Joshua Hammerman
Rabbi, award winning journalist, author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi"

Heschel’s 40th Yahrzeit: Beyond Survivalist Judaism

This erev New Year’s Eve also marks the 40th Yahrzeit for Abraham Joshua Heschel.  My congregants spent this past Shabbat discussing the legacy of this great 20th century Jewish thinker, focusing especially on these texts. The passage “Pray to be Shocked,” sums up beautifully the subversive nature of authentic prayer, and the transcript of his television interview on NBC, done about a year before his passing.  It remains a compelling demonstration of his spiritual depth as well as his ability to communicate with contemporary audiences. Excerpts of the interview can also be seen on YouTube.

(See this photo of Heschel taken at my home synagogue in Brookline, Mass. in the 1960s.  That photo hangs on the wall of my office – in large part because that’s my father, Cantor Michal Hammerman, leading the procession.)

So what is there to say about Abraham Joshua Heschel’s legacy, 40 years after his passing?

His accusations against the American Jewish establishment were piercing, often characterizing it as shallow, materialistic and indifferent.  He was also critical of rabbis and synagogues, saying:

“Has the synagogue become the graveyard where prayer is buried?  Are we, the spiritual leaders of American Jewry, members of a burial society?  There are many who labor in the vineyard of oratory; but who knows how to pray, or how to inspire others to pray?  There are many who can execute and display magnificent fireworks; but who knows how to kindle a spark in the darkness of a soul?”    

His daughter, Susannah Heschel, wrote the following in Tikkun on the occasion of his 25th yarhzeit, summing up his many contributions:

 “So much of what Jews have created in the last 25 years stems from Heschel’s inspiration: the Havurah movement, social-conscious political activism, the revival of Jewish spirituality, renewed interest in Hasidism, creative Jewish theology, the renewed pride in being Jewish.  What we are missing today, however, is the voice of moral leadership that we heard with Heschel, and, I add, with Martin Luther King. His prophetic tradition has been replaced by voices of witness that describe anti-Semitism, voices of doom that decry statistics of assimilation, and voices of anger that insist on narrow definitions of Judaism.  They leave us with a cynical taste in our mouths; none that gives us the transcendent vision we need.  Today, in celebrating my father’s memory, we have to bring to life the joyful and thoughtful aspects of Judaism he taught and exemplified: that we are all made in the image of God, that God’s creation is filled with wonder and awe and that God needs us as partners in caring for our fellow human beings and all of creation.”

And now, with a full generation having grown to adulthood since Heschel’s death, it is easier to see just how profound and lasting his influence has been. The activism that this generation of rabbis (and many of their congregants) espouse is Heschelian activism, as distinguished from the New Dealism that characterized the prior generation.  It still trends Democratic politically, but is based on a vision steeped in Heschel’s Hasidic roots, his joyous spirituality, his unabashed love of Judaism and his unbending willingness to speak truth to power.  Heschel practically invented the modern notion of “Tikkun Olam,” joining it to Martin Luther King’s bending the arc of history.  He was the one who “prayed with his feet” at Selma and who, in protesting against the Vietnam War, said famously, “in a free society, some our guilty, all are responsible,” a statement echoed by President Obama.

Heschel was an unashamed Zionist and even saw glimpses of messianic fulfillment in Israel’s 1967 reunification of Jerusalem.  Still, he was clear that “We do not worship the soil,” meaning that the land is not holy; it is, he affirmed, a place where holiness is to be created. So although he did not live to see the results of Israel’s continuing possession of the Territories and the failed attempts at peace, it is fair to speculate that he would not be a supporter of holding on to the biblical land of Israel for religious purposes. It is also fair to say to suggest that Heschel’s activist legacy is directly responsible for the civil disobedience of the “Women of the Wall” that this week brought us one step closer to a long sought opening of the Western Wall to egalitarian prayer, and for the over 600 rabbis who have signed an open letter criticizing the Israeli government’s E1 initiative (I am not one of the signers, by the way,  principally because the letter does not distinguish between settlements and construction in Jerusalem).

