Spiritual Audacity: Abraham Heschel’s Prophetic Role

In Martin Doblmeir’s new documentary, Spiritual Audacity: The Abraham Joshua Heschel Story, Heschel emerges not only as the foremost interpreter of the Hebrew prophets in the twentieth century, but also as a prophet himself. With his cloud of white hair, his expressive eyes, and his rabbinic beard, he looks every inch a latter-day Micah bearing witness to walking humbly with justice in one hand and mercy in the other.

“Remember, in a free society some are guilty but all are responsible.” Heschel’s ringing words plunge us into the tumult of the civil rights struggle of the 60s, the protests against the Vietnam War, and the turnabout toward the Jews by the Catholic Church during Vatican II. Heschel plays a leading role in all three of these history-making social movements.

Doblmeir’s documentary approach surfaces the formation, the passion, and the legacy of his subjects. We learn about Heschel’s birth in Warsaw, Poland in 1907, his family’s long lineage of distinguished rabbis, his move to the University of Berlin at twenty to study philosophy in 1927, and his deportation in 1938 at the hands of the Nazis. Although the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati brings him to America to teach in 1940, he is forced to leave his mother and his three sisters behind. They are exterminated in the Holocaust.

In 1945 Heschel leaves Hebrew Union College to join the faculty of the conservative Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. He remains there for the rest of his career, even as his influence begins to extend far beyond the campus and the scholarly world.

In March of 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr., invites Heschel to march with him in Selma, Alabama. Many of the Black pastors in the movement had read The Prophets — King’s copy was underlined and annotated throughout — and as Andrew Young says, “He was the authority on the prophets. But on this occasion, he was the prophet.”

Footage of the march shows Heschel on the front line with King, Andrew Young, Jesse Jackson, and John Lewis, his white hair and beard flowing. Despite the misgivings of local rabbis, Heschel marches in solidarity with hundreds of others, ready to face the brutality of the police.

His passion is to explore the nature of God’s deep compassion for humans and the extent to which God is willing to partner with us for the cause of justice. For the prophets, says Heschel, injustice toward one person is injustice to everyone, a message that resonates deeply in the Black community.

Heschel’s growing influence thrusts him into another controversy — the attempts within Vatican II to create a rapprochement with the Jews after centuries of hostility. When a conservative faction within the Vatican calls for the conversion of the Jews, Heschel is incensed. “They must understand,” he argues, “that I am willing to die for my faith.”

In an arc that entwines with that of Martin Luther King, Heschel grows increasingly critical of the war in Vietnam. “My father was not a pacifist,” says Susannah Heschel. “And he was not a communist sympathizer, by any means. But killing civilians — that was unacceptable.” Heschel asks, “How can I pray, knowing that I am co-responsible for the death of innocent people in Vietnam?”

In April 1967, at the Riverside Church in New York City, Martin Luther King, at Heschel’s urging, makes a major statement against the war — and is roundly denounced by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other influential news sources. In an address following King’s speech that Sunday, Heschel adds his own voice to the growing critique of the war by major religious figures. Susannah Heschel comments that “My father wouldn’t be quiet. No one could silence him.”

His final cause is to speak out for the Jews in Soviet Russia. Despite suffering a heart attack in 1969 that keeps him in the hospital for three months, Heschel is tireless in advocating for Soviet Jewry. It is exhausting. On a Friday night in December 1972, at the age of sixty-five, Heschel dies at home. “To die in your sleep,” says Susannah Heschel, “especially on the Sabbath, is a kiss from God.”

As an introduction to Abraham Joshua Heschel, Spiritual Audacity is an inspiring and enjoyable guide. In just fifty-seven minutes, Martin Doblmeir’s sensitive eye vividly portrays Heschel’s Hasidic roots, his remarkable career, and most of all, his moral witness. Paintings by Marc Chagall woven into the narrative add to the visual beauty of the film.

Those familiar with Heschel’s written works — The Prophets, God in Search of Man, The Sabbath, Man is Not Alone, and Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, will appreciate seeing and hearing this passionate twentieth-century prophet, a witness for the awe and wonder that is faith in the living God.

Martin Doblmeir’s documentary work includes films on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, Howard Thurman, Dorothy Day and — familiar to readers of Spectrum — The Adventists, an award-winning film that portrays Adventists as some of the healthiest people on the planet.

Disregarding the Rest

Photo by Siavash Ghanbari on Unsplash

“A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” — Paul Simon, “The Boxer”

I am implored by my friend to “do my own research,” usually a tip-off that that person rejects all mainstream media, including the major newspapers, magazines, and networks. Instead, I am to find the truth in the myriad of alt-right blogs, websites, and Twitter accounts.

I will not do that. He knows it, just as I know he will not accept any of my references to The Washington Post, the New York Times, The New Yorker, Atlantic, and Guardian. We are at loggerheads, yet we continue the discussion on Facebook, each of us reluctant to write the other off as a former friend.

He is unfailingly courteous, unlike so many others across this divide. In fact, our discourse is for him a battle of spiritual warfare in which I am in grave danger from principalities and powers. He hopes to save me, a fellow Christian and a friend, whose bonds of friendship stretch back over fifty years to high school days.

As I write, in a few days he will vote for Donald Trump, believing that God has appointed the President to save the country from the hell of socialism that the Democrats will bring. I believe the opposite, that the country cannot bear another four years under an administration seemingly bent on destroying the fragile framework of democracy.

