Jewish Journal


August 18, 2009

Man In Search Of Heschel - Rabbi Barry Gelman



Rabbi Heschel marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama

If you understand the title of this post you are ahead of the game.

I wonder why the Modern Orthodox community does pay more attention to and study the works of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Aside from his book The Sabbath, much of his work goes unnoticed and certainly unstudied in our community.

Rabbi Heschel wrote and spoke about so many of the challenges of religion in a free society. He concentrated the need and difficulty of balancing the regularity of Jewish religious practice with spontaneity, referring to these to contrary principles as kevah and kavanah, the religious ideal of living a life of, what he called, “wonder” and “radical amazement” by never taking God’s world for granted and fundamental importance of Halacha as an ingredient of the life of a spiritually healthy Jew.

While many are familiar with Rabi Heschel as the rabbi who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma Alabama, many are unaware his focus on Halacha. I sometimes wonder if the popularity of the picture of Rabbi Heschel with King in Selma has diminished focus on the other aspects of his career.

Part of the reason why Heschel goes unnoticed in the Orthodox community is because he spent most of his career at the Jewish Theological Seminary – the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism. As such he is deemed “treif” by large segments of our community. To my mind this is a terrible shame and we continue to ignore his writings and teachings to our own peril. We should be teaching Heschel in our schools and in our shuls.

How many is the orthodox community are aware of these words penned by Rabbi Heschel in 1958. “The Bible is an answer to the question, What does God require of Man? But to modern man, this question is surpassed by another one, namely, What does man demand of God…Absorbed in the struggle for emancipation of the individual we have concentrated our attention upon the idea of human rights and overlooked the importance of human obligations.”

If we did not know that the following came from the pen of Rabbi Heschel we could have easily attributed it to any orthodox rabbi. “Another ailment that plagues us is the monopoly of education. Actually, education is a matter which rests primarily with the parent, with the father. The teacher is but a representative of the father, according to Jewish tradition. Thou shalt teach them diligently, not vicariously…Religious instruction, like charity, begins at home.”

Rabbi Heschel was also an astute observer of the human condition. When commenting on the challenge of resistance to Torah he wrote the following: “Resistance to revelation in our time came from two diametrically opposed conceptions of man: one maintained that man was too great to be in need of divine guidance, and the other maintained that man was too small to be worthy of divine guidance.” Chew on that for a while.

The beauty of Rabbi Heschel’s writings is that much of them are not weighed down by the philosophical jargon that make so many other writers of his time difficult to understand. There is a timeless quality to his style making his teachings accessible.

I close with one of Rabbi Heschel’s poems (he actually was hoping to make a career out of poetry but one of his mentors suggested he would be better at Philosophy)

God Follows Me Everywhere

God follows me everywhere-

spins a net of glances around me

shines upon my sightless back like a sun.

God follows me like a forest everywhere.

My lip, always amazed, are truly numb, dumb,

like a child who blunders upon an ancient holy place.

God follows me like a shiver everyewhere.

My desire is for rest; the demand within me is: Rise up,

See how prophetic visions are scattered in the streets.

I go with my reveries as with a secret

in a long corridor thought the world-

and sometimes I glimpse high above me, the faceless face of God.

God follows me in tramways, in cafes.

Oh, it is only with the back of the pupils of one’s eyes that

one can see

how secrets ripen, how visions come to be.

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