Wellington Mara, the former co-owner of the NY Giants, was known as a true class act who built a class organization that has maintained its poise and purpose years after he passed. I heard in a Drasha, that a reporter asked, how is it you are one of the few if not only one in this sport that never utters an obscene word and always takes the very high road. His response, “I always imagine my children or grandchildren are at my side, so I am always in proper behavior.” Gevaldick!
Abraham Joshua Heschel was just such a man on a much higher order. What drove him to what I consider to be exemplary Jewish behavior? What drives you? Are you driven to this type of concern? First let’s tackle a vital question; Why is it that Heschel is not recognized, very rarely cited, or at times when his thoughts or phrases uttered in a Drasha, no credit given in our Orthodox world? Given his work, accomplishments, scholarship, talent, yichus, impact on so many of every persuasion, he is hidden? It just boggles my mind. Part of the reasoning I believe stems from this very Parasha, but first, here are reasons I have come across;Affiliation with JTS, His commitment to Interfaith Dialogue & Work, Marching with Dr. Martin Luther King – Sadly I have heard that directly and indirectly too many times, He is deeply Chassidic, He is not Chassidic enough, some of his work involved mysticism and learning from the Zohar, He was overly Zionistic, He was not Zionistic enough, He had an encounter with The Rebbe Schneerson while at the University of Berlin*, He was vocally opposed to the initial concept of Rabbi Solevechik’s concept of The Halachic Man.**
An impressive laundry list. Well I have come up with two more that I have not heard that I believe have substance.
When the Rambam first came on the scene he too was avoided and even objected to by many. We know part of the reason, he was too advanced, his work required work to truly absorb it properly. Have you ever read any paragraph from Heschel’s known 18 books? You cannot just read his work. As an Orthodox Rabbi from Texas told me when he saw “G-d in Search of Man” in my Tephilin Bag,“I just started reading Heschel, it is embarrassing how rich each paragraph is.” It takes work to experience his work, most people are just not ready for that kind of effort.
A posuk that many have commentated on from this week’s Sedrah is “What does the Lord want from you……”
I believe that Nechama Liebowitz sets up her commentary in her third essay in her “Studies” for this powerful line in the previous two essays without calling direct attention to the following notion. When Moses communicated the remembrance of the test of the manna, shared the natural wealth of the land they would soon enter and predicted living in abundance from one’s own hands, she cites a major concern would be that during the better times we would forget G-d. Will the Jews remember him at all times? Citing Sforno there, when suffering we are active in our communications and aware of our need of Him, we are connected, focused. Heschel says “A sense of contact with the ultimate dawns upon most people when their self reliance is swept away by violent misery. Judaism is the attempt to instill in us that sense as an everyday awareness.” May I add, Judaism properly adhered to.
Now to the power of that line “What does the Lord want from you……” I have not read all of Heschel’s work, but on a consistent basis he calls upon this line when communicating what our behavior and even thinking should be. Very often he reverts to “the ultimate question” which I believe to be this line. The Rabbis in some of their commentary indicate that maybe it is phrased as just a little thing, really “What does the Lord want……” just fear and walk in his ways. In a spirit that it isn’t asking a lot from a person. My view, is this phrase haunted Heschel as he carried it with him at all times to such a degree that I believe is unmatched in attachment and commitment in modern times. Should not this question haunt each of us? All the time? What would our behavior and time spent look like moment by moment if that was a constant in our being? If we didn’t wait for a need to turn to G-d. It was clear that Heschel’s every action and thought was guided by this notion of G-d at his side asking that question. Heschel wasted no time as he wrote “killing time is the equivalent to murder.” And that time spent was always on Holy matters.
When the Off Broadway Play “Imagining Heschel” debuted a while ago, I contacted his daughter Susannah. Via email, I posed that I wanted to bring some of my “Orthodox”friends to see the play and experience her father for the first time.“Did you see it, does it honestly represent your father’s thoughts, is it safe?” She responded that she had not seen it yet but suggested that her father would tell me not to waste time on entertainment like a play, to stay home and learn! Mammish Gevaltic.
Heschel did not go to plays, ball games, see movies, watch television nor occupy himself with any real entertainment as far as I know. He chose Exaltation over entertainment. All his seconds on earth was governed by “what does the Lord want of you…” To him it was no small question, with that on his conscience it guided his every word, deed, writing, teaching, civil activism, learning, prayer (he felt those who learned while in prayer environments were scoundrels…A Kotzger influence), thought, meal, dress, everything up until the day he passed on a Shabbat in his sleep.
So, I do feel perhaps some see R. Heschel as a challenge that most if not all cannot truly emulate in complete devotion, scholarship and accomplishments. A man with such an intense relationship with G-d, that it must cause a jealous embarrassment from many a learned individual. Imagine (I say facetiously), the notion of someone from JTS providing light for us all to follow and absorb. There is so much there, it is a catastrophe not to share his theology, scholarship, poetry and love that will reawaken many a rote soul among us.
While a Rabbi may be able to share the beauty of Wellington Mara having his children at his side keeping him in respectable and dignified behavior, Avraham Joshua Heschel had G-d in him raising him to extraordinary heights of Holiness and insights. Insights, that for the sake of his memory, deserve to be shared. For the sake of our spiritual wellness we deserve his wisdom to be shared from those wiser than us. “Judaism leads us to keep slightly above the twilight of the self, ready to perceive the constant dawn in our souls.” AJH
* The midrash goes that when R. Schneerson and Rabbi Heschel visited a convert, apparently The Rebbe was very strong with her regarding her lack of total adherence. Heschel told him for that treatment there would be consequences later in his life. Some say that is why he did not have any children.
* When R. Solevechik introduced the notion of Halachic Man, Heschel responded passionately, claiming there was never such a Jew. His position was there is a Torah Man, for a true Jew was made of more than Halacha, it was Halacha and Agadah.