarrassment as the beginning of religious faith, but not the end.

“Embarrassment is the impulse that must lead to an awareness of being challenged,” she comments in a superb new collection, Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings, which she edited as part of the Modern Spiritual Masters Series published by Orbis Books (a Catholic publisher).

Less Than Mortified

Heschel’s theology of embarrassment resonates politically at a moment when poverty appears to be metastasizing in America. This month the Census Bureau reported that more than 46 million Americans were struggling below the official poverty line of $22, 314 a year for a family of four. At 15.1 percent it is the highest poverty rate since the early 1990s.

Conservatives used the data to proclaim the failure of Obamanomics and trumpet their agenda of unceasing tax-and-regulation-slashing. Liberals reasserted the need for a raft of social-welfare policies including extended unemployment insurance (an existing policy that the Bureau said had kept a few million other Americans out of poverty).

Analysts and partisans responded quickly to the news, but were scarcely mortified. There seemed to be little pause for reflection, little soul-searching about our collective failure over decades to lift all boats, even in the midst of rising economic tides.

One analyst who has scaled the subject with both urgency and humility is Pulitzer Prize-winning former New York Times correspondent David K. Shipler. During the 1990s boom, Shipler began a long search for understanding. He traveled to African American neighborhoods in Washington, D.C., and all-white towns in rural New Hampshire, to malnutrition clinics in Boston and sweatshops in California, and many points in between.

The result was the best book on poverty I’ve ever read, next to Michael Harrington’s 1962 classic The Other America. Shipler wrote in his 2004 book The Working Poor:

Working poverty is a constellation of difficulties that magnify one another: not just low wages but low education, not just dead-end jobs but also limited abilities, not just insufficient savings but also unwise spending, not just poor housing but also poor parenting, not just the lack of health insurance but also the lack of healthy households.

Such balance (“unwise spending”) might seem less to the point now, as more Americans fall into poverty for reasons completely beyond their control. Just the same, Shipler achieved a tone and spirit that would elevate any conversation about this continuing American scandal. The closing words of his remarkable reportage were, “It’s time to be ashamed.”

Across time and celestial space, one could almost hear Rabbi Heschel intoning those same words. …read more

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