Remembering Abraham Joshua Heschel, Prophet of Divine Pathos

When I was a very young boy, our summer vacation on the coast of Maine begin on July 4th and continued through Labor Day. For the first few days, we’d arrive at the beach early in the morning. Then for the next few days after that, we would arrive by noon. By the second week, we’d be lucky to get there in the late afternoon. But that was okay by me because late afternoon is the best time to go to the beach.

You see that’s the only way to make sure you are there for the golden hour. The golden hour is that time ‘Just Before Sunset’ when the daylight begins to wane and everything takes on a golden hue. In this hour, the old, beat up, Victorian amusement park the next town over glows during the golden hour. Even the houses near the beach that still need to be painted look great during the golden hour. In fact, during7 the golden hour, even the seagulls look darn good. So it’s no surprise, if you’re at the beach then, that if you are in the water, something magical can happen. As you float they’re being lifted up and down by the way was and gently being tugged by the tide, it’s easy to lose track of time and place. It’s easy then to be in awe of the glory of God’s creation, to lose your sense of self and be filled with awe, a sense of wonder, a sense of radical amazement.

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the first of four prophets we consider this Advent season, tells us. “To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

“Awe is more than an emotion; it is a way of understanding, insight into a meaning greater than ourselves,” he adds. Heschel was a Polish-born American rabbi, considered by many to be one of the most significant Jewish theologians of the 20th century.

“The beginning of awe is wonder, and the beginning of wisdom is awe. Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme….What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe,” he continues.

So our starting point for this series of hearing four American Prophets begins with Heschel telling us that spiritual experience begins with a sense of awe and wonder and radical amazement. And, he says, this helps us connect the dots between God and all who share in God’s creation. A prophet had both a relationship with God and a sense of connection to the suffering of others. Heschel’s belief grew from his experience with Hitler’s Germany. It is good for us in these trying times to recall what happened in Hitler’s Germany.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was born into an important Jewish Family in Poland. He was a child prodigy when it came to interpreting Jewish tradition and scripture: even as a child people found wisdom in his words. He escaped Nazi Germany just before Poland was invaded, finding a new teaching position and building a new life in the United States. Most of his family died in the Holocaust.

Already an important voice in Conservative Judaism, Heschel spent the first few years in America learning the language and translating his books into English.

Listen to what the rabbi said “the meaning of man’s life lies in his perfecting the universe. He has to distinguish, gather, and redeem the sparks of holiness scattered throughout the darkness of the world. This service is part of all precepts and Good Deeds. Man holds the key that can unlock the chains fettering the Redeemer.”

Listen to what the rabbi said: God needs us to do the work of healing in the world. God is not here to judge and condemn us. God is not here to divide and conquer us. God is not here to put the false prophets of evangelical Christianity into the seat of political power.

Listen to what the rabbi said God made us to help God find and reclaim the divine fragments of light that are hidden by the darkness of evil that surrounds us.

Listen to what the rabbi said “God needs us: the Fulfillment of the Divine intention for the world cannot be accomplished apart from the work of God’s children….God has placed us here in the midst of An Unfinished creation, and has given us the task of hoping to bring it to fulfillment. That is why we were created. That is the purpose of Our Lives.”

Heschel uses this understanding as his basis of involvement in and leadership of the civil rights movement during the 1960s. While introducing Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Heschel asked “where does God dwell in American today?” He answers:

“Is He at home with those who are complacent, indifferent to other people’s agony, devoid of mercy?” he continues. “Is He not rather with the poor and contrite in the slums?”

Listen to what Rabbi Heschel said about racism: “Racism is man’s gravest threat to man – the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.”

You’ve probably seen the famous picture of him at the head of the march in Selma Alabama, a white-haired distinguished white man standing next to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was placed next to Dr. King on purpose. Those who organized the March knew the importance of Heschel presence at the head of the line standing next to the leader of America’s Civil Rights Movement.

Yet Heschel was also one of the first spiritual leaders of America to oppose the Vietnam War. He saw clearly the connection between the suffering of the people of Vietnam and our lives. He saw the need to end the war and stop the suffering of the Vietnamese people and of our soldiers.

Of course, his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement provoked controversy and criticism. People thought around Rabbi shouldn’t be involved in controversial ‘political’ issues. People thought spirituality should stay in the pews and not be carried out into the community. But here’s what this rabbi said about the Selma March: “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.’’ 

By his life and work, Rabbi Heschel showed an alternative path of involvement in a struggle for good against evil.

And here is his warning to us: “Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion—its message becomes meaningless.”

For Heschel “Worship is a way of seeing the world in the light of God” and acting to help God heal creation. How do we heal creation? By freeing the shards of God’s divine light from the evil that currently entraps them and then gathering them together so we may see the way forward to the Kingdom of God.

This is also a prophet’s perspective on Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas Day. During this time it seems the days grow noticeably shorter, the darkness grows and seems to almost overcome the light.

Current events only make the growing dark seem more dangerous: people who claim to be ‘evangelical Christians’ say they have no problem with voting for a man accused of child molestation; our President lies with impunity about trivial things like turning down Time Magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ honor; those who need our help most may soon lose access to affordable healthcare; nuclear war is said by some to be ‘survivable,’ and the list goes on and on.

Yet Advent tells us to prepare for the return of the light of Christ. In our lesson from Isaiah, that Prophet pleads “Do not be exceedingly angry, O LORD, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.” Our Psalm for this day pleads “Restore us, O LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.” And in today’s Gospel, Mark tells us to “Stay Awake” lest we miss Jesus when he returns.

Abraham Joshua Heschel reminds us that you and I – through our action or inaction – can hasten or delay the healing of this world. Our work is to heal the world one person at a time. May we find the grace to pursue this great work here at the corner of Turk and Lyon at the start of the 21st century.

Let us pray: God of justice and peace, from the heavens you rain down mercy and kindness, that all on earth may stand in awe and wonder before your marvelous deeds. Raise our heads in expectation, that we may yearn for the coming day of the Lord and stand without blame before your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns forever and ever. Let God’s people say: Amen.


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