In his essay, “Existence and Celebration,” (found in the collection ”Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity,” Heschel distinguishes between Jewish survival and renewal. It is an important distinction, one that we should draw, because American Jews have gotten stuck in a survivalist trap.  Heschel writes that it is more productive to be preoccupied with enhancing the present than to nurture fears about the future. Here we are, living not in the moment, not in utter awe of the moment and of God’s presence in this moment, but living in utter fear of whether our great grandchildren will have a Christmas tree.  Heschel would advise us to let the future take care of itself.  He scoffed at surveys.  “Our community is in spiritual distress,” he said, “and some of our organizations are often too concerned with digits.”  He bristled at the stifling of criticism within organizational life, the “dogma of infallibility,” as he called it. The true problem, he said, is not how to survive, but what to survive for.

Heschel did not live in a world of potential Iranian nukes, but Israel was no safer then than it is now. The existential dangers to Jewish survival are, in fact, far less severe now than at any time in Heschel’s life. But even while the Holocaust was still going on, he quoted the Ba’al Shem Tov in stating, “If a man has beheld evil, he may know that it was shown to him in order that he learn his own guilt and repent; for what is shown to him is also within him.” To that Heschel added:

“Soldiers in the horror of battle offer solemn testimony that life is not a hunt for pleasure, but an engagement for service; that there are things more valuable than life…. Either we make (the world) an altar for God or it is invaded by demons. There can be no neutrality. Either we are ministers of the sacred or slaves of evil. Let the blasphemy of our time not become an eternal scandal. Let future generations not loathe us for having failed to preserve what prophets and saints, martyrs and scholars have created in thousands of years.”

In words spoken at the General Assembly of North American Federations toward the end of his life, he waxed prophetic about what it meant to be part of a Jewish community in America. What Heschel said then, and what is true now, is that Jewish institutions have fallen victim to what he calls “a campaign of spiritual liquidation,” a malaise of hopelessness that leads only to more blaming and bitterness, to a basic view of Jewish existence that sees only the negative, that speaks only in material terms.   He said:

“Our institutions maintain too many beauty parlors.  Our people need a language and we offer them cosmetics.  Our people need style, learning, conviction, exaltation and we are concerned about not being admitted to certain country clubs.  To paraphrase the words of Isaiah: What is to me the multitude of your organizations says the Lord.  I have had enough of your vicarious loyalty.  Bring me no more vain offerings; generosity without wisdom is an evasion, an alibi for conscience….We are ingenious in fund raising, which is good; we are shipwrecked in raising our children, which is tragic.  We may claim to be a success, but in the eyes of Jewish history we may be regarded as a failure.””

If we are to bring the spirit of Heschel into our Jewish communities, we must place spiritual growth above all other goals, including survival itself.  For without God, without a sense of covenant, without Torah and Sinai in our midst, there is nothing to survive for.  The human being without God, he exclaims, is merely a torso.  We have built a fine midsection.  Have we lost the head?  Have we lost the heart?  Have we lost the soul?

About the Author
Award-winning journalist, father, husband, son, friend, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and rabbi of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Author of Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi – Wisdom for Untethered Times and the upcoming book, "Embracing Auschwitz." Rabbi Hammerman was a winner of the Simon Rockower award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism, for his 2008 columns on the Bernard Madoff case, which appeared first on his blog and then were discussed widely in the media. In 2018, he received an award from the Religion News Association, honorable mention, for excellence in commentary, for articles written for the Washington Post, New York Jewish Week, and JTA. Among his many published personal essays are several written for the New York Times Magazine and Washington Post. He has been featured as's Conservative representative in its "Ask the Rabbi" series and as "The Jewish Ethicist," fielding questions on the New York Jewish Week's website. Rabbi Hammerman is an avid fan of the Red Sox, Patriots and all things Boston; he also loves a good, Israeli hummus. He is an active alum of Brown University, often conducting alumni interviews of prospective students. He lives in Stamford with his wife, Dr. Mara Hammerman, a psychologist. They have two grown children, Ethan and Daniel, along with Chloe, Casey and Cassidy, three standard poodles. Contact Rabbi Hammerman: (203) 322-6901 x 307