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Why Heschel is relevant to modern Israel

by Shmuel Rosner

August 12, 2012 | 10:52 am

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, second right, participating in the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., on March 21, 1965. Photo from Dartmouth Department of Religion

Israeli author and lecturer Dror Bondi discusses his work teaching Israeli students about the American theologian and philosopher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Shmuel Rosner: Heschel in Israel? Do Israelis really need him — don’t they have enough rabbis of their own?

Dror Bondi: Israelis who are satisfied with their situation — personally or nationally, socially or religiously — indeed do not need Heschel. Heschel is relevant only for seekers of change, only for those who cannot accept anymore what was relevant until today. In this sense, Heschel is not a rabbi, but a prophet: not one who engages in bequeathing the Jewish past — neither the religious, nor the national, nor the cultural — but one who calls for a renewal in the relations between God and Israel.

There are a lot of disputes in Israel, but it seems that a lot of Israelis agree on the image of the Israeli God — whether they believe or deny: He is Jewish and Orthodox, racist and parochial. It seems that here one has to choose between God and man: If you believe in God, you don’t believe in man. If you believe in man, you don’t believe in God.

Heschel introduces Israelis to God who trusts in man, who cares for other human beings, who calls upon us to act for social justice. Instead of a concept that belongs to the Jewish religion or nation, Heschel surprises Israelis with the Universal Living God who calls upon Israel to be a people in His image.

SR: What aspect of Heschel’s theology is the most difficult for Israelis to grasp due to cultural differences between Israeli and American Judaism?

DB: What is the meaning of being a Jew? In America, it’s hard to be a Jew without any kind of Jewishness; in Israel, you don’t need Jewishness in order to be a Jew. For many American Jews, Judaism is a spirit of social justice, of care for the other; for a lot of Israelis, Judaism or Zionism is caring for the Jews. Netanyahu spoke at the United Nations about the Israeli lesson of the Holocaust: We have to defend ourselves, to save the Jewish populace; but for many Jews in America, the lesson of the Holocaust is caring for the other, the salvation of the Jewish spirit.

However, I am not sure if Heschel is really understood in America, or if he only became an image of liberal values. The truth is that he started developing his philosophy when he realized that western philosophy had failed to create a powerful moral consciousness, when he felt that only the spirit of the Bible can be the source for a moral conscience that can stop the next Holocaust.

Moreover, Heschel himself became a Zionist, alongside his human rights beliefs. And maybe only this polarity can be the deep basis for the understanding of his unique thought.

SR: When you tell Israelis that they need Heschel, do you not annoy some Israeli rabbis? What kind of reception do you get from different sectors of Israel’s society? (In other words, is Heschel the rabbi for secular Israelis? In one interview, you said that it is “easier for the secular” to understand Heschel’s message).

DB: In Israel, the relations between state and religion are balanced in the famous status quo. The deep meaning of this agreement is that God belongs to the orthodoxy, and the state belongs to the secularists. Therefore, when there is a dispute between the sides, each is happy in his share. The secularist has very good, realistic claims, but the rabbi knows that God is on his side, and vice versa.

Now, Heschel comes and disrupts everything. He speaks in the name of God, out of deep piety — but says “non-religious” things (such as on human rights…). Heschel doesn’t engage in improving God and his authority, but focuses on His unique moral and social meaning — and I have met a lot of young secular Israelis seeking for such a spirit. There will always be a meaningful place for the halachah, but it will not be the ultimate — the halachah is not God, but a dynamic dialogue between God and Israel.

I have a dream that, one day, a new meeting between God and Israel will be a source for Neo-Israel. I hope that Heschel’s thinking will guide us to deepen the Israeli identity, to re-create the identity that can’t be described either as halachic or as secular, but as a people in the image of God who trust in man.

SR: Heschel aside, which other thinkers and what other theologies are worthy of import to Israel, and why?

DB: All thinkers who can contribute to this Israeli renewal. Some of them were here in the beginnings of the Zionism, but you can’t find their books anymore — for example, A.D. Gordon. Some of them were critics of Zionism — such as Franz Rosenzweig — but precisely for this reason, they can contribute today to Israeli renewal.

SR: What would Heschel say about your heroic attempt to translate his articles and import his ideas for contemporary Israel — would he approve, would he even still care today about Israel as much as he did when he was alive?

DB: Heschel believed that our deep prayer is that God will approve our hearts, since a human being can’t witness his own heart. So you should ask Heschel himself this question — I can only pray for his approval. Concerning Israel, I am sure that though he might be critical of the Israeli situation today, he would still care for Israel. The deep question is not whether you are a supporter or a critic, but if you are part of the story. Heschel was always part of the Jewish and Zionist story, and that is why he can help us today to write a new Israeli chapter.

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