In our exchanges he lets me know he is praying for me that the Holy Spirit will convince me of my error and help me to find my way back to truth. In a flash of pique I tell him I appreciate being prayed for, that I need all the prayers on my behalf that I can get, but no pleas for my conversion to his position will be effective.

I believe, just as he does, that this is bigger than either of us. Something fundamental is at stake here and it calls for clear thinking, moral conviction, and a willingness to search for truth. He asserts that we are living in the Last Days and that prophecy is being fulfilled before our eyes. I reply that people in every age think theirs is the last one and that prophecy is like Cling Wrap: it can be stretched to cover almost anything.

He wonders if I believe that God doesn’t care what happens here on earth. I counter that Jesus’ life and death and resurrection mean that God was willing to die to change the horrific state of affairs in our world. But, I add, I don’t believe that God is telling me to vote Republican — or Democrat, for that matter.

We retreat to our corners for the time being. I ask myself for the hundredth time why I do this. I wonder what it means for our friendship. And I question what has happened to my sense of humor. Incongruously, an image of a freckled Alfred E. Neumann comes to mind with his cheerful comeback to anything serious: “What, me worry?”

***

What I find so poignant about this situation is that it really matters to both of us. Neither of us can easily walk away because we care about the issues at stake in this election. And in some way not clearly defined, we care about each other’s spiritual welfare.

As the saying goes, the personal is the political, and never more so than today. The saying captures the urgency with which our individual concerns of race, gender, social class, educational opportunities, and health become policy issues. The unavoidable smashup of personal = spiritual = political is the conundrum behind my disagreements with my friend.

What are we to make of such deep divisions between Christians over social and cultural issues? Conventional wisdom says that culture beats religion in most societies with a Christian history. Given crises like war, famine, and plague, people retreat to their enclaves and their tribes. In the extremes, morality gives way to survival tactics, a narrowing of scope rather than an opening up of inclusion through compassion. Religion, that is, the worship of God in and through community, may survive such a test, but often enough it becomes another powerful means of exclusion.

“Purity,” says Annie Dillard, “is one of the two most attractive ideas the human race knows. The other is perfection. Purity is absence; perfection is fullness. Purity seeks to eliminate; its worshipers from the right or the left wage war with swords . . . Purity seeks to eliminate inessentials.”1

We imagine we can achieve purity with the right combination of astringency, incisiveness, and force. Force that presents first as derision, then as humiliation, and finally, as unveiled hatred.

At the micro level—the personal level between each other as adversaries—the world shrinks to our own blood sport, the ring in which we duke it out until only one is left standing. Purity is achieved by eliminating the other.

There is a practical consideration also, what we might call “The Rule of the Road.” You don’t flip someone off while in traffic lest you meet them later in the parking lot. Likewise, I shouldn’t post something I would be ashamed of later.

The disharmony of the present stifles our view of the larger context, but even more so, it distorts our understanding of the creations God has brought into being, which we call “I,” “you,” “them.” Under these conditions, we rarely get to “we” and “us.” Rather, we protect ourselves by asking if anything matters enough to bring about a permanent rift between people of faith, be they Christians, Jews, or Muslims.

One alternative available is the Casablanca response. Humphrey Bogart as Rick says to Ilse on the runway, “I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that. . . Here’s looking at you, kid.”

Back far enough away and the conflicts we carry shrink to nothing. The irony in that argument is that what Rick did was noble, precisely because he put the welfare of Ilse and Victor ahead of his own wishes, and in so doing probably signed his own death warrant. But we do not look at our world from the International Space Station; we are here, right now, in the midst of all our overlapping and sometimes discordant lives.

These things are important to us because they are in some sense matters of life and death. No conflict, no meaning. At least we’re alive enough to realize that the tearing of the fabric of the Christian community is serious. This brings up, as Rowan Williams says, “one painfully obvious thought . . . If we were really preoccupied with, really in love with our vision (of Christ), we’d have less time for fussing about someone else’s.”2 After all, when Peter asked in John 21 what was to happen to the beloved disciple, Jesus pretty much says, “Mind your own business and follow me.”

But that’s not really enough either. Nor will cutting the other away through a demonic cult of purity suffice. And acquiescing to another’s position over things we cannot in good conscience believe tears away at our sense of who we are and what we are to do.

The difficulty confronting me is the battle over particulars versus universals, tactics versus principles, means versus ends. My Christian brother and I would likely agree on the principle that we love because God first loved us. We would believe that in some ultimate sense God-in-Christ has overcome the world and that now we live in the freedom to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. Where we agree on principles there is hope that the particulars need not permanently divide us.

As long as we have the freedom in Christ that he unstintingly gives us, we’ll have differences between us that can tear us apart. But praise be for the God who takes us seriously enough to entrust us with such power. Praise be, also, that we can be constantly forgiven upward. I, for one, am quite often too tired, too distrustful, and too impatient to carry it well. There are times when I am deaf, dumb, and blind—and don’t even know it. I cannot see the world the way God sees it. I don’t see others the way God sees them.

Jesus once touched the eyes of a man born blind. “What do you see?” he asked. “I see men walking,” replied the fellow, “but they look like trees.” How about now, said Jesus, and he touched him again. That did it, said the man, and he began to praise God.

I am that man.

  1. Dillard, Annie. Living by Fiction. New York: Harper and Row, 1982, p. 171.
  2. Williams, Rowan. A Ray of Darkness. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1995, p. 